Stortind’s Unclimbed Southwest Ridge
Paul Richins, Jr.
HÅVARD nesheim had viewed with awe the impressive, unclimbed southwest ridge of Stortind many times from the Ullsfjorden ferry. The ferry is the main transportation link between the quaint village of Lyngseidet and Tromsø, the closest major city in northern Norway. He had been itching to challenge the unclimbed ridge for a number of years but conditions and circumstances had kept him away until now.
Little was known of the spectacular ridge. From the maps and viewing the ridge from the nearby ferry, Håvard knew that it would not be your typical climb. The southwest ridge is long, challenging and exposed, jutting up more than 3000 feet above the glaciated valley floor. In places the ridge narrows to a knife edge with nearly vertical drops on both sides.
Håvard knew all this, but Dick Ratliff, my climbing companion from California, and I did not. I had been in Norway for just ten days and had not seen the route. Dick was under the false impression that we would be climbing a different, less difficult route on Stortind. All we knew was what Håvard told us the night before the climb as we sorted through our equipment in his lovely home near Lyngseidet. The home is surrounded by grandeur. The back looks out over Kjosen Fjord and from the front one looks straight up at the Lyngen Alps. Håvard was tight-lipped when we clamored for information. All I could pry out of Håvard was that it would be a long route and that I should bring a little extra food.
What in the world did that mean? Should I bring an extra apple or plan for a multi-day epic? Since I had just met Håvard only hours earlier, I had no idea how long was “long.” What was “long” to him might be considered routine or conversely an epic marathon to me. However, I did know that he had successfully climbed Everest in 1985 and had done many extreme routes in Norway and around the world. With this in mind, I doubled my lunch to last me a full two days, if necessary.
In retrospect, it was clear that he played down the severity of the route in order not to alarm us or his wife. As it was, she was very apprehensive about the climb. She knew of the reports from the earlier unsuccessful attempt in which several of Håvard’s friends had attempted the ridge but turned back early in the climb. They reported that it was a very long and technically demanding ridge requiring an estimated 13 to 15 hours to complete.
At 5:30 the next morning, with much apprehension I saw the imposing route for the first time as we skied to the base of the peak and the snow couloir leading up to the ridge. I wondered why Håvard, a mountaineer of considerable reputation, was taking on such a difficult ascent with two climbers from California, whom he hardly knew. What about his local buddies? Why wasn’t he climbing the route with one of them? Had they all turned him down?
I would start the climb, but I reasoned that while in the snow couloir I could back down at any time and let Dick and Håvard continue on. What I didn’t realize was that the couloir was much longer and steeper than it appeared from below. It took us nearly five hours in the couloir to reach the ridge. As it steepened from 40° to 55° near the half point, we roped up. Once roped, I was committed. I now could not go down without taking the other two down with me. We reached the ridge just in time for lunch. I was glad I had brought extra food, as Håvard had suggested, as we had been skiing and climbing for six-and-a-half hours and hadn’t even started the real part of the climb.
The ridge was plastered with snow, ice and rime, driven by high winds from the north and south. This sculptured rime characterized the entire southwest ridge as well as the descent down the north ridge. It built up in frothy, feathery layers that exaggerated the size of the rock it encrusted, resulting in grotesque, overhanging heaps of crud. It was beautiful to look at, but tough to climb. These granular ice tufts were more air than ice and snow, rendering our ice axes nearly useless. We resorted to digging out hand, finger and arm holds in the rime in place of more conventional ice-axe techniques.
We started up the ridge with running belays as the lower part was less severe than higher up. In four to five pitches we came to a place which could not be climbed or avoided by traversing left onto the northwest face. We rappelled 70 feet down the right side and traversed left across steep snow for half a pitch. From this belay point, we continued to traverse steep rock, snow and ice for 80 feet and then went left up into a difficult 70° mixed gully. After a pitch in the gully, we regained the ridge.
From here on, the climbing became harder with the ridge narrowing and the obstacles becoming more numerous and larger. We continued up the ridge by staying, where we could, directly on the crest. Many times we had to drop down to the left, traverse across and up the northwest face back to the ridge to avoid difficult, if not impossible, obstacles that lay right on the crest. This continued for ten or fifteen pitches.
We passed over two false summits before reaching the true one. Beyond each, the climbing became more and more difficult. After moving over and down from the second false summit, we encountered the most difficult climbing of the route on the four leads which culminated in the true summit. Three rime-encrusted rock steps had to be surmounted. They were not big, some 20 to 25 feet high, but they were vertical or nearly so and covered by fragile frost feathers. As we struggled upwards, the thin cover of snow and rime would unpredictably break off the smooth rock face. These three steps were the crux of the ascent.
To climb the first step directly would have been difficult as the smooth, exposed rock face offered no opportunities for protection. Håvard tried in vain to find a route by moving left onto the northwest face. Finally we found a very obscure route on the right side. We dropped fifteen precipitous feet and then climbed straight up a nearly vertical gully back to the ridge. The next step was not so hard and was climbed direct. The final step was the most difficult and there was no way around it. Håvard did a masterful job on the vertical ground, which put us right on the summit.
Håvard summited at 11:30 P.M., I at 11:40 and Dick at 11:50. As I belayed Dick up this last desperate step, I urged him to hurry if he wanted to complete the climb today; in ten minutes it would be tomorrow.
In very low light, I was able to get a picture of Dick and Håvard on the summit. At this time of the year, northern Norway has 24-hour daylight, although it is faint around midnight. We had been climbing on the ridge for twelve hours, plus the five in the couloir.
We descended the north ridge to a prominent saddle and continued down to the west, returning to our skis and finally to the road and car at 6:30 A.M. after 25 hours of continuous climbing.
In all, we climbed about 25 or 30 pitches with one short rappel. The ridge became more difficult and exposed with the obstacles getting larger and more frequent as we approached the summit. There are no escape routes down either side of the ridge. The best way down lay on the other side of the mountain. Once on the ridge, the prospect of retracing our steps was unthinkable. The descent would have been as difficult and as time-consuming as the ascent.
Håvard led the entire route and did a masterful job of route-finding and climbing. Without his strong leadership and climbing skill, Dick and I would not have completed the route. It was a great challenge and a wonderful experience that I am ready to repeat!
Summary of Statistics:
Area: Lyngen Peninsula, Northern Norway.
New Route: Stortind, 1512 meters, 4960 feet, Southwest Ridge, April 27, 1991 (Håvard Nesheim, Dick Ratliff, Paul Richins). (Vertical elevation gain = 4960 feet from sea level.)
Equipment: A small assortment of Friends, chocks, pitons and 3 snow flukes.