We were so naive.
What we thought we could accomplish, in such a short amount of time, was in retrospect laughable.
Sean had been to Norway’s national mountain before, rising directly above the fjords, and been turned back by a snowed-out approach on this route once. They opted instead for the more traditional “Standard Route” on that trip. Still an impressive feat by any measure, the South Pillar would be a bit more of an undertaking.
In my Yosemite dirtbag days it might not have been much, but today all of us climbed a lot less, we were a party of 3, and the approach was deciptively arduous for something that close to sea level.
We traveled the day before to the Tysfjord region by way of two ferries and in numerous twisting mountain roads. Awe struck by the vast displays of granite, our little blue car stopped at nearly every pullout for pictures and exclamations. Weather wasn’t ideal, having rained most of the day, but it cleared up enough in the afternoon that we had enough hope or gumption to give it a try the next day. “Hey, we drove all the way here right, might as well give it a shot.”
That night we settled into the only accommodation we could find that wasn’t more wet camping: The Stetind hotel, which clearly existed for the sole purpose of guided Stetind climbing parties. Though pricey, it offered some of the best pizza we’d tried and a hot tub, luxury compared to the damp grass fields we’d occupied to this point. The little town of (XYZ) was home to a cement factory and not much else, with no nightlife to speak of and an alpine start ahead of us we settled in for the night.
Northern Norway’s unique sun schedule prompted a vigorous debate about the definition of the next day's ‘Alpine Start’, luckily Sean won out with an earlier time than I suggested, perhaps deep down he knew our estimates would be off.
5am cups of instant coffee an oatmeal were punctuated with the ambitious goals we’d later approach with a mixture of hilarity and hatred.
“If we’re down early enough, we can catch both ferries back to Lofoten and get settled in for some beers.”
“Either way we’ll easily be back down in time for more pizza and beer!”
We’d be nowhere close to either of these time, in fact, we were so far off it’s still almost not funny.
Our first surprise came on the approach, which while it looked short, involved numerous bog crossings and endless uphill sections that quickly sapped any semblance of life from our tired bodies. On the way up, we ran into another party descending, who had bailed due to the “wet approach slabs and wet first pitches”. Not a good sign.
Undaunted, we continued up until the initial approach was in sight, and what a terrifying sight it was.
Hundreds of feet of steep, wet, imposing slabs guarded the entry to the climb. Crossing these would be a nightmare, and an unroped slip would certainly mean death. We pondered and schemed and honestly I threw out plenty of votes of non-confidence, advocating to bail. This is what scares me most; I’m happy on incredibly hard hard climbs roped up, but the idea of low-risk high-consequence approaches like this leaves me terrified.
Luckily (perhaps) Sean convinced us there would be a reasonable way through if we only tried. Staring at them longer and longer, we began to piece together a potential passage. Opting to check it out, we were surprised to find a tiny path, only a foot wide at points, that lead through. The exposure at points was stupefying, we made easy moves and stepped on grass clumps with hundreds of feet of open slab and air beneath us, walking gingerly and slowly. Within a short time though we were through the worst difficulties, able to avoid a snowfield that shut down Sean’s previous attempt and up a minor waterfall. (Fun note, I got to solo the waterfall slab section twice when I made the excellent mistake of forgetting my climbing shoes and only sandwich at the bottom).
At last though, we here here! Situated at the base of the climb, staring up at 14 pitches of impeccable rock that we had all to ourselves. Jumping at the bit, I racked up and began my first block of pitches. The climbing was wonderful, all within an easy range and with plenty of nice belay ledges to bring Sean and Nicole up to. After 4 easy pitches I handed the rope to Sean for a traversing pitch, and things started to go pear shaped.
What we had failed to do, was bring along the most current info for the climb, instead using a slightly outdated that failed to mention a crucial bit of beta for this pitch: if you reach two bolts at a nice belay you’ve gone too far. As any of us would have Sean, climbed to what seemed like the logical belay and brought us over, preparing to head up his next pitch. This belay had some of the most spectacular exposure I’d ever encountered, and combined with the shady, wet, and freezing position, my teeth chattered with a mixture of anxiety and cold. Without going into too many details, what followed next was classic off-route hijinx. He climbed up an amazing crack into ever increasingly difficult territory, soon facing really challenging climbing and a lack of adequate protection. Realizing we might be off route, there was a long exchange about where to go, lots of up-down-back-around climbing exploration, and finally some ridiculous moves pulled into funky territory to get us back on route. Sean shined here, making the best of a bad situation and getting us back on track quickly. Unfortunately, we we failed to realize at the time, was that this would make it extremely difficult for myself and particularly his girlfriend Nicole to properly follow him. Because of the way the route was setup, I opted to go first and have Nicole clean the gear, thinking this would afford her more protection. Instead, what ended up happening was a horrifying situation in which she got swung off the route, trapped hanging in mid-air with a thousand foot plus drop directly underneath, while her thin rope dragged across a sharp edge.
Needless to say, things were not good.
Sean mounted a rescue back mission to retrieve her, and by the time we were all back at the next belay, everyone’s nerves were sufficiently frayed. More fear and anxiety began to creep up as we realized the daunting task ahead: we were moving slower than anticipated, almost all our food was gone, we’d just narrowly avoided an epic (or potential catastrophe), and we still had more than half the route ahead of us. We talked through (admittedly at my suggestion) the option of bailing, but decided that posed it’s own challenges and heading up would be our best bet. I volunteered to take the next few blocks so Sean and Nicole could climb together, grabbed the rack and turned off my brain.
Seven-ish hours later we arrived at the summit, having just finished some of the most spectacular climbing I’ve ever found on a climb of this nature. It wasn’t easy for everyone, we were out of food and tired, and the last pitches of climbing had been the hardest on the route, complicated by some rope issues. Yet we were here! Sunset glowed around us on the giant flat mountain top, every party that had come via the standard route was gone, and we basked in the beautiful light.
But it was short lived.
Sunset light means one evil thing: darkness is coming. With this in mind, we headed for the descent, which involved reverse climbing the Standard Route, a heady task. Sean took back over and we performed a running belay for the next few hours, down climbing, rappelling, and crossing lots of fourth class to finally bring us to the second summit.
16 hours after leaving the car this morning we took the ropes off for the last time, happy to be out of thought of constant danger. Yet the night was moving in fast and we had to continue moving. Again, our initial estimates of a “45 minute descent” turned out to be laughably wrong. We trudged down endless scree fields, boulder hopping, and just generally miserable terrain. 2 hours later we neared our initial approach, where the misery didn’t stop. Drowsy, hallucinating, and dead-tired we kept up our stumbling. We tripped over rocks, fell asleep when we fell, cursed our aching knees, lamented a lack of water and food, and generally hated life. I’ve had some death-march approaches and descents but this was easily the worst. At points I swore the walking would never end, I’d died, or been cursed by a troll, and doomed to forever wander the forest. The fjord never got any closer, the joint-crushing boulders never ended, and all hope began to be lost. All around me I heard noises, phantom climbers, long after I’d lost both Nicole and Sean. I would suddenly stop, terrified someone was behind me, and shine my dying headlamp. No one. Tree limbs across the path taunted me with sleep, and more than once I laid my head onto them, closed my eyes, and only startled awake and I was falling. Sometime around 12:30am I made it to the car, and since they were behind and had the keys, I curled up on the asphalt with the rope as a pillow and shivered myself to sleep.
Sometime around 1:30am the others arrived. All I could manage to do was hastily throw the bare minimum of my tent up, quaff an entire cup of scotch, and pass out it’s floor.
Stetind truly provided the entire range, from joyous type 1 to “never again” type 3 fun, thank god I have a terrible memory, because I’d do it all again in heartbeat.