Land of Water and Gravity

Long after a band of winter-hardened badasses foiled Nazi plans to build a bomb there, climbers from all over the world have changed a rural Norwegian village into one of the world’s premier ice-climbing destinations. Welcome to Rjukan, where courage comes on front points.

The Vestfjord Valley of southern Norway is spectacular by any standard, an eight-mile-long slit sunk so tightly in the earth that for months there would be no direct sunlight inside it at all were it not for some giant mirrors engineers installed on the valley walls to beam it into its depths. The cliffs squeeze the stars into a studded belt at night. There’s a river and, just out of view, hundreds of waterfalls sucked to earth as if gravity itself were a hoarder. The water turns turbines in some places and forms thick curtains of ice in others. In few other places do beauty and power agree so well.

In the heart of this improbable gorge sits a village, a small and sleepy place called Rjukan. Here, the people thrive in the thin spaces where the mechanical and natural worlds collide. The town has a tidy square, a few cafés, and some shops for the 4,000 or so people who call it home. It is a relatively young place pinched by these ancient cliffs, since most of the town was built around 1907. No buildings were built before the early 1900s. That was when the hydropower plants came in and harnessed the power of the waterfalls to make electricity that lit up hotels, made fertilizer, and turned this rural valley into one of the world’s richest.

If you didn’t know it already, Scandinavians have a gift for engineering, aesthetics, and adventure, and Rjukan embodies all of that, especially in winter, when the waterfalls freeze into magnificent formations. The ice can be sheer or terraced. It can hang like a chandelier or mushroom into great frozen bulbs. There are fanglike pillars and elegant curtains. The ice can be yellow, blue, or a frosty gray, and on any given day you can hear the thunk and crackle of climbers picking their way up it with tools and screws toward the sunlit rim. Rjukan these days has become one of the world’s premier ice-climbing destinations, with hundreds of routes right off the road.

“I mean, it’s just awesome,”says Jakob Fink, a local climber and teacher who runs a hostel in Rjukan that caters largely to ice climbers and backcountry skiers. “There are probably 150 waterfalls in this valley, and each one might have two or three climbing routes. The longest approach might be 15 minutes. Ouray has longer walks in.”

The fact that Rjukan’s waterfalls have made the region an ice-climbing hub is all the more remarkable when you consider who else once came to town for all that water: the Nazis. In fact, Rjukan was once a pivot point in the Third Reich’s efforts to build an atomic bomb because of the water and the gravity that pulled at it. To go nuclear, the Nazis needed something called deuterium oxide, a.k.a. heavy water, which is used to keep nuclear reactions under control. But to make heavy water, you need an enormous amount of power, and there was really only one place within the Reich’s reach that could crank out that kind of electricity: the hydropower plants of Rjukan. So the Nazis invaded Norway, commandeered the stations, and got to work with terrible efficiency.

“By Easter we will not have merely 10,000 pounds of heavy water, but 12,000 pounds of heavy water!” So proclaims Josef Terboven, the Nazi ruling governor of occupied Norway, as played by Eric Porter in the 1965 film The Heroes of Telemark. The movie, which also starred Kirk Douglas, tells the true story of a band of Norwegian resistance fighters who managed to break into the heavily guarded Rjukan power plant and destroy the heavy water reserves, then get out undetected, dealing a major blow to the Nazi plans. To escape, some of the men cross-country-skied hundreds of miles into Sweden, making it one of the most epic sabotage missions of the war.

That past isn’t forgotten by ice climbers today. While routes range from beginner-friendly lines like the four-pitch Faireyfoss, a WI2 (water-ice 2), there’s also a stout mixed-route test piece called Heavy Water, an M10.

Fink moved to town ten years ago specifically for routes like these. At age 42, he has a big beard, a lively face, and the hands of a man who knows how to swing an ice tool and coil a rope. A Dane by birth, he was raised in Greenland, went to school in Denmark and Norway, and spent time in Oslo before settling into Rjukan, about 110 miles west. There he bought an old schoolhouse for about $43,000. He gutted it, painted it, and put in new pipes and a better kitchen.

The Old School Hostel has become the epicenter for climbers—anyone, really—to enjoy the Rjukan bounty. Beginners can take lessons from him to learn how to swing a tool and conserve some energy. In fact, the Old School is a Black Diamond test center where climbers can try some of the latest gear the Salt Lake City–based company has to offer.

Last winter, two professional ice climbers, Heike Schmitt and Ines Papert, joined Fink in Rjukan to climb in the valley, which is still ruled by water and gravity. Mostly it was an excuse to have some fun. “The community up there is great,” says Papert, who recently returned from attempting a new alpine route in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco. “It has a really good spirit there.” They settled into Fink’s school, a 28-bed hostel, and made a plan.

The thing that makes ice climbing so different from rock climbing—besides the obvious—is that ice routes are constantly changing. Waterfalls freeze differently, yes, but even once they’re frozen, the climbing experience is subject to change in response to temperatures and moisture. You can’t just hack your way up a frozen waterfall. You need to find the depressions in the ice that will hold a pick without shattering and balance your way between them with immense core strength. Place your picks too close together and the ice may “dinner plate” and crack, sending you cartwheeling into a void that only an attentive partner with a good belay can stop. Extreme cold can make the ice brittle, which makes those placements more difficult. If it’s too warm, the ice can melt and you can drive a screw right through it into running water behind it, unleashing a fire hose that will soak you to the core on a winter day.

Find that sweet spot right around freezing, though, and the ice will turn flexible and forgiving, almost like plastic. A climber can move with grace and efficiency, conserving strength, and in doing so will see places many of us will never know. “The steeper the ice is, the more I like the movement,” Papert says. “You feel the energy. It’s not just hammering, up, up, up.” The temperatures were almost as perfect when the crew arrived, but things changed rapidly.

It stormed—heavily. Soon nearly three feet of fresh, heavy snow covered the valley. It thundered off cliffs and made even the short approaches tiring. The avalanche danger was high, so the climbers played it safe.

“Snow will just kill the ice,” says Papert, 40, who grew up in East Germany but now lives in Bavaria. “You just have to be ready for whenever the weather gives you a possibility.”

That moment eventually came, and Papert and Schmitt cast off on Rjukan’s classic line, Lipton, a three-pitch WI7 named for the yellowish bog-like minerals in the water that make the falls freeze up like tea.

For most climbers, Lipton is a serious test piece—and a committing line, given that the route usually falls down at least twice a season. For Papert and Schmitt, who are professional climbers, the route is a steep-ice romp; some thrills in a beautiful setting. Before the river that feeds it was diverted into the mountain for hydropower, the base of Lipton would have been below a boiling cauldron of whitewater. Today it is serene—stone and ice locked mid-fall.

The route starts in a narrow rock corner, which leads to a more open dihedral. The two climbers had been training all season and made quick work of the steep sections before reaching a traverse onto a large pillar, where they set up a belay. Their tools settled into the ice with a reassuring thock and left a small hole in the ice, which could then be easily recycled to hold the point of a crampon. From there the duo picked their way up to a bowl before topping out near a free-hanging pillar that can break off during the season and make the climbing much more difficult. In all, they’d climb it three times, rappelling down each time by boring tunnels in the ice, through which they could thread their ropes.

The thing that really makes Rjukan exceptional, however, is that ice climbers of all abilities can find a route that’s right for them. If Lipton is the domain of experts, then a route called the Rjukanfossen is general admission, albeit with some of the most spectacular ice climbing in Norway that almost anyone can reach. Before engineers built the hydropower plants, tourists would come up to Rjukan, wander along its cliffs, and marvel at these cascades, whose name means “Smoking Falls” because of all the mist. The demand for power put an end to the fury, but the ice still forms up each winter. Fink cast off on the three-pitch WI3 route, with a friend belaying him to catch him should he fall.

“It’s a really fun route, man,” Fink says. He led up a slabby ledge to a short steep section and then into a cave about 200 feet up. The two then climbed left out of a small window in the ice to a big pillar. The final section was thin enough that Fink could see water running underneath it.

For about a week, each day unfolded in a similar manner. The climbers would wake up at the school, eat some breads and meats, and head out early. They’d climb, eat packed lunches, and return to the school for pasta dinners, sauna sessions, and rolling around in the fresh snow. All the while, Schmitt and Papert wondered what might come next.

“I always travel with an idea to see a new route,” Papert  says. “It keeps a dream for further trips.”

“You would never think that a town should be in a place like this,” says Øystein Haugan, a local official who is working to make the region a World Heritage site. “But then you look, and there it is.”

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