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An account of the ascent of the first ascent of the North Face Direct

After the ascent of the Trolltind Wall in 1965, it seemed to me that Norway must be the site of future developments in technical climbing. Nowhere outside America can boast such vertical granite walls and even the famous Yosemite climbs must take second place in terms of height. The Direct route to Trollveggen, which was climbed for the first time by a French party this year, is close on 5,000 vertical or overhanging feet, which compares very favourably with the 3,000 foot bastion of El Capitan. On these walls of the Romsdal one can find granite climbing comparable in difficulty with anything in the world.

After Trollveggen itself, the most impressive face in the valley is the upper North Face of Sondre Trolltind, which falls sheer and smooth for nearly 2,000 feet. In this respect, it is even more impressive than the Trollwall, for in all of these two thousand feet, there is not a ledge large enough to hold snow after a storm. Couple with this a long approach of 2,500 feet Grade IV slabs, and an upper 1,000 foot of broken rock, and the proposed North Face Direct route takes on quite serious proportions. 

When Rusty Baillie and I arrived in the valley at the beginning of August, the French were well on the way to completing their climb. In many ways, it was a pity that they had to use fixed ropes on most of the wall, but there can be no doubt that some of the climbing they had experienced must have been extreme. During the twenty-one days taken over the ascent, they had climbed throughout some very bad weather and this confirmed what Baillie and I had thought for some time: that to complete a route of major proportions in Norway, one had to be prepared to climb in any weather. 

With this in mind, we proposed to wear fully waterproof clothing throughout the ascent, in spite of the fact that this was bound to result in heavy condensation. We also proposed to use the modern techniques of climbing which had erupted from Yosemite in recent years. These completely rejected the use of fixed ropes of any kind and relied for their success on the ability of the climbers to move quickly and safely. On a wall of this difficulty and size, there could be no room for a “passenger.” Each climber had to have the utmost faith and confidence in his companion’s ability, for at many times a life may be in the balance. 

The weather in August was far from good, but during a two day “quick-look” we gained only 300 feet on the difficult middle section. Leaving the valley at 3 o’clock, just as the crimson dawn was breaking, we spent long hours in fruitless route-finding on the smooth wet slabs which form the approach to the upper wall. Climbing unroped, carrying the 40 lb. hauling sacks, we felt very uncertain on the hold-less slabs, and it was not until we evolved our “new” technique that we made any fast progress. At about 1,000 feet, the slabs reared up into a steep vegetated buttress, and although the climbing was never more than Grade IV in the dry, the wet rock and the exposure were sufficient to warrant great care. 

Leaving his heavy sack with me, Rusty led out 150 feet of double rope and anchored it, before abseiling down to where I had belayed. As he abseiled down one rope, I climbed the other, using a “Jumar” clamp for safety, and carrying the hauling sack. Baillie then climbed back up the second rope, also carrying his sack. The net result was one of speed and safety and the first person to reach the anchor point for the ropes had sufficient time to prepare to lead the next pitch before the second man arrived. 

In this way, we quickly disposed of another 1,000 feet of Grade IV slabs and some 500 feet of snow, to arrive at the foot of the steep upper wall. Here we became lost in the swirling mist, which had been gradually creeping up on us throughout the day, and we traversed left in bad visibility, finding great difficulty in orienteering ourselves in relation to the wall above. By seven o’clock, I had climbed a Grade V chimney leading to the top of a pedestal below the wall, and abseiled off leaving the ropes hanging for the morrow. 

In our radio contact with the valley that night, we were disturbed to hear that more bad weather was forecast, but we soon settled down to a good night’s rest. We were no longer worried! We had rubbed shoulders with the problem and were eager to match our resources against its defenses. However, during the infrequent clearings of the mist during the night, it was un-nerving to gaze upwards at the maze of overhangs that guarded the base of the wall. This was the problem! Once above the overhangs, we could envisage fast progress, but even our most pessimistic of forecasts could not prepare us for the extreme difficulties we were to find there. 

The next day dawned clear, and we awoke with the sun as it brushed the wall at 4 o’clock during its morning promenade behind the nearby Romsdalshorn. All the equipment had to be sorted, the pegs carefully racked on gear slings, all bivouac gear and clothing packed in one hauling sack, and food for six days and twelve pints of water carefully placed in the other. Consequently, it was not before 5 o’clock that I began to prussik up the rope left the previous night. 

For climbing and prussiking we were using a single 11mm. Perlon rope, the only rope we actually used whilst climbing. We had abandoned the traditional double rope technique and were relying on tape tie-off loops and slings to extend the pegs and alleviate rope drag. It is interesting to note that during the entire climb, we had no trouble whatsoever with the ropes dragging through the karabiners. The only other rope we were carrying was a 9 mm. Perlon which was used for sack-hauling. Here, we were using another technique from Yosemite. With 150 feet of rope. “Jumar” clamps, and a small pulley, the entire leg strength and weight of the climber could be brought to bear. Using this method, we had no trouble in hauling both sacks together—a load of over 80 lbs. in one lift. 

At the end of the 150 foot run-out, I hauled the sacks and Rusty simultaneously prussiked up the tied-off climbing rope. Thus, there was no belay in the traditional sense, but the climber was able to belay himself with the two “jumar” clamps. At any instant, one of the clamps would be under tension, and therefore jammed on the rope. This clamp was the belay! The method of climbing is safe in that the rope is always tied to the leader’s belay (thus ensuring that the belay is a good one) and that the only danger lies in a stone falling on the rope at the moment the second man is climbing. And on a face of this verticality, there is never much, if any, dangerous stone fall. 

Saving Rusty for the more difficult work ahead, I offered to lead the next pitch and soon became involved in epics of loose rock and moss in what had appeared to be an easy chimney. Indeed, it was not until I had led out 120 feet of rope and placed ten pegs in the overhanging rock, that I emerged on a sloping ledge at the foot of the preliminary overhangs. 

Here, the climbing became hard. The next two hundred feet occupied most of the day and most of our mental and physical resources into the bargain. For the next two hundred feet, neither of us placed a peg that did not have to be tied-off short. The cracks were blind, shallow, too thin, or just plain awkward—cracks that had been formed by drainage water that now trickled down the grooves from the overhangs above, and cracks which contrasted strongly with the finely regular frost cracks of the Chamonix massif. The pegs went in grudgingly and had to be selected with great care; at one place Baillie had to couple a “Knife-blade” with a “Rurp”—the revolutionary Realised Ultimate Reality Piton, with a blade length of one centimetre—which symbolizes very nearly the ultimate in peg climbing. 

At the end of the second rope-length, I fixed a belay and swung there in my nylon seat as Rusty prussiked up the rope, removing the pegs. None needed more than two hits with the hammer to loosen them; few pegs in that pitch had been safe! As he neared the belay, and the number of pegs between us decreased, I once more became aware of the feeling of insecurity which manifests itself and grows with alarming haste in such a position. This sensation I had often experienced in the past when hanging in etriers at a belay and I was well aware that the climax would be reached when we were both hanging from the three or four belay pegs driven into a crack in the blank wall. But I was glad when Rusty had climbed past, jerking the seemingly so insecure anchorage in the process, and moved up into the viciously overhanging chimney that blocked our progress.

The climbing was extreme—the first pitch of A.4.— and made the two earlier A3. pitches seem like child’s play. Too wide to jam in any way, the chimney finally succumbed to Baillie’s engineering skill with a combination of “Skyhook” moves and large “Bong-bong” placings deep in the slimy innards of the crack. After three hours work, he had gained thirty feet, used up most of the skin off the knuckles of both hands, and reached a point where it was possible to lasso a flake and pull over a small roof. 

We were both soaked; our wet clothes stuck clammily to our cold skin. The water dripping off the overhangs above had taken its toll of our resources, and the blood circulation to my legs had long since been cut off by the hours of sitting in the cramped confines of the nylon belay seat. But we had reached a ledge! On de-pegging the pitch, I pulled myself up on the anchor pegs to find Baillie fast asleep on our “Palace”—the jagged top of a flake, some four feet long by two feet wide. But it was a ledge, the first for three hundred feet, and soon we were preparing for our second bivouac. 

But I, for one, did not rest that night. Being in the unfortunate position of requiring to lie out to sleep, I found the ledge desperately uncomfortable. The best I could achieve was to jam myself down the back of the knife-edge, but the icy cold of the wet rock prohibited little more than a prolonged doze. During the night, it rained; the water dripping in constant percussion off the overhangs above, and trickling down the rock through the gaps in our bivi bags. Already my mental resources had been lowered by the problems of the previous day, and I found myself thinking increasingly of retreat. But this was a sensation I had often experienced before, yet had never been able to check.

It is always on the first or second day of a climb when the temptation is greatest. Once conquered, you realise it is easier to climb upwards, you become as one with your vertical environment, and you begin to marvel at the difficulties you had previously feared. It is just one more of the complex internal motivations which I shall never understand, but which lead people on to make climbs that are more difficult and more strenuous than ever before. 

Next morning, however, the weather showed obvious signs of deterioration and glad of the excuse to retreat. we began the first of the long abseils to the valley below.

For the next week, we rarely saw the mountain tops as the rain swept through the valley in vicious torrents. No one climbed, for all were well aware of the disastrous physical effects of these conditions. But eventually the weather cleared and the evening of 23rd August found us once more at our high point. Throughout the day, we had retraced our steps, having to place all the pegs that we had previously removed in our wish to leave the climb clean. From the top of the flake, we fixed the first of the 150 foot ropes and abseiled down, leaving the second rope hanging from the belay below. A good night’s sleep on the bigger ledges at the foot of the wall was worth any amount of extra effort involved the next day. 

The following morning, we were awake at 3 o’clock and two hours later had prussiked up the three hundred feet of hanging rope with our loads. Leading off from the flake, I traversed left on very small holds before placing a large “Angle” peg in a pocket in the rock. Hammering the peg only fractured the rock around, but by dint of careful weight distribution, it held as I stood up and placed a “Rurp” behind an expanding flake. As I reached down to unclip the etrier, the bottom peg pulled out of the pocket and tinkled down the rope towards Baillie, who was watching with a look of impending doom on his face. A fall here would have resulted in a wild swing across the face, a fact of which I was well aware. But there seemed no plate to put a peg. All the cracks were blind, and I had left the bolt bag behind. But we still had “Skyhooks,” those little steel, hooks which were to save us time and time again on the climb. So a “Skyhook” it had to be, placed carefully on a little rugosity in the rock and then even more carefully stood on. A “Knife-blade” and two tied-off “Lost Arrows” led to an ideal placing for a “Crack-Tack” which, although it only entered the rock for three-quarters of an inch, proved to be the best peg on the pitch. Above, a small overhang fell to more “Skyhook” moves and led to sustained Grade VI free-climbing and A.3. pegging up a square-cut groove leading to the huge roof. Here I took up a hanging stance below the 25 foot overhang and relaxed back in my hammock. Certainly the hardest aid lead of my experience, it was just another pitch on this wall! 

As Rusty began to prussik up the anchored rope, we became lost in swirling mist and I was left to catch drips from the roof to augment our limited water supply. Before long, the constant drainage had soaked through even my heavily proofed yachting anorak and I began to shiver in the cold. Below me, the sound of hammer on peg gradually came closer and soon the Helly-Hansen clad figure of Baillie appeared at the foot of the groove. Slowly he climbed the rope, pushing the clamps up, before sitting back as he unclipped the karabiners and proceeded to remove each peg in turn. 

Above, the way was blocked by an immense roof, an inverted staircase of overhangs stretching out horizontally for 25 feet. But these cracks were good, pronounced and deep, now it was just a matter of selecting the right peg and placing it with care. But even so, it came as a complete surprise when Baillie “knocked-off” the roof in thirty minutes of A.2. pegging.

Now we could really get cracking! Coming after the last two A.4. pitches, it came as a great tonic and we were both full of confidence and jubilation as we climbed on through the swirling mists. At 6.30 p.m. I climbed a three foot overhang and found myself below a small ledge, the first since we had left the top of the flake that morning. For well over twelve hours, our world had been limited to a few square feet of rock, our only foothold being pegs driven into the rock, and in my haste to reach the ledge, I almost fell off as I pushed the free-climbing to the limit. Nearly a stupid mistake, it would have meant a bad fall of thirty feet if I had slipped.

Our radio contact that night brought us once more into the bosom of our friends in the valley. Climbing in mist throughout the day, we had felt very lonely indeed. Being unable to see even the tiny beetle-like cars crawling along the main Andalsnes-Oslo road left us feeling very insecure and alone, and it was marvelous to be able to talk to Rusty’s wife, Pat, and to our Norwegian friends in the valley. To know that someone down there was caring for us came as a great tonic and relieved the monotony of our stark, overwhelming rock world. The sound of Rusty’s baby gurgling down the speaker filled us with great joy!

The bivouac ledge was small, but I slept well as the exhaustion of the day’s climbing overcame the discomfort. Above us now lay five hundred feet of difficult climbing leading to a system of ledges which cut across the face. Beyond these ledges lay another 1,500 feet of climbing, but we did not envisage any problem. The hardest climbing was, in fact, below us now. The more height we gained, the better became the climbing and the more impressive the situations. Sensationally exposed as it was, we were now beginning to enjoy the climbing and we could relax in the security of our perch under the stars as we awaited the pale golden glow of the dawn skies which would herald the coming day. The hardships were past, the rock was dry and firm, the cracks good and the overhangs below. We were becoming accustomed to living in this vertical world and precaution was becoming reflex, but we had to be wary now of over-confidence. 

The following morning, as I was preparing to leave the bivouac sac, I unclipped my helmet from the karabiner where it had hung securely all night. The next second, it was bouncing down the face, touching the rock once below my feet and then sweeping down in one huge arc before landing on the slabs at the foot of the wall. Now lost in mist, I could only trace its fall by the sound as it bounced down a further two thousand feet of slabs to the valley floor. I had plenty of time to reflect on the consequences of this mistake, the result of familiarity, which could be fatal.

That day, August 25th, we climbed over 500 feet up a magnificent line of grooves leading in a direct line towards the summit. Surely there could be no more aesthetic line in the whole of the Romsdal. Never were we in trouble with route-finding. Pitch followed pitch in logical sequence, groove followed groove, crack followed crack as we overcame the last small overhangs leading to the ledges at 1,500 feet. But still the difficulties did not relent.

At 6.15 p.m. that night, Rusty reached the ledges, where we were surprised to find a huge detached flake, which we promptly dubbed “The Finger of Fate.” It was encouraging to find a pitch where we could climb free, as behind the flake a chimney led to more grooves and corners up to the final barrier of overhangs. Behind the flake we found an ideal bivouac spot, safe, sheltered and warm, and perfect for rigging the hammocks.

The 26th dawned clear, with hardly a cloud to blemish the clear blue desert of a sky which stretched into infinity above our heads. And what a view! Mile upon mile of snow capped peaks and faces, blending together in an unforgettable mosaic of colour.

We were awake early as we realised that we had a chance of completing the climb that day! After so much hardship, we had no desire to prolong the agony. Eating all our spare food, and leaving a cache of non-perishables for some future party, we prussiked up the ropes to the top of the flake, hauling the now much lighter sacks behind us. At 4.30 a.m., just as the sun emerged from behind the stark outline of the Romsdalshorn, Rusty began work on the first artificial pitch which we had abandoned after 30 feet the previous night.

Leading out 130 feet of rope, and belaying in his nylon seat, he hauled the sacks as I followed up the rope. De-pegging was easy, but all the pegs had been firm. All were perfectly placed in the jagged crack; none would have pulled out under a fall. In Baillie’s own words, “That was one of the most enjoyable pitches I have ever climbed.” 

Nowhere before had either of us found climbing such as this On the one hand, it was certainly the hardest pitch that either of us had ever done. Indeed, the two A.4. pitches in the lower reaches of the face were the hardest technical leads that either of us had made. But on the other hand, the climb was providing some of the most sensational and enjoyable pieces of climbing that we could ever wish for. The situations were often unique; each new problem worthy of a climb in its own right. 

Above lay a fiercely overhanging chimney, arching out for ten feet into the sky above our heads. Below lay a sheer drop of two thousand feet and our feeling of exposure was strengthened by a further drop of slabs below the foot of the wall. Placing two pegs, I reached out and swung up on huge jugs, the rope hanging out from the rock above Baillie’s head. The further I climbed, the further out hung the rope, the more obvious the drop. After two thousand feet of peg climbing, placing over 600 pitons, it was a thrill to be able to climb free, and to feel the solid rock flow beneath your hands and feet. I could not find the courage to stop and place a peg, nor was one necessary. Comparable in difficulty to “The Sloth,” Joe Brown’s famous climb at The Roches, this magnificent pitch finally fell to a hundred feet of superb Grade V climbing. 

Above lay another overhanging chimney, climbed with ease by Baillie, and at last we found easy ground. By 11 o’clock, we were sitting on scree ledges and debating how to tackle the remaining six hundred feet to the top. 

But first we had to re-organize our loads and await a radio contact at mid-day. Eating all our remaining food, and throwing away a bag of spare peanuts and raisins, our staple diet for the climb, we set off in high spirits for a rendezvous with a bottle of cognac on the summit. Leapfrogging in 150 foot stretches, we rapidly disposed of the easy rock, but after two hours we were still far short of the top. The climbing was easy, but the rock was desperately loose and dangerous, and we were tending towards relaxation as we neared our goal. This was the most dangerous period of the climb and we had to exercise great care to overcome the anticipation which precedes success. 

And then followed near disaster . . . While removing a belay peg, my hammering loosened a huge flake which detached itself from the rock above. Next second, without realising what had happened, I found myself dazed by the force of the impact on my un-protected head. The whole weight of the five foot square block had caught me on the head, glanced off my shoulder and disappeared down the face with ever increasing reverberations. Above, Baillie had instinctively tightened his grip on the rope, but the expected fall had never come. In fact, I was still hanging from my other peg. My head was swirling, I had a searing pain in my left shoulder and I carried a bruise which was to last for weeks. This apart, I was unharmed. I had been lucky! But my carelessness had almost been fatal. 

From now on, I could not lead and the weight of responsibility fell on Baillie’s shoulders. Even reaching his belay was an epic. My mental resources had been temporarily shattered. The simplest climbing became hard, the firmest rock become loose. But confidence is instilled through persistence and I was soon able to climb safely again. 

On the top, we were greeted by two of our Norwegian friends who had come up specially to bring us the promised cognac. Epics of photography followed as our highly trained commercial minds got to work. Press-men were waiting to be satisfied, there was Norwegian TV to perform for, but most of all there was our own ego to boost. 

But what remained of the climb? A line on a photograph? A lot of words on a piece of paper? No! There was more. In the first place, there was an experience lasting seven days; there was five thousand feet of extreme climbing taking a total of fifty-five hours; but there was also a deeper understanding of ourselves, of our own weaknesses and limitations. And we had established a comradeship which could only be experienced when one had climbed on the knife-edge of fear together. Our friendship had been strengthened by the mutual feeling and intimate understanding that is experienced through the conquest of fear. But, after all, is this not what climbing is all about? Or is it just a part…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 



 

 

 

 

 

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John Amatt, all rights reserved