of the World--
Stortind's Unclimbed Southwest Ridge
by Paul Richins, Jr. (added 7/12/98)
The following account details the first ascent of Stortind's unclimbed Southwest Ridge by Dr. Havard Nesheim of Lyngseidet, Norway; Dick Ratliff of Sacramento, California; and Paul Richins, Jr. of El Dorado Hills, California. Stortind is located in the Lyngen Alps of northern Norway at a latitude of 70 degrees North, far above the arctic circle. The area is north of the University town of Tromso, the largest city in northern Norway. The Lyngen Peninsula is literally overflowing with peak upon peak and glacier on glacier, with the mountains rising directly from the fjords to a height of 6,000 feet. The following article was featured in the Mountain Democrat newspaper on August 2, 1991 and was titled "Top of the World". Also featured was the related story entitled, "Three Weeks in Paradise--The Lyngen Alps of Norway".
Dr. Havard Nesheim, M.D., had viewed with awe the impressive, unclimbed Southwest Ridge of Stortind many times from the Ullsfjorden Ferry. The ferry is the main transportation link between the quaint village of Lyngseidet and Tromso, the closet major city in Northern Norway. He had been itching to challenge the unclimbed ridge for a number of years but conditions and circumstances had kept him away until now.
Little was known of the spectacular ridge. From the maps and viewing the ridge from the nearby ferry, Havard knew that it would not be your typical climb. The Southwest ridge is very long, challenging and exposed, jutting up more than 3000 feet above the glaciated valley floor. In many places the ridge narrows to a knife edge with near vertical drops on both sides.
Havard knew all of this, but Dick Ratliff, my climbing partner from California, and I did not. I had been in Norway for just ten days and had not seen the peak let alone the route. Dick was under the false impression that we would be climbing a different, less difficult, route on Stortind.
All we knew is what Havard told us the night before the climb as we sorted through our equipment in his lovely home near Lyngseidet. The home is surround by grandeur. The back looks out over the Kjosen Fjord and from the front one looks straight up at the Lyngen Alps. Havard was very tight-lipped while we clamored for information. We learned little that night. All I could pry out of Havard was that it would be a long route and I should bring a little extra food.
What in the world did that mean, I muttered under my breath? Should I bring an extra apple or plan for a multi-day epic? Since I had just meet Havard hours earlier, I had no idea how long was "long" to him. However, I did know that he was a respected climber in Norway, had successfully climbed Mount Everest in 1985 and had climbed many extreme routes in Norway and around the world. With this in mind, I took enough food to last me a full two days, if necessary.
In retrospect, it was clear that he down played the severity of the route as not to alarm us or his wife. As it was, she was very apprehensive about the climb. She knew of the reports from an earlier unsuccessful attempt in which several of Havard's friends attempted the ridge but turned back early on in the climb. They reported that it was a very long and technically demanding ridge requiring an estimated 13-15 hours to complete.
I too became somewhat concerned after taking a self-guided tour of their home and viewing several photographs of Harvard in some desperate climbing conditions around the world. One that made a deep impression on me was of a climber and two port-a-ledges anchored to the sheer face of the Troll Wall in Winter. For some reason that photograph stuck in my mind as I struggled to sleep that night.
At 5:30 the next morning I saw the route for the first time as we skied into the base of the peak and snow couloir leading up to the ridge. One look at the imposing route made me reconsider again whether I wanted to climb the peak or spend the day ski touring in the area. Maybe it was for this very reason that Havard had not shared with us the particulars of the climb the night before.
Also, as I stood there in awe examing the route, I wondered why Havard, a climber of considerable reputation, was taking two climbers from California, that he hardly knew, on such a difficult climb? What about his local climbing partners? Why wasn't he climbing the route with one of them? Had they all turned him down?
I would make the climb, but I reasoned that while in the snow couloir I could back down at any time and let Dick and Havard continue on. What I didn't realize was that the couloir was much longer and steeper than it appeared from below. About halfway up the couloir we encountered a large rock step. Here we roped up and continued with running belays to the ridge crest. The couloir suddenly steepened from about 40 degrees below the rock step to 50-55 degrees above the step. Once roped, I was committed. I now could not go down without taking the other two with me.
We reached the ridge just in time for lunch. It had taken us nearly five hours of climbing in the couloir to reach the ridge. I was glad I brought extra food, as Havard had suggested, as we had been skiing and climbing for about six and a half hours and hadn't even started the real part of the climb.
The ridge was plastered with snow, ice and rime driven by high winds from the North and South. This sculptured rime characterized the entire Southwest ridge as well as the descent route down the North ridge. It built up in frothy, feathery layers that exaggerated the size of the rock it encrusted, resulting in grotesque, overhanging, heaps of unconsolidated crud. It was beautiful to look at, but difficult to climb.
These granular ice tufts were more air than snow/ice, rendering our ice axes useless. We resorted to digging out hand, finger and arm holds in the rime in place of more conventional ice axe techniques.
We started up the ridge with running belays. In 4-5 pitches, possibly more, we came to a point on the ridge that could not be climbed or avoid by traversing left onto the Northwest Face. We rappelled about 70 feet down the right side of the ridge and traversed left across steep snow for half a pitch. From this belay point we continued to traverse across step rock, snow and ice for 80 feet and then climbed left up into a difficult 70 degree mixed rock and ice gully. After a pitch in the gully, we regained the ridge.
From here on the climbing became more difficult with the ridge narrowing and the obstacles becoming larger and more frequent. We continued up the ridge by staying directly on the crest. However, many times we had to drop down to the left, traverse across and up the Northwest face back to the ridge to avoid difficult if not impossible obstacles that lay directly on the ridge. This continued for about 10-15 pitches.
We passed over two false summits before reaching the true summit. beyond each false summit the climbing became more and more difficult. After moving over and down the second false summit we encountered the most difficult climbing of the route for 4 leads which culminated in the true summit. Three separate rime-encrusted rock steps had to be surmounted. They were not big, some 20 to 25 feet high, but they were vertical or nearly so and covered with fragile feathery rime. As we struggled upwards, the thin cover of snow and rime would unpredictability break off from the smooth rock face. These three steps were the crux of the ascent.
Havard tried in vain to find a route around the first step by moving left onto the Northwest face. Directly up and over the step would have been difficult as the exposed rock face was smooth with no opportunities to place protection. Havard considered removing his crampons at this point and climbing the step with his double plastic boots, but was not energetic about the prospects. Finally, we found a very obscure route on the right. We dropped down a near vertical 15 feet and then climbed left, directly up a near vertical gully back to the ridge. The next step was not as difficult and was directly climbed. The final step was the most difficult and there was no way around it. Havard did a masterful job on the vertical step which put us on the true summit.
Havard summitted at 11:30 pm, I at 11:40 pm and Dick at 11:50 pm, just ten minutes before mid-night. As I belayed Dick up this last desperate step, I kidded with him to hurry up if he wanted to complete the climb on the same day we started, for in ten minutes it would be tomorrow.
At midnight I was able to record a picture of Dick and Havard on the summit of Stortind but the light was very low and they appeared as ghosts of climbers past. This time of the year Northern Norway has light for 24 hours a day although it is very faint for several hours around midnight.
We were exhausted, hungry and cold. We had been climbing on the ridge for 12 hours plus the 5 hours in the couloir and the one and one-half hour ski in to the base of Stortind. We grabbed a quick snack and immediately started our descent. We decended the North ridge to a prominent saddle and continued down to the west were we returned to our skis and finally back to the road and car at 6:30 AM after 25 hours of continuous climbing.
In all, we climbed about 25-30 pitches with one short rappel. The ridge became more and more difficult and exposed with the obstacles becoming larger and more frequent as we approached the summit. There are no escape routes down either side of the ridge. The best way down lay on the other side of the summit. We became more and more committed to finishing the ridge the further out on the ridge we climbed as the prospect of retracing our steps was unthinkable. The climb down would be just as difficult and take as much time as the climb up.
Havard led the entire route and did a masterful job of route finding and climbing. Without his strong leadership and expert climbing ability, Dick and I would not have completed the route. It was a great challenge and wonderful experience that I am ready to repeat!
Area: Lyngen Alps, Northern Norway.
Peak: Stortind, 4959 feet (1512 meters).
Route: First ascent of the Southwest Ridge, April 27, 1991.
Elevation Gain: 4959 feet.
Equipment: small assortment of friends, chalks, pitons and 3 snow flukes.
Number of Pitches: 25-30.
Climbing Time: 25 hours round trip.
Personnel: Havard Nesheim, Lyngseidet, Norway; Dick Ratliff, Rotsund, Norway and Sacramento, California; and Paul Richins, Jr., El Dorado Hills, California, U.S.A.
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