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Chasing Winter - Ice Climbing in Norway's Oppdal Valley

Streaks of vibrant blue and hazy white snake their way down from imposingly high on the cliff. Like ethereal gateways, they offer a path for winter climbers to ascend into the vertical world. Against the jet-black bands of rock that make up the valley walls, these frozen waterfalls stand proudly, albeit delicately, in their valiant struggle against both gravity and the oncoming spring.  


It is mid-February and I find myself quickly but cautiously crossing a mostly frozen river, deep in the bottom of a canyon in Norway’s Oppdal region. The walls are choked with thick blue veins of ice and the excitement of the group is noticeable, mainly due to the increased pitch and speed in which the accented English sentences are exchanged. 


The excitement builds as the group draws near. Photo by Alan Goldbetter

The evening before, over appetizers of Spanish cheese and mouthwatering homemade chorizo, I was warmly welcomed into this four-person group of Spanish climbing guides for a long weekend of climbing these frozen waterfalls. Now, standing at the base of the climbs, we divide into two rope teams and choose our objectives. Igor, the one in the group who I knew before arriving, and I team up to take on a two-pitch WI 3+.  


Kick, kick, swing! Kick, kick, swing! Up the fall I move, finding a nice rhythm on the fresh, sticky ice of the first pitch. The ice, which is alive and in a constant state of change, feels friendly as I unrack the first of my many Express Ice Screws and quickly place the needle-sharp teeth into an old pick placement. I deftly flick out the crank knob and happily sink the screw to the hanger with amazing speed, throw on a quickdraw, and I'm gone. 50 meters above the start, the climb forks into two. Feeling good, I opt to try the harder, right-hand variation. I build a belay, reach down and pop open the BOA laces on my new LaSportiva G-Techs to ensure my feet stay warm and comfy, and settle in for a chilling belay.


Igor climbing to the belay. Photo by Alan Goldbetter 

With Igor once again at my side, I set off and begin the real challenge of the route. The consistency of the ice is now much different, and not for the better. Brittle and old, it shatters often and makes finding good tool placements a challenge. There is a lot of hand-swapping, crossovers, and tool exchanges, during which time I am glad I decided to throw on my Spinner Tool Leash before the start of the last pitch. Eventually, I make it to the anchor tree at the top with no small amount of relief. We rappel down the pitch and then Igor leads the easier, left variation while our friends climb up the right-side. Back on the ground, we pack it up a bit early – tomorrow will be a big day and the challenge already looms in our mind.


The Spanish team on the steep second pitch. Photo by Alan Goldbetter 

The next morning arrives early and our dark, wood-paneled Airbnb comes alive with the clinking of carabiners, aroma of coffee, and excitement for a long route in the mountains. If yesterday was an appetizer, then today is the main course. After a short drive, we are immediately greeted by a multi-hour, off trail approach. Through the crisp light of my Black Diamond Storm 500-R headlamp, I take the first ten-minute stretch of trail breaking and slog through the knee-deep snow, punching through the hard, crusty surface with every step. It is tiring work, but thankfully there are four others to share this burden with. Dawn breaks as we reach the base of the route. For a moment we rest here, catching our breaths and sharing some warm tea from our Hydroflask bottle, absorbing in the beautiful landscape unfolding around us. A ribbon of blue ice runs above, while below the narrow valley leads to a sculpted ridgeline that ends in a vast, wide open, expanse of snow-covered land.


The old climbing adage, “slow is smooth, smooth is fast” repeats in my mind as we make our way through the hundreds of meters of ice. The climb is deceiving. What appears from below as terraced steps of vertical climbing separated by good rests, turns out to be steep, sustained, and difficult. On the crux pitch, the ice is mirror smooth and without any natural weaknesses, making every new ice tool swing an extra challenge. On lead, I begin to ration my ice screws –there is no end to the pitch in site. Finally, I pull over the last bulge and reach easier ground. Soon, Chris follows behind. I ask, “how was it?”, and with an unusual somberness, he simply replies “hard.”  

 

As Alvero leads the final Bottle Neck pitch, chucks of ice rain from above. I try to fit as much of my body as I can underneath the protection of my Vision Helmet, like a turtle in distress. When the man-made storm of ice finally passes, we all make our way to the top of the frozen fall. The quality of the ice here is less than ideal, so we make efforts to get down with efficiency.


Alvero stepping lightly on the fragile ice. Photo by Alan Goldbetter 

Back at the base of the falls, we can finally relax again. The laughs come easily as we repack our bags and complement each other on our efforts. The stress of the descent is now gone, and the joy of accomplishment fills us. We opt to take a different path back, and one after another, glissade down a few hundred meters of slippery snow to the frozen stream below. It still takes some effort to get back to the car from here, but with the pride of a job well done as our fuel and hot showers and fleece pajama pants as our motivation, the hike goes quickly. Back at the car, we share hugs all around. It’s our last day climbing together as a group, and while it’s bittersweet that it must end, we rest a little easier knowing that we already have plans to meet and do it all again. Next time, in Norway’s great north.  

 

Written by Alan "Allu" Goldbetter, who is part of the OAC team

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