'Hyperborea' was the name the ancient Greeks gave to a mythic land of giants who lived beyond the north wind. On the extreme northwestern edge of Europe, Norway's Lyngen Alps are not only renowned for their skiing. By midwinter, the waterfalls that flow from their summits freeze solid to form some of the wildest ice climbs on the planet. As part of our LEGEND winter features on skiing and climbing in northern Norway, British mountaineer and journalist Ian Parnell travels to the Lyngen Peninsula with three of the UK's leading ice climbers to find out more
Despite the mere 300 miles that separates the UK and Norway, head north up the spine of Scandinavia’s largest and longest country and you’ll feel as if you’re entering a different world. We were en route to the Lyngen Alps in search of some of the best and most elusive ice climbing anywhere in Europe. Throughout the Norwegian winter, the lay-bys of the E6 Arctic highway north of Tromsø are filled with figures staring at the sky. Risking hypothermia, fjord-side crowds huddle together in sub-zero temperatures, craning their necks for a glimpse of the Northern Lights.
The Northern Lights seen from Norway's famous E6 Arctic highway
The Aurora Borealis was first described in detail in the Konungs Skuggsjá (the 'King’s Mirror’ in old Norse), a Norwegian royal educational text dating from 1250. The authors named the phenomenon as Norðrljós, old Norse for Northern Lights, and speculated on its origins; one theory was that the sun’s rays reached around from the other side of the earth, and another that it was due to a series of vast fires out to sea, but the King’s Mirror seemed more certain that it was the release of energy stored in glaciers.
"The Northern lights were considered by the Sami to represent the lingering energy of the souls of the departed"
Northern Norway’s indigenous population of reindeer herders, the Sami, described the airborne pyrotechnics as 'the light that can be heard’. The phenomenon was considered by the Sami to represent the lingering energy of the souls of the departed. Perhaps most romantic of all myths in Viking culture describes the Northern Lights as the armour of the Valkyries, the female figures who select who will live and who will die in battle. We now know the Aurora is created by energy from explosions on the Sun’s surface colliding with the Earth’s thermosphere, over 60 miles above our heads, and shaped by the pull of the magnetic poles.
The easier upper pitch of White Chocolate (WI6+) in Ordalen Canyon in the Lyngen area
By contrast, little information exists about ice climbing in the Lyngen Alps. At some point in the early 1990s, a homemade Finnish guidebook was circulated, but this is long gone. Despite the nearby city of Tromsø, with a population of 70,000 and an active group of ice climbers, there is as yet no current ice climbing guidebook to Lyngen or, as far as I could tell, any Norwegian online resource for winter climbing in the area.
"Information for visiting climbers is so scarce that working out names, grades, or whether a line might have been climbed before is often an impossible task"
A Lyngen roadsign: this is reindeer country
The Lyngen area is much better known as a ski destination, particularly as a late season option for backcountry ski mountaineering. This beautiful range of classically pointed peaks presents a dramatic backdrop down the west coast of the Lyngenfjord. The ice climbing takes place dotted either side of this 50 mile fjord on frozen waterfalls low down on the mountain slopes, so approaches are often short in distance although not always short in time.
The harbour near Skibotn on Lyngenfjord
Once Neil and I had joined the rest of our team - Mark ‘Garth’ Garthwaite and Kenton Cool - we headed for our first taste of Arctic ice: a pretty looking pair of long moderate lines rising above the hamlet of Kvalvik, the names and grades of which we simply couldn’t determine. Information for visiting climbers is so scarce that working out names, grades, or whether a line might have been climbed before is often an impossible task. On the day we visited the left hand line was just a few ghostly whispers of incomplete grey ice, whilst the righthand line was fat and wide.
Climbing the classic Lyngen ice route Gullyvers Reisen (WI5)
We found four pitches of steady satisfying blue ice, but there is no doubt that the route changes from year to year. The highlight this season was a lattice of frozen splashes on the aesthetic third pitch, but even these paled behind the conditions of 2011 when Nick Harvey and James Booth found the line blown into a series of huge umbrellas and ice caves.
The approach to Goldrush (WI4+); the icefall can be seen in the upper right of the image
The second venue we visited was the enticingly dubbed ‘Roadside’. After an hour and a half of tag-team trail breaking, stumbling through thickets of trees and switching between snowshoes and crampons and then back again, we began to realise the name must be an ironic form of Austrian humour. Austrian ice experts Albert Leichtfried and Ben Purner had recently climbed here, including an ascent of a wild looking WI7 up a hanging fang of ice near the centre of the cliff.
Norwegie, a 2 pitch WI6 / M6 at Roadside
Despite the approach battle and the crag being diminutive in Norwegian terms at a mere 60m in height, Roadside could hold its own as a winter climbing destination. Ice pours from the top of crag, at times connecting into columns, in some places adhering in only a thin glaze and in others left hanging in great blue shiny icicles. Set several hundred metres above the road the views across Lyngenfjord are fittingly epic, particularly in the late afternoon when the peaks of Bálggesvárri and Jiehkkevárri turn crimson in the setting sun. The crag’s most classic line is a steep central gully that is rumoured to go at WI5+, but there are 3 star options whichever way you look.
The approach to Flagbekkan (WI5+); a pair of snowshoes is essential to get to the base of many Lyngen ice routes
Kenton and I opted for an ‘easy’ looking short column on the right side of the cliff, only to find the climbing held neither of these attributes, with a lengthy pillar of iron hard ice giving us both a real wake up call. Garth and Neil meanwhile had taken on a dramatic looking central line that linked a steep free standing column to a verglassed traverse into a cave from which Garth extricated himself with the minimum of fuss.
Route-setting by M. C. Escher on Flagbekkan (WI5+)
You can find out more about Ian Parnell's photography on his photo blog
Read the second part of this two-part feature on Lyngen ice climbing here on LEGEND