Pilgrimage to Norway

Hemsedal, Days 1 and 2. 

For rock climbing, it’s Yosemite. Alpine climbing – the Himalayas. But for ice climbing, Norway is Mecca, and this winter I made my pilgrimage. I had heard tales of 1,000-meter waterfalls, immobilized in the harsh grip of Norwegian winter, some massive, wide, and blue, others steep, narrow, and yellow, flowing down nooks and gulleys.

So, feeling strong and fresh off an ice climbing trip to New England, I flew to Oslo to meet my friend, Mike O’Donnell. Mike is working in Norway and was chomping at the bit to get out on some Norwegian ice.

Ice Flows Outside Hemsedal. Photo Credit: Adam George

Mike was on my Everest team, but we met 20 years ago when he taught me to ice climb in Ouray, Colorado. Friends call him “the Great One” for his ice climbing prowess, and he hasn’t lost a step. Adam George would be our third. Adam is an old friend of Mike’s and a very successful mountain guide working around Chamonix. He’s taken a few past trips to Norway and sang its praises.

When I arrived, we headed to Hemsedal, a small Scandinavian village with big ice. We started our vertical pursuit with a warm-up on Tuvfossen, a Henry Barber classic.  We approached via a beautiful Nordic track in the Grondalen Valley. I could feel the Norwegian sun just above the horizon warming my face – a rare treat in the Northland.

Approaching a climb near Hemsedal. Photo Credit: Adam George

Adam George leading in Hemsedal. Photo Credit: Mike O'Donnell

The next morning brought cold temperatures but more sun and little wind. We ascended Grotenutbekken, 200 meters of yellow, mineral-laden ice in a steady rhythm of kick-kick-swing. Returning back to our cabin, we dried gear and got ready for day 3, the difficult and intimidating Hydnefossen. 

Hemsedal and drive to Eidfjord, days 3 and 4. 

In the early dawn light we thrashed through a thick forest and then deep vertical snow to the base of an ominous blue wall. Hydnefossen – grade 6 - loomed above us, 180 meters of steep, bulging, overhanging ice. I had climbed Bridal Veil Falls, outside of Telluride, Colorado, and Mike said the Hydnefossen looked like two Bridal Veils stacked on top of each other. I could hear the ice above humming and popping as the wind blew down the face and the sun expanded the intricate ice flow. We climbed delicately, warming up as the earth dropped away and our world became a frozen labyrinth. After pitch 3, 60 meters of dead vertical ice, my arms were pumped, and I wondered whether I had enough to finish, but Adam encouraged us onward.

Looking down the Hydnefossen. Photo Credit: Mike O'Donnell

Rappelling down Hydnefossen. Photo Credit: Adam George

Adam led each pitch while the Great One climbed above me, giving me directions to weave left and right to avoid massive holes and overhanging curtains. Trying not to bombard me with ice shrapnel, he delicately tapped his tools and picked his way through complex sequences, but often it was mission impossible as the ice rained down hitting me on the lips, nose, forehead, and shoulders. Near the top, my arms were blasted, and I was just starting to feel the vertical face lay back a bit, when a fist-size ice chunk bounced crookedly and drilled me directly in the chin. I pulled over the top with a bloody face but also proud and smiling. I had paid a small price for one of the most difficult and rewarding routes I have ever climbed. 

Adam asks, “Erik, how do you like Norway?” That’s when the ice ball nails me in the chin – perfect Hollywood timing!

Needing a rest day after Hydnefossen, we drove to our next destination: Eidfjord, a village situated on Norway’s second longest fjord, which promised long, beautiful routes for the last few days of our trip. 

Edfjord and departure, days 5 and 6.

Day five dawned and we were eager to climb again. We plowed up a frozen creek bed and slippery boulder field to the base of a very long route above town, about 600 meters of perfect, sticky ice. Adam was assuming it hadn’t been climbed before, but who knows. He said there were huge steep routes everywhere, to our left and right and across the valley; some ran like bedroom walls hundreds of meters skyward. Mike said it felt like “crawling out an airplane window and cranking hard ice. The exposure is wild.”

Approaching in the darkness. Photo Credit: Adam George

My ears cooperated Mike’s assessment. I could hear the echo of the wind-swept valley below as we picked our way up nine pitches. Nearing the top and feeling tired, I was overcome by something else: gratitude to be in this place, with good friends, laughing and ribbing on each other the entire day. Mike called me “the sack of potatoes,” because he was taking out most of the ice screws. When he’d occasionally leave one for me to remove, I’d scoff dramatically and call Mike a slacker. “How could you make your blind partner take out this screw in such a precarious place? Why do you think I brought you? For your looks?”

Mike replied, “I’m not the one with scabs all over my face.”

On our last day, we drove through twisting sub-valleys in search of the perfect line, and had settled on one that looked only decent, when Adam happened to look back over his shoulder. There it was, a stellar line of narrow ice, almost 250 meters tall and stained brown with minerals. It called to us like a siren. We hooted joyfully up a short snow slope to the base, relishing this last Norwegian gift. 

Climbing above the highway on a hidden gem, Norway's signature move. Photo Credit: Adam George

Descending from high above the fjords. Photo Credit: Adam George

We climbed. We descended. Hours passed, and towns flew by as we weaved through the Scandinavian mountains, racing the five hours back to Oslo. I just made my flight, but it didn’t matter: The ice Mecca was real. Norway had delivered.