Ice climbing in Setesdal - The Great Undiscovered Secret of Southern Norway

© Graham McDowell

Finding the time to go winter climbing seems to get more difficult every year, as work and other commitments grow whilst the appetite for wet, cold, hardship diminishes. The days of long holidays to far-flung corners of the globe, and ambitious attempts at big routes that are far too hard for me are, I'd like to think, temporarily on hold. In the meantime I find my adventure where I can.

David Barlow on the Central Line on the Rysefossen (WI5) near Bygland  © Paul Seabrook
David Barlow on the Central Line on the Rysefossen (WI5) near Bygland
© Paul Seabrook

I'd heard that Geoff Hornby was the man with climbing's biggest 'black book' of routes – new route notes from crags, icefalls, and mountains throughout the world; adventures in the truest sense. When I met him in a quiet village pub in North Yorkshire I soon found that reputation to be true, as Geoff pulled out stacks of tattered notes from his very business-like briefcase. Here is a man, I thought, who has overcome the challenges of balancing a career with adventure-climbing at the highest level, for whilst his climbs were far from the pinnacle of technical difficulty, his portfolio of first ascents around the world, mostly in unexplored regions, was one that few people could match.

New routing in Setesdal, Southern Norway
© David Barlow, Feb 2012

And so it was that I found myself boarding a Ryanair flight to Oslo – hardly, I hear you say, the most adventurous of destinations. But unlike the hoards, we were not bound for the ice-climbing mecca of Rjukan to swing axes into other peoples' placements. Instead, our journey would take us into the heart of rural Norway, to the valley of Setesdal some four hours west of the capital: a place the ice-climbers had missed. I only had a five-day window, so was limited to somewhere I could easily get to in a day. Given the short notice, flights and accommodation needed to be readily available as well. Reliable, accessible, unclimbed ice in Norway won out over another drizzly trip to Scotland.

Getting to Setesdal couldn't be easier (the Norwegians are ruthlessly efficient people), and with barely any planning at all we arrived at the Bykle Hotel at the northern end of the valley – a comfortable base for three days of 'roadside' ice climbing. Having heard stories of extortionate prices in Norway, we came prepared – armed with two bottles of vodka, Geoff's notes to the area, and plenty of enthusiasm to make up for not much in the way of experience. Sunrise, and a first glimpse of the ice, was eagerly anticipated.

The following morning dawned bright. We had no guidebook as such, so the first task was a drive down the valley to serve as a recce. Unlike every other winter climbing trip that I'd been on, this one seemed free from the usual pressures to get up early and slog up a rainy hillside, and despite constant temperatures of minus 10 degrees, the dry air didn't even feel cold. But better than that were the dozens of massive ice-lines that just leapt up from the narrow valley floor into the hills above; routes of all lengths, every different style, and all sorts of grades. Some of them matched descriptions in Geoff's notes; others had the enticing aura of being unclimbed. I was immediately hooked.

Great Gully (WI4) on Straumfjellet - 500m of ice climbing pleasure!  © Steve Broadbent
Great Gully (WI4) on Straumfjellet - 500m of ice climbing pleasure!
© Steve Broadbent

The recce, therefore, didn't last long, and we soon found ourselves racking up in a snow-buried car park beneath the very straightforward, but attractive-looking Janus Falls. The only recorded ascent had taken the right-hand branch. Inevitably, we headed left, racing up pitch after pitch of delightful easy ice, revelling in perfect conditions, solid protection, and a superb feeling of wilderness despite the fact that there'd been no walk-in. This, I thought, really was ice climbing for lazy people. We even stumbled back into the car park well before sunset.

This route, it seemed, was typical of so many low- to mid-grade classic icefalls that make Setesdal a genuine paradise for ice climbers seeking reliable, high-quality, low commitment, classic water-ice routes. Of course there's also plenty of single-pitch routes and top-roping, but a better place to learn the techniques of multi-pitch ice I could barely imagine. Janus Falls (WI2), Kvennbecken (WI3), Heissfossen (WI2)... the list goes on – big, full-day adventures, distilling ice-climbing down to its purest form. On any one of these routes you're almost guaranteed to have the whole icefall to yourself (probably for several months if you wanted it!) and the added sense of adventure which that provides is tangible. At least one semi-epic descent down a forested mountainside under the cover of darkness is almost guaranteed.

Setesdal, of course, is not just about easy climbing, and after a day enjoying Bykle's brilliant roadside ice-cragging, we drove south once more into the central valley, where some of southern Norway's best icefalls rank up there as world-class ice climbs. Our journey took us to the little village of Helle, which unlike the rest of the valley had curiously not frozen over. High above, on the towering and overhanging rock walls, was the valley's 'line of lines' – the staggering Code Red (WI6+) on Hellesfjellet, first climbed by Jim Hall and Paul Ramsden back in 2001. 300m of grade 6 ice that was just about the most irresistible-looking climb that I'd seen. Perhaps another day...

On the far side of the lake were yet more incredible-looking lines, including the classic grade 4 Great Gully – at 500m in length, with an approach by pedalo and descent down the back side of the mountain, you can't help sniffing benightment in the air. Likewise Tsunami (WI5) and Captain Pugwash (WI6) stand out as the kind of routes that tempt and inspire, then live long in the memory.

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Of course, for those who prefer something a little more 'alpine' in nature Setesdal doesn't disappoint, for high up in the back-country the Norwegians have been doing what they do best: putting up the kind of mad, remote climbs that epitomise the varied and adventurous nature of this place. Sonner av Norge (WI5), above the main centre of Valle, is accessed on ski from the point that your hire car gives up on the deteriorating snow-covered track. Two long pitches of vertical ice may not seem like much, but if you can figure out how to get your skis through the cornice then the one-thousand metres of vertical descent is a powder-lover's dream. Snow Queen (WI5) on Hengjefjell, and Hovden Falls (WI3) also stand out as 'must-do' climbs for lovers of the remote.

James Cowley on the first ascent of Hydro Flossin' (WI3) on the highway 45  © Graham McDowell
James Cowley on the first ascent of Hydro Flossin' (WI3) on the highway 45
© Graham McDowell

Much like at Rjukan, the ice here is famously reliable (I once recall a 40 degree temperature difference between the inside of the car and the frozen car-park outside). A substantial height gain between the southern and northern ends of the valley also ensures that the season is fairly long, and that climbable ice can be found somewhere as early as December, continuing right through as late as April. But even apart from the world-class ice climbs, the lack of other climbers, and the stunning rural scenery, Setesdal has, in my opinion, one other advantage over nearby Rjukan, in the form of Hovden ski centre; one of Norway's biggest alpine and cross-country resorts. As well as providing an ideal (and surprisingly reasonably priced) rest-day activity, the potential for off-piste, back-country skiing is nothing short of immense.

So, if you're looking for somewhere a little bit different for a winter climbing trip this year, then spare a thought for Setesdal, for this is somewhere that combines ease of access, accommodation options to suit all budgets, and world-class climbing with a brilliant hint of adventure. Geoff Hornby's original notes have now been published in a brand-new guidebook that describes some 150 ice climbs between WI2 and WI6+, as well as detailed access information and background advice, giving you everything you need to plan a superb quick fix of winter ice.

Photo Gallery - Ice climbing in Setesdal:

Paul Ramsden on the first ascent of Going Underground (WI5) on the Straumfjellet Wall.  © Rich Topliss
Paul Ramsden on the first ascent of Going Underground (WI5) on the Straumfjellet Wall.
© Rich Topliss
Paul Ramsden on Here Today (WI5) in the Gravel Pit Quarry  © Geoff Hornby
Paul Ramsden on Here Today (WI5) in the Gravel Pit Quarry
© Geoff Hornby
Rich Topliss and Paul Ramsden on the superb ice wall of Snow Queen (WI5) above the highway 45  © Dave Wallis
Rich Topliss and Paul Ramsden on the superb ice wall of Snow Queen (WI5) above the highway 45
© Dave Wallis
Endless steep cauliflowerson one of Setesdal's undeniable classics - Code Red (WI6+)  © Pawel Karczmarczyk collection
Endless steep cauliflowerson one of Setesdal's undeniable classics - Code Red (WI6+)
© Pawel Karczmarczyk collection


When to Go

The ice climbing season runs from late December through to mid April, with February and March giving the most reliable conditions throughout the whole valley.

How to Get There

It is located along the length of highway 9, running north from Kristiansand, some 4 hours drive west of Oslo. Ryanair operate frequent low-cost services from the UK to Oslo Sandefjord Torp airport. From there it is necessary to hire a car, which can be pre-booked through all major international rental agencies.

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Setesdal Guidebook  © UKC Articles
Numerous options including hotels, apartments, and 'huttes'. The Solvgarden hotel is popular and also provides self-catering accommodation. In the northern valley, Bykle Hotel provides some excellent apartments.


Setesdal – Ice Climbing in Norway's Setesdal and Aseral Regions by Geoff Hornby (published 2012).

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8 Feb, 2013
Huge amount of new routing carried out by the British Army Outward Bound Centre in the 70/80s in the Setesdal from their base in Evje. I was there last week, ski touring, and had a guided tour of icefalls by an ex instructor who lives and works in the Setesdal. Check out Destination-Setesdal. I wonder how many routes have been claimed as FA's when they were done in dachstiens and non tech tools over 20/30 years ago?
8 Feb, 2013
Awesome article! I spent 10 months in the Setesdal valley living and working about an half an hour south of Bygland, I arrived in late January and it was a particularly cold year with -20 being not uncommon on blue sky days but the ice climbing was unbelievable, we just drove around looking at seemingly endless perfect ice falls and no one climbing them. Without wanting to do any kind of disservice to Geoff's guidebook the 150 climbs covered probably isn't half of whats lurking in the Setesdal and surrounding area.. When you're there it really does seem like it could be endless. Another option for days off is ski touring and cross country, down further south near Evje there is something like 200+ km of groomed trails that are free to use. And the great thing about the Setesdal is that during the summer it has amazing multi pitch trad, sport and bouldering.. if you had the time and energy you could go out and do 100's of low and mid grade trad first accents without much cleaning needed at all. Gi
8 Feb, 2013
Well... The Norwegians them selves have a long lasting tradition of climbing something (hard) and not tellin' anyone about it. This has been the case in northern Norway for ages... pretty much anything reasonably close to a road has been climbed ages ago.. Up to WI5 or WI6'ish. It doesn't matter though, as most of them don't really care that much. It's all about the climbing, not names on topos.
8 Feb, 2013
They've been pretty loud recently... or it could just be the Trønders ;)
9 Feb, 2013
I agree all the way. It is pretty suprising how quiet and humble most of the norwegian climbing community is. I am positive the routes have been climbed in the past if they are roadside. Just because u dont see someone doesnt mean it hasnt been climbed.
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