Having been invited to the Abisko Ice Climbing Festival 2013 was an opportunity I couldn’t resist. A four hour ferry ride to Umeå and a nine hour train ride to Abisko later I arrived in one of Sweden’s Northernmost trail towns, which offers stunning Aurora Borealis, downhill skiing, husky tours and superb ice climbing.
“Welcome to the Abisko Ice Climbing Festival! I see you’re already wearing your climbing shoes, just drop your stuff here and head down to the canyon, you can get all the gear at the Petzl tent and the Demo Session is soon starting!”
After this friendly welcome from Anders Bergwall, UIAGM/ IFMGA Mountain Guide, owner of Arctic Guides, and Organiser of the AICF I quickly changed into my climbing pants and headed down to the Abisko river canyon, where indeed already a lot of people where climbing and chatting. But before I could climb I needed some gear, and so I went into the huge Tentipi tent and got from the friendly employees from C2 Vertical Safety a pair of crampons (Petzl Darts), a pair of ice tools (Petzl Quarks), a harness (the new Petzl Sama) and a helmet (the new Petzl Sirocco, wonderfully light!). Well equipped I headed down to the canyon and started to chat with some of the other climbers while I was waiting for my turn.
It didn’t take too long and after a quick introduction and a buddy check with my belayer Rafael Jensen I was up the ice. The route was not too difficult, and already pretty hewn out from previous climbers, but for someone who was already travelling for about 12 hours it was just right. Back down Rafael gave me a few tips, and then I was already again knotting a Figure 8 knot and going up the second route.
After getting in five climbs it was time to check out the Demo Session from the Petzl climbers. They showed some nice Mixed climbing on a vertical cliff and ice climbing on an impressive waterfall further back in the canyon. But I was getting hungry, so I returned most of the Petzl gear as I brought my own, and just held on the the Sirocco helmet, which is wonderful. At the STF Turist Station Abisko I relaxed till Dinner started, and then headed shortly to the cabin to drop my backpacks before heading back to the presentations.
Robert Jasper, a German Alpinist, had a presentation about his ascent of the Eiger Northface by the Japanese Route, Erwann from Petzl showed us a video of a truly impressive ice climb up a waterfall which he can see from his office (see it here) while Alban told us more about the new Petzl gear we could try this weekend. After such a long day it was time to hit the hay, and I went with my room mates back to the cabin.
Friday morning I got up early and headed for breakfast to the STF Station. In case you haven’t been there, the breakfast alone is a good reason to visit - it was superb! Delicious, freshly baked breads, scrambled eggs & bacon, porridge and different berry soups guarantee a great start into the day. After we made our own lunches from the breakfast buffet, with a few tasty additions like GORP, Chocolate and drinks, it was gathering the gear and heading to the Lounge, waiting for the cars.
Todays climbing was at a nearby roadside cliff, which had about ten frozen waterfalls waiting for us. We were quickly separated into different groups while a few of the Pros set up Topropes for us, and then it was ice climbing time!
I was with the Beginner group, and Anders from Arctic Guides started off with telling us about proper crampon use. After that we traversed in half a meter height along a ice fall, while the Guides checked on how we used the crampons and gave us tips on how to do it better. After this it was time to get climbing on topropes, first at the beginner’s wall, then, as confidence, technique and skills increased on the intermediate wall.
In between there were some more clinics, and especially the “How to create an Abalakov thread” one was very interesting. By using an ice screw you create a V shaped channel in solid ice, through which you then thread a cord or the rope directly to abseil. It allows you to leave no expensive gear behind (and with a single ice screw costing upwards of 50€, that’s very welcome indeed!) and if done correctly is very safe.
After six hours of intense climbing and clinics we were shuttled back to the STF Station, but some of us still had enough energy left and so headed down to the Abisko Canyon. Together with Sanna, a local Skiguide, we climbed in the canyon, first on the same wall as the previous day, then we decided to try our skills on the waterfall behind the open pool where the advanced climbers were climbing the previous day.
Sanna went first, and standing next to the flowing water on a thin strip of frozen ice I was belaying her. She climbed the route until she was out of sight, topping out on a small ledge. Over the roaring of the water we communicated, and I abseiled her down, we both psyched that she did this hard route! I knotted in and set off, though half way up I needed to get down - my hands were pumped and to my defence I can say that Erwann from Petzl needed to go up the route to clean it - it was already late, and we were the last ones climbing =)
In the After Climb Lounge Krister Jonsson took us to Kyrgisiztan, where he climbed in 2012 for three weeks with his fiancée magnificent peaks and walls in a superb setting. After a good Dinner the presentations continued, taking us on a expedition to Patagonia and ice climbing in China, both very inspiring. But Saturday we would start early, so it was to bed early, too.
The Alarm rang at six o’clock, and an half hour later the great breakfast was enjoyed again. I joined Alban & Erwann from Petzl and Robert Jasper in their car as we journeyed to Spansdalen in Norway. It was a fun trip, and all of us were in awe: As soon as we passed the Swedish - Norwegian border high peaks rose upward, much higher and steeper than anything we had seen to date in Sweden. Later the Swedes told us that it indeed seems to be along the complete Border this way - the round fjells on the Swedish side, the high peaks on the Norwegian side.
We arrived in Spansdalen, the “Valley of Ice” in Norway and dropped the Pros and Advanced climbers at Henrikkafossen, a 8-Pitch route which looked like superb fun. We drove a bit further up the valley to more moderate climbs, and while the first four groups set off to climb various Multipitch routes others stayed behind and took part in a few more clinics - from building belay stations to different alternatives of rappelling.
After a while it was Sara and my turn to go climbing, and we joined Stefan Lindblom from Vertikal Guiden. Stefan lead climbed on a half-rope so that he could belay Sara & me from the belay ledge, and once he set up his belay Sara & me simu-climbed up to him. The belay was on an exposed ledge and the wind was blowing coldly, so it was good that I brought my belay vest along to stay warm.
Sara belayed Stefan this time on the 2nd pitch, which was a lot harder than the first one, with a very steep vertical section. My hands pumped, the cold wind blowing, I pushed on, taking out the ice screws & quick-draws Stefan placed, until I finally made it to the top.
Up on the top Stefan belayed Sara till she too made was with us. If you go up, you also need to get back down and so we sorted ropes and set up everything for abseiling back down. We used the new Petzl Reverso 4 to go down, and abseiling the 45 m ice fall was good fun. After we were all safely back at the start of the climb it was time to coil ropes and head back to the car, as it was getting late and we had still a 1,5 hour ride back to Abisko in front of us.
But what should have been 1,5 hour ride became a 3 hour ride, as we were waiting for 1,5 hours to cross the pass back into Sweden. Because of the strong winds the road was closed and one could only pass it in a convoy. There also was an accident, and so we sat in the car, chatting and waiting for the support vehicles to arrive and escort us across the pass. As we crossed the pass in the convoy the wind was blowing strongly, though I still spotted a few skiers on the loipes, heading back to their huts or cars.
Back in Abisko we enjoyed a presentation from Stefan, who ice climbs a lot in abandoned mines in his region, rather interesting places with many curious stories connected to them. After the Festival Dinner we listened closely as Rafael Jensen told of the first Swedish expedition to K2, a very touching story as three of the six members who stood on the summit of this Himalayan peak died on the descent.
On Sunday we started a bit later than the previous days, and I headed after nine to the Abisko canyon for the final ice climbing of the weekend. It was a beautiful, sunny day with temps in the -14°C range. Stefan and Anders set a few topropes for us, and so we soon started to climb again. I tried various mixed routes that day, where one climbs rock & ice with tools & crampons, and while I was sceptical at first I enjoyed it immensely. It is a whole new sort of climbing, in parts easier, in parts harder than pure ice climbing or rock climbing. Heading up a steep wall with fine cracks, and only here and there ice features, is something every climber should try - it is great fun, and pushes your thinking to new levels.
But all good things come to an end, and so slowly the participants from near and far started to depart, catching trains, buses, planes or car rides down south. I myself stored my ice climbing gear away and got my Hyperlite Mountain Gear Porter, a pair of Dynafit Broadpeak skis and TLT5 boots and headed for the Kungsleden. But that’s another story.
Did this get you psyched about ice climbing in Abisko and surroundings, trying out new gear and learning from the Pros? Then follow the Arctic Guides on Facebook and Twitter to hear about the AICF 2014, or visit one of their ice climbing courses.
I’d like to thank all the awesome participants of the AICF, especially Anders & Merja from Arctic Guides, Stefan, Rafael, Robert and Krister for teaching & guiding us, my room mate Dorian for the good company, Lo for letting me sleep at her place, Sara & Mikeal from C2 Vertical Safety as well as Alban & Erwann from Petzl for the possibility to loan great gear. I’m looking forward to climbing with you again next year!