Saturday, 14 January 2017

Sprenabekken, Espedalen

I had visited Espedalen just before Christmas but the multipitch routes were in terrible condition following a number of warm weather bouts and inverted temperatures. Part of the second pitch of Sprenabekken in particular was clearly running with water from the roadside. On that occasion we had settled for a cragging day at Helvete. There looked to be some excellent routes to return for though once conditions improved, so I placed it on the 'to do' list for January. With generally colder, more stable temperatures since the New Year a return visit seemed in order.

It was my partner Matias's second day on ice this season due to university work taking up much of his free time. Sprenabekken seemed well suited as only the second pitch of three involved any real difficulties, and with a fairly short approach we would hopefully have it boxed off in good time.

View of Sprenabekken from the road
Fresh snow had fallen on Tuesday and Wednesday but the approach was fairly easy despite a good volume of fresh powder. We slightly lost our way after following some partially filled-in tracks but a short traverse along the hillside brought us swiftly beneath the ice.

Sprenabekken at closer quarters
We started up the left side with the general plan to slowly traverse in towards the steeper ice on the right side, ensuring the belays were not in the line of fire. The first pitch was a steady affair and Matias did a good job of leading nearly a full rope length. The ice was a little wet in places, and intermittently coated in a crispy layer of snow that needed to be cleared to find better ice beneath. The belay itself was particularly wet underfoot and not somewhere I wanted to hang around. At least the belay screws looked ok. 

Matias leading the start of the first pitch
The second pitch of Sprenabekken proved a time-consuming affair. The first half was technically easy and followed a gentle slab in the direction of the steeper ice. Much of the slab was covered in a top surface that needed to be entirely stripped in order to find better ice. A thin layer of hard icy snow covered a semi-consolidated layer of icy snow, which covered 2cm of air, beneath which lay decent (ish) ice. The layer of air meant everything above it was highly prone to cracking and collapsing and so it all needed to be cleared.

View of the second pitch from the belay
I probably used the back and sides of my axes more than the picks during the first half of the pitch to beat and break up the surface ice. The whole process of excavation was actually quite satisfying and absorbing though given the predictability of the layers and it was quite easy to clear relatively large sections at a time. An irrational thought briefly entered my mind that the entire suspended sheet could unexpectedly avalanche in one fell swoop but this felt unlikely in practice.Progress was rather slow and workmanlike - the loose equivalent of gardening a rock route on lead.

The human brøytebil
The layer air, above which everything needed to be stripped
When I did use my picks they bit easily into the excavated wet ice below, although it wasn't great for screws. Instead I needed to rely on sporadic slightly steeper ice that were not covered in the rubbish ice.

Once in closer proximity with the steeper section it was clear that I needed to take it at its slackest angle at the far right. Other parts were dripping wet and out of the question. A couple of hard but hollow ice screw placements along the base was my only consolidation. An axe strike into the slabby ice beneath the steep wall caused water to spurt gently upwards like a burst water pipe indicating the amount of water pressure below. The route evidently had a strong flow of water that probably didn't appreciate the numerous aggressive warm spells over the previous month. The mixed ice conditions actually reminded me a little of when I climbed Rjukanfossen many years ago, which similarly had also had similarly unusual conditions and much running water below. 

Midway into the second pitch
The steeper climbing on the second pitch. The only dry ice was the slacker ice at the far right end
I had hoped the ice conditions would improve once it became a little steeper, however there was still much rubbish to clear on the flatter surfaces. At one point the ice was no more than 10cm thick, beneath which flowed water, and so needed extra care. The steeper ice was also often brittle, meaning the top surface needed to be hacked away to find better ice deeper down. One small pillar barring my way in particular needed full demolition after the first hit over the top of it caused the whole pillar to turn pale. Another party appeared at the bottom of the route around this time. Not surprisingly they kept on walking!

Screw protection throughout the pitch was mediocre, which made good sticks all the more essential. At least the climbing was not particularly sustained or pumpy so I could be extra patient in achieving these. There were also plenty of good rests on ledges left behind after the excavation of softer ice. The guide description gave the route WI3+/4 but by our line it was no more than WI3+ with the steepness often moderate. Some of the ice formations were still in quite an early developmental stage but bridging back and forth to avoid the steeper or chandelier'ed sections made things more interesting.

Matias above the steeper ice at the top of the second pitch
The final pitch was an easier affair with about 20 metres of actual climbing followed by the same distance walking. I made the mistake of putting my foot in water ankle deep right at the top though.

Not the best conditions in summary but perfectly climbable and still enjoyable. The easier than expected climbing was a little bit underwhelming however. The unusual ice conditions definitely added a degree of esoteria though and made the route maybe less easy to forget in the process. Needless to say the route is thoroughly ploughed for the time being, provided you stick to the same line. 

We abseiled from a large tree beside the route, along the true left side of the ice, and over a short rocky cliff to another tree. After our second abseil we only just managed to pull the ropes down. It needed Matias to prusik himself to the pulling rope and put his full body weight behind it to get them moving. In hindsight we should have used cordelette around the tree in question. A short third abseil then brought us to beneath the ice.

View of the crux ice during the abseil
In the UK there is a saying that some things come in pairs, for example buses in rush hour, and this was true with respect to car problems. The last time I had visited Espedalen we had experienced wheel problems and then a flat battery. A matter of metres from the last incident, and in a different car, we again had wheel problems. Firstly the car became stuck in snow, then the snow chains broke but luckily just in time for us to shift the car back onto the road. Evidently the broken chains had caused some minor damage to behind the wheel as now a constant grinding noise emanated from the it. I don't know much about cars but the car was steering ok and braking fine and there was no smell of burning so we just continued as normal, albeit with slightly higher levels of anxiety. Climbing to continue as normal the following day. 


  1. Very nice to see all the ice climbing you are doing in the area this days. The conditions of Sprenabekken changes throughout the season, but by zigzagging and going for the steepest parts there should be possible to find better ice. The overall grade are given if you keep more to the left on the steepest section in 2nd pitch, since the right part normally are open or very thin due to high waterflow

  2. forgot to sign. Sincerely "the author of the iceclimbing guide" :-)

    1. Cheers, that makes sense. It was the opposite when we climbed the route in that the left side of the second pitch was impassable due to poor ice but the right side was passable.