ICELAND - A Journey Back to the Origin

IN THREE PARTS.

 Text: Albert Leichtfried, Sterling Athlete

Pics: Hannes Mair, www.alpsolut.com

PART I.

Iceland – where you can feel nature’s forces in an unrivalled manner. A land full of contrasts, the land of the origin. Albert Leichtfied and Benedikt Purner are in love with those remote regions high up North, especially for the ice climbing possibilities you find there. 

 

Since the eruption of the volcano Eyjafjallajökull on March 20th in 2010 Iceland has become famous and notorious for its forces of nature and tourism has boosted. People from all over the world come to visit the island with the particular flair. Volcanoes, geysers, hot springs, hot steams in various manifestations, fields of lava and the unbelievably diverse vegetation determines Icelandic vegetation. Inhabited by extremely peaceful humans, that can barely be surpassed in terms of hospitality. Besides the convivial Icelandic people, the island is inhabited by as many cattle, sheep and horses. A spot on this planet where you can come back again and again and never will be disenchanted, where you always feel at home, irrespective of the freak weather condition and the extremely raw climate. You can tell the roughness of the climate directly from looking at the trees – the groups of trees give the impression of miniature woods. There is a saying that if you get lost in an Icelandic wood you should just stand up and get out of it. 

 

The miracles of nature aside, you find a comparably big Norse mythology up there – the land of trolls, elves and other mythical creatures offers countless numbers of stories and tales. One story is that once a road was built around a boulder that was apparently inhabited by mystical creatures. When you talk to the locals only few will probably admit that they believe in those tales and stories … nevertheless one can feel that in their hearts a strong conviction for the mystic world exists. Whether you believe in those kinds of things or not, Icelandic people will always be happy to talk about their mystic history. 

 

Shelter-of-the-gods_Albert_SL2-lowres.jpg

Albert making his way to a first ascent on a remote climb in Iceland.

 

The high North has a major attraction for ice climbers as well, most of all for its unlimited opportunities, if the conditions are appropriate. Actually one should be able to count on cold temperatures in winter on an island close to the polar circle. But by the reason of the continuously present Gulfstream from the South West, constant warm air masses are transported with the warm ocean stream up there. Therefore, also during winter season extreme warm periods can occur, melting down the whole ice landscape in only a few days. Despite of the high latitude of 66° north, facilitating midnight sun in summer and covering the land in deep darkness in winter, the Icelandic climate is characterized very mild. Depending on the supplies of warm air from the Southwest or the arctic cold from North and Northeast, the emotions of ice climbers will vary from cheer to teariness, making an ice climbing trip to Iceland a particular thrill. Sometimes I feel like I’m in a Casino – black or red, cold or warm – until the die is cast and the departure day has arrived, no one can tell for sure. The Icelandic meteorologists are content with making the appropriate forecast for the next day. 

 

At the beginning of this year’s journey we thought that all the effort was for nothing. A storm of hurricane force coming from the Southwest and temperatures up to 10 degrees above 0 threatened to melt down the whole ice surfaces that laboriously built up since last December. Luckily enough the storm only lasted for a short period of time and most of the ice ‘survived’, even though looking a bit harassed. After a short period the island was transformed back to a winter icy wonderland. With joy we started our search for ice, because we already knew from our trips before, that if the conditions are right, Iceland offers plenty of ice jewels. We started at a very spectacular place – Kaldakinn, on the very northeast of the island. Together with the farmer Peter Björg, who lives in front of the cliff with his family, cows and sheep, we planned our first activities. Over the years Peter has turned into a friend and ice climbers from around the world have been his guests. Directly from the farm there are more than 60 icelines on the 5 kilometer long cliff. This time we could find a special line in Kaldakinn. The line looked like a wallpaper of ice. On „Vaggfóður“ M6/WI6 the climbing is delicate with the combination of small ice elements, thin ice smears and some rock sections. The day before we climbed at a higher area called Öxnadalur, because of the warm temperatures caused by the storm. There we found two nice lines after a long approach and called the routes „Hoarniglsheidi“ M7/WI6 und „Exciting trousers“ M6.

 

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Albert climbing in Iceland where the weather is a gamble every single day.

 

A special adventure is to climb ice directly from the shore surrounded by the sea. At the sea cliff of Kaldakinn you can experience that unique moments. But it is very important to observe the sea and climb only on low tide, because the shore is flooded most of the time. We found out that the line on the very right side had not been climbed yet. After dinner together with the Björg family we talked about the line and the place of the route near a cave. The legend says that in this cave a troll is living, called Ágúll. The fearsome creature should not be met during night time. Therefore we named the route „Tower of Ágúll“ WI5. 

 

Name Grade Date Area First Ascent
Exciting Trousers M6 Feb 6, 2018 Öxnadalur  X
Hoarniglsheidi  WI6, M7 Feb 6, 2018 Öxnadalur  X
Vaggfóður  WI6, M6  Feb 7, 2018 Kaldakinn  X
Tower of Ágúll  WI5  Feb 8, 2018 Kaldakinn  X

 

A very good overview about the ice climbing in Iceland you can find at the website from the Icelandic alpine club: www.isalp.is/en/ 

 

 

PART II.

There are unbelievable places on earth and there are unbelievable lines to climb. To find a combination of both is the biggest luck a climber can have. Such a route we found, after we left the farm of Björg with a heavy heart. At one of the well-known places in Icelandic mythology, the gorge in the shape of a horseshoe called Ásbyrgi, we found a special ice formation at the very end – a mixture of incredible steep rock and hanging ice daggers. In the legend, the gorge was made after a step of the horse of Odin called Sleipnir. The science says that the gorge has been shaped after a volcanic eruption in the Vatnajökull area where big masses of ice melted and the water flow shaped the gorge. Anyway, the place is unique where someone can feel a special energy. The legend also says that this place is the capital of the elves. When walking through the gorge you can feel this exceptional atmosphere immediately. Climbing in that atmosphere was therefore a very special experience. We only could find a few structures on that extreme overhanging wall, so it took us quite a lot of effort to work our way through many ice smears and icicles combined with extremely demanding rock climbing. It seemed to be a wonder that only some tiny lava bubbles made it possible to free climb the route. On the next day we had to apply our full climbing trickery to bring the line into the state of a redpoint. We named the route “Shelter of the gods”, as this is what the place is called anyway. Benni started into the first pitch and was already completely wasted after climbing the pitch redpoint without any warm-up. Shortly before reaching the belay, the game turned exciting again after the crux as he pulled a block of rock out of the wall which hit him directly on the shoulder. Good on him that he has the will to bite his teeth together and stay focused on the climb, so he stayed on the route without falling. Thus the first pitch, graded M10, was done. On the second pitch, I had the mission at the crux to work on an extremely delicate smear of ice with about 2-5 cm thickness. This part turned out to be trickier than expected when working the route the day before. After some tries to do the long reach into the ice, it was clear that I had to make another plan. With closed eyes I had to swing my tools on that little nothing of ice on that smear and luckily it did not break completely, only a little bit of the ice broke without bringing me off the climb. Shortly after the crux, the second pitch of „Shelter of the gods“ (M9+) was redpointed. Happy and satisfied, we abseiled back down into the gorge while the sunset started with a wonderful red light. 

 

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Benedikt climbing Shelter of the Gods, M10.

 

On that point it has to be said that the usage of bolts in the national park of Ásbyrgi is forbidden. Therefore climbers have to ask for permission at the ranger of the national park from Vatnajökull!

 

Name Grade Date Area First Ascent
Exciting Trousers M6 Feb 6, 2018 Öxnadalur  X
Hoarniglsheidi  WI6, M7 Feb 6, 2018 Öxnadalur  X
Vaggfóður  WI6, M6  Feb 7, 2018 Kaldakinn  X
Tower of Ágúll  WI5  Feb 8, 2018 Kaldakinn  X
Shelter of the Gods M10 Feb 10-11, 2018 Ásbyrgi  X

 

A very good overview about the ice climbing in Iceland you can find at the website from the Icelandic alpine club: www.isalp.is/en/

 

Shelter-of-the-gods_Benni_SL1-lowres.jpg

Benedikt climbing Shelter of the Gods.

 

 

PART III.

 Quite tired we continued our way to the next adventure at the remote eastfjords. We met our friend and “king of the eastfjords” Sævar Gudjonsson who organized a special ice climbing trip near his hometown Eskifjördur. He told us already in 2012 about huge ice formations on the fjord north of Eskifjördur, which are only accessible by boat. Already for the third time this area in absolute wilderness draws our attention to this project. This time the weather was perfect and so were the ice conditions. After 2012 and 2016 we tried again to climb on the remote and wild Nipa. The years before we always have been stopped due to the warm weather situation. But this time it looked better. The special thing about Nipa is that it is only reachable by boat – so that makes planning the right time to go there even harder. In wintertime, when the sea is mostly rough, the chance to reach land is around zero. Sigurður Vilmundur Jónsson, a local member of the mountain rescue team and climber helped us handle the logistics with the boat. The whole crew was quite strained with this risky situation. Weather and sea can change dramatically within short time. This can make the situation on the sea cliff really uncomfortable. An upcoming storm can have fatal consequences for such a project. Starting from the ferry boat to Brekka, Sigurður brought us to land using a small rubber boat. From the shore we started to climb ice directly. We tried to climb fast to be back down as quick as possible. At the end it was the perfect day – the sea stayed incredibly calm and in time we returned back to the big ferry boat. The crew was clearly happy to finish that day in such a way as we met the amazed captain of the ferry on board.  „With a little help from my friends“ WI5 is located at one of the most spectacular places for ice climbing on our planet. That way we could finish an incredible intense ice climbing trip with an extraordinary adventure.  

 

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Albert takes over on a pitch on Shelter of the Gods. 

 

Name Grade Date Area First Ascent
Exciting Trousers M6 Feb 6, 2018 Öxnadalur  X
Hoarniglsheidi  WI6, M7 Feb 6, 2018 Öxnadalur  X
Vaggfóður  WI6, M6  Feb 7, 2018 Kaldakinn  X
Tower of Ágúll  WI5  Feb 8, 2018 Kaldakinn  X
Shelter of the Gods M10 Feb 10-11, 2018 Ásbyrgi  X
With a Little Help from My Friends WI5 Feb 12, 2018 Nipa X

 

A very good overview about the ice climbing in Iceland you can find at the website from the Icelandic alpine club: www.isalp.is/en/

 Albert_Leichtfried_Portrait_with_Photon_900x600.jpg

 Albert with Sterling Photon ropes.

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