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Trollveggen, Arch Wall, First Free Ascent

The highlight of climbing activity in Norway during 2010 was undoubtedly the free ascent of Arch Wall on Romsdal’s iconic Trollveggen, the Troll Wall. For some, this ascent was perhaps the most impressive in the history of summer climbing in Norway, on arguably the most notorious route in the country.

Arch Wall climbs the left and highest part of the 1,200m Trollveggen, at first to the right, and then left of the 1967 French Direct, passing through the conspicuous “arch” above half height. When first climbed in 1972 by Brits Ed and Hugh Drummond, it was one of the most demanding big-wall climbs in the world. Completely unrelated, the two Drummonds were contemporaries at Bristol University, putting up new routes and making notable repeats. But in 1972, while Ed was in his prime, Hugh spent some time away from hard climbing, teaching in Mexico City.

Once committed to the wall, typical Norwegian harsh summer storms plagued the pair so badly that they topped out 21 days later, dangerously hypothermic and with Hugh’s feet frostbitten. They had taken food for only 12 days and, although they conserved supplies during delays on the route, they still had to climb the last three days without food or water. The ordeal required inspired leading by Ed and involved bold and extensive skyhooking. Completing the route in 41 pitches, they assessed the technical difficulties at A5, with some free climbing to British 5b.

Since then the route has received only two ascents. In 1989 it was repeated by Norwegian Aslak Aastrop and American Thomas Cosgriff (resident in Norway), both highly experienced big-wall climbers, who confirmed a grade of 5.11a and A4+, and completed the route in 37 pitches after nine days on the wall. The third ascent was an impressive “tour de force” by the strong Polish trio of Jacek Fluder, Janusz Golab, and Stanislaw Piecuch. These three made the first winter ascent over 12 days in February-March 1994. They found numerous difficult sections of blank rock, and overhanging grooves that could only be climbed on RURPs and skyhooks. The highly accomplished and experienced Poles found the climb incomparable with any other big-wall route in Europe. The visionary Cosgriff is reported to have said that a free ascent might be possible but would require a lot of cleaning and an extremely bold climber.

Enter Sindre Saether, a young Norwegian from Andalsnes. In 2008, partnered as usual on big climbs by his father Ole Johan, Saether made the first free ascent of the Norwegian Route further left on the face (originally UIAA VI and A2/3, later climbed at about 5.11a, 30 pitches, Eliassen-Emersen-Patterson-Teigland, 1965). Saether followed this in 2009 with an astonishing first free ascent of the French Direct, which has seen few repeats since its ascent in 1967 by Yves Boussard, Jerome Brunet, Patrick Cordier, Claude Deck, and Jean Frehel. Current topos rate this 37-pitch route 5.10c and A4, but the Saethers climbed it in two days on their second attempt at 5.12b/c.

The Saethers studied Arch Wall in detail, taking many pictures in different light and from different angles, with and without snow, until they knew exactly where to climb and what sort of gear they might need. They found the existing descriptions accurate, though with a few anomalous pitch grades (a section rated 5.8 turned out to be one of the hardest on the climb). While the French Direct follows obvious features and has many crack and corner systems, Arch Wall is more devious, finding a way up large blank walls. The climbing is very sustained, steep and exposed, though on mostly sound rock with little vegetation. However, some sections remain wet. Maximum difficulty was about the same as the French Route: 5.12b/c (though Sindre is known for being modest with his assessment of grades).

The French route has plenty of old in-situ gear, but Arch Wall has little: mostly ageing belay anchors, a few original bolts, and a few newer bolts in the lower section. The Saethers feel it must have been a highly difficult first ascent for the era, given the compact nature of the rock. The two first climbed the initial four pitches and left two ropes on the first three. They returned in good weather two weeks later and, after jumaring the ropes, completed the route in two days, with a bivouac on the Great Flake Ledges. Sindre led all pitches, with Ole Johan following free or on jumars.

The most dangerous part from rockfall is reaching the foot of the route, and the first pitch features much damaged rock. Above, the line is relatively protected from stonefall. Pitch 3, previously A4+, proved relatively straightforward technically until the last few moves, which formed one of the climb’s cruxes. They found protection only with Birdbeaks and small blades. Pitch 4 (previously 5.11a and A2) provided much dirty, muddy climbing at 5.11d. There were three crux pitches to the Great Flake Ledges, and most of the climbing to that point was 11a and above. The impending wall above the Ledges (A2-A4+) was “not too bad.”

They made three variants: to pitch 5, which proved difficult and more messy than expected; to pitch 21 (previously A4), which was very poorly protected with hardly any gear in the entire pitch that would hold a fall; and through the Arch, where they climbed about five meters right of the original line. In fact the most significant feature of this ascent was the bold climbing, which involved making hard moves up to 15m above poor protection from Birdbeaks. This seriousness, combined with the great rock falls that still occur on the wall during the summer, and the Norwegian weather, which prevents a route like this being tackled on more than a few days a year, will ensure continued unpopularity. On one reconnaissance, the Saethers witnessed a huge rock avalanche from the wall end up in the river.

Lindsay Griffin, Mountain INFO, from material provided by Marten Blixt and Bjorn-Eivind Artun