Rjukan Part 1: Vermork Bridge

With unstable temperatures throughout Norway this winter I've experienced a lot of difficult ice conditions. If I had measured the number of axe swings verses the number of metres climbed then I am sure this season would be a record number. The rapid warming and cooling has led to some very brittle ice conditions and a lot of chopping to gain good sticks. In a way, visiting Rjukan during the latter part of winter felt like payback for some of what has gone before.

I've mixed feelings about ice climbing in Rjukan. The short driving time, easy approaches, and the unique character and history definite pluses. I prefer my winter climbing to have a relatively wild, adventurous feel to it though and with such a high volume of climbers visiting Rjukan this can sometimes be hard to find. Particularly during milder seasons when fewer routes are in nick and everybody congregates in the same areas. I've climbed some exceptionally stepped-out ice at times, although I've largely managed to avoid queues. That is the trade-off with Rjukan, however to not visit at all would probably lessen my diversity of experiences with ice climbing.

There's not been much to attract me to Rjukan this winter due to the generally warm temperatures. It's mainly just been Krokan with any sign of conditions. Lots of climbers and not many routes has hardly appealed. A definite advantage of Rjukan is the large number of routes that receive little sunlight, meaning cold temperatures, however late in the season, can often bring forth conditions. By late February stable colder temperatures had finally arrived and so it seemed worth a visit. As much for variety as anything else, since there have not been so many reliable places with decent conditions this winter.

Jacob and I had half a day of climbing on Friday at our disposal. I still had not climbed anything around Vemork Bridge amazingly, despite having used the car park there numerous times to enter the Upper Gorge. This seemed therefore a good place to efficiently tick a couple of routes. Vemorkbrufoss Vest was free but I haven't climbed so many WI5s this season and wanted to suss out general conditions first. Vemorkbrufoss Øst was occupied so we headed to the two pitch WI4 called Tungtvann.

Jacob led the first pitch, which was steady WI3. The second pitch then forked with steeper, fatter ice leading left. This looked the better option but needed a tricky leftward traverse via thinner ice in order to fully establish myself on it. The steepness didn't let up until the final few metres and so I took my time to lace the ice with screws. Considering this is an easily accessible three star route the ice was surprising pristine little sign of previous activity. Maybe because the route is tucked away out of sight it lacks attention.

The first pitch of Tungtvann (WI4)

With Vemorkbrufoss Vest now occupied we opted for Vemorkbrufoss Øst (WI4). Jacob led all the difficulties in the first pitch, leaving me a short second pitch that was more of an escape pitch. The ice's stepped out nature allowed easy footwork and first time axe placements that buried themselves. With little technical difficulty it was quickly dispatched. That was all we had time for on Friday but ice climbing on a weekday felt like a bonus.

Vemorkbrufoss Øst (WI4)

Vemorkbrufoss Vest was top of our list for day 2, however it was clear that other people had similar ideas. It was occupied by the time we arrived and so we decided to enter the upper Gorge to check it out a WI4 called Blindtarmen. The bottom part was fat but the thin neck at the top of the route looked to be discontinuous with just icicles at half height. Without the top part in climbable condition it arguably wouldn't be a complete ascent in our minds. It looked at though this part could potentially be the most interesting in better conditions and so we opted to save it for another day.

Blintarmen (WI4)

We backtracked to Bakveien (WI4), which looked the best option to get some climbing done as a filler. I had climbed this back in 2009 so was happy to let Jacob lead the first pitch up the short pillar and subsequent slab corner. The latter formation I had no recollection of, although possibly it had formed differently that year due to far more snow and ice. The initial pillar was dripping wet but fortunately its right edge hidden from view was contrary. Once above the first pitch it was a further 1.5 pitches of easy WI2/3 bashing to the top. An excellent first pitch followed by unspectacular climbing was the same conclusion eight years prior. If this is a three star route then some of the WI4s that I've climbed north of Lillehammer should get five stars.

First pitch of Bakveien (WI4)

Easy climbing above the first pitch of Bakveien (WI4)

Vemorkbrufoss Vest was subsequently still occupied, and now with additional queuing climbers, so we headed to a nearby short WI4 called Host. It's nearly always better to climb than queue in my eyes and so we both led the route in order to allow time for our first choice route to become available. More steady ice, although not too hooked out. 

Host (WI4)

Two routes down and now fortunately Vemorkbrufoss Vest was vacant. We had planned to split the difficulties with me leading the longer, slightly easier first pitch and Jacob leading the shorter, slightly steeper final section. Close to my intended belay I realised I had enough rope to reach the top though, and with the route now to ourselves we opted to both lead the it as a single pitch.

The route had evidently seen a lot of climbers due to its it cauliflower'ed ice formations being generously hooked and stepped. Footwork was easy and nearly always my axes would comfortably find first time placements. Even the gradient of the ice felt mild for WI5 and I can only assume the route becomes steeper with thicker buildup.

Jacob near the start of Vermorkbrufoss Vest (WI5)

I recently read a Will Gadd blog post stating that well-travelled ice can change the grade by as much as two grades and this route was a prime example. Even by WI4 standards this would have been very steady. A little bit of stepped out ice is ok every so often though, and I've probably earned it after some tough ice conditions through much of the season. Give me pristine ice most days of the week though.

The route wasn't without its challenges though. Wet ice near the start was too soft to bother with screws. Then towards the top a short traverse rightwards directly beneath a shoot of water spouting gave my outer layers a good drenching. It was as though the ice had sprung a leak and maintaining composure through this exciting phase of the climb was certainly the crux. Good karma that we had saved this route until the end of the day and now a warm shower was now well earned.

Vermorkbrufoss vest (WI5), viewed from the bridge


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