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Magic Islands of Lofoten

Magic Islands of Lofoten

Ed Webster

IT TOOK NEARLY FOUR HOURS for the ferry boat to cross the cold sea from Bodø on the Norwegian mainland to Moskensøy, southernmost of the Lofoten Islands. I stood outside on the ferry’s upper deck, buffeted by a stiff breeze, eager to catch my first glimpse of fabled Lofoten. Quite unexpectedly, a string of glaciated, granitic, green islands rose abruptly from the surging waves of the Norwegian Sea. I was sixty miles north of the Arctic Circle, en route to one of the world’s most unusual rock-climbing and mountaineering destinations, the Lofoten Islands, situated off the coastline of Norway, southwest of Narvik.

For the past three years, I have been captivated by the unique beauty and magic of Lofoten and have been fortunate to spend part of two summers rock climbing there. Perhaps because I live in Colorado in a mountain environment far removed from the sea, I have always had a special fondness for rock climbing above the ocean. At the start of my first rock-climbing trip to Norway in 1991, when Jan Westby suggested that I might enjoy the magic of seaside climbing in Lofoten, I didn’t hesitate to take the one-and-a-half-day train trip to the Arctic north.

What I found, a paradise of granite, crashing waves, sea birds and mountains and cliffs rising directly from the ocean, had enchanted others equally. Exploration of Lofoten’s peaks began in 1889 when local fishermen, Martin H. Ekroll and Angel Johannesen, climbed the redoubtable Vågakallen (942 meters) directly from their rowboat. It intensified with the expeditions of two renowned British mountaineers, Professor J. Norman Collie and William Cecil Slingsby, to Lofoten in 1901 and 1903. Slingsby, one of the fathers of mountaineering in Norway, made fifteen expeditions to Norway before World War I. Slingsby’s and Collie’s accomplishments, plus several 1910 ascents made by Norwegian pioneers Alf Bryn, Carl W. Rubenson and Ferdinand Schjelderup were the golden era of Lofoten mountaineering when many of the island’s tallest or hardest mountains were first climbed, such as Store Higraftind (1161 meters), Trakta (980 meters) and the most challenging of all, the rocky, twin-summited Rulten (1062 meters).

Lofoten rock climbing started with Bryn, Rubenson and Schjelderup’s 1910 first ascent of the striking Svolvaergeita, the Svolvaer Goat, a 400-foot granite pinnacle rising out of the steep hillside directly above Lofoten’s main town of Svolvaer. Subsequently, climbers developed the tradition of jumping between the two large blocks, or horns, which form the Goat’s unusual summit. This aerial maneuver, a horizontal five-foot leap with a vast gulf of air on every side, has since become one of Scandinavian climbing’s most celebrated rites of passage. The town cemetery and a small church directly below the pinnacle only strengthen the need for complete concentration!

Following the mountain explorations of Magnar Pettersen in the 1940s and 1950s, modern rock-climbing began in the 1970s as nuts and free climbing reached Lofoten. Arild Meyer became the area’s most prolific new-route ascensionist and climbed several of the region’s prized granite big walls. These included the first ascents of Presten (the Priest) via Vestpillaren (the West Pillar), a 12-pitch super classic, climbed with Brynjar Tollefsen in 1978, and Storpillaren, a 20-pitch big wall climbed in 1980 with Kjell Skog and Finn Tore Bj0rnstad. In 1979, Vestpillaren was free climbed at 5.10 by the legendary Norwegian rock climber, Hans Christian Doseth, and Håvard Nesheim. Doseth died tragically in 1984 after making the first ascent of the Norwegian Pillar on the Great Trango Tower.

During my first visit to Lofoten in 1991, I repeated several local classics with Jan Westby, notably Forsiden (the Front Side) of Svolvaergeita (5.8) and survived the infamous jump between the horns. Next we climbed Bare Blåbaer (Only Blueberries), an excellent 5.8 four-pitch slab and crack climb pioneered by Coloradan Tim Hanson and Ingun Raastad in 1986. I also climbed with Thorbjørn Enevold, who runs what must be the world’s most northerly rock- climbing school, the North Norway Climbing School in Henningsvaer, Lofoten’s largest fishing village. Yet another of my partners, an up-and-coming teenager named Odd-Roar Wiik, had nearly memorized the entire Yosemite guidebook. After two days of cleaning off lichen on rappel, Odd-Roar and I established the hardest route on the Goat, Highway to Heaven (5.10+, A2), an aptly named climb as we witnessed a funeral being held in the cemetery below us!

Lofoten is not an easy place to get to, but I knew I had to return. For one thing, I hadn’t climbed Vestpillaren on Presten. For two idyllic months in 1993, I lived in Henningsvaer, climbed nearly every day and discovered many new routes while researching a new English-language climbing guidebook to Lofoten. The warmest, driest summer in twenty years certainly helped me. Because the Midnight Sun provides 24-hour daylight from mid May to mid July, never need to worry about getting benighted on a climb. Indulge your worst habits of procrastination, beer drinking and sleeping in. Teams regularly started climbing at nine P.M. and finished at three or four in the morning!

Tom Cosgriff, an American climber living in Oslo, also visited Lofoten in 1993 and quickly established two of the island’s hardest routes. Rasmus Expressen (5.12b), an overhanging crack line, was Lofoten’s first Norwegian 8- or 5.12 route, named in honor of Lutta Fagerli and Thorbjørn Enevold’s newborn son. Several days later, Cosgriff and Sjur Nesheim climbed only the third completely new route up Presten, an adventurous 11-pitch free climb called Reisen (the Journey), which featured several unprotected sections up to 5.11 in difficulty and all nut protection.

I had also seen a possible new route up the Priest, so I teamed up with Odd-Roar Wiik, the Presten expert. Only three days after Reisen was climbed, Odd-Roar and I enjoyed our own tour up Presten, ascending the long vertical crack system up the seaside big wall’s left side. On the fourth pitch, I set out on the crux, a sustained, thin finger-crack which ended in the middle of a steep, blank wall. At first I thought the smooth face might require skyhooks for aid, but by patiently working out a series of unprotected 5.11 face moves and finally making a move I knew I could never reverse, I traversed straight left and barely reached the next crack and belay, all the while screaming with joy and relief that somehow I hadn’t fallen off.

We swung leads for the next several crack pitches until Odd-Roar took over for some steep, less protected face climbing in the grassy, mossy, black, basalt dike which led to the summit. Incredibly, the sun was still hovering above the sea-swirling, island-dotted horizon when we reached the summit at 1:30 A.M. In keeping with the religious theme of several of Presten’s route names, we called our 12-pitch, 7 or 5.11 climb Himmel og Helvete (Heaven and Hell).

Soon afterwards, I teamed up with Arild Meyer, the Layton Kor of northern Norway, for what proved to be the hardest new route in Lofoten, an immense, left-facing arch system on Trollfestningen (the Trolls’ Fortress). After climbing two 5.11 layback pitches up the arch, we were temporarily defeated by a blank overlap. This we later subdued with an electric drill; we placed two bolts for aid and continued up the sustained arch above, finally reaching the top after two more 5.11 pitches of unrelentingly strenouous laybacking and underclinging up the dramatic Yosemite-like arch we named Odins Bue (Odin’s Bow).

Some unclimbed cracks on the Svolvaergeita still beckoned but needed cleaning on rappel before they could be attempted. Just before I had to leave, at the end of what had perhaps been Lofoten’s busiest summer ever of rock climbing, Arild Meyer, Odd-Roar Wiik and I made the first ascent of the latest addition to the Goat, a three-pitch 5.10c/d crack climb which we named Engel Vinger (Angel Wings). My relief at completing the famous jump yet again, plus the comradeship of sitting on the top of the Goat at ten P.M. with my two friends, admiring the purple twilight setting over the Lofoten Islands and the Norwegian Sea, was a perfectly fulfilling way to end my summer.

But I still didn’t get to climb Vestpillaren on Presten, so I know I’ll be back!