Words by Freja Shannon. Images by Freja Shannon and Fay Manners.
Something many, if not all, climbers and alpinists dream of is to establish their own route. To venture into the unknown, to be the first one to have had the vision for a new line, to make a mark on the world. Inherently this ambition is inevitably driven by something deep within each individual. Can you blame them? The allure of being the first to thread on any corner of the world is irresistible, the unknown of it is enticing. So, like many others drawn to exploration, Fay and I set off to the Arctic Circle.
We wanted a challenge and we knew exactly where to find it: on Senja Island. Recommendations from friends and fellow climbers were endless. The decision became obvious; we must go and test ourselves against the infamous wilderness and harsh conditions of this Northern gem.
The view from Segla
We figured the first thing to do would be to climb some established routes on the island to learn why people chose the routes they chose and to get a hang of Norwegian winter climbing. Since information and condition reports were scarce, repeating routes felt wild as all we had was a line on a photo and the knowledge that the route had been climbed at some point in history. The rest we had to either wing or figure out for ourselves. This led to a giggle halfway up Aegir on the North face of Segla where in search of a promised ice pitch, we ended up back-and-footing an off-width chimney where said ice was meant to be. Something we didn’t realise until we reached the top…
Similarly on the famous ice route “Finnkona” towering above the fjord, the “ice dagger”, “secret corner” and “death slab” as we coined them made for an ascent full of surprises. No information revealed that the approach pitches to the ice were actually half an alpine route on their own! Another time, while going for an apparently in condition and well trafficked mixed and ice route (like, 4 ascents, ever), a pitch of very out of condition vertical mush left us confused about what sort of routes they even climb up North.
Fay coming across the “death slab” on Finnkona
On top of seeking out the extremities of winter such as snowstorms and double figured minus degrees, we wanted to find and attempt to climb a new line. Not to beat our chests on the summit, but to learn and somehow try to understand what is required, with dreams of venturing further afield with the knowledge gained. Drawn to utilizing all of our climbing skills, confidence and trust in our close friendship we longed to go through the motions of the concept - from desperately failing to flirting with success. The process, however, proved to be so much more than just rocking up and swinging our axes.
Freja climbing into the ice on Finnkona
We spent hours, even days, scouting and squinting through binoculars, staring at maps in the evenings and talking to locals. Good and bad weather days were spent retreating off "could be" lines, regrouping at home and starting all over again.
The main struggle was patience. Patience to believe in ourselves, our partnership, skills and ability to conquer the unknown. We would take turns in holding each other up when we lowered down to the belay with the words "this is too hard, I can't do it" or "there's no gear and the conditions don't feel right".
Bags would be packed and unpacked constantly along with a idea and inspiration for the next day. Our pinky promise of not giving up remained strong, and long at last - a line up the North Face of Grytetippen was climbed.
The day we actually climbed it felt ironically effortless. The sun was shining and there was only a slight wind. Good, I thought, something to keep us on our toes. We enjoyed the three hour-and something approach to the base where we craned our necks to find a line of least resistance up this unclimbed face. There was no pressure as we “were only going in to have a look”. A key ingredient to enjoying and actually climbing a new route, it turns out.
Unzipping compressor pants in -19 on before the new route!
I won the rock paper scissors and set off up a runnel of neve. Despite there being no gear for the entire pitch something compelled me to continue upwards. I enjoyed the process of having to weigh the options up in my head – to keep climbing and take the risk of not knowing what is to come or to downclimb and bail? This question became an addition to our duo and followed us all day.
I set up a belay at the only half decent nut I could find to bring Fay up beside me. “Don’t weight the belay…” She gave me a questioning look to see if I was joking but with no signs of banter she set off on the second pitch. “No pressure, and climb until it doesn’t make sense anymore” I said, mainly to reassure myself. The silence between us highlighted that it was game on. We were actually crawling our way up something we had obsessed over for weeks but we didn’t dare celebrate yet.
There was a moment of panic when a block suddenly came flying past me, thankfully not with Fay attached to it. “Sorry!” came from above along with a shower of spindrift. Alright then, I’ll settle in, I thought to myself. When the grey and orange strings came tight I followed them up a bold icy corner. Glad that wasn’t my lead. The bitter Northern wind previously keeping us on our toes had diminished but I was thankful, we didn’t need any extra spice though the silence around us was almost eerie. Hanging in the shade and looking out over the sunlit mountains made me feel like maybe we didn’t even exist up here.
I turned a corner and Fay welcomed me to her frozen-in-place block belay and we shared a moment of relief, the first proper piece of gear so far! Nerves left our bodies through laughter and we dared celebrate, just a little bit. We had made it far enough up the mountain that every meter was now merely a bonus.
Freja climbing through the cave on How Not To on Grytetippen
The next few pitches brought us through a funky cave and up snow slope before almost forcing us to a halt under a large snow mushroom. Fay couldn’t see me as I stood beneath the ominous overhang desperately wishing she was here help me answer the question of whether to continue. I had always wanted to climb through a snow mushroom just like in Patagonian climbing films. We weren’t in Patagonia though and maybe questing up this obvious hindrance was pushing it a bit. Or was it? Sighting some frozen turf overhead made the decision for me and I enthusiastically started hacking away at the powder. I remember thinking it must have looked utterly ridiculous if anyone were to see. A slippery cam placement made itself useful behind a crack and I made a quick dart for the refuge atop before any rationale made me change my mind. Right front point on that little ledge, swing an axe, hope it sticks and pull over the lip. “Safe!”
The sun which I envied not long ago had now come back to bite us. Defrosted turf and moss ahead leading to the summit seemed impassable.. After scratching, whipping, trying we decided to call it a day and retreated in the dark. Tagging a true summit or not didn’t matter, we had experienced everything we could have wished for. For the internet trolls, whether a first ascent, attempt or something in between, nothing will take away what we learned and experienced. Most importantly, I’m glad we dared venture into undocumented terrain and got the opportunity to climb in a way which encompassed all of our climbing skills.To witness pictures of daunting looking unclimbed faces becoming lines of possibility and then turning out to be squeaky neve ramps and fun snow caves instilled a sense of confidence and hunger for future endeavors. With that I concur – threading on untouched parts of the world is everything you imagine it to be!
Enjoying the sun at the top of Grytetippen