The Heroes Bumblers of Telemark

Winter conditions looked to be holding in Rjukan for another weekend and I was keen to capitalise. Anna's psych for more ice this season I sensed was starting to wane, but a combination of cross-country skiing and climbing I hoped would reinvigorate her. Gaustatoppen looked still to be well below freezing and, given this was the scene of my final act in December 2015 before I was struck down with long-term fatigue, it seemed fitting to make a return. After missing out on the whole of the preceding winter I was keen to drag this one out as long as I could manage.

I should quickly point out that I'm a pretty poor skier. This wasn't helped by me forgetting to pack my skins, partly because everything that I had done prior to this was in groomed tracks. At least I was able to purchase some wax at the Gaustablikk resort without too much delay. The approach was far from the idyllic skiing that I had envisaged. Often the way was too narrow to herring bone, meaning my 210cm skis quickly became tangled in the bushes lining the way. The undulating nature of the trail also caused my skis often to slip backwards multiple tines when the wax randomly lost contact. I had been feeling fairly proficient around the Oslo marka but had now been reduced to Bambi on skis. A top layer of hard windslab crust didn't help matters and would regularly collapse under my skis, often killing any forward momentum in the process. Anna seemed to be dealing with things a bit better so I'll shut up grumbling. She had remembered to pack her skins of course.

The ski approach

Our plan had been to head for the infrequently visited Høgfoss area, however our slow pace was expending daylight time. We also learnt at an impromptu moment that Google Maps does not recognise the format of the coordinates in the Rockfax guidebook. Later we leant this is Norway's official format and found a website able to convert. The bigger problem was the weak bonded windslab layer. It wasn't a problem on our current aspect and slack angle, however we knew it would play a far greater risk once we began to descend the north facing slopes to the top of the routes. All things considered we cut our losses and stuck with the more frequented single pitch climbs at Gaustatoppfossen on this occasion.

Approaching the ice

The regular crag seemed a fitting place to return to anyway, given it was the scene of my previous demise. The ice was fat, and so an adequate consolation, and this late in the season the hacked steps were largely filled in. On my last visit I had seconded Anna on the right hand route, and failed to lead one of the middle lines. I opted consequently for the left hand line, which was the least sustained of the WI4 lines but offered the opportunity for an onsight. The lower half involved the steepest climbing but some generous indentations of human making midway up allowed some easy footing around what would have been the crux.

Me leading Gaustatoppfossen Øst (WI4)
(Photo by Anna Kennedy)

The 'real' crux was undoubtedly the gentler top part, which was locally stacked with a phenomenal amount of drifted snow. It offered no bite for my axes and so the only option - besides the sensible option to abseil from an abalakov thread - was to chop it all down in workmanlike sections until the ice was exposed beneath and passage could start to be formed. I lost sense of time whilst I excaved myself from the route, but it wouldn't surprise me if these final section of climbing required an hour.

A couple of years earlier I fell off the second pitch of Grøtenutbekken amidst snow conditions that were half as bad as these, and so it was a good indication that both my technique and patience have improved in such situations.

Looping back down to beneath the crag 

Anna then led the left hand version of Gaustatoppfossen Midtre, which was more consistent in gradient but lacked the same element of surprise at the very top. Arguably a better route, but I doubt it'll be remembered it to the same extent in the light of minimal drama.

Anna climbing the left hand variant of the Gaustatoppfossen Midtre (WI4)

Maybe we could have squeezed a further route in but it would have meant skiing the descent close to dark. We made the right decision to head down because my ski descent was no more prettier than the ascent. Forget footage from Heroes of Telemark. The wind slab made any sort of ploughing close to impossible as almost immediately my skis would get caught up in the hard top crust. That or the various flora lining the path. My resultant technique was simply to ski in a straight line until the need presented to sit on my ass. Factoring in the time needed to regain my feet, in retrospect I could probably have covered the ground quicker with snow shoes. On the plus side at least I had more to write about.

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