It had been raining for weeks in southern Sweden when I called a friend in Tromsø who told me that they were in the middle of a heatwave up in Lappland. Within two days Alasdair and I were on the sleeper north to Narvik, whence we would take the post boat 3 hours out to the legendary Lofotens. This chain of islands extends out from the north-west coast of Norway, and was largely spared from glacial erosion, resulting in even more dramatically sculpted peaks and fjords than the rest of the country. We chose to visit one of the first islands, Austvågøy, where climbing routes are well developed, and stay in a cabin at Knutmarker Feriecenter (Phone +45-7607-2164) in Svolvær. This is the wimpy but very pleasant option, the alternatively being free camping pretty much everywhere, but bear in mind that the weather up there is usually pretty miserable. We had great weather, but only because we had inside info and could get there quickly during a rare hot dry spell. Despite being pretty much peak season, we saw very few tourists, accommodation and transport was mostly empty, and there was no mass commercialisation. I think their dodgy weather has done a lot to save the area from exploitation. If you travel with non-climbers, they'll be happy too, so long as they are interested in birds, flowers, fish, geology, spectacular scenery, or weather. And there weren't even more than a handful of mosquitoes. Just one negative to note - don't even think about trying to find public transport at weekends.
After an excellent night's sleep in our beautiful cabin by a lake, we woke to 25 ° C, clear skies, and a gentle breeze, just as we'd been promised. Our warm-up climb would be Svolværgeita, The Svolvær Goat, a 150m high two-pronged pinnacle that sits half-way up the 600m Fløya and overlooks the town. We hiked 1.5 hours across town and up some grade 3 scree to get to the base of this not-to-be-missed climb. I was particularly excited, as this was my first real climb after 2 years of learning the ropes in Uppsala, 30m above sea level. There are half a dozen routes up The Goat, but being classicists (or possibly wimps), we chose the original (and easiest) route called "the 1910" after the year of the first ascent. This is 3 short pitches at Norwegian grade 4+ (5.5 YDS), which starts on the shorter, uphill face. The first pitch is blocky and routine, but livened up for me by a narrow miss from a pair of carabiners that had escaped from their oppressor 50m above. I love my helmet. The second pitch is a wonderfully airy traverse that looks terrifying but actually has big, juggy holds. Then the third pitch up the shorter east tower looked easy, but was occupied by one of the four other parties we met that Saturday, so we took a trickier line up the higher tower. Once on the top, peer pressure demands that you make the 1.3m jump between the towers (your friends peer at you till you do it). The jump is trickier than it looks in all the postcards, because the landing spot actually slopes away, and it's not obvious that I would have stayed on the block if another climber hadn't caught me. Luckily (or pragmatically) the town cemetery is located immediately below the peak. Beyond that, the North Sea glistened, and jagged peaks rose up through verdant bases to snow-covered peaks. Really rather incredible. Having taken only one 50m rope, we were grateful of the offer to use another team's rappel ropes to get down, otherwise we would probably have had to leave gear behind.
By now it was 5pm, so there was still 6 hours of daylight to enjoy, and we decided to pretend we weren't hungry, and to climb The Goat again, this time up the three-star "Forsidan", 4 pitches up to 5+ (5.8). This was on the sunny side, facing the ocean, and much nicer climbing. After an easy first pitch at 3+ (5.3), there is a great grade 5 (5.7) hand crack that we both desperately wanted to lead. I had stolen Al's traverse earlier, and he needed to warm up for the next pitch, so I lost. It was neat even as second, and rather surreal, as rock&roll music wafted up from a fête in town giving the ambience of a gym, but the rock glared white in the unrelenting sun like a desert, while the view down was over snow-specked arctic islands. The next pitch was exposed, poorly protected finger cracks at grade 5 (5.7) that I wasn't remotely interested in leading, but which made it all the more attractive to Al. One more pitch at 5+ (5.8), and we were back on top, a little more hypoglycaemic than before. We borrowed a fixed line to do a single, mostly free rappel all the way down to our packs, and rummaged for lost sandwiches, delirious with our first day's climbing. It's not often climbing around Uppsala that a four-engined plane flies below you, as one had today. We left behind a couple of teachers from England who had popped in to climb The Goat whilst sailing from Cornwall to Svalbard, and we eventually got dinner at 1am, when it was still plenty light enough to read outdoors.
The next day was our only day of real Lofoten weather - cold, damp and foggy, and I was exhausted, so I persuaded Al to have a rest day, during which we checked out the Climber's Cafe and Shop in Henningsvær (respectively cool and expensive), meeting up with my friend Hilde, the source of our weather report. Later Al hiked up to Frosken (his idea of a rest), while I caught 3 cod in the fjord.
Monday had thin cloud at around 500m, but was warm and breezy and very pleasant. We took the Henningsvær bus 20 mins to Piano Krakken, accompanied by 6 boxes of fish, which are perhaps compulsory items to carry on Norwegian buses. I was initially a little disappointed by the ugly heap of rocks that we were going to climb, but there turned out to be some nice sections, just a bit disjointed. We started with "Piano Dealer Lund's route", 3 pitches at 4+ (5.5), which was straightforward and fun in parts, but then we wanted a greater challenge. I thought I could lead the first pitch of "Light and Shadow", 5+ (5.8), having misjudged both the narrowness of the finger cracks and the steepness of the wall. Instead of backing off, I turned it into a 4+ A0 route by hanging on all my pro. But it was still scary because the rock felt loose and hollow, and I didn't trust a single piece. When I got up on to the first shelf, I got in a good 0.5 Friend, but all the other blocks were loose, and I was too psyched out to continue. It didn't help that during an exploratory traverse around the arête I shouted "TAKE", which didn't reach Al well, and he called back "SAFE ?". A blood-curdling "NOOOOOOOO!" corrected the misunderstanding, and since then we have taken to using the call "I'm safe" to make it more distinct from "take". I belayed up Al for his opinion on continuing, thinking that we would probably end up sacrificing a sling and rapping off, but Al lead on with a horrifying runout before finally getting in some good pro and clean language. The view from the top along Djupfjorden is great, and includes two classic climbs that we promised to come back to - "Only Blueberries", and "The Priest". We then had to decide if the 50m free rappel mentioned in the guide was really 50m, or whether our 50m+45m rope pair would get us down. The landing point was a steep slope, so being 2.5m short would be a problem, and prussiking back up would not be much fun either. I took lots of gear and determination with me, but I needed neither as the rope just reached the slope. We caught the 9pm bus home, hungry and exhausted again.
For our last day we chose Gandalfveggen, just across the bridge from Henningsvær. This is a much nicer-looking wall, just screaming to be climbed. We went for Gollum, 3 pitches at grade 5- (5.6), rather than the original Gandalf, because the former has better protection. It turned out to be a fantastic climb, consistent in grade, and straight up the wall in a grippy hand crack. It was so easy to protect that I would have been happy to try to lead it, but I wasn't feeling on form, and instead enjoyed the freedom of seconding all the way, and being able to use less defensive moves.
Conclusion ? Great climbing, great scenery, stay a while to give yourself a chance for some good weather, but be comforted that the rock is very rough and gripable even when wet. Some rock is very stable, other loose, look in the essential guidebook below to see which is which.
Literature : Climbing in the Magic Islands, by Ed Webster. Published by Nord Norsk Klatreskole, 1994. ISBN #82-993199-00