CLIMBING

MULTI-PITCH CLIMBING IN NORWAY

Sitting there, on the summit of Kuglhorn everything fell into place. Lofoten archipelago stretched out before me like a jewellery box full of emeralds and sapphires. The rock under me was reassuringly solid, immovable. My fears had flown away on the breeze. A smile sprawled lazily on my face. My hands were raw but rewarded. This was my idea of climbing.

It was late August 2017. I’d spent most of the summer hiking in Austria or leading single pitch climbs around Stockholm. I’d enjoyed lots of wine, cold beers and ice cream. The easy life. So I was looking forward to the challenge of climbing some Norwegian limestone, pitch after pitch.

After hiking in Northern Sweden for a few days I crossed the border into Norway and met up with climbing guide Karin Eknor. A bubbly personality, still-warm homemade bread and a pile of climbing gear were the first things I discovered upon entering Karin’s home.

Over two large cups of coffee we hatched a plan. Weather dependent, we’d head out in search of some long but relatively easy multi-pitch trad climbs for me to get used to exposure, long days of climbing and to feeling more confident climbing outdoors. Karin, although Swedish, had been living and climbing in Northern Norway for several years. She told me there were a whole range of routes to choose from, short, long, easy, challenging and any combination of those. I’d told her what grade I was climbing and she assured me there was something for me.

The weather on that first morning wasn’t cooperating. However, I felt slightly relieved. I’d just spent almost a week jollying around as part of a VIP press group, schmoozing with journalists and getting in a little bit of mountaineering practice with a team of mountain guides. I’d also been flying in a helicopter, trekking and partying. I was exhausted but happily so. I could amicably just curl up with some of Karin’s homemade bread and discuss climbing from the safety of the sofa. She had other plans.

We started with a quick top-rope warm up at the local climbing gym. Then we moved on to some simple lead routes. Still indoors at this point. After lunch, though, the sun came out and within 30 minutes the rock would be dry.

We headed for the nearest crag, which in Norway was a stunning piece of limestone overlooking the Narvik fjord. There was that magical mix of green mountains, deep blue water, clear sky and slate grey rock. I started to relax.

Karin is a great instructor. She is calm and positive but also offers critique and improvements. We made our way through a series of relatively easy sport routes, the harder of the problems Karin would climb first, to put up a top rope. She pointed out where I could improve my foot work; how I could start to read the route before even touching the rock and what to think about when building a top-rope anchor. We finished off the day with a barbeque at her place and more detailed plan making.

The weather was looking promising. Warm, but not hot, and sunny. We would head off in my hire car early the next morning for a full day’s climbing, camp somewhere close to Kuglhorn (our first objective), then hit another mountain the next day before heading back to Karin’s place for dinner and beers.

Kuglhorn is around 10 pitches, the second mountain we climbing was Eidetind with six pitches. That first day was a killer – 11 hours in total, including the hike up to the start over a massive slab and then a steep, muddy and wet march down and back to the car. Day two was shorter, although the climbing was a little harder in places.

I loved the whole experience. I felt like a proper climber, hiking in with rope and all the protection gear. Not having time to eat. Dealing with fear sitting on exposed belays – I’d never belayed literally hanging off a rock face before.

I was out of my comfort zone pretty much the entire weekend, but paradoxically I felt as though I was in my comfort zone for the first time in my life.

At one point, while I was sitting on a little perch barely big enough for my bottom, my feet dangling over the edge, 400m or so of air below me, wind picking up, tiny drops of rain wetting my nose, I asked myself “Sarah, what are you doing here? You could be at home warm, dry, safe and relaxed.”

I was scared. I was tired and I was hungry. A few tears came to my eyes. But I had to no one to confide in. No one to show any sympathy. Karin was around 20m above me close to the next belay point. She couldn’t really hear me even if I did start panicking. This was my own battle to win.

I had to relax. I remembered all I’d learned from Louise Jones during the Jenny Jones workshop that spring. I sat back, let the wind whisk up my hair and the rain do its dampening. I listened to my breath, trying to count in 1, 2, 3, 4 out 1, 2, 3, 4. I looked around. The view was spectacular. The fjord to one side, long and narrow, framed by steep mountains reaching for the sky. The other side were more mountains, pointier and more graceful than the rounded, thuggish looking Swedish fells on the other side of the border.

I heard Karin call out that she’d made it to the belay point and secured herself. I could take the ropes out of my belay device and prepare to climb up to meet her. A good few minutes must’ve passed while I was there in a trance. During that time I made some sort of peace with myself. Yes I was afraid, but fear itself isn’t to be feared. Fear can save your life. I’d run through the risks in my head and realised that I was, all things considered, pretty damn safe. I was attached to a big hulk of a mountain with a bunch of well-placed (thanks Karin) pieces of protection wedged into cracks in said mountain.

That pitch up to Karin was probably one of my best of the day. My moves were measured, my pace even and my thoughts present. With no other sport – at least one I’ve tried – can you be so focused. It’s all about me, the rock, nature, this place, this moment.

The climb continued for a few more pitches until we topped out on the summit. It was the first time I’d really climbed a mountain. No hiking or scrambling here. This was full-on, real life, proper climbing. During that short time on the summit, before the long repel/hike back to the car, I tried to take it all in. What I’d done. How far I’d come, physically and metaphorically. I knew this was a turning point. I’d just want to do more after this.

Day two was shorter, but perhaps more intense with some challenging climbing and a hot sun warming the rock, my back, my hands. Sweat dripping, my grip less assured. The summit of Eidetind was faster but harder to reach. The views equally spectacular – I’ve yet to discover an unattractive part of Norway. I’d achieved something that just a year previously I wouldn’t even have imagined, let alone thought possible. Nepal was next and I wondered how I’d cope with that. Would I rise to the challenge? Yes, I thought. Right then and there, I thought I could do anything.