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Sitting Ducks - a near-miss on Norwegian ice

Despite a combined age of 130 I sensed that Dennis and Pete were the types who liked an adventure. I had spotted a big lick of green ice up in a bowl at 1200m in the upper reaches of Stondalen. The icefall looked vertical for at least 60 metres and was perched 300 metres above the access road, presenting a serious approach walk by Norwegian standards. We could reasonably guess it was unclimbed and the boys were immediately enthused. After three days with temperatures at -10degC or lower a steady deterioration was forecast for our day with gales and snowfall due by early afternoon. We went for a 7am departure from Aurland on the reckoning that we could be up and off the route before anything nasty happened.

Den and Pete are Staffordshire lads and thus inclined to address each other by the endearment “duck”. I had believed this familiarity was only appropriate to members of the opposite sex, but clearly this rule had long been abandoned in the Potteries. “You all right, duck.” “Do you want to go first, duck.” “I’m not happy here, duck.” I had been subjected to a barrage of ducks all week.

We parked by the Stondalen hydro-plant and broke a deepening trail diagonally up 40deg approach slopes to gain a ramp under a cliff band. Leaving our ski poles here, I tied on to our two ropes and ran the rope 40 metres up the ramp to a belay point in an icy niche. The technical difficulty barely warranted a rope, but it felt right to take precautions as the exposure increased. A leaden sky was now issuing desultory waves of fine snow. We moved together for a further 80 metres with an ice screw as a running anchor until a steeper tongue of ice demanded proper pitched climbing. The tongue led into a miniature amphitheatre under the main fall. True to impressions the fall was largely vertical and formed of glassy smooth ice, without any niches or ledges.

We could now feel the wind gusts as the snowfall intensified. The bad weather was arriving early. An ominous atmosphere, resonant with so many stormy days back in Scotland, took command. I racked the gear, put Den on belay and Pete on camera duty and hastened to the task. I romped the first 20 metres placing only two ice screws. At this stage the climbing was utterly brilliant and I felt in total control. Then the angle rose from a pleasant 80 degrees into a vertical groove of sheer bullet-proof ice.

Clinging tight to the axe handles my fingers began to lose circulation, bringing the insidious pain of wounded nerve-ends. Fighting the fire, I bridged up the groove, shaking out after each upward lurch and wishing I’d bothered to attach safety lanyards to my axes. At such a juncture it isn’t at all helpful to think of the consequences of a fall, but adding in rope stretch I was reckoning on a plunge of at least 10 metres should I relinquish my grip. This was no place to break a leg, so I battled the stress and placed an ice screw. My spectacles were now completely caked in snow. I swiped them off and suffed them down my jacket, restoring vision, albeit blurred.

The crisis passed as the angle eased back off vertical and a tingling flush of blood returned to my fingers. I made my belay up left on an ice pulpit about 15 metres below the top, then realised that either Den or Pete could have quite a swing if they came off. They climbed about five metres apart, their figures shrouded by spindrift. Grunts, expletives and several “ducks” were exchanged between the pair. Den slipped once at the exit from the crux, Pete got up the crux but managed to fall off completely at the point of maximum swing potential five metres below the stance. He clattered under a fringe of icicles and became entwined with a six foot stalactite in a perilous dance macabre. The icicle snapped and Pete was left hanging. “Did you see that?”, he exclaimed. There were no more friendly “ducks”, but at least his expletives rhymed.

From this position I feared he might need a hoist but the episode seemed to have an energising effect. He clawed his way back to the line, reached the stance and adopted a commanding role as I contrived a massive rope tangle when transferring the lapped coils. For 15 minutes we worked feverishly to unhitch several knots. At times we could barely see each other in the enveloping spindrift gusts. The storm had arrived early and precious hours had passed. Fresh snow drifts were building on every ledge.

I hurried up right to the top of the fall and made a solid ice thread where a single 60 metre abseil just touched down at the bottom. Half a foot of fresh snow added to the knee-deep drifts that we had encountered on the approach pitches, and this new snow had a strangely cohesive texture despite its softness.  There was a big temptation to unrope and plough down the lower ramp as quickly as possible to quit the storm. Intuition suggested that we should keep abseiling all the way back to the sticks, and on the final abseil I triggered a surface slide of snow several inches thick.

Having regained the ski sticks and standing in the shelter of an overhang I felt sufficiently secure to take off my rucksack and start packing while Den and Pete abseiled down to me. “Thank goodness, we are off”, I thought. Almost immediately the sky darkened and a fierce blast of wind hit me, knocking me back on the abseil ropes. The gale was followed by a ten second pummelling of snow. We’d been hit by an airborne avalanche. When the air cleared I looked down and my rucksack had disappeared, blown straight off the cliff. I was glad I hadn’t detached myself from the rope or I might have gone with it.

Den and Pete arrived in states of great excitement. They too had been hit by the avalanche. Now, I was in a double panic. My sack contained much of value, but to search for it I’d have to scour the approach slopes, now loaded with snow. I reckoned that we’d be safe from any further airborne blasts for half-an-hour or so. We coiled the ropes and I scouted a route off the slopes. A rib of ground with small trees provided the safest descent. I guided Den and Pete over, then went back to the slopes beneath the climb. I was convinced that my sack would be buried in debris from the avalanche, so I poked about in the surface drift, which promptly avalanched to a depth of six inches, almost taking me down-slope with it. I twisted out of the slide, losing a ski pole in the process.

What a dilemma! Either I abandon a rucksack containing a thousand pounds’ worth of kit or must risk getting avalanched. Attachment to possessions overrode the urge for self-preservation. I recommenced my probing. The decision wasn’t quite as irrational as it seems! From security of a rock island I met short cautious forays in all directions. Nothing happened. I went out further and began digging around in the snow. Nothing happened. I then commenced sweep searches back and forwards. After twenty minutes it dawned on me that there was actually no avalanche debris on the slopes. The snow was smooth and had none of the lumpiness of an avalanche talus.

The only hope was that the sack had been blown much further down the mountain. I rejoined Den and Pete halfway down to the base, and we scoured every dark lump of rock or grass, until at the very foot of the slope I spied the sack.

With the bag recovered and with the avalanche risk quitted, a sense of euphoria took hold of our party. We left the mountain to its maelstrom and hurried back to the car, where Pete realised he’d lost one of his axes. Back up the tracks we tramped, and on a second search he found his tool. At last we could take flight and head back to Aurland for beer and pizzas.

The boys seemed thrilled by the whole experience. I was less sanguine. After a winter light on snow and free of objective risk, we’d been lured into a trap. At least we’d escaped intact, but the outcome might have been different but for some fine judgements. For me the experience was as sobering as it was inspiring. There was no problem naming the route. “Sitting Ducks Climb” now sits proudly on the pantheon of Stondalen’s finest ice lines!

Up right from the craggy nose of Dauersnosi a steep icefall forms in a recess, prominently in view from the hydro-plant. Beware of avalanches after fresh snow.  Park above the hydro plant before the road twists up and through a tunnel into Rausmusdalen. Walk up a boulder-filled hollow, then climb diagonally up right for 150m to a ramp under a rock band. Easy snow-slopes with short steps lead up left for 120m. Climb a steep tongue of ice (WI4) or make a detour round to the left to gain a bowl beneath the main fall. Climb the fall in one big 55m pitch (WI5) up left and a shorter pitch (15m, WI4) back right to the top. Abseil from here (1 x 60m gains the top of the bowl and 3 x 60m lead back down the ramp). A longer but easier angled line of ice ramps to the right of the icefall offers a second route option here.

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