Rjukan: Day Seven

The idea had been floating around all week. The climb had been in the back of my mind for a long time before we flew out to Norway and when we drove up to Krokan on the first day, there it was, drooling out of the head of the upper gorge, savagely steep and unapologetic. Matt’s words broke me out of the daydream that almost felt more like a nightmare.

“Shall we go and climb it?!”

I figured he was half joking at first, but didn’t extinguish the flame as a small part of me wanted to get up there and prove myself against that cold, striking line too.

“Maybe later in the week, if we’re feeling strong…”

I made sure it sounded sufficiently like I could have been joking too, but for the rest of the week, the words sat in the back of my head.

“…later in the week”

I put it off for days. But eventually it ground me down. I wanted to do it and I couldn’t procrastinate any longer. But every person we announced our intentions too tried to quash them before we’d even stepped onto that monstrous vertical pillar.

“Juvsøyla? The Grade 6?!”

“Yup, that’ll challenge you. For sure.”

The route seems to hold a borderline mythical status in Rjukan. Plenty of people climb the classic fives: Sabotørfossen, Nye Vemorkfoss, Verdens Ende, Vemorkbrufoss Vest, For Alle Menn. The list goes on. It seems that fewer people push the boat out any further. But by yesterday, we’d run out of classic WI5s to procrastinate on, and we’re still young and stupid enough to think these things are a good idea.

The king line.
The king line.

We have a slow start before heading off to the parking at Vemork, piling out into the cold wind and starting reservedly down the path, oppressed by the knowledge that Juvsøyla stands, out of sight, just around the corner.

I take comfort in the fact that when we’d discussed it, we’d agreed just to go and take a look. We’d said that if it looked utterly terrifying then we could sack it off and go and do something more amenable. Then I wonder if Matt’s idea of what constitutes ‘utterly terrifying’ would align with mine, and suddenly I am worried again.

We trudge up the snow cone to the small wall of ice barring entry to the gully from which Juvsøyla and Trappfoss both branch off, and take an unnaturally long sandwich break. There is another team above us, sending little bits of ice down the gully just to the right of where we are standing.

“I guess we should wait until they’re done kicking stuff down before we make a move,” I suggested, conveniently.

When we can delay no more, we set off up the gully, overcoming the small step with ease and cruising up towards the first belay. The movement starts to feel more natural as I settle into what we are about to do, but the first moves up the first proper pitch of ice, some 100m later still feel distinctly alien. My technique seems unusually sloppy; my tools skating as I fail to steady their swing and my crampons refusing to bite into the crusty wax I am attached to. Even the screws don’t want to go in – the ice is so dense that nothing seems to bury more than an inch.

After a few deep breaths, I shut off the negative internal monologue and settle into the comforting repetition of cascade ice climbing. The recipe goes as follows: take one swing, follow with two kicks. Repeat until you’re at the top or you’re terminally pumped.

Before long I am at the belay, and I bring Matt up behind me. Above, the pillar starts in earnest: sixty metres of unrelenting steepness, a wild landscape of bizarre ice structures, more akin to gently frozen cauliflower cheese than the traditional pipes and sheets of ice that we’d been tak-tak-takking our way up for the past week. Matt takes the gear off me and quests off into the unknown without much ado. The terrain looks amenable, with plenty of natural hooks and footholds, but the profuse shaking out that Matt is doing suggests it is anything but.

Matt shaking out amongst a sea of cauliflowers. The photo makes it look amenable - it's never desperate but it's not a staircase either...
Matt shaking out amongst a sea of cauliflowers. The photo makes it look amenable – it’s never desperate but it’s not a staircase either…

With the rope just past the halfway mark, an alcove on the left is reached. The shout falls down to me, alongside the lumps of snow and ice as Matt settles himself on the belay stance. I take him off belay, and the ropes run tight.

Before I have a chance to think about what I’m heading up, I’m hooking cauliflowers left and right, feet kicking into the soft ice-cream on top of them, hanging straight armed and shaking out to keep the pump at bay, and looking for inventive ways to rest as I take out the screws. As we get higher, the route gets wetter – by the time I pull over into the alcove where Matt has made a stance, my gloves are sponges. Cold, saturated sponges, with which I am holding my tools in some sort of deranged death-grip.

I make myself comfortable in the corner and have a stern word with myself. Relax. It’s all good. There’s only another thirty metres to the top. It’s steep but it’s steady. You can do steep, and you can do steady. The words inside my head are a stark contrast to the ones I let come outside.

“This is fucking ridiculous man, it’s way too wet up here, this is completely mental.”

Matt laughs, because that’s more polite than telling me to shut up and get us to the top.

Spot the climbers... Me on the final moves of the pillar. A team on Trappfoss (right) can be seen too. Photo by Caspian James.
Spot the climbers… Me on the final moves of the pillar. A team on Trappfoss (right) can be seen too. Photo by Caspian James.
Zooooomed.
Zooooomed.

I change into some dry gloves and set off. Within five metres, they too are soaked. I bury a long screw and commit to a vague ramp which provides access onto the face of the pillar. The moves are exposed in the extreme, and looking up to place my tools is complicated by the fact that there’s a gravity-fuelled pressure washer aimed at my face. For a moment, I genuinely believe we’ll have to turn back as I can’t see what I’m trying to do, but, fuelled by the fact that the team before us successfully climbed through, I pull back left, out of the falling stream of droplets, and head up a steep channel, sheltered by a capping roof ten metres below the end of the pillar. I climb this to its end before burying another long screw and sinking a sideways hook behind a column that I am reluctant to commit weight to in case the torque blows the column out. Delicate feet tiptoe across the slush puppy beneath me and establish themselves on the pillar. Gentle torque is applied to the sideways hook and I swing high with the right axe for a deep placement. I hear the comforting thunk and I know that’s my green light. It’s steep now and I’ve got to move. The recipe that worked below is followed again, and I feel comfortable running it out. The climbing is steep, but secure. The top of the column sneaks into view and before long I’m burying an axe into it, wondering how we just managed to climb this monster, but not wanting to ask too many questions.

The uncontrollable whoop fills the upper gorge as I reach the easy ground above and clip myself to the tree at the top of the route.

It’s good just to go and give things a go.

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