Helvete, Espedalen

Espedalen proved to be a mixed bag with conditions. The longer routes in the area had been the main draw for me, however Sprenabekken was thin and full of holes, and the middle section of was running with water. Earl Grey was totally void of ice in its middle section. Skoroa looked the general right shape to be in condition but it was impossible to properly confirm whether this was actually the case due to the greater distance from the road. Given the poor condition of Sprenabekken and Earl Grey, a long walk-in for a closer look at Skoroa didn't really appeal.

Sprenabekken (WI4)

Earl Grey (WI3+/4)

The real surprise of the trip though was the half kilometre long gorge at Helvete, which was packed with ice along both its sides, creating a very atmospheric setting. At one point the gorge walls closed and became more bowl shaped, approaching the shape of a slot canyon.

A scene from a Ridley Scott movie

The online guide that we were using did not describe routes individually, so after a little exploration we just picked lines based on aesthetics and challenge. I was more drawn to the isolated lines on the north and east side, in particular some of the brownest ice I have seen anywhere. The broader sections of ice were of less interest to me as they lacked obvious lines and likely changed formation based on ice build-up.

Ice on the South side of the gorge

We started on the wall of brown ice that descended into the more enclosed part of the gorge, directly beside the staircase leading from the car park. It was steep in its lower half before the angle eased back. Its lower half was possibly the most brittle ice that I had ever climbed with some huge dinner plates resulting. At one section in particular I needed to down-climb one step and move to the left in order to flick off a thick, loose top layer of ice. Heavy enough to either knock me off or damage my ropes otherwise. Fortunately the brittle ice difficulties were offset by some small hooks from a previous ascent in recent days. A good WI4 line despite the ice conditions.  

Anna beneath the first route that we climbed

Me leading the brittle ice on the first route
(Photo by Anna Kennedy)

Top of the steep ice on our first route
(Photo by Anna Kennedy)

Anna had hit the wall today and so it was my lead again. Another brown icefall further west on the same side of the gorge grabbed my attention. The steep middle section had an obvious weakness towards the left hand side, via a faint chimney. Climbing this proved trickier than expected because the ice to the left was too chandelier'ed and weak to use my left crampon on. As a consequence I was a little bit cramped, or out of shape, as I worked my way up the steep section. Again the ice was brittle, which slowed the progression. It was the steepest route of the day, about WI4+, and definitely the best route that we did in the gorge. Anna on second had the steepness combined with hot aches to contend with, so I got off easy.

Hot aches!

Anna abseiling from the second route that we climbed

There was time for one more route before sunset. Another aesthetic line further west was the obvious choice and looked not too difficult. The easier angle and lack of concave features meant more dinner plating though and a stupid number of axe swings. At least the ice was predictable in so far as it either exploded or didn't. Not much middle ground. The footwork was also not too tiring as the amount of hacked ice had created some moderate sized steps. Probably around WI3+ but I suspect it eases to WI3 with greater ice build-up. On second, every axe strike of Anna's echoed off the opposite wall.

Our third route

More brittle ice hacking
(Photo by Anna Kennedy)

With so much ice in the gorge it would have been easy to have visited the following day as well, however I think we did the best lines in current conditions. Apart from what we climbed, there were also some nice looking pillars but they looked too wet and fissured to contemplate leading. Helvete + one of the longer routes seems a good pairing for when I'm next in the area though.

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