Articles - Ice climbing in Rjukan.
Jon Bracey bare knuckle fighting Bared to the Extreme, a recent bolt protected W1V1 addition to area A
It’s unusual to get a driver with your car hire, but there he was to collect us at Oslo Torp airport for the three hour drive to Rjukan. After that we would be on our own. Peering into the disorientating blackness and wall to wall whiteness coating the roads it was a relief to be able to sit back and enjoy the ride. Well,nearly. High speed manoeuvres on a surface more akin to a skid pan meant you never quite totally relaxed your grip on the door handle. Like novices in awe of an accomplished Jedi master, Adam Wainwright, Jon Bracey and I just grinned at each other.
As we stopped for food at a service station our driver must have thought we were easily impressed when we started babbling about what a great place it was. He’d obviously never experienced British motorway services. The woman behind the counter explained in perfect English the stir-fry set up as the salmon or chicken with fresh veg, sizzled in front of us. The waffles for pudding and free chilled UV.treated drinking water didn’t go unappreciated either.
He was tall, blonde and keen to talk about drinking, in fact the only cliché box left unticked by our Norwegian chauffeur was being called Hans, in fact we never did catch his name, but when we arrived in Rjukan, he was quick to point out the pros and cons of the best bars as we played ‘spot the white ribbons’.
It was the internet ‘buzz’ of postings about big fat ice falls around Rjukan and people hungry for info that initially got us interested. Throw £9.99 return Ryanair flights from Stanstead into the equation, and the fact that routes were unlikely to suddenly disappear when you arrived, made a visit hard to resist. Like eavesdroppers on a private conversation we wanted to know what the fuss was about. And judging by the number of Brits we met on the trip, so did quite a few other folk.
The only previous point of reference I had for Rjukan was the old war movie The Heroes of Telemark, featuring a square jawed Kirk Douglas if I recall rightly, based on the daring 1943 raid by saboteurs to destroy heavy water production at the Vemork hydro-electric plant on the edge of a gorge.More recently, a more heavily jowled Ray Mears had appeared in a series recreating the same journey over the Hardangervidda plateau and negotiating the chasm to reach the power plant. Heavy water is important in nuclear fission and was a vital part of Hitler’s attempt to develop an atomic bomb. Today the only winter bravery you’re likely to find below Vemork is people swinging ice tools.
The routes are divided amongst six areas (A to F), which line steep hill-sides. The crags have an open aspect at the northern end but towards the head of the valley the icefalls rise up from the bed of an impressive canyon. Area A is about a fifteen minute drive from Rjukan with a good view from the hair-pins into Trappfoss (V) and the inspiring four pitch Juvsoyla (VI) that will get the adrenaline going. But relax, the upper reaches of Area A are far less intimidating – single pitches with an easy five minute approach and tree belays, well suited to reacquainting yourself with all that sharp ironmongery. If you’re going well then get on to what we thought was Topp (VI) in the guide, a mixed corner sporting three bolts to start before gaining an ice pillar, and further downstream the recent Bored to the Extreme (VI), a line which involves bridging between an icicle and the rock that’d be terrifying without the fixed pro.
In Area E, off the second bend on the road to the Gaustablikk ski area, you’ll also find a collection of short amenable ‘warm-up’ routes at III - V.
It’s in the narrow confines of Area B below Vemork that you’ll find some of the best and most atmospheric climbing. Parking is at the bridge just before the power plant; for routes upstream of the bridge, the easiest way down is a path from the western corner of the car park and for those downstream, a path from the north-east corner.
Area B: Routes to note
Sabotorfossen (WI 5) shouldn’t be missed. Loops of wire debris with tat attached stuck weirdly out of the ice on the intro pitch, leading to an awkward groove on the second, with hot-ache inducing steepness for the finale. Despite the air temperature being well below freezing you could often expect to be greeted by a cold shower at the top of many of the climbs - Sabotorfossen was no exception. The way off follows sets of ladders through the old hydro electric station to complete an unusual outing.
One climb probably best avoided is Shit Happens (V). I innocently suggested Adam and Jon climbed it while I got some pics as the unusual coloured ice(another clue)looked attractive (sorry guys).We all know appearances can be deceptive, but the name should have been a bit of a giveaway. Anyway, it wasn’t until the second pitch that the odour in Adam’s nostrils made him realise he was leading up a frozen sewage outfall from the houses above. In places water was running over the ice and took his sense of humour with it as bits of turd clung to the screws and picks.
Lipton (VII), however, is no laughing matter and is, without doubt, the single most gob-smacking line of the region. Hidden in the jaws of the canyon, it is best viewed from the summer tourist path for Rjukanfossen, just after the tunnel on the main road. The ice soars upwards for three rope lengths from the edge of a plunge pool, with a three metre roof traverse to gain a stalactite on the second pitch. The fact it’s rarely climbed didn’t deter Jon and Adam who made what was probably the first ascent that season.
The industrial town of
When to go
December and January can be bitterly cold. February and March gives more daylight and higher temperatures.The ice-falls on the south facing hillsides are gone by late March and when we were there in second week of February they were running with water by mid-morning.
Getting there and car hire
We flew to
A comfortable and warm log cabin at a caravan park a few kilometers outside town worked out at less than £100 each for a week. There are various size cabins, some a lot more luxurious than others. Contact rjukanhytte.com
There are a couple of good supermarkets for foodstuffs and all the usual shops you’d expect to find in a small town. The Rjukanbadet (swimming pool complex) is somewhat soothing after a hard day climbing – open until eight during the week and good value. The hot tubs and steam room will definitely sort out those chilled bones. Not many options when it comes to eating out. Pizza place near the pool. Reasonable skiing above Rjukan at Gaustablikk.
You can buy a summary guide from the tourist office in Rjukan (10am – 4pm weekdays) or download a guide from mountain-environment.com/rjukanguide The grades used in the guide are based on the old Scottish system but don’t translate so well. While the guide will get you to the bottom of the bigger lines, finding routes can be confusing in certain areas.
Don’t forget a duvet and an ice screw racker.
Looking to try some Winter climbing a bit closer to home, see George McEwan's article about Scottish Winter mixed climbing.