“The Fulufjället National Park is home to many wild creatures, particularly brown bears”, the sign reads.
Matt and I exchange that look. You know, that look where you realise you’re in a completely alien country, having just driven nearly seven hours on what seemed to be the same snowy fir tree-lined road, in the hope that it had been cold enough to freeze 125m of free-falling water, now to be told you’re surrounded by bears.
“Surrounded” is perhaps an exaggeration, but we’d both heard about Greg Boswell & Nick Bullock’s fight with the Grizzly. I don’t climb Scottish XII so wouldn’t back myself to prise a bear’s jaws off my leg with my hands like Greg. I swallowed. What were we doing here?
Just a day ago, I’d been enjoying great coffee (with free refills!) and Semla in a sleepy café in Gamla stan, Stockholm’s old town. I was there with my housemates and girlfriend for a short weekend break. I was there to relax; to see a new place and eat good food and enjoy myself, but, for some bizarre reason, I’d stayed on an extra day after they’d flown home and signed up to this crazy mission with Matt, who lives in Uppsala.
He’d “seen a picture in a book” of this big-ass waterfall called Njupeskär all frozen over in the winter. He’d told me it was the tallest free-falling waterfall in Sweden. He told me it looked awesome and that we should go and do it.
I shit you not, that is all it took. A friend had seen a photograph in a book, and that’s all it took to get me to take the day off work, rent a car, and drive several hundred kilometres through the Swedish countryside on the off-chance that this raging torrent of water had frozen firmly enough to be climbed. And now there were bears.
That night we slept on the folded-down back seats of our hired Toyota Auris for a few hours and woke up to settled weather – high cloud and not a breath of wind. We brewed up some syrup-thick black coffee, packed our gear and marched into the woods. We didn’t really know where we were going, save for an old wooden sign that had pointed vaguely in this direction and announced, bluntly, “Njupeskär”. Good enough, we thought.
Fortunately, we were right. Half an hour of gentle approach and it comes into view. Miraculously, it’s frozen. And it’s a real jewel, streaked topaz and rust, the ice a clot of thick gelatine oozing from the breach in the rocky headwall in front of us. A sleeping giant trapped in glassy blue and orange amber, up to whom we tiptoe.
Beneath the carapace, the furious torrent of unfrozen water is the backing track to the soft thump of our tools are they are driven home into plastic ice. With no existing topo or grades, it’s refreshing to switch off from the mental noise of previous ascents and simply follow our noses. We pick a line of least resistance – steep grooves and ramps interspersed with the occasional bulge or overhanging cauliflower. It’s steep and sustained, and a good challenge, but never desperate.
As I bring Matt up to the belay, I am overwhelmed by the sensation of remoteness. We may only be half an hour from the car, but from my stance all I can see is endless tundra. Miles upon miles of scrubland and thigh-deep powder, all of it static – a breath held too long, the ice a deathly blue in asphyxia. All the pent-up energy waiting to be unleashed in a thousand-ton primal roar as the season changes to Spring.
Matt quests up the second pitch, over a steep bulge and up a series of walls and platforms. At the top, he sets up an anchor and the rope comes tight. When I reach him, we are adrift in a bleak wasteland. Helpfully, a marooned signpost that, once again, simply reads “Njupeskär”, points us through the tangle of dead branches and ankle-breaking boulders. As we pick our way through the jumble of snow-covered rocks, I feel my phone vibrate.
It comes with the news that a distant family friend has died on a solo expedition to Antarctica. No-one that I knew particularly closely, but enough to make me stop and think for a while, sitting in the snow. The quietness of the winter-muffled landscape around me provides an anti-soundtrack to the news; the stillness an imminent drumbeat whose absence winds a feeling of suspense tighter and tighter. More than ever before, there is an undercurrent of impermanence – Matt and I, contingent trespassers in an apathetic game of nature, literally frozen in its course. Stowaways on the film-set when the actors have gone home.
And, as that coil being wound ever tighter finally reaches breaking strain and snaps, a small, cosmically insignificant firework somewhere in my chest, it is apparent how much I need this. It is of irreproachable importance to me to be able to sneak into unspoilt enclaves of nature, to feel the ambivalent hostility, the futility of human endeavour breaking against the inert. It seems strange that witnessing one’s own insignificance is somehow life-affirming.
Which is just as well, because if it wasn’t, if we came away empty-handed, driving a 14-hour round trip to a bear-inhabited forest and then enjoying an hour of sleep on the airport floor before heading straight to the office, all on the off-chance that you might be able to ascend a bit of frozen water would probably make you clinically insane.
It probably still does.