I was feeling slightly disgruntled as I began to down climb soft snow from the rather inadequate bucket seat belay I'd just created. Tim and Rich peered up through the snow with an expectant air as I approached a thinly iced rocky step in the gully. The step had caused me only slight inconvenience on the way up being reasonably short and with improving placements. From above, it looked like it might cause slightly more trouble. Like Darwin contemplating marriage, I tried to consider the situation objectively. On the plus side, the belay was well protected by a spike runner about twenty-five metres below me so my companions felt safe enough and we were unlikely to all end up in a spaghetti tangle of ropes, hardware and bloody flesh. On the minus side I was looking at a long tumbling fall. At least I could throw my axes away if the worst happened. That way there would be less hardware and bloody flesh in the tangle.
Being both cowardly and cunning I climbed back up a way and placed a poor peg in a very shallow crack I'd noticed previously but had distained to bother with - clipping in one rope to protect me down this section. Unfortunately being spatially inept and stupid it only protected me as far as the top of the icy step and I had clipped it on the rope that was connected to the spike above the belay. This escaped our notice until after I'd untied. My companions lost their air of benign complacency regarding my predicament and began reinforcing their belay in earnest. As it turned out, I managed to descend the step with rather nervous movements, tapping axes and crampons into the very thin but glutinous ice and making a semi step/jump into my old steps in the cruddy but thicker snow lower down. Fortunately, I was far enough above the others that I had recovered sufficiently to pretend insouciance by the time I rejoined them. We abseiled from the belay; I got to go last, being the lightest. Out of spite at having been forced to retreat (and to ensure we would return) I left all the anchors in place. Only later did I discover all the gear was mine anyway. We didn't say much as we packed up. A fine glissade led to a half hour trudge back to the car.
A few days later we returned. This time there would be no messing about. We had plenty of tat (lack of which had caused our previous attempt to fail), plenty of gear and the temperature was pleasingly lower than on our previous effort. The approach to Vagakallen's North Face is relatively short: a few hundred yards following ski tracks, about the same distance along the side of a frozen lake, some ridiculous staggering through giant snow covered boulders, then the final death flog up through deep, soft snow. Despite being third in the line going up the slope, Rich kept sinking up to his chest. This was a source of some amusement to Tim and myself who seldom sank below our knees but Rich somehow failed to see the joke. By the time he joined us, breathing heavily and distinctly less than happy, we had recovered from our mirth enough to sort out the ropes and gear. As Tim had led the first pitch on our first attempt, I was elected this time round.
Fifty metres of fine climbing rather reminiscent of Smith's Route on Ben Nevis led me back to our tat consuming belay of three days before. All still seemed in order so I left well alone, clipped in and brought the other two up. We managed the belay changeover with a minimum of fuss and Tim shot off to gain my pathetic peg above the wee icy step. To my dismay as we rejoined him some minutes later, neither of my companions expressed any kind of awe or reverence at my ability to descend it without protection. Bastards.
The way ahead seemed very straightforward so we unroped and carried on upwards. Cunningly the others kept behind me as I broke trail up easy snow with the odd steepening. I noticed that despite there having been no snowfall my bucket seat had been filled in, presumably by spindrift. After what seemed an eternity of bashing, we entered the more deeply defined upper gully. A good icy wall led to a steep ice corner where I decided that some discretion might be in order and I belayed from nuts and a screw. Things seemed to be going swimmingly though it was difficult to see what lay ahead as the gully ahead snaked slightly and was very narrow, sporting impending and very compact rock walls on either side. As Tim still had nearly all the gear he led off again.
To our delight (on the belay), the ice in the corner was very patchy in quality and involved considerable digging and contortions for Tim to make progress. Sadly there was no spindrift to give him the full experience. He soon disappeared from our view but the odd pause and faint sounds of hammering that accompanied the pauses revealed that rock protection was available, if sparse. That was probably as well considering the amount of snow that seemed to be dislodged by Tim's passage. It hissed down past us. Rich drew an obvious conclusion. I was a bit slower on the uptake.
Imperious tugging summoned us upward. Rich declared his intention of going first leaving me to remove the belay. This revealed a depth of deviousness that I had not previously suspected lay beneath his clean cut 'Boy's Own' exterior. Rich has been described by one of his best friends as resembling a Ferrari: flashy and powerful but requiring considerable amounts of fuel to perform for extended periods. A trifle harsh perhaps and with no real bearing on my tale. I only mention it to annoy him. But one thing he certainly is and that is strong. This is reflected in his climbing style. Moving steadily upwards about five metres ahead of me, he proceeded to send down a constant stream of loose snow and lumps of ice onto my head as he swung mighty blows through the crud in search of weight bearing ice. Occasionally he would stop, allowing me to lift my head and look for placements, before ploughing his way upwards. Given the amount of loose snow and rotten ice that Tim had cleared, I was amazed that any more was left. But Rich certainly found it and passed it on in my direction. To be fair, not all the dislodged ice hit my head. Several lumps hit my arms, hands and knees resulting in a certain amount of involuntary yelping and bad language.
I arrived, covered in snow, at Tim's belay to find my compatriots wreathed in smiles. I glowered pleasantly back and wondered whose turn it was to lead off. Tim was keen to continue so we gave him his head and he charged off up softish snow beneath which lurked good neve. Before long the rope was run out but a long while and much hammering ensued before he found a belay. We joined him below an intimidating looking roof that barred the gully ahead. We all looked at each other, then at the overhang, then back at each other. So far the hardest climbing on the route had been three pitches of Scottish grade V, interspersed with easier snow and ice and giving every impression of being a fine middling grade mountaineering route. Looking upward, the way ahead was clearly a different kettle of fish! I pointed out to Tim that he still had most of the gear, the stance was rather cramped and it might be simpler for him to continue leading. Being too easy going for his own good, he readily acquiesced.
As Tim approached the overhang, it seemed to steadily grow in size. The snow became deeper and softer too. Soon he was able to stand beneath the obstacle but any hopes of finding it a mere chock stone and perhaps hiding a through route were dashed. A roof it was, flanked by a smooth off vertical left wall and an overhanging right wall that seemed to contain the odd largish hold. The key to success was obviously a dribble of ice that linked the chock and the right wall. It looked quite steep but a couple of stiff pulls would doubtless dispatch it. Tim placed a couple of runners beneath the roof and tapped his axe against the icicle gingerly, trying to establish its strength. It promptly fell apart great chunks of it tumbling downwards toward Rich and myself. Rich was belaying and could only duck his head. I cowered, clutching my rucksack in front of me like a shield. No real harm was done other than the removal of our main hope for progress. Only a small lump of ice now clung to the top of the chock stone. At full stretch, Tim managed to place his right axe in this. Hooking his left tool over the top of his right, he swung upwards feet sketching for holds on either wall, legs bridged wildly. Some sustained effort saw him cammed across the gully, right crampon with its monopoint resting on a good incut on the overhanging wall, left monopoint and knee smearing the left wall, tools still stacked in the ice atop the chock but now at chest level. Amazingly he managed to hold this position, reach up with his left and seek a placement above the chock. Unfortunately all the ice proved rotten and entirely useless. I was convinced he would now fall, stopped taking photographs and retreated a few steps down the gully to avoid being hit when he came off. But Tim wasn't done yet. By a bizarre contortion of his body, he managed to reach a crack on the right wall with his left tool. Committing to it fully he worked his feet higher, stacked tools again and managed to attain an out of balance position on top of the right of the overhang. Here he hung grimly on for several minutes managing to fiddle a cam and a wire into the crack. Reaching leftwards he found a patch of better consolidated ice. Udging upward, expecting his tools to rip at any point he lunged with his axe again. This time it seemed to be in neve and he was past the worst. We shouted congratulations. Somewhat tersely he informed us that whilst the way above seemed easier it was still difficult and seemed entirely lacking in protection. We settled down to wait, occupying ourselves with digging the ropes out of the spindrift that now seemed to fall in regular waves from above.
After a while, and all the rope, faint shouts announced a belay. I suggested that Rich might like to go first and that, contrary to usual practise, I'd wait until he reached the belay before following. Arriving below the overhang, he demolished half the vital placement with one blow of his (sadly bent) Charlet pick. Not wishing to waste too much time he put on a virtuoso display in the art of jumaring, cleared the overhang in a couple of minutes and disappeared out of sight. I was left alone and muttering to myself. Too soon, jerks on the rope announced that it was time to dismantle the belay and face the music.
Unlike my associates who were still ruled by late twentieth century precepts, I was climbing without leashes. This gave me some hope that cunning hand swaps might ease my passage. This hope proved delusional. My axe barely bit on the now sadly reduced key placement and would only hold a leftward pull. A mighty heave, both hands on the one tool, the other hooked over my shoulder, allowed my right foot to gain purchase on the overhung wall. My head and shoulders naturally gravitated to rest against the smooth left wall and I found myself tenuously chimneying upward. With the aid of a tight rope and the expenditure of enough energy to power a small village for a year I made height in a rather inelegant manner until I could snag one of Tim's runners with my free axe. Cutting loose on this allowed me to gain the strenuous 'rest' atop the overhang. The moves above were exceedingly insecure and the 'easier' gully above had offered Tim only two runners and sustained climbing on placements varying from poor to excellent with no obvious means of determining which was which until they were weighted.
All things pass though and I eventually rejoined the others in a cave formed from huge jammed blocks and flakes about five metres below the col marking the end of our gully. This seemingly perfect stance was marred by having no solid floor, only thick powder (that naturally Rich had sunk almost irrevocably into) and our rather paranoid doubts as to how well the whole mass of blocks was held together. Utterly smooth, near-vertical corners and walls meant that further progress was impossible, so we declared the route over and set about the long descent.
Abseiling the upper gully was easy enough but enlivened by the now malignant spindrift. It seemed as if some giant was filling a vast bucket full of snow and then emptying the whole lot at once down upon us. These buffeting masses of snow were erratic but frequent and usually seemed to coincide with one of us looking upward. Several rather trying rope lengths later we arrived at the easier mid section of the gully where the spindrift was far less intense and we began down climbing as rapidly as we could. The only real incident was when Tim, descending last somehow parted company with a crampon. I heard a shout, looked up and saw it tumbling downward. Fortunately Rich went to one of the better public schools and his cricketing expertise were ably demonstrated as scuttling sideways he snagged the errant crampon with an axe. Given that he was about fifty metres below Tim at this point and the crampon had attained considerable velocity I was mightily impressed. Tim, equally flabbergasted, hopped down and replaced the crampon more securely on his boot. Two more abseils saw us down. The first was off the poor peg from which I had first attempted retreat. Half an hour of intense hammering saw it fractionally more secure within its crack. Kindly, I was allowed to go first, despite being the lightest on the grounds that I had placed it. It held. The second abseil was straightforward but a final bucket of snow was unexpectedly hurled from above onto my head as I stood unclipped next to the stance.
All that remained was the glissade and to stroll back to the car, this time chatting merrily and full of smug satisfaction.
Tim, Dave and Rich would like to thank Mountain Equipment for supplying kit on this exploratary trip to Lofoten
In this new series of articles, Tom Ripley interviews some well-known climbing partnerships to dig up their dirty secrets and... Read more