A TALE FROM LOFOTEN / NORWAY
Written and experienced by Per Jerberyd © 2001
My friends often ask why I almost never write anything about my own climbs. Now I finally fell for the group pressure and published this little epic tale that I experienced out in the Lofoten islands in March 2001.
After a week of glorious weather, our intention was to make a final climb
during our two weeks stay in Henningsvær, a small village located out in the Lofoten islands. The plan was to ascend the couloir just to the northof Presten (The Priest) to a col on the mountain crest. From there we aimed to follow the mountain ridges toward Vågakallen and descend through another couloir. The idea was to stay out over the night and we carried full bivouac equipment.
Early in the morning I talked to the Swedish mountain guide Dick Johansson that also where staying in Henningsvær; he said that the weather-forecast were the same as it had been the previous two days; overcast with no wind and perhaps light snow.
We got started late in the afternoon because my climbing partner; Kenth “Glenn” Rehn was returning from Reine where he had spent the night after a hitchhiking photo safari. I had used our car and he now travelled back with the local buses. This proved to take much longer time than expected. While I had to wait, I bid my time by resting in our room on top of the climbing café in Henningsvær, reading the book called “A chance in a million” by Bob Barton and Blyth Wright. It’s a handbook about Scottish avalanches. Interesting reading, but at least we wouldn’t have to worry about the avalanche danger on our upcoming climb, this year the mountains of Lofoten had extremely little snow, and nearly no new snow had fallen during the previous weeks.
At 14.00 Kenth finally arrived, we had a fast lunch and left the village Henningsvæer for the mountains within an hour.
At 15.30 we parked our car at the abutment of the bridge over Djupfjord. Our packs felt heavy and I thought we might encounter problems at the first icefall, just visible high up in the couloir. Kenth started to lead and kept on all the way to the ice when I took over and started to find my
way up theicefall, using our only pair of technical ice axes. I used up all our four ice screws on the way and secured myself at the top with a 120cm dyneema sling around afrozen cliff.
Kenth followed with his classic goulette axe and his heavy pack. I understood that he might get problems at a shorter traverse. There where no given place for the axe blade and you had to trust on your crampons. With a heavy backpack, he might easily loose his balance. Kent fell in the start of the traverse and was running forward in a pendulum move. No real problem, he soon got it sorted out and forced his goulette into the frozen moss above. 10 minutes later he joined me at the belay station. I immediately started to haul up my pack that I had left down at the start of the ice. It was kinky! No, not again… I had to rap off downto it. It was stuck on the only possible rock. I threw it up on my back and climbed up to the belay again.
Time was running. It was now darkening fast! I attached my old Petzl Zoom headlamp on the helmet and sent a streak of light in the black night. We had been very focused on the climb, but now we realized that the weather had changed during our icefall climb. It was snowing heavily with a breeze pushing the snow upwards through the couloir from the ocean below. I hauled up the video camera from my rucksack and gave it to Kenth. He filmed me while I said some unintelligent statements about that we’ll be in touch again on the col some hours later. The camera was stuffed away and I was ready to lead. We where again supposed to climb with the rope “running” between us without fixed belay stations…
I clipped out from the belay station and was ready to move on when the first avalanche scrambled down! BOOM! It went down exactly on the place I was supposed to climb through! It was a small one, but obviouslylarge enough to threw us off the mountain. We faced each other looking like two exclamation marks. Out in bad circumstances – again! We never had any chance to discuss it before another avalanche crashed down the mountain. This one was much larger and very close, at the most 10 meters away – now on the other side of our belay station! We realized directly that we might be in trouble! Is our location safe? Will the sling hold for masses of snow? Is moresnow on the way – and can it sweep us away? The only thing that we where 100% sure of were the need to find a safe place as fast as possible! – Let’s get the hell out of here!
30 meters above we spotted a ledge that looked promising as an emergency bivouac. Or? It was dark and our headlamps didn’t produced enough light through the heavy snowfall for a clear view. The climb tothe ledge looked easy but very insecure. Where to place any protections? Any snow coming down the mountain would drag the lead climber with him… Now what?
We had a short discussion and remembered a ledge with a rock-roof at the start of the icefall. If we could get there, we would definitely be perfectly safe. The problem was that we first would have to rap off and put up another belay station. From there, the way up to the ledge would be very exposed for another avalanche. During our discussion we could hear other avalanches raging down: some close, other further away. It was avalanches constantly all the time, at all paces now! If you never have heard a real avalanche – you can never understand what a great force we are talking about. It sounds like you are under heavy grenade bombardment mixed with an earthquake! Even the smallest sound like it carries masses of pebbles and boulders with it in its way down the mountain.
We rapped off, back to the start of the icefall, Kenth first, me following. From the belay station built by an ice screw, Kenth secured me while I plunged my way the 20 meters to security. Thesnow proved waist
deep due to the previous avalanches and all the way I was very focused and ready to dive into self-arrest if more snow were on the way. I felt happy when I found a huge, 2×3 meters ledge with a large rock-block as roof. My first thought was that we might even be able to put up our tent here. I arranged a belay station with two ice screws and shouted down to Kenth to follow. I just had to take a photo of him just before he was safe. You can see the 100% concentration in his eyes and face, focused to the ultimate. He were not too glad that I stopped him 30 seconds extra, being exposed for the snow above. Wewhere now both safe under the roof!
The next moment the whole mountain was roaring as an avalanche passed just over our heads. Loads of firm snow hit us – and I laughed!
We decided to arrange a place for Kenth’s tent if possible. It really looked promising. After a few hours hard work with digging and securing we sat inside our half put up tent, relaxing while many, many avalanches crashed down outside. I even clocked one, it sounded for over two minutes. We guessed it crashed down somewhere in Djupfjord. Kenth told me he was cold and shivered a bit. It must have been a minor relief-shock. I’ve experienced some similar reactions after finishing exam tests.
It was a pleasant night even if we had to sit up for most of the time, the snow pressed from all directions and we had only a small spot in the middle of the tent that was free. I have no idea how many avalanches that passed over our heads, but it must have been more than 10. Kenth said he thought his tent might collapse. But it didn’t! At about 4: am we heard the last avalanche. It had stopped snowing.
At 8: am we decided to try descending. To continue in this condition felt as a stupid idea. Kenth said something like: “this is what differ us from ‘real’ alpinists. They would have pushed on no matter what, while we where chickens!” I’m probably a chicken!
The tent was nearly buried and we had a hard time to dig it out.
Two hours later I was packed and ready to go. Kenth wanted to climb down with the rope running between us. It didn’t sound like a sound idea for me. I wanted to make the first rope a rappel down if another avalanche was on the way down. I judged that even a tiny avalanche that you perhaps could stand through was dangerous here without a fixed belay station. Kenth’s philosophy was that speed is safety. Perhaps he was right. Don’t know, but in any case I got it my way. I started to rap down.
After 10 meters it started to snow again! I banned the weather. Why start right now! Couldn’t it just wait for another hour??? He – up there didn’t hear me, and the snowfall increased instead. I got down to the end of our two 60meter ropes. I searched the rock for piton placements to build a belaystation with. I desperately tried to bang a lost arrow in a crack without success. I remembered some ice in the middle of the couloir that I hadclimbed over on the way up. This place where much more exposed, but at least something. I secured one ice screw and shouted to Kenth to get down. Some minutes later he joined me. Wedragged down the rope and I continued with a second rappel. This time I found a perfect friend placement at the end of our ropes. I felt somehow safe hanging onto my little belay station. I looked up. High up I saw snow that was starting to glide down from above. Is there anavalanche on the way? With my face in thesnow and my chest onthe ice axe I self arrested as close to wall aspossible. It got dark! Snow had buried me, but it was long from any real avalanche. I popped up my head from the snow like a buried sled dog. No problems to stand up. Kenth was also descending now.
We roped into each other and started to descend again, now with the rope running between us. All the way down, we stayed as close to the mountain wall as possible, and to our gratitude we faced no further problems on the way down, though the snow were extremely deep at some places and we got stuck with snow up to our armpits. Back down at the car, we got it confirmed that it had snowed exeptionally and we had a hard time to dig it out. Back at our room ontop of The Last Viking, I fell into a long dreamless sleep…
What did we learn from our little adventure?
First, we both know that we work well together under pressure. No one lost judgement and we were able to take fast decisions. By some reason at least I never got frightened, only more focused. From time to time we had different thoughts how to solve problems, however Kenth let me have it my way and I believe my ideas where more correct since we had no accidents. Perhaps what we learned the most is that if one avalanche has sledded down, another and another can follow in the same tracks in just minutes after the first one. When looking back at our decisions, should we have turned around earlier when it first started to snow? Perhaps! But you must always remember that alpine climbing is an adventure and a high-risk sport. If you want to climb 100% safe, stay to bolts and sport climbing!