Long overdue post-expedition report from last year’s final climbing expedition. As outlined in the planning post, we were planning for a proper winter expedition with gale winds and wind chill down to -33°C.
While low temperatures are relatively easily mitigated with proper clothes, gear and planning, and avalanche risks can be planned around, there is unfortunately little to be done with violent storms and hurricanes. And that happened to be the wind gusts towards the summit of Store Austanbottstind.
For this reason, we diverted to Skjerdingane, a beautiful and remote area just northwest of Sogndal. While the summits are not quite as tall as Austanbottstind, they are significantly better shielded against strong winds and gusts, and the avalanche risk is manageable.
While this barely counts as an expedition compared to reaching the summit of Austanbottstindane during winter, the purpose of this expedition was to gain further experience in winter climbing in cold, icy avalanche terrain, where the level of the frozen ground varies with the altitude. For this purpose, Skjerdingane was perfect.
There’s already learning at this point. My trusted mentor, Gjert, and I conducted a “ferdaråd” prior to setting out. Based on the current weather conditions, the forecasted weather and our experience, we decided to change the goal of the expedition while staying true to the purpose. This kind of risk mitigation is vital. Furthermore, we deemed we still needed to hike in the day before the climb, set up basecamp, and start our climb long before sunrise.
Based on our exploratory surveying of the area on day one, we decided to aim for the summit aptly named “Skjerdingane 1520” on the climbing day.
The What, Why and How
Any expedition should start with three basic questions. What are you setting out to achieve? Why are you doing it, and how are you going to succeed? There is a tonne of other important questions and preparations as well, but these tend to be the key ones.
The What and the Why
The main goal remained the same, even though the target mountain changed from the majestic Store Austanbottstind to Skjerdingane. The winter alpine climbing experience gained is just as relevant. The planning requirements are equal, and the equipment list remains roughly the same. Thus we agreed that the purpose of the expedition was entirely intact. Thus we’ve got the What and the Why covered.
Just as we got the What and the Why covered, the How also remained roughly unchanged. Based on the change in the destination, we could leave some of the extreme cold weather clothing at home, saving some precious weight. Furthermore, Gjert decided to change from fuel to a gas burner to save some further weight. The only remaining point to change was to take a new hard look at the map, identify a suitable prospect area for the basecamp location, and let our emergency contacts know about the change of plans.
Started hiking from the parking just south of Frudalstunnelen, roughly 25km north of Sogndal. The hike is only 4km with an altitude gain of 613m, but in late autumn the ground is muddy, the quagmires are wet, and the boulders are slippery. Thus we spent 2 hrs 15 minutes, out of which 1:15 was moving time, and the remaining hour was evenly split between catching my breath and identifying the best possible next steps towards basecamp.
As the sun set around five o’clock in the afternoon, the first order of business was to get the tents ready, identify a source of running water without glacier sediments, and scout the area. Drinking glacier water can have a rather nasty effect on one’s digestive system, so we spent some time identifying a stream of running water a few hundred meters up the mountainside.
Day 2 – The Climb
Woke up at 05:30 and started climbing at 06:00 in pitch-black darkness, only guided by our headlamps. Left everything except essential climbing gear in the tents. Leaving my monster backpack behind was most welcome. Spectacular sunrise over the mountains as we made our way up the snow-clad ascent in western direction.
Made it roughly halfway before it became clear that the combination of loose snow and frozen gravel could lead to problems further up. In addition to this, we both heard and saw an increasing number of minor gravel and snow slides, some of which were accompanied by rocks the size of a football.
Based on this, we changed direction slightly more southwest to more complex climbs but less exposed to the increasingly loose gravel. We were able to find some shielded stances to set up anchor points and belayed each other until we were roughly 200m from the summit.
At this point, we did a new “ferdaråd” and agreed further progress was inadvisable given the ever-increasing amount of loose gravel and the risk of us causing a proper rock slide. It was still early morning, and as the sun would soon start warming the surface, whatever holds the remaining ice had on the gravel and rock would decay further.
My analysis is that the combination of long-term and short-term weather was unfortunate on this climb. A few degrees colder, and the ice would increase the hold.
From a learning perspective, this was still a success. And probably more so as the relatively easier climb of Skjerdingane allowed me to be fully in charge, however, still with Gjert having full veto rights for obvious reasons. Furthermore, we got to make important safety decisions en route to cater to the ever-changing circumstances as we climbed.
A few lessons learned.
- I need a larger rock climbing backpack. Using my 80l backpack with my small climbing pack bolted onto its back was not ideal, as the weight of the ropes constantly pulled me back and down.
- While a luxury item, the Exped Widget to inflate the mattress and pillow was most welcome.
- Brynje underwear for the win. The mesh approach keeps you dry, warm and ventilated.
- Had I known about the change in destination before leaving Oslo, I would have packed a lighter version of my expedition stove and similar items, saving a few kilos.