Stetind and Lofoten, Arctic Norway

Stetind is one of Norways most celebrated mountains. It was declared Norway's national mountain in 2002 and was first climbed in 1910, 40 years after the first serious attempt on its summit. For me, the striking and forbidding appearance that it exhibits from the nearby road and Stefjord is what attracted me to this mountain. I was first made aware of this mountain back in 2003 when browsing through a tourist brochure in Bodo. The following year, I caught a glimpse of it through the aircraft window when coming into land at Harstad-Narvik airport. Since then I had wanted to climb it, but did not have the means to achieve this ambition.

It was in January 2005 that I met a new group of friends to go walking with in Glen Coe. It was in the Kingshouse hotel that the first stirrings of a plan was hatched. After looking at flights and prices, we decided that Stetind was definitely on this summer. So I went with them on a number of climbing trips, getting my climbing standard up to a level where I could successfully tackle the crux (hard severe'ish). So it was after my first Norway trip this year that I bought my airline tickets the day I arrived home.

Unfortunately no-one else had firmed up plans at that time, and in the end I would end up meeting them out there. They would catch a morning internal flight and I would catch an evening flight. I would then somehow get to the bottom of Stetind that night and meet them all over 1500miles away from home at an obscure remote lake that none of us had been to. It sounded like a recipe for disaster!

Stetind was just one part of the holiday, we were also going going to the Lofoten Islands hopefully for some climbing and (for me) some more general mountaineering. To date, this was going to be my most complex Norway trip so far. Organising myself is a doddle, organising others and transport arrangements is somewhat more difficult. To complicate things, we were uncertain as to whether we would do Stetind first, or Lofoten (depending on weather). I had to prepare for both eventualities, and so did some of my most extensive research into public transport provisions for the area.

Friday 8th July 2005
That morning I was due to fly out. It was only then that I received a text message confirming that Stetind was the destination tonight. The weather forecast put today and tomorrow as the best days for climbing Stetind. Beyond, the weather forecast looked grim. It was now or never, and today was going to turn out to be one of the longest days of my year so far. Getting up to Harstad-Narvik airport would be both relatively certain and easy (though I didn't know how the London bomb attacks the day before would affect my train and flight). I was going to use a bus and boat from the airport to cross Ofotsfjorden to Kjeldebotn. What lay beyond was a mystery, as I was reliant upon hitchhiking to the bottom of Stetind.

Waiting at Oslo airport, I got a text from Rob, one of my friends on the trip. He confirmed that they were in Narvik, they had sunny weather and he had bought a big bottle of gas for me! So far so good. My plane arrived and we boarded on time. The flight north was spectacular crossing large wilderness areas, some ice caps and having extensive views out east to the Swedish mountains. I recognised many landmarks below and then Stetind came into view! It was a sight to behold. Not only was it bathed in evening sunlight but together with Prestind, they stood up proud out of a blanket of silky cloud. Somewhere down there were my friends.

Says it all....

Icecaps near Sulitjelma

Stetind and Prestind on final approach

We arrived at Harstad-Narvik just 5 minutes late, but the bus connections were tight and I didn't know whether they waited for the last passenger. They always take ages putting the bags on the conveyor belt at this airport. First they take the arrival baggage off the plane, then they put the departure bags on the plane before finally putting the arrival bags on the belt. After 15 minutes the bags began to arrive, as the crowds thinned out, I grew nervous that I would miss my bus, so I went out to the driver and asked them to wait. They would wait, phew! They always wait for the last passenger. But something was wrong, down in the pit of my stomach I saw that gradually I was starting to feel like the last man standing at the conveyor belt. All of a sudden there was a sudden CLUNK, the belt stopped and the baggage doors closed. I'm sure I lost a fair amount of hair at that point.

What happened after for me was a good dollop of uncoordinated panic. I sent text messages to all my friends, and my parents. I HAD TO GET TO STETIND TONIGHT! I reported the bags lost at the information desk, them giving me a printout with a lost baggage reference number. They wanted a forwarding address for my bag, but looked somewhat blank faced when I gave the GPS coordinates for the place I was going to be camping at tonight. The baggage handler came along and confirmed that there were no other bags in the handling area. It was no use, I was facing a night at the airport with nowhere to go, a scuppered holiday, no possibility of seeing my friends and I didn't even have my toothbrush!

It's during desperate dark times in one's life when small little things make a big difference. Someone else had their bags lost, I had some company and some small conversation to keep me occupied. Little ideas also help, I sent the phone number of a payphone to my dad so that I could discuss options. When the phone rang, it was comforting to hear a familiar voice. The issue of my travel insurance was discussed, that could pay for my accommodation and food during my disruption. At the moment this discussion was all academic, a plane was arriving and I wondered if a small miracle would happen.

I was back in business! Not only had my bags arrived, but an unscheduled bus and boat service would be taking me across the fjord. Talking about my misadventures with one of the bus passengers - after he spotted my cardboard Stetind sign, another miracle happened. I had a lift offered from Kjeldebotn to Ballangen. At Ballangen there is the main E6 road. I'd have a much better chance of getting a further lift there. After much conversation and upon arrival at Ballangen, he drove me further down the E6 where his brother decided to go fishing (at night time!). He offered to drive me to the road going to Stetind, but decided on that road, that it was just a few kilometers to the car park at the bottom of Stetind and as a goodwill gesture he'd drive me right to the bottom of the mountain. A small miracle indeed!

All my uncertainties at that point were behind me, all I had to do was walk. It was 11.30pm and the Stetind carpark was still a hive of activity. I looked around here to see if I could see any familiar tents. There were none, so I began walking up the valley on the path. I asked some late descending climbers if they had seen any tents higher up. They said they saw none. As I walked, it dawned on me that they might not be at the lake. I proceeded up with a strong pace, but little food in my stomach, I was running off adrenalin after all the days events. I had a feeling it would be a bit far fetched to meet up at an obscure lochan, the potential for a screw up remained ominous.

The final ascent on the path went up a bouldery ramp between a large slab below the lake and the wall of Stetind. At the lake itself I was in the cloud, the mist was thick and the possibility of any camping here, never mind friends, looked bleak. It was 1am on Saturday morning, I scrambled along the boulders looking for any place to camp and rest my head. But there was nothing suitably big for my tent. The mist shifted and thickened all the time. I shouted HELLO? ANYONE THERE? No reply. I sent a text to Ally, the last friend to send me a text when I was down at the bottom of Stetind.

After hunting for a piece of ground to camp on, I came to the conclusion that I had to descend 300m back down to a place where there was grass. I had no gas, so I ate the rest of my lunch and took a big drink of water. It was 2.30am, I fell asleep instantly.

Saturday 9th July
I woke up at 8am, after just 5 1/2 hours sleep. The weather was nice and clear with just some wisps of high cirrus cloud. I still hadn't heard from my friends and so didn't know what was happening. It was best to just leave my phone on and just cross my fingers that a useful message would get through. In the meantime I packed up with a decision to head back up to the lake. During the packing I got the phone call I wanted - Rob confirmed that all of them were up at the lake north of Prestind. With that news I hastened my packing efforts and promptly headed back up the corrie with a degree of swiftness.

Looks lack Storeelvdalen to Stefjord

Basecamp Stetind

The southwest face of Stetind

Gone was the night's mist. As I ascended, the lake came clearly into view. I spotted two people hopping across the boulders towards me, it was Rob and Nic coming to greet me. Reunited and relieved at last, I exhanged stories about all that had happened. Nic commented that my rucksack was "well packed", reffering to the fact that everyone else had both a big heavy rucksack, and their filled daysack tied on to the back of it. I hopped along the boulders the way I went last night, and realised that I was probably only 50metres away from their base camp when I decided to turn back. Because I stuck to the shoreline, and the base camp was set back from it, I probably wouldn't have found it in the mist anyway..

The two routes up from the lake

Titinden and Tommerastinden

Svattvatnet seen from the saddle

Reunited we all were at our base camp at last: Alasdair Cook (Ally), Nicola Barnfather (Nic), Jamie Luxmoore, Richard Bostock (Rich), Robert Aktins (Rob), and me (Mr Tony!). After talking some more, I settled down to some porridge before contemplating anything else. The weather was warm and sunny up at the lake and I was, for a moment, filled with content. Ally, Jamie and Rich were preparing to climb Stetind via the South Pillar route - 12 pitches 50m long at Very Severe Standard plus 3 pitches 50m long at E1 standard. So the game was still on, and Stetind was going to happen today. Nic and Rob would accompany me up to the summit via the normal route. I put my tent up, and re-organised my bag ready for our big adventure.

Me and nic at the saddle

North face of Prestind

Southeast view to Kopptinden

We headed south along the eastern side of Svattvatnet at 11am. The terrain was rough being filled with boulders and devoid of any vegetation at all. Our route was via the saddle between Stetind and Prestind. Prestind's enormous north wall got ever closer and you could see that it was very smooth - a formiddable challenge for any climber. One steep snow slope caused pause for thought, but we made our way across it safely. On reaching the saddle, the eastward view burst out revealing mountains all the way to Storsteinsfjellet. The ice cap of Frostisen was clearly in sight and it was somewhat awesome to know that the only road in that direction was behind Frostisen. More awesome was the fact that the southern view had no roads for 200 miles!

Eastern view to Frostisen

Lille Koppvatnet with Isfjellet behind

The route from the saddle went up a broad easy angled ridge, interrupted frequently by small walls requiring scrambling routes to overcome them. The route higher up was less eventful being a jumble of easy rocks and slabs to walk on. Stetinds foretop came into view but it was not until reaching the summit that the full impact of Stetind and its connecting ridge made its presence on our souls. There was a silence between Rob and Nic as we took in the view in front of us. A 750m ridge of serious exposure above 800m granite slabs just a few degrees off vertical, on both sides, stood between us and Stetind. I think Rob described the view as 'nauseating'. We arrived on the foretop at 1.30pm, it took an hour of lunch and preparation before we roped up together, Rob leading, and headed off towards Stetind. Little did we know how long this journey would take us.

Prestind seen from Stetind's foretop

Stetind seen from the foretop

Rob and Nic at the foretop

Initially our route took a broad easy ledge for 50m below the crest on the left hand side. Initially there was little exposure, but gradually the ledge narrowed to the point where it rejoined the crest. Rob saw at this point on the crest that an awkward 2-3m downclimb was needed, so we backtracked 25m to investigate a lower ledge. This ledge was much more exposed but nothing beyond a scramble. This was the first time all of us had moved together on a rope. We placed pieces of gear into the rock between us, so that the rope served a genuinely useful purpose but progress was generally slow.

We regained the ridge which at this point was broad and easy if only for 30m. Our next obstacle was a 15m knife edge ridge at the point where two 50degree featureless slabs meet. Here there was little protection and much exposure. The general technique was to straddle the ridge without trying to sit on it (rather uncomfortable if you do!). Again, Rob was the first to lead, placing protection only at the far end of the ridge. I was in the middle, and was belayed at both ends by Rob and Nic. Beyond the knife edge section, an awkward scramble down gave access to a broader part of the ridge. Here, we allowed a party of six to pass us on the way to the summit.

Rob, on the first ledges

Rob, on the knife
edge section

Rob, belaying nic down
the 5m downclimb

The main crux was now looking very close as we neared the lowest point of the ridge. Here a longer 5m downclimb of diff standard was required to gain access to broad easy ledges beneath the sunny (west) side of the Mysosten block - the main crux of the route. The downclimb is now protected by what seems to be a newly placed bolt. As we reached this saddle on the route, it seemed that the route so far hadn't been as difficult or exposed as I had expected. I was expecting the ridge to be knife edged for much more prolonged periods of time.

We worked our way up the ledges, gradually narrowing and becoming more exposed to the belay point before the crux. We had to wait below the crux for an hour before the earlier party had finished. The belay ledge itself is below an overhang, giving some shelter if it ever rained on us. As we prepared for the crux, I pondered the clouds that were coming in. The high clouds were now moving very fast, and low banks of cloud were also starting to come in beneath us. Stetind was not a place to get caught out.

Looking upto the crux pitch from below

Crux move

Clouds rolling in below

Rob started off on the crux move, barely three or four metres in length but quite difficult. With his rucksack on, he couldn't do it. The technique is to "hand traverse" a vertical crack in a ledge that rises diagonally. Your feet have nothing more than a smooth 80 degree rock face for friction and the ledge can't be walked because of an overhang immediately above. After a while you are able to swing a leg up onto the ledge and then crawl along it. All of this is right above a yawning 800m drop beneath you. Rob returned to dump his bag, I did the same. Rob eventually made it and it was now my turn to do it. It was hard, requiring lots of finger strength, especially while unclipping the rope from the gear we had in the mountain. I had a deep fear that I'd pendulum onto a featureless part of the rock face. That never happened but I did have my prussik loops close at hand. I made the climb, rather clumsily at the crux, but I now had the summit in my grasp! Nic had similar difficulty as us with the added task of removing the gear. We all finished the crux, marvelling at what we had done.

Throughout the traverse we had one eye on Ally, Jamie and Rich who were on the south pillar route. Jamie was always leading the pitches and then belaying Ally and Rich simultaneausly. They were making excellent progress up the climb. Communications with them were by means of hand waving. Our route now tackled a short but very exposed walk to another rock climbing section, only 4m high but requiring a move of diff standard. Beyond that, the ridge became broader and easier to the point that it just became a walk with some occasional scrambling sections.

One awkward move was all that separated us from the summit, which turned out to be quite a sizable plateau. A lone derelict orienteering post was investigated but turned out not to mark the summit. The actual summit was a under a large old patch of snow without being marked by a cairn. We reached the top at 8pm, 5 1/2 hours after heading off from the foretop. I was overjoyed at reaching the summit, it was my finest peak bagging achievement made all the sweeter by all the events that conspired to try and stop me. Out in the direction of the northwest ridge, was a box containing the summit log. Unfortunately it was both full and laminated, so I'll remember to bring a new log to place in the box when I return.

Looking back along
the ridge

Summit shot of me, Rob and Nic

A group of climbers above Rich, Ally and Jamie appeared onto the summit. They said that Jamie et al were below them and we wondered whether to wait and meet on the summit. However as time went by, we decided to leave before they arrived. The return down the ridge was much faster for us. We were more efficient moving together by this point. The Mysosten block required an abseil on the return route. Not only was 20m of abeilling above an 800m void exhillarating, but the walkout to the abseil point was equally mind blowing. With no room for error, the west side offered an 80 degree wall to fall down, while two feet away, the east wall offered an 800m freefall. Somewhere on the east face at that point, a small avalanche occured. Soon after, we heard a call from the south pillar "WHY HALLO MA WEE LASS", it could only be Ally!

Walking out along the Mysosten block

Rob, reunited with
drink (nearly)

The abseil took us right back to the belay point for the crux pitch and our rucksacks. I felt a sense of relief as things would only get easier from this point. We moved relatively quickly with our extra confidence on rope and within 2 hours, we arrived back on the foretop at 11pm, and spotted Jamie, Rich & Ally beginning to make their way down the south ridge of Stetind. For the last 3 hours, low cloud had come in beneath us and was slowly thickening . Our tents were in the cloud and it was now time to descend back to the saddle before Prestind.

We arrived back at our tents at 1am. 20 minutes later Ally, Rich and Jamie had arrived safely. We exchanged stories about our day. It turns out that they had soloed the whole of Stetind's south ridge. Jamie is an expert climber, and quite happy soloing a severe, though by his own admission, he describes his exploits as "stupid". For Ally he said it was his first time in the Norwegian Mountains, his first time north of the polar circle, he first midnight climb, his first big wall and suprisingly, it was also his first E1 route. At 2.30am on Sunday morning, I fell asleep. It had been two remarkable days of my life, and they were probably my finest too.