Monday, 29 August 2011
On the first free ascent of Bongo Bar, Blåmann, Norway. 400m, 7b+, 7b+, 8a, 7c, 7b, 6c, 7a, 6b. Photo: Paul Diffley/Hot Aches Productions. More pictures on the Gore-Tex facebook page shortly, and also on Julia's blog and Hot Aches blog.
Between the three of us, we have climbed a ton of superb granite routes during our stay in Kvaloya. Some of the classic established routes, which are as good as anywhere in the world, and a few great new routes. But before coming here, the biggest thing in my mind that I wanted to do was a new free route on the north face of Blåmann. It’s only been in the past few years that the aid routes here have been considered as big wall objectives for free climbers. The visits by the Austrian climbers Auer and Mayr brought the wall to international attention, and it was their pictures that made me first think of coming here, followed closely by Marten Blixt's excellent guidebook.
Those pictures were from their attempt to free climb the aid route Bongo Bar. They freed the first two pitches at 7b+, 7c+ (although the second is more like 7b+), but the overhanging pitch 3 through the roofs was wet and they traversed left into the ‘Atlantis’ and abseiled off to create the route 'Tingeling' (Tinkerbell in English). Their route was finished to the top of the wall this summer by locals Andreas Klarstrom and Thomas Meling (Peter Pan 400m, 7b+).
On day one of our trip, we could see Blåmann from Tromso airport, standing out from the other peaks on the skyline. When we drove round to the approach and could see the north face, I could hardly get my sack full of ropes on quick enough.
But arriving under the wall, it was less clear if Bongo Bar would be possible. It looked really steep and blank through the roofs. But then again, all the other potential new lines looked rather desperate also! Lots of overhanging closed granite seams, with apparently sheer and featureless sidewalls. Andreas and a friend were stationed 60 metres up a new route, and were obviously having an exciting time. He was shouting down, encouraging us to look at Bongo Bar, and so I thought we should at least give it a shot.
A 55m E6 6b pitch to start was a rough warm up, and a reminder that we have no steep granite laybacking to speak of in Scotland. The following pitch went rather better. E6 6b again and the best granite pitch I have climbed anywhere. Perfect laybacking with spaced but good protection.
The next day, I sent Donald onto the crux third pitch (A3) with the aiding gear. It looked hard and scary. ‘Bong, Bong, Bong’ a hollow ringing from his peg hammer came from over the first roof, followed by an exclamation; ‘Jings, Crivens and help me John Boy!’ Donald had just realised that the crack he was aiding up was actually a huge pancake flake, tottering in a groove waiting for an unsuspecting aid climber to release it from it’s perch. He was not a happy man and came down, suggesting it might be better if I delicately free climbed past it. That I did, only to find the next flake made the previous one look solid. My exclamation was less civilised. I did continue, half aiding, half free to the next belay, to find that pitch 4 looked almost as hard. After another day, I’d worked each move on pitch 3 but needed more time for pitch 4. The forecast looked poor, we were unsure how to manage with logistics of a team ascent with many sharp edges about and a prospect of me doing most or all of the leading. We had a discussion on the belay and reluctantly decided to bail.
However, my greatest failing is never being able to leave things like this and a few days later, I resurrected the idea of a free ascent - I would put in another day of dangling about to clean pitch 4 and scope out some of the pitches above while Helena and Julia ticked classic routes on Hollendran and then I would hopefully go for a redpoint with Julia if the weather held.
Moving around the arete, Bongo Bar pitch 7 (E5 6a)
Some rain threatened our chances. I walked up with Julia to find the black streaks of pitch 3 still looking dry-ish, so we started with no expectations. The two 7b+ pitches flew past and hanging on the belay 100 metres up the wall, inevitably expectations crept in to our minds. Speaking of expectations, Julia seemed to have no questions that I’d be able to dispatch the 8a (E8 6c) pitch above, and told me so in her direct but ever positive style. I launched up the pitch, climbing smoothly at first but wobbling into the crux and seriously losing my cool. I looked behind me for the crucial thumb press; it was wet, and so was the foothold. There was no time for hesitation and as I began to slip off backwards I threw my right hand across the corner without enough time to look for the hold first. Two fingers caught it and with a grunt I stayed on and continued with ‘Elvis leg’ all the way to the ledge.
Julia still smiling, pitch after pitch
Julia’s task of seconding the pitch was going to be one of the main hurdles of the route. 8a climbing, not having been on it before, carrying a rucksack and a 45 metre diagonal pitch through roofs with razor sharp edges. Not for the faint hearted really. The rope came in steadily without a sound. Pulling on gear where she could to avoid weighting the rope and sawing it on the edges, Julia was up in 30 minutes, still smiling and directing me to dispatch the balancy 7c pitch above. After that performance, I thought I’d better.
I climbed it well and in no time was swimming up layback cracks in the upper pitches. Julia was determined to go out in front and lead pitch 6. We were climbing onsight now and the pitch turned out to be 7a (E5 6a) and 60 metres long. She was obviously tired from carrying our jackets, food and water on the hard pitches below but still went for it. After 20 metres, she shouted that she had decided to make a belay on a slab. A good belay? She shouted yes, and then as I arrived admitted it was two old peckers from an aid ascent plus a poor cam and didn’t want to tell me before. We excavated a welcome backup cam placement and I headed around the corner and up endless cracks, now bathed in the lovely late evening sun. A BASE jumper leaped past us just before we topped out on Blåmann, and he touched down safely before we could even finish the last pitch and begin our tired stumble down for 1am pasta. Bongo Bar - the name kept reminding us 30 something brits of this song from our childhood!
Blåmann north face
I have a feeling that despite the unpredictable Norwegian climate, Blåmann will be one of the most famous walls in Europe for hard granite big wall climbs in the coming years. It’s a very accessible place and yet really impressive with some of the best granite you’ll find anywhere.
Thanks to the Gore-Tex experience tour for sending myself, Helena, Julia, Donald and Paul on the trip, and to all the locals who helped us with information and encouragement. It was a pleasure. Here is a taster from Paul's film of Bongo Bar.