Store Blåmann: The Little Bigwall of the North

In the summer of 1980, after days of effort, Sjur Nesheim, along with his brother Håvard Nesheim and Frode Gulda finally finished aid climbing the 400 meter tall wall of granite below them, and once again set foot onto horizontal ground. The route they had just climbed, named “Atlantis”, had never been climbed before. Not only was this a new route, but it was also the first time anyone had successfully climbed the north face of Store Blåmann.  For the next decade, with the only exception being another Nesheim brother’s route, no new climbs would be added to this wall.

The North Face of Store Blåmann

The North Face of Store Blåmann. Photo by: Lauri Hämäläinen

Since the time of this ground-breaking first ascent, many new routes have been added to the wall, and many of those routes have now seen free ascents. Atlantis still remains one of the most popular and inspiring lines on the wall, for both free and aid climbing.

In the spring of 2015, I was fortunate enough to receive the Live Your Dream Grant from the American Alpine Club for an attempt to make a “team free” ascent of this idyllic route. So, on Aug 7th, my partner, Lauri, who had climbed Atlantis before, though not as a free climb, and I loaded up his van and began the long drive to the island of Kvaløya, located off of Norway’s northwest coast.

The wall, the van, and I. Photo by: Lauri Hämäläinen

The wall, the van, and I.
Photo by: Lauri Hämäläinen

Kvaløya is a climber’s playground. This island of less than 300 square miles has world class rock climbing in every discipline. From bouldering to alpine to big walls, this island almost has it all. What it lacks though, is reliable weather. Even in the best months, July and August, after most of the snow has melted away and the temperatures are still mild, it rains on average over 40% of the days. This can make climbing anything besides into a sleeping bag challenging. In addition, the large corner system that makes up Atlantis is notoriously slow to dry.

The days prior to our arrival in Kvaløya had been filled with rain, and the forecast was less than ideal, so while Lauri and I dodged raindrops and waited for a good weather window, we spent a good chunk of time climbing at some some of those other amazing destinations, most notably, sport climbing at Ersfjorden and multi pitch trad climbing at Baugen.

The awkward, yet classic

The awkward, yet classic “Turistklasse” (Tourist Classic). Photo by: Lauri Hämäläinen

The fine wall that is Baugen, shining in the evening sun. Photo by: Lauri Hämäläinen

The fine wall that is Baugen, shining in the evening sun. Photo by: Lauri Hämäläinen

It wasnt until near the end of our journey (and after three days of consecutive rain) that the winds finally changed, and brought with it some stable, splitter weather.  It was now time to start the show.

Just the climbing part of our gear kit. Who knew you needed so much stuff just to play outside. Photo by: Lauri Hämäläinen

Just the climbing part of our gear kit. Who knew you needed so much stuff just to play outside. Photo by: Lauri Hämäläinen

On morning of August 17th, we loaded our haulbag and began the arduous approach under bluebird skies. Within minutes, I realized that I had underestimated the difficulties of the approach. The trail was not so much a trail, but more a semi-trampled, unmaintained climber’s path that picked its way up through a dense forest. The unabated sun beat down on us and my hand-me-down approach shoes were no match for the marshy ground and small, but numerous stream crossings.

After an hour of thrashing in the woods, we broke free of the jungle and gained an exposed ridgeline. Then, it came time to step into the shadow of the wall. Within seconds of leaving the sunlight, which, due to the north-facing wall, we would not feel against our skins until we reached the summit, the chill of shadows required us to stop and add layers.

DSCN8723

A small Lauri and a big wall.

The closer we got to the wall, the steeper the terrain became. Soon, we were duck-walking up snowfields and using our hands to help with the slabby scrambles. Finally, after over 2 hours of approaching, we reached the base of the wall and located the beginning of Atlantis.

It was cold. Both of us we wearing every stitch of clothing we had brought with us, and I was more than a little intimidated. We began the always slow process of transitioning ourselves to life on the wall. I located a small trickle of water, from the melting snow, and filled our water containers to the brim. Six liters (1.5 gal) of water between the two of us, for three days. Lauri began racking up the gear and preparing for his lead.

Lauri started up, taking the lead, and I followed. The climbing on the first pitch went smoothly enough, and besides me hanging once to clear the jammed haulbag, the climbing went all free.

Following up pitch 1 Photo by: Lauri Hämäläinen

Following up pitch 1
Photo by: Lauri Hämäläinen

Pitch two was what it all came down to. The climbing on this rope length was the hardest that it would get. if we could free this pitch, we had a strong chance of completing our goal. Lauri, being the much stronger climber, continued his leading. As he climbed the upwards, the holds grew more damp, until he couldnt hold them anymore. He was off. I lowered him down, back to the ledge, where he rested and tried again. Attempts were made, falls were taken, and in the end, the pitch just wouldn’t go. The holds were a little too wet and the climbing a little too hard.

After aiding to the top of pitch 2, and with our free ascent over, I lead up pitch 3, as a mixed of free and aid. During Lauri’s one-day ascent the previous summer, he had spied two small ledges at the top of pitch 3 which were just big enough to fit one sleeping climber each. This is where we decided to spend the night.

Already past midnight, Lauri, I, and the haulbag reached these “ledges”.  Unfortunately, they were not as ideal as Lauri had recalled them to be. One was completely useless, and the other cramped and sloping towards the void below. While we were both exhausted from the day’s efforts, Lauri summoned strength from nowhere, and began buzzing around the ledge building anchors, fixing ropes, and cooking dinner. I was pretty useless at this time.

Me being useless Photo by: Lauri Hämäläinen

Me being useless
Photo by: Lauri Hämäläinen

Lauri preparing dinner.

Lauri preparing dinner.

A short and unfavorable night of sleep saw us awake early. Since our free ascent attempt had failed, we were able to cover ground more quickly using a mix of free and aid climbing. The pitches went by, one after another. As we got closer and closer to the top, the climbing became slightly easier, but more wet.

Lauri on the sharp end.

Lauri on the sharp end.

Following on day 2 Photo by: Lauri Hämäläinen

Following on day 2
Photo by: Lauri Hämäläinen

Early in the evening, we topped out the wall, and enjoyed a fantastic view as we transitioned, once again, to life on the horizontal plane.

The view from the top of the world Photo by: Lauri Hämäläinen

The view from the top of the world
Photo by: Lauri Hämäläinen

While we might not have completed exactly what we set out to achieve, it was an amazing experience, and having the opportunity to climb a route of this caliber with a partner superior in both skill and strength, allowed me to learn and grow as a climber. In the words of Lauri, “There is always next summer.”

A bivy spot for two Photo by: Lauri Hämäläinen

A room with a view.
Photo by: Lauri Hämäläinen

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