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Storsteinsfjellet (1,893 m), Nordland, North Norway

Storsteinsfjellet is one of the highest mountains in Norway north of the Arctic Circle. It has a complex network of summits and glaciers, and finding a route on to the main summit did not prove easy. My ambitions to climb Storsteinsfjellet were frustrated for some time, but my attentions did finally yield success.

[The highest summit of Storsteinsfjellet is located at latitude 68º 13.889'  N; longitude 17º 52.630' E.]

First Attempt: 2 September 1994

Unlike later excursions, this was an attempt on foot, rather than on ski. The day started a bit grey. Shortly after my departure I encountered some tadpoles in a small pool at about 700 m, this in early September. Their future did not look too promising. My approach was from the east and the map suggested that the route would be against the grain of the country. This was indeed the case, but I eventually reached a rounded top at 1,503 m. By this stage the weather had really improved, and there was a good view across the glacier on the south side of Storsteinsfjellet. Then I proceeded westwards up to about 1,650 m where I joined the true east ridge of Storsteinsfjellet. At this point there was a narrow pinnacled section that was not a pretty sight. The pinnacles were hanging at various angles and it was no place to fool around on one's own. The only way to outflank the nasty section was to drop on to the glacier on either side, and that was not an option for a solo climber, given the abundance of crevasses. One could but laugh, and resolve to come back another day. I learned much later that what I had seen was a good winter route.

Second Attempt: 23 March 1996

My next attempt was with Chris and Patience Barton, who live in Banchory, Scotland. Our approach on skis was from the south-west, and took us over a shoulder at 1,495 m to the west side of the south glacier. There had been quite a lot of snow that winter, and any crevasses were well and truly covered. Strangely, there was just one place where we saw some blue ice. But it seemed safe to proceed on skis. We swung up and across the glacier to the col between Storsteinsfjellet and its south summit (1,872 m). We took off our skis at that point, but kept our ski-sticks, and attempted to climb the south-west ridge. The ridge rapidly steepened and narrowed, with large boulders piled up at a variety of angles, covered with quite a lot of unconsolidated snow. The jumbled boulders made one appreciate why the Norwegians had given the mountain its name. There was a big drop to the north-west. We were not far from the summit, but it became clear that we were not going to make it in those conditions. The ridge might be a proposition* in summer conditions, if one could gain access to it at that season. It was time for us however to call it a day. After we put on the skis, Chris did suggest the option of trying to go up the fairly steep south face, which was well covered with snow, but we were running out of time. So we skied back down. Although we had been defeated, it had been a beautiful day, and we had got fairly high.

[* Peter Lennon in Scandinavian Mountains states "The remainder of the ridge (from the col) is believed to have some difficult climbing, possibly up to IV." He also records a 30 metre abseil to reach the col from the south summit.]

Third Attempt: 21 March 2001

By the time of this attempt, I had already been out in the mountains for a week. My approach was the same as that taken in March 1996, and it was my plan to have a look at the south face, as Chris had suggested. It was a bit disconcerting, on reaching the shoulder at 1,495 m, to see some crevasses on the south glacier. My immediate reaction was to call it a day. But as I had acquired considerably more glacier experience in recent years, and as I already knew the general characteristics of this glacier, I concluded that I could work out a safe route on skis in what were conditions of excellent visibility. My judgement appears to have been correct, and on the line chosen there were no signs of crevasses.

At about 1,740 m I took off the skis and attempted what looked liked a reasonable line on the south face. I took an ice-axe and one ski-stick. The route went well for a while until I hit extensive slabs covered with about 50 cm of unconsolidated snow. The slab angle was probably nearly 40 degrees. If the snow had been consolidated one could have gone straight up. Or had the slabs been bare, one could also have proceeded. But the combination meant that all the snow had to be cleared to get any grip, and given the distance this was going to be too slow. I tried another line, with the same outcome. I then skied down the side of the glacier to the pinnacled ridge that I had first visited in 1994 to see if it was possible to gain access to the east ridge from the south side, but was presented with 10 m of nearly vertical rock. So that was that. Yet again, one had been quite high on a very fine day, only to be defeated.

After this failure I spent some time reflecting on options. The south-west ridge and the south face had resisted attempts in winter conditions. Access to the east ridge from the south side, just west of the pinnacles, had also proved impossible. The only remaining possibility was to try to outflank the pinnacles on the north side, and to gain access to the east ridge from that angle.

Fourth Attempt: 23 March 2001—Success at last

Two days later I returned to try the new route mentioned in the previous paragraph. The approach from the south-west was long and complex, and the weather was uncertain. There was some cloud being generated around the summits, and I encountered snow-devils ascending to the 1,495 m shoulder. I was apprehensive that I might get blasted by the wind on the other side of the shoulder but this proved not to be the case. I crossed the glacier on what appeared to be a safe line at about 1,420 m, and ascended to a saddle near the 1,503 m rounded hump that I had first visited in 1994. I then turned west, and ascended to the east end of the pinnacled ridge. Going over a steep rise I suddenly had a view that gave some encouragement about the prospects of a route on to the east ridge from the north. It was also good to see that the cloud on the summit was dispersing.

I skied up the glacier on the north side of the pinnacles, and took off my skis at about 1,640 m. I proceeded, again with ice-axe and one ski-stick, up a slope that progressively steepened. It had been a cold dry winter, and the snow was granular, with little base. As one got higher the base gradually disappeared, until one was floundering. I was wondering just how stable the snow was. My first line of exit on to the ridge was too soon, so I had to traverse just under a line of rock. The only way to make progress was to clear a lot of snow and to stamp it down. A snow-shovel would have been as good as an ice-axe. As I was at the top of the slope it was reassuring to know that at least one could not be avalanched from above. Then I went round the corner to a slightly steeper exit line at the edge of a wide gully. Although the ridge was quite near, the outcome was still uncertain. The snow was not providing good support, and a great deal of effort was required to clear snow and bed it down. The edge of the gully provided a few places where one could get some kind of footing on underlying pieces of rock. And then one was suddenly on the ridge, and confident that the hill would be climbed. From that point to the summit the east ridge was easy but laborious. Again, one was presented with a jumble of boulders, with gaps between them that were full of unconsolidated snow. The ski-stick was a very useful probe.

The summit did not disappoint. It was quite cold, with a slight wind. The cloud had completely dispersed, and the views were superb. I could see my ski-trail of two days earlier near the top of the glacier. I had the chance to take some photographs. These photographs reveal some things that I did not take in at the time as my mind was partly focused on the need to go back down. They show the sea, ie Herjangsfjorden. And they also show a second but older ski-track line on the south glacier. There had been reports that some Danes had been in the area about a week earlier, and I had indeed seen their boot prints on another summit.

Going down the steeper section was quite easy, as footholds had already been made. When I stopped for lunch, back at the skis, it was -18½°C, so it is a fair bet that it was -20°C at the summit. The remainder of the route back was long, but everything went well. The total return trip took 10 hrs 40 mins including breaks. I departed at 07:00 hrs, reached the summit at 13:45 hrs, and arrived back at the hut at 17:40 hrs. For the final ascent, from the point where I took off my skis, I was going slowly—I was erring on the side of caution, and had a great deal of snow to clear or consolidate. A party of two could have saved an hour on that section.

The conclusion of all of this is that persistence pays. This is not aesthetically the best mountain that I have climbed. But I would say that it provided about the most satisfying day in the mountains that I have experienced. It is a complex mountain with many ridges, tops and glaciers, and finding a route was a challenge. The day was physically demanding. The outcome had been in doubt until quite near the top. And there was a good combination of skills required. Someone who was not a skier would not have got anywhere. And many skiers without broader mountain experience would have balked at the snow gully.

Alan Law

11 January 2003

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