Uskedalen calling

By Dom Bush

Most people don’t know that I’m a secret Scandinavian*. I’ve never been particularly inspired by the arid scrub of hot countries, drawn instead to tundra and cold fjord lands. I feel magic in the chill of northern landscapes.

Although I still work as a freelance filmmaker and photographer I’m also a part time teacher, and for that reason I can look forward to a long summer holiday after a long year. This gives me an opportunity to choose a trip just for me as well as one with the family, a privilege for anyone who has ever relied on a freelance wage. I fired out a text to a couple of pals in the springtime, ‘big walls in Norway, who’s in?’

Joe and I hooked up at his parent’s house in Liverpool and sorted through kit for 8 days climbing on the west coast of Norway. We were flying in to Oslo and heading to an area south of Bergen called Uskedalen with a half way stop at Nissedal for some easier shorter warm ups. A little concerned about the inclement weather and extended journey to Lofoten we had made new plans based on an article and some blog posts we had seen about the huge granite walls further south.

Norway is expensive at the best of times and even more so since the political events of this year, so we opted to pay for an extra bag and throw 20Kg of food in it to keep costs down. The tiny hire car we had booked wasn’t available at the airport so the man behind the counter gave us one twice the size and 10 times better, and added a second driver for no extra cost. He smiled in a relaxed way as we laughed behind our hands at our good luck, it didn’t even seem to cross his mind that he might charge us more money. ‘There might be a couple of scratches on it, but it’ll be fine’.

Nissedal is a small community at the head of a lake surrounded by granite slabs, the crags are small by Norwegian standards but many are bigger than anything we have in Britain. After waking to blue skies we headed for our first climbing day on a huge granite dome called Haegefjell. Keen to ease ourselves in we picked a route called Agent Orange, an 8 pitch 5+ (VS) which picked it’s way to the top over delicate slabs and exciting dihedrals. The following day we headed to a neighbouring crag and jumped on a 5 pitch 6+ (E2) in the blazing sun and got a bit of a kicking on some of the best pitches the Nissedal area had to offer. With small gear, spaced bolts and thin climbing we were glad to have fully equipped belays for abseiling if chose to run away, but we soldiered on, elated. Feeling satisfied with our adventures in Nissedal and eager to see our main objective, we headed out the following morning bound for Uskedalen.

Without lumping a whole nation in to a box, the Norwegians appear to be relaxed and generally chuffed with themselves. They have a beautiful country with lots of room in it, their energy is almost completely sustainably sourced, their economy is healthy, and they can buy land beside a lake and go fishing. We made our way west through wooded valleys on wide, empty, well-kept roads and enjoyed the feeling of space.

Uskedalen is a long, straight glaciated valley, similar in length to Borrowdale or Llanberis Pass with a river running through it to the small harbour in the village. One side of the valley is tame with small craglets but no climbing, a contrast to the opposing side which rears up in sweeping slabs up to 900 metres high in places. The granite domes fall away to hanging valleys which trap snow throughout the summer and channel melt water down in waterfalls. It can be a foreboding sight before you are accustomed to it, and I admit to having had a mild feeling of dread the day we arrived and looked up. Backlit against the afternoon sun the cliff faces were completely cloaked in shadow with no discernable features, they looked very big and pretty scary; a far cry from Nissedal. We squinted up at it for a while then retreated back to the coast to eat barbequed food, drink duty free beer and sleep where the Norse gods of granite and terror couldn’t get us.

Although it seems minor at first, the freedom Norway offers with regards to camping can have a big effect on stress levels and ultimately the enjoyment of the trip. I drive a little converted van back home and although this offers some freedom, the feeling that you may get moved on at any time makes me anxious and rarely makes for a good night’s sleep. In Norway you are free to bed down where you like except on farmland, with very few people and so much space it seems quite natural to camp up wherever suites as long as you leave no trace when you head off. We found secluded spots each night beside the coast or in the woods where we could cook and read our books, free from the stress of being asked to leave.

It is difficult to quantify the importance of a trip like this. I had made it clear to Joe from the start that I wasn’t in the mood for epics, and having returned from the Alps two days before we left for Norway where (amongst other things) Joe had spent 3 nights on a ledge trapped in a storm before being helicoptered off, he seemed to share my sentiment. We wanted to go climbing but we also wanted some time to get away. It began to make sense three of four days in when I realised that all I really had to do was climb all day,take a few pictures, make a meal, set up a bed, read my book and have a nip of whisky. No emails, no social media, computer or schedule, just rock climbing, a space to rest and some food. Day after day. A tonic.

Uskedalen is all about adventure. It has spaced bolts on un-protectable slabs but is almost exclusively protected by traditional gear. The pitches go on for the full length of a 60metre rope and you can expect to be pretty rinsed by the time you hit the belay. Before you reach any climbing you will have picked your way through scrub, boulders and bogs; getting lost is painfully easy.

It dawned on us a few days after arriving in the valley that we weren’t going to reach the top at the speed we were climbing and with the amount of daylight we had on offer. The easiest and fastest route still required 10 to 12 hours of climbing with no bolted belays and little option for retreat, followed by a walk up a knife-edge ridge then a 3-4 hour walk off the hill and back up the valley. Though it seemed counter-intuitive not to push for the top we stuck to our no epic ethic and picked our way through the acres and acres of spectacular climbing that the bottom half of the faces had to offer. Many routes can be chosen to link up with ledge systems leading you back to an abseil line, so we picked our routes carefully and climbed pitch after pitch of stunning cracks, slabs and dihedral corners, hoovering up a few un-missable pitches that we spotted on our way down the abseils. Climbing exquisite pitches day after day stacked on top of each other made me realise how many crap routes I have done in England, simply because I was pushed for time, or I didn’t fancy the walk in to the higher crags. More often than not, great climbing requires great effort.

On our final day in Uskedalen we set our sights on one of the most well known lines on the crag, a 12 pitch 6+ (E2) called ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ with bolted rap stations and pitch after pitch of crack climbing. I was tired from 6 days of climbing and epic walk ins but keen to go out with a bang. Sadly it was not to be. As we bushwacked our way to the base the clouds rolled in and the rain washed the walls in seconds, scuppering all plans of a heroic ending to our time in the valley. The following day we were climbing in Nissedal again, padding up 60m slabs in the sunshine. We made a decision not to rap straight down, and instead climbed through the final pitch to the top of the granite dome. Having been abseiling all week we had forgotten how significant it could be to reach a summit and take in the view, to feel you had genuinely achieved something. We stayed there for close to two hours, eating jelly sweets and snoozing in the sunshine; feeling knackered, content and pleased with ourselves. We were ready to head home.

Norway doesn’t have to be expensive if you are prepared to rough it a bit, and most climbers are. Plan your food and baggage allowance carefully so you don’t need to dip in and out of shops all the time. On our last day climbing we stopped for a hot dog and ice cream each in a service station and it cost us £15! On our 9 day trip we were blessed with 7 days of good weather, however, when we left the forecast was predicting 10 days of rain in Uskedalen. Take this in to account, as there isn’t much to do in rural Norway when it rains day after day! We managed to get a very cheap flight on a budget airline so had the opportunity to cut our losses should we have a terrible forecast for the trip. The summer climate down the west coast is much like Scotland, but with a bit of luck you will be able to enjoy dry rock in one of the most dramatic and beautiful landscapes in the world. Happy climbing!

*I have blond hair and blue eyes…….but I’m not remotely Scandinavian!

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