Grøtenutbekken (WI5), Hemsedal

'Jesus Christ' I muttered to myself at the sight of the mound of snow waiting at the top of the short pillar. It was stacked easily 50cm high. Too dense to swing my axe through but too soft for my axes to bite. I urgently began hacking the heavy snow from the slab but I could feel the pump building. My bent posture over the slab meant it was difficult to rest my arms and if anything I was probably over-gripping due to not trusting my foot placements.

Then I was off...

My last screw was level with my feet but I fell maybe 10m. A bruised left elbow and hip but otherwise was fine. I caught a glimpse of ice screws bouncing down the ice, presumably they had blown during the fall. I looked up to see that all had all held. Instead my front ice screw clippers were empty, somehow opening themselves during the fall. Then there was the mystery of where my ice axes lay. They weren't on the ends of my leashes, which were now wrapped over a shoulder and in perfect condition. All that I could assume was that the cordelette on the ends of axes had blown... a likely possibility, given that I had been guilty of not replacing them in years. They would probably have checked my fall otherwise. With no axes I made a belay with my remaining screws to bring Andreas up to me.

I was a little shaken but ok. My initial reaction being largely disappointment. 'I blew the onsight'... and on a classic route as well.

Andreas disassembled his belay whilst I did some maths. Two runners below me, four runners above me, Andreas's two belay screws, my two belay screws, and two on my harness made twelve so at least we had enough to continue the route. Three screws by my calculations would be at the bottom with our bags. We probably started with more than we needed anyway...

Andreas at the first belay before the fall. The foreshortened pile of snow can be seen between him and the top.

Andreas took over the lead, climbed up to my high point, then continued the snow sweeping. A large mass of snow crashed down and onto my back and neck. Its impact heavy enough to give me pins and needles simultaneously in both hands for about 10 seconds. Then a belay. Fortunately my axes were resting in the ice at his feet. With my tools lowered down to me I climbed easily, albeit a little cautiously to the belay. This time mounting the slab with ease.

The route from the base

No doubt I would have surmounted the slab first time without drama were it not for the awful exit. Not that I can blame conditions as it was my lack of reserves that let me down. The pitch had only been grade 4, a grade that I had been cruising this winter. Stacked on top of a pumpy grade 5 pitch, which preceded it, and my stamina was found wanting though.

Andreas leading the first pitch (WI5)
Feeling the pump

Thin curtains of ice draped overhead. It was impossible to climb directly up, the ice looked too thin out right, so therefore further left needed exploring. I was not surprisingly feeling a little bit more conservative about leading what could potentially be WI5 and also thin. The soreness in my left elbow was affecting my swinging power a little. Andreas's leading psych waning a little as well but it was still stronger than mine, so I was grateful that he was happy to lead on. 'I love thin ice traverses' he sung to himself as he moved out left. Evidently feeling gripped, judging by the three screws placed barely 50cm apart from one another. Up and left found a weakness in the curtain that lead up and back right. The type of pitch that I would have normally enjoyed leading under normal circumstances in retrospect.

Navigating through the thin band of icicle curtains

We knew the following pitch would be steep and craning our necks to the right confirmed this. The ice went straight up but at least a groove running up its centre looked to offer a weakness. I had approached the climb with the view that I would try to lead grade 5 if feeling confident but deferring was definitely my only thought at that moment. My elbow was better but I lacked the experience at the grade to make a judgement as to whether I could lead it without falling. I belayed beneath an impressive icicle, suspended overhead. Best not think too much about when these things fall down...

Andreas made fine work of the pitch. When my turn came I needed to rest and shake-out after nearly every advancement with my axes. In spite of this the pitch felt in control on second with some good natural foot ledges and even a leg and arm jam behind a fin of ice a short way up. We had finished up the steep ground on the right-hand side, which would usually be mixed but currently held enough ice not to need any more than a helping hand and foot on the adjacent rock in order to balance through the narrow section.

The final steep pitch. As steep as it looks

From here easy ice continued for about the same distance again but with the time being 15:30 and all the hard climbing below we opted to abseil the route on Abalakovs. Plus I can climb the length of the route next time when I've managed it in better style. Then back down the trail that had taken us two hours to re-break from the roadside.

Summary time:

1/ Great conditions, albeit a thin in places. Apart from some large accumulations of snow on the easier ground. Certainly one of the best ice lines that I had ever climbed. Sustained and always interesting.

2/ I need to get stronger and improve my steep ice technique if I hope to advance my leading grade. Work my weakness rather than just continually onsighting a lower grade that I am comfortable with. I hate to use the dirty 'top-rope' word but practising steep ice beyond my leading capabilities on top-rope is probably what I need. I've not climbed a WI5 in five years but have been onsighting WI4 since then (although mainly focusing on Scottish mixed). Back in the UK I would primarily use South Coast chalk as a training ground during autumn and winter. Often just low-level traversing and fighting the pump. The luxury of living in Norway is that there appears to always be conditions somewhere, which means no 'training' and just 'performance'. I need to get that training aspect back.

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