Swing, Kick, Swing: Ice Climbing on a Norwegian Glacier

On a windy, rainy morning in July, I approached Austerdalsbreen bundled in full winter apparel. Located in Norway, Austerdalsbreen is an accessible side branch of Jostedalsbreen, mainland Europe’s largest glacier. 

In previous GlacierHub posts, I’ve written about last chance tourism, but now, I was actually living it – traveling to a destination threatened by climate change, a place that may not exist in 100 years. 

For a few hours, we had Austerdalsbreen all to our ourselves. Our small group included Icetroll guide Jonas Henreksen, my Dad, and me. 

On the boat ride towards the glacier

Following a short, exciting boat ride across the dammed lake, I stepped onto the rocky shoreline. I couldn’t help but stare at the massive, jagged wall of ice in front of me. Its icy blue color and sheer size were mesmerizing. I looked around and saw a rushing glacial river flowing from a nearby peak and scattered boulders along the coastline. 

But enough looking. It was time to start climbing. Jonas instructed us on how to fasten spiked attachments for our boots, called crampons. Next, he helped us get into our harnesses and secured a climbing line at the end of the glacier, where there was a 15-foot-wall. 

Then, Jonas demonstrated the basics of ice climbing. Swing with the axes; kick straight in with the feet. And, make sure three out of four points into the ice are always secure. 

In the beginning, it was challenging. I had never done anything like it before, but now I was hooked. 

Practice Makes Perfect

After a few practice rounds on the edge of the glacier, we decided to walk up onto the glacier to find additional climbing spots. Once on the glacier, we noticed it was a little “dirtier” than expected. Jonas pointed out that the dark debris was actually volcanic ash transported by a powerful Icelandic eruption in 2010. 

When I asked Jonas if he had noticed any other changes to the glacier, he pointed out two human-related impacts. “When we have more tourists, we see more pollution of plastic … on the glacier, ” said Jonas, who studies Outdoor Life at the University of South-Eastern Norway

Therefore, it is important to adopt a leave no trace motto when exploring all that mother nature has to offer. 

My Dad, Serge, climbing above one of Austerdalsbreen’s crevasses

He added, “Last year was a very warm summer, the glaciers melted more than we were used to seeing,” revealing that Austerdalsbreen is one of the many worldwide glaciers impacted by warming temperatures. He also mentioned that last year was one of the earliest years that they were able to access an ice-free lake to get to Austerdalsbreen. 

Next, we walked on top of the glacier. While we were walking, we heard a very loud rumble. Jonas calmly pointed out that it was probably a large piece of ice breaking off at the edge of the glacier. At this point, I knew that I wasn’t in danger, but it was unfortunate to see the glacier melting right in front of me.

After about 15 minutes of wandering around on this maze of ice, Jonas located an opportune spot to test our newly learned ice climbing skills.

Our next climb was up a crevasse, or open crack in the glacier. Ultimately, it was the same application of skills just a little more nerve-wracking due to the dark, “bottomless” hole beneath our feet. 

Finally, we went on a site-seeing tour around the top of the glacier. We snapped a few pictures and saw some red algae on the snow and several, deep crevasses. 

But ultimately, it was time to say see you later to Austerdalsbreen. Fortunately, by this point, I didn’t really mind because I was exhausted from the day’s efforts. 

Jonas points out that this is the deepest crevasse he’s ever seen.

Back at the carpark, I asked Jonas what he found most rewarding about his job. He responded by saying that he’s grateful to be outdoors all the time, guiding people that do not have the skills to walk alone on the glacier. 

“Sometimes I’m lucky having people with disabilities [visit the glacier] … I had a woman with a prosthetic leg and getting her up there was a struggle, but she was so glad afterward that we took the time to almost carry her up there. So, seeing people who aren’t normally used to doing adventures like this be able to do it [is a rewarding part of his job],” shared Jonas.

He added, “ It’s just so popular to go to Norway and see all the tourist attractions.” 

Ultimately, as it becomes more common to travel to endangered locations such as glaciers, hold yourself accountable for your travel emissions. And remember to be aware of how humans are impacting our planet.


This post is the first in a series of posts about firsthand experiences visiting Norwegian glaciers, famous fjords, and well-known hiking destinations. Check back to GlacierHub in upcoming weeks to read more about my travels in Norway. 


A special thank you to Jonas and Icetroll for a once in a lifetime experience on Austerdalsbreen.


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First-time Visits to an Alaskan Glacier Just Got More Expensive

A view of the snout of Matanuska Glacier (Source: Frank K./Creative Commons).

The thought of being able to drive right up to a glacier seems strange to most people. However, that is how visitors have accessed Matanuska Glacier in Alaska thanks to a privately-owned road that leads to a parking area near the glacier’s debris-covered section.

For years, visitors with various experiences and interests have been able to enjoy first-hand the majesty of Alaska’s largest glacier, measuring 26 miles in length. Yet, the company that owns the road and runs one of twelve independent enterprises that offer tours of Matanuska recently required that all first-time visitors pay a $100 fee for a guided tour if they want any first-time access to the glacier.

A view of a visitor to Matanuska (Source: Alaska Dispatch News/Twitter).

This new requirement has some locals and tourists up in arms. While the company Matanuska Glacier Park LLC cites safety issues as the main reason for this new requirement, some visitors remain unhappy that the $100 guided tour is now the only option offered to first-timers. After their first visit, guided tours are no longer necessary, and visitors have the option of buying a ticket for $20.

In an interview with GlacierHub, Bill Stevenson, the owner of Matanuska Glacier Park LLC, which operates Matanuska Glacier Adventures, explained that the three-hour guided tour has been $100 for quite some time, despite more recent controversy.

He acknowledged that the new requirement that first-time visitors must pay for the guided tour is one that upsets visitors. However, there are many admission options, he says, including $20 tickets. He maintains that the guided tour with an experienced guide provides a lot of information about a “fascinating part of nature” for first-time visitors. He describes the glacier as “very user-friendly” and the sloping toe of the glacier as very gradual, making it easy to walk around.

However, not all visitors and locals are convinced the steep fee for first-timers is the right course of action. “One of the most special things about living in Alaska is having incredible access to nature,” Alaskan resident Rachel Kaplan explained to GlacierHub. “Putting a high fee on that access limits who can visit.” While she does understand the potential safety concerns, she went on to say that “having a high fee to access the glacier really bothers me.”

Ice climbing on Matanuska Glacier (Source: BD/Twitter).

Stevenson made it clear to GlacierHub that the tour company is not the sole source of income for his company. As the leaseholder for the road, he plays many roles. His company has chosen to share the glacier with 11 other independent tour companies in the area, he noted, providing more than enough business to go around with 20,000 annual visitors to the glacier.

The fees for guided tours at other tour companies in the area also vary for visitors, including those for first-time visitors. While fees at Matanuska Glacier Adventures is on the expensive side, some of the other tour companies are charging higher fees for access.

Climate change further complicates matters. Stevenson told GlacierHub, “No question, we’ve had a decline in the mass of ice.” He estimates that Matanuska loses about 30 feet per year in length. Perhaps, as glacier recession continues, a $100 price tag for admission to one of the world’s disappearing resources will seem less significant. The drive-up location itself may be worth the fee.

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Asian Piolets d’Or Awards Recognize Outstanding Alpine Athleticism

On November 4th, the International Climbing and Mountaineering Federation (UIAA) held the 11th annual Asia Piolets d’Or awards, commemorating outstanding achievements in rock climbing and mountaineering. Considered by many to be the Oscars of alpinism, the awards have motivated progression in Asian mountaineering culture over the last decade, contributing to an ethos of safety, respect and athleticism in alpine and glacial environments.

The awards honor athletes who employ lightweight, alpine-style tactics in their expeditions, rewarding a commitment to technical face climbing and positive environmental stewardship while in the mountains. These alpine style expeditions generally use less gear, leave less waste on the mountain and exemplify respect for the outdoors.

At this year’s event in Seoul, Korea, six winners of the Piolets d’Or Asia were announced (comprising two climbing teams) along with recipients of the Golden Climbing Shoe Award and the coveted Piolets d’Or Lifetime Achievement accolade.

In an interview with GlacierHub, American Alpine Club lifetime member Edward Rinkowski spoke to the prestige of the ceremony by stating, “Winning a Piolet d’Or is arguably the highest of achievements in climbing beyond one’s personal climbing goals. No one really sets out to win one, but if the academy recognizes you, it means you’re doing something right. ”

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View looking towards the south face on the Gangapurna Glacier (Source: Google Earth Commons).

Award recipients belonged to a pair of teams, one from South Korea and the other from Japan. Led by Chang-Ho Kim, the Korean team of three successfully established a new route on the south face of Mt. Gangapurna, a glaciated 7,455 meter (24,459 feet) peak in the west Nepalese Annapurna region. Gangapurna was first climbed by a German expedition in 1965. Since then, only eight teams have successfully reached its summit.

Kim, along with his climbing partners Suk-Mun Choi and Joung-Yong Park, ascended  Gangapurna’s south face via a new, technically demanding route full of glacial ice and loose rock. They managed to leave no trace of their climb, having recovered all of their gear and expedition waste from the mountain.

Rinkowski, who has climbed in this region, told GlacierHub, “The combination of technical climbing and high altitudes can be absolutely brutal. Hearing that the team recovered all of their gear is extremely impressive.” The expedition’s leader Kim is a laudable recipient of the Piolets d’Or award, having completed all 14 of the Himalayan Giants Earth’s peaks looming taller than 8,000 meters by 2016.

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An example of a hanging belay on a big wall, where no major ledge exists to rest upon (Source: Jimmy Chin).

The Japanese team that received the Piolets d’Or honor also consisted of three members: Koji Ito, Yusuke Sato and Kimihiro Miyagi. The group of athletes successfully climbed the Golden Pillar in the Tsurugidake Kurobe Valley, a 380m near vertical rock face in Japan. Their climb required a dangerous snow-covered bivouac (a temporary camp without tents) overnight, which subjected the team to hypothermia and frostbite. Additionally, the climb involved nine hanging belays, meaning that the team rarely had the opportunity to rest on ledges and solid ground after they set off from the ground.

The Kurobe Valley is considered by many alpinists to be more difficult than climbing Himalayan peaks of comparable prominence and is known for experiencing unpredictable, powerful winter storms. The team lived in the snowy region for 22 days, spending much of their time trapped in a tent awaiting a safe weather window to attempt the climb.

Having been on many alpine expeditions himself, Rinkowski talked to GlacierHub about the Japanese team’s climb. “Being stuck in such a desperate situation not only puts stress on the climbers physically, but even more so mentally,” he said. “Riding out such a long storm window can be demoralizing.”

Despite the adverse conditions and difficulty of the ascent, the three men reached the peak’s summit and returned home safely. Less than a dozen teams have successfully climbed the Golden Pillar, especially in the kind of weather conditions present during Koji Ito’s team’s attempt.

Winners of the Golden Climbing Shoe Award included Keita Kurakami, who free-climbed in traditional style the Senjitsu-no-ruri route on the Moai Face of Japan’s Mt. Mizugaki (without the use of bolts or pitons except at belay stations), and Han-na-rai Song, this year’s women’s ice climbing champion from the Rabenstein World Cup event. The golden shoe award is presented to athletes who have achieved exemplary success in the realm of competitive climbing and sport/trad climbing, recognizing great achievements outside of the Piolet d’Or’s alpine realm.  

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An ice climber works their way up the wall at a World Cup ice climbing event (Source: Max Res).

Capping off the evening at the ceremony was the second annual Piolets d’Or Lifetime Achievement Award, which was gifted to 84-year-old Tamotsu Nakamura from Japan. Nakamura has participated in thirty-eight successful expeditions in southeast Tibet and China over the last twenty-five years. He has attained numerous first ascents in the glaciated Cordillera Blanca range of Peru. In addition to his climbing efforts, Nakamura has discovered, documented and mapped countless unclimbed peaks in some of the most isolated mountainous regions in the world. As a product of his climbs, maps and photographic stories, he has attained hero-status in Japan, where he motivates the nation’s youth to pursue their dreams no matter how big the mountain that lies ahead.  

On the evolving state of climbing and exploration as a whole, Nakamura stated, “Some convince themselves that veiled mountains in the greater ranges are an experience of the past, but Tibet has an incredibly vast and complex topography that holds countless unclimbed summits, and beckons a lifetime’s search.”

Although many of the world’s glacial and alpine realms have been explored in the last few decades, Nakamura reminds the youthful generation of climbers that “peaks are stunning and magnificent” and “many of them will remain enigmas for generations without the motivation to go forth and explore.” This ideology epitomizes the spirit of the Piolet d’Or awards in Asia, promoting exploration and ascent through the lens of positive environmental stewardship.

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Sports Medicine Specialist Discusses Ice Climbing

Volker Schoeffl climbing in Laos (source: Tanya Weidner/Green Climbers Home)
Volker Schoeffl climbing in Laos (source: Tanya Weidner/Green Climbers Home)

Volker Schoeffl, a physician and professor in Bamberg, Germany, is a leading specialist on sports medicine, with particular emphasis on climbing. He works in both Germany. He is the physician of the German national climbing team, and also serves on the medical commissions of the International Climbing and Mountaineering Federation  and the International Federation of Sport Climbing.  He is an accomplished climber himself, having completed the first ascent of the south face of Batu Lawi in Sarawak, Indonesia, and having climbed more recently in Laos.

GlacierHub recently interviewed Schoeffl about his research.

Ice climbing in the Canadian Rockies (source: Pazit Polak/Flicker)
Ice climbing in the Canadian Rockies (source: Pazit Polak/Flicker)

GH: In a recent publication on extreme sports, you discussed ice climbing, and stated “Most of the acute injuries (73.4%) happened in an icefall climbing, a smaller number on glacier ice walls (11.4%), and the least on artificial ice walls (2.5%).”  Do you think that this low proportion of injuries on glaciers is due to a lower rate of injuries per hour for this activity, or to the fact that people climb more often on icefalls than they do on glacier ice walls or artificial ice walls?

VS: I would say that the latter reason is the important one. Fewer people climb on glacier ice walls and on artificial ice walls than they do on icefalls.

 

Ice climbing in the Colorado Rockiers (source: John Fowler/Flickr)
Ice climbing in the Colorado Rockies (source: John Fowler/Flickr)

GH: In this publication, you also state, “The overall injury rate [in ice climbing] published in the literature is comparable with other outdoor sports (2.87-4.07 injuries/1000 hrs, with most injuries of minor severity.” Do you think people perceive ice climbing as more dangerous than rock climbing?

VS: I personally still think that ice climbing is riskier than rock climbing. However, the study did not definitively prove that. Further evidence must be collected before we can reach firm conclusions.  We do know that there are very different risk profiles in different kinds of climbing. For example, indoor climbing lacks certain external objective dangers, such as rockfalls, which are much more common in ice climbing and traditional rock climbing.

 

Volker Schoffl climbing indoors in Europe (source: Enrico Haase/Outdoor Sports Team)
Volker Schoffl climbing indoors in Europe (source: Enrico Haase/Outdoor Sports Team)

GH: Do you have any thoughts or information on accidents and injuries that are related specifically to glaciers, such as falling into crevasses?

VS: I cannot comment on this topic, because data are not available.

 

GH: What advice would you give to ice climbers?

VS: I would give the advice that they most likely already know. Be extra cautious, because falling is not an option! Be sure to consider external hazards, such as icefalls and avalanches. And remember that not only ascents are risky; descents are dangerous as well.

Readers who would like to learn more about Dr. Schoeffl’s research and to hear his advice can read his book, One Move Too Many: How to Understand the Injuries and Overuse Syndromes of Rock Climbing. First published in 2033, the third edition of the book, with extensive new material, was published earlier this year.

Landscape in the Bavarian Alps (source: German Alpine Club)
Landscape in the Bavarian Alps (source: German Alpine Club)

Interested readers can also participate in a sports medicine clinic which he is co-organizing in Bamberg, Germany from June 22 to 25, 2017, which addresses climbing, as well as running. It includes sessions on training and on injury prevention, as well as on diagnosis and treatment of injuries. This event is sponsored by the German Alpine Club, the Bavarian Sports Medicine Association, and Bamberg Social Foundation. The program and registration forms are available here.

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Roundup: The Past, Present and Future of Ice on Earth and Mars

This Week’s Roundup: Glacier Archaeology, Medicine and Simulation

Researchers explore an abandoned ice-skating rink at a glacier in New Zealand

From the New Zealand Department of Conservation: “In its heyday (the 1930s), the Mt. Harper ice rink was reputed to be the largest ice rink in the Southern Hemisphere, attracting hundreds of ice skaters and hockey players to its remote location each winter. However, World War II, petrol rationing, warmer winters and new indoor rinks all contributed to its demise. Today, considerable evidence of the complex remains intact, from buildings, to the rinks themselves, and the trees that were planted to shade and protect the rink—all in a remote and spectacular location.”

Read about the site and see more photos here:

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A plow found near the site of the rink, used–in the absence of Zambonis–to prepare the rink or ice. (source: Katharine Watson/NZ Dept of Conservation)

A specialist in sports medicine finds glaciers less risky than other sites for ice-related spots

From Extreme Sports Medicine: “Rock and ice climbing diversified from mountaineering with various forms of activities, such as sport climbing or deep water soloing. … The overall injury rate is low, with most injuries being of minor severity. Nevertheless the risk of a fatal injury is always present. Both injury rate and fatality rate vary from the different subdisciplines performed and are the lowest for indoor climbing, bouldering or sport climbing. They are naturally higher for alpine climbing or free solo climbing. External factors as objective danger through, e.g. wind chill or rockfall add to the risk. Most injuries and overstrain are on the upper extremity, mostly at the hands and fingers. …Most of the acute injuries (73.4 %) happened in a waterfall, few in glacier ice walls (11.4 %) and on artificial ice walls (2.5 %).”

Learn more about risks associated with glacier sports and other ice sports here:

Ice-climbers with safety equipment (source: Pixabay)
Ice-climbers using crampons, ice-axes, and other safety eqipment (source: Pixabay)

An Austrian glacier served as a field site to test a mission of human researchers on Mars

From Acta Astronautica: “… the AMADEE-15 mission, a 12-day Mars analog field test [was conducted] at the Kaunertal Glacier in Austria. Eleven experiments were conducted by a field crew at the test site under simulated Martian surface exploration conditions and coordinated by a Mission Support Center in Innsbruck, Austria. The experiments’ research fields encompassed geology, human factors, astrobiology, robotics, tele-science, exploration, and operations research. A Remote Science Support team analyzed field data in near real time, providing planning input for a flight control team to manage a complex system of field assets in a realistic work flow, including: two advanced space suit simulators; and four robotic and aerial vehicles. … A 10-minute satellite communication delay and other limitations pertinent to human planetary surface activities were introduced.”

Read more about this simulation here.

Simulating the collection of soil samples on Mars, at a field station on Kaunertal Glacier in Austria.
Simulating the collection of soil samples on Mars, at a field station on Kaunertal Glacier in Austria (source: Acta Astonautica)

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