Thursday, June 23, 2016

Dad's birthday ski extravaganza

In the world of Dad, there is no better way to celebrate your birthday than by going skiing. This may not seem so unnatural, until you realize that Dad’s birthday is June 5. (Every year people!) Living in Norway, there’s definitely always the possibility to extend your ski season this long, if you know where to look.

Last year’s birthday trip to Trollstigen had ended in rain, a wet avalanche, and resorting to hiking rather than skiing on Sunday. This year, the weather forecast was really good. Too good almost. It was supposed to be hot and sunny all week, and I was definitely skeptical. What if there was no snow? What if all the snow was just a pile of watery, rotten mush? Still, it was Dad’s birthday, so Audun and I dutifully drove the six-odd hours to Romsdalen from Oslo. And this is how we found ourselves, on an incredibly sunny Saturday morning, staring up at Store Vengetind’s northeast-facing couloir. 

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I’ll ski that for sure: Store Vengetind from our parking spot in Vengedalen.

It was an impressive sight. Store Vengetind is one of those peaks I have always admired from afar, and thought that, one day, one day! I’ll climb you. The time was now. 

Along for the ski was Dad's grizzled French mountaineer friend Christophe along with Christophe’s budding alpinist son Niels. Looking up at the mountain, I couldn’t see how we would be able to patch together a continuous route on snow. Christophe pointed to a long, narrow tongue of snow coming down the mountain that we would climb, before scrambling over some rocks to get into the main couloir. With skis on our back, we set out up the mountain in the hot spring sun.

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Skiing in June means booting up a narrow strip of snow in the hot sun.  Photo by Dad.

We booted our way up the snow for a while, then climb for some time on one of the vertical strips of exposed mountain dovetailing the snow. I was in the lead, and felt like everyone behind me was a chase pack. I pushed hard uphill, going as fast as my pack ladened with skis and the clumsy ski boots on my feet would allow me. Upon reentering the snow, Christophe announced that is was time to put on crampons. The snow wasn’t icy, merely hard, but it was steep enough that we needed extra traction.

The next challenge was crossing a band to steep rocks to reach the main couloir. Clambering around on the rocks was awkward, but there was a ledge that brought us most of the way around.

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Moving into the main couloir. Photo by Dad

Now the main couloir loomed above us, with the rest of Romsdalen stretching out to the sea behind us. It could not have been a more perfect day. 

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Dad climbing the main couloir of Store Vengetind, with the spectacular view all the way to the sea behind him.

The couloir on Store Venjetind is cradled by a wall of rock on the left side, dwarfing skiers booting slowly uphill. Progress seems to be nonexistent at times as you look up and still see the exact same features in the same configuration above you. Climbing a couloir becomes a sort of meditation, wherein you just keep putting one foot in front of the other and accept that the uphill progress must be happening somehow. 

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Christophe and Niels stop to fix a malfunctioning crampon on the steep snow.

And then, above us, I could see an end to the snow. The rocky outcropping of a sadle between the sub and main peak of Vengetind presented itself. We clambered over the rocks in our crampons, and then had a quick lunch break before ditching our skis and other excess equipment to make our summit bid.

To get to the majestic summit, we had to climb an exposed ledge that wrapped around the mountain from the couloir and brought us to the east-facing summit face. Some people actually ski the east face in its entirety, but this is a project that involves skiing 50 degrees in you-fall-you-die terrain - not something for me!

I had heard much about the ledge to get to the summit face from Dad, who had climbed it before, and I had thus been anticipating this particular part. Although the ledge was narrow and dropped straight down to a glacier many meters below, the rock was dry and there were secure hand placements all the way around. For once, I didn’t feel scared at all.

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The magical ledge around to the front of Store Vengetind. Photo by Dad.

After wrapping around, a final climb on snow to the summit remain. The snow was quite rotten, and our feet sunk deep in as we booted our way up the steep face. Just below the summit, perhaps 10 vertical meters, the snow abruptly stopped, leaving bare, steep rock. We stood for a few minutes, discussing possible lines up. In the end, we concluded that getting to the top basically required simple rock climbing, and since the consequences of a fall were very very bad (sliding down a steep snow field off a cliff bad), we wouldn’t do it without a rope. I was a little disappointed at our decision to turn so close to the top, but I respect the cool-headednes of Christophe’s judgement compared to my drive to get to the top by any means.

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Dad below the summit. You can see our bootmarks to the edge of the snow, and the final meters of rock that we didn’t climb.

We then had to down climb the steep, rotten snow field, which was much scarier than going up. For some reason down climbing with my body facing the hill (as opposed to outward, the way you would be if you just walked) makes me kind of dizzy. I guess practice will have to make perfect!

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Down climbing the steep snow on the east face of Store Vengetind. Photo by Dad

Soon enough we were clicking into our skis to enjoy the long descent of the couloir. The conditions were rather challenging, as the snow was still hard and lumpy at the top of the couloir and rotten lower down. 

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Me in action in the couloir. Photo by Dad

There was, of course, a Goldilocks section where the snow was just right!

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Niels enjoying the dwindling snow.

We went out for dinner in Åndalsnes that evening and consumed enormous amounts of pizza, pasta and water while toasting our near success and Dad’s birthday. I still have unfinished business with Store Vengetind, but it’s not nearly as intimidating as it once was.

The next day, we drove up to Trollstigen to conquer another peak: Breitind. Strolling out of the tourist parking lot and along the walkway to the viewpoint, I felt like an alien compared to the tourists just there to take in the view. We were on a mission though, and soon veered off the main walkway to follow a beaten footpath to the snow.

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Weird people carrying skis on the Trollstigen walkway. Photo by Dad

Even starting at 500 meters, we had to work hard to get to the snow this time. Sometimes I think late-season skiing is more for the novelty than anything else, but then a couple of turn down the mountain I remember how great all skiing is.

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The birthday boy in his Hawaiian has just found snow.

The path to Breitind was well-beaten, although it involved a long, nasty, icy traverse before the final climb to the summit.

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Audun and I opted to ski in shorts. We did not regret it. Photo by Dad.

Christophe, Niels and Dad decided to leave their skis a little ways below the summit so as not to have to ski the steepest part. Audun and I opted to carry our skis, which we did not regret when we crested the slope to see that the final 300 meters to the summit were all on snow and therefore easier on skis.

The summit is perched on the top of the Troll Wall, and sitting on top is a precarious perch. None of us wanted to stand up while we were on top!

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Group photo on top of Breitind.

After summiting, Christophe and co headed back to their skis, while Audun and I could ski more or less ski straight down the mountain. The conditions were rather icy, but we still got in a few good turns.

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Audun descending Bretitind, with Romsdalen valley a 1500-meter sheer drop below us.

The skiing was better lower down, where the snow was a bit softer. As we skiied down, we saw hoards of people skiing up the mountain. Starting at 9 o’clock, we had been the earlybirds! Skiing in Norway is like the complete opposite of the Alpes, where everyone starts super early to avoid avalanches.

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The birthday boy enjoys the descent.

With this beautiful last hurrah, I’m happy to hang up my skis for the 2015/16 season. Come October, I’m sure I’ll be looking at them longingly again. I always do.

- The Wild Bazilchuk

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