Saturday, 20 December 2014

Kongsvollfossen (WI4), Oppdal

Climbing the full length of Kongsvollfosssen seemed a totally achievable proposition for the darkest weekend of the year...

In truth we didn't really consider climbing the full length until we set eyes on it, at which point it looked too good to refuse. Plus starting the steeper climbing at three pitches from the top just looked like cheating, given the vast amount of ice extending below this point. Our after 9am start was maybe a little bit late for a 400-500m route but I was feeling confident that we would climb the easy angled lower slopes quickly if moving together.

Kongsvollfossen viewed from the road
(Photo taken the following day)

A steep section of ice marked the start of the climb, barely more 100m from the road. I chose an easy line to the far right in order to climb fast. With more time it would have been fun to have climbed a harder, more direct line but my time felt limited. The climbing eased above this point with just a couple of short WI3 steps to overcome. This was fine because the difficulty would be gradually increasing the higher we climbed. Despite the relative technical ease, the climbing remained continually interesting due to the awesome spectacle of the route, along with its Alpine nature. I was also enjoying the low-level tension bubbling inside me as a consequence of racing the hours of daylight remaining.

The first pitch
(Photo by Anna Kennedy)

I made a belay after approximately every 100m so as to replenish my screws. The ice took whatever length of screw came to hand first, although often the ice was quite hard. Regularly the ice would dinner-plate, which slowed progress somewhat. Sometimes the ice was wet despite the cold temperatures. On one occasion I struck water beneath the ice, causing the water to pump onto its surface like damaged plumbing. Overall we were making good progress, reaching the start of the steeper ice with just 3-4 belays on-route. With about 300m already climbed Anna was looking tired but keen to push on.

The upper half of the route
Easy-angled ice

The time was already approaching 14.30 but we had just three pitches to go. The sun was close to the horizon so after a quick stop for food and drink I was on my way again.

The centre of the icefall had provided the best ice for belaying but the easiest line lay to the right where it looked steady grade 3. I starting climbing the centre of the icefall regardless through general reluctance to make a detour. Soon I found myself forced to do so due to steepening ice that hinted at becoming thinner out of sight ahead. I begrudgingly traversed right across much steeper ice than had I done so initially. I stretched the rope to full length and the made a belay. A beautiful sunset was breaking out across the head of the valley to my right. Beautiful sunsets of course signalled the onset of approaching darkness but the top of the route looked only to be only be another 30m away... or so I thought.

The first of the steeper pitches
(Photo by Anna Kennedy)
Beautiful sunset from belay
Anna approaching the belay

I traversed easily up and left, following a natural ramp that skirted beneath a wall of red rock. This I assumed would lead me to the exit of the climb but instead it lead to below a formidable-looking crux of hanging ice, which looked another full pitch of climbing. 60m of rope had already passed so I would need to belay Anna to me first. She looked mortified to learn of more climbing. Already she was feeling drained and what followed looked clearly harder than anything previously. By now it was dark so it was time to find our head torches.

Surely the top of the route?
...Nope. The final pitch

The ice on the right side looked easiest. It would prove to be wet for the most part, which meant easy axe and screw placements but maybe slightly less inherent strength. Some stepped sections low down were easier than anticipated. Then a short traverse right and up another step. Steep ice presented above. A moment of concern arose as to whether it touched down sufficiently and was thick enough to climb. Then a better a view. It was climbable but looked hard, although a natural chimney offered an obvious escape.  I placed my longest screw at the base of the chimney and cleared a couple of fragile sections of ice from the chimney. I sunk my axes easily into its right side... maybe too easily I thought. Bridging my feet awkwardly on the fissured ice, I moved my axes higher. I could feel the tiredness in my arms but soon the difficulties were dispatched. Then the realisation that I was finally at the top of the route. It was 5pm - about 7.5 hours after starting the climb. It was one of those routes where you want to punch the air with your fist at the top. Definitely a 'classic' and one of the best ice climbs that I've done to date. We'd followed the easiest line but this certainly warranted WI4 with current ice build-up.

Battling the crux

Anna joined me at the belay in equal elation, albeit a slightly more tired format. She's actually dispatched the final pitch with remarkable ease from what I could tell. We paused at the top of the route to eat and drink. The descent lay some 1km to the South via a long traverse along the hillside. Navigating in the dark would make finding the descent line more difficult but no doubt the clear skies would aid matters I considered...

Top of the route

...Soon it began to snow horizontally. Things became 'Scottish'. Not to worry, as it was still rather mild compared to an average bad weather day on the Cairngorm plateau. The problem was that our guidebook only offered a photo of the descent, which was of little help in poor visibility. We headed blindly South, following the tops of the red rocks. A couple of times there looked to be footprints but these soon evaporated. The skies momentarily cleared, during which I thought I spied an steady slope ahead and below. We descended in its direction only to meet with steeper ground, littered with loose rocks beneath a thin cover of snow. We back-tracked and traversed further South.

Soon an icy cliff above us forced us to change tact and descend a little. This seemed the moment to try and descend more directly. Things were initially straightforward until a rocky corner blocked our way. It looked too difficult to down-climb so we set-up a short abseil from a couple of tiny trees in close proximity. A funnel of snow lay beneath the corner on generally flat ground, so I consoled myself that there would be a soft landing were the trees were not up to the job.

Once below the corner things generally became progressively easier. We needed to make another short abseil of maybe 10m but for the large part the descent involved lots of snow, turf and rocks underfoot with small trees to weave through. We needed to go slow because of so many hidden rocks and needed to keep our crampons donned due to the sporadic presence of ice. The crampons were particularly troublesome over the rocks and maybe we should have taken them off sooner were the transition to less frozen ground not so subtle. Gradually the trees became bigger and more widespread until they constituted a thin forest. The car headlights from the road below became bigger until we could see the tarmac. By the time we were actually standing on it it was 9pm- a round-trip of twelve hours with the descent taking over three hours. Definitely 'epic'. Based on observations the following day I suspect we started our descent too soon. It worked out fine but no doubt the forest descent was slower going compared to the recommended more open ground. We hadn't discussed Sunday's plans but it would more than likely be an easy day...

The descent

2 comments:

  1. Nice post and cool blog! I climbed Kongsvollfossen last year (http://peakbook.org/tour/75217/Kongsvollfossen.html, although we cheated ;-)). It was my second time ice climbing, and I definetly feel that you capture the feeling of this cool route that offers full alpine value in moderate difficulties :-)

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    1. That's not cheating. Much better than starting at the very bottom and then stopping a couple of pitches from the top as I've read some have done. Final pitch was the crux for us. Would be nice to climb just the top pitches on another occasion but via a different line.

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