Want to become a Norwegian commando and help disrupting the Nazi war machine and research on nuclear weaponry! Doesn’t that sound like a fancy job title? If it does, consider climbing the Sabotørfossen (WI5) – which was named after a historic World War II raid – in Upper Gorge near Rjukan in Norway
Rjukan is one of the very best places to go ice climbing in the Europe and stands equal to places such as Ouray, Colorado or Valdez, Alaska to peers in the ice climbing community. Whether you are a novice or an ice climbing demigod, Rjukan is worth a visit. The rather small and narrow valley features several landmark ice climbs such as Juvsøyla (WI6) and Lipton (WI7), but also entry level climbing and several single pitch ice crags. There are plenty of local guides to hire or you can go by yourself. The approach to the majority of the routes are rarely longer than 30 minutes and finding the routes are pretty easy.
The town of Rjukan is not very amusing and only features a few cafés and restaurants and a couple of hotels and hostels. There are also a couple of camping sites, where you can rent huts as well. Getting to Rjukan is easy. If you travel by air fly to Oslo and rent a car. Follow highway E18 onto E138 through Kongsberg and turn onto road 37 towards Rjukan. It takes about 2.5 hours from Oslo by car. Accommodation, eating and drinking in Norway is by no chance comparable with Italian prices. A standard pint of beer on a restaurant cost about 100 NOK, which equals 10.50 EURO or 9.25 GBP! So don’t expect to get hammered on the local bar – but you are not in Rjukan to get hammered anyway, right?
Check out the video below to experience the ‘Sabotørfossen’ (WI5) yourself before continue reading. You can also look it up on https://youtu.be/Jk15aG30qno.
Be a saboteur on the Sabotørfossen (WI5)
I have been to Rjukan several times, but this time I wanted to give ‘Sabotørfossen’ (WI5) a shot. The three pitches ice climb is named after the infamous British/Norwegian commando raids against the Nazi heavy water research facility on the Vemork plant. This research could eventually lead into the production of an atom bomb by the Nazi regime. Rumors says that the Norwegian did an ice climb on one of the routes in Upper Gorge to reach the Vemork facility. ‘Sabotørfossen’ (WI5) is a great candidate for this as it flanks the right side of the plant and goes through a narrow chimney, where you are hidden from the surroundings. The route is claimed to be first ascended in 1993, but was this the notorious route that the Norwegian commandos climbed it would have been a good story. Nothing can be comfirmed, so we will probably never know.
The first pitch of ‘Sabotørfossen’ (WI5) is a pretty straightforward ramp shown on the picture below. We came late in the season, so a lot of steps had already been carved out. The ramp slopes at about 70-80 degrees, so it is still fairly steep, but nothing most people can handle. It runs for about 30 meters and then converts into an easy snow slope that ends with a bolted belay station on the left. It is a pretty nice spot to belay from and you have great views of the Upper Gorge below. From here you can also see the next pitch, where the difficulty and the fun really begins.
Ice climbing frozen pillars
The steepness intensifies immediately as the second pitch begins with an approximately 10 meter ice pillar that drops from the chimney above. The route is pretty popular and we met several other teams on the route this day. Usually you would top out and walk by the Vemork plant (silently, stealthy commando-style of course), but one team decided to abseil the route. Finding myself a couple of meters up the pillar, snow and ice suddenly began tumbling down at me coming from the chimney. A lot of snow can build up inside it and being so narrow as well it practically becomes a huge funnel channeling loose icy debris and snow down onto teams climbing below. After hanging at a standstill for several minutes and my arms starting pumping, out of nowhere two rope-ends emerged from above. This did not only trouble me, but also the other team I climbed with that day. Don’t abseil this route if you are not absolute sure there are no one below – and you will probably never know. Due to the narrowness of the chimney you cannot spot parties below. It does pose a huge safety hazard. I acknowledge people want to go back into the gorge to climb another route if they have the time for it, but you need to have the curtesy to walk back down – it takes no longer than 15 minutes more and should you find yourself in a position to do another route, you should also plan to have 15 minutes to do that additional hike.
Anyway, the second pitch is gorgeous! After you have conquered the first ice pillar, the pith follows the narrow chimney with a short snow slope and another 6 meter ice pillar further up, and then a third ice pillar in continuation, until you reach a small half-dome formed cave. This is a great position to belay from for the third and last pitch, however it sits at a corner, so you will loose sight of the lead climber once he commences on the last pitch. You can easily fit two persons in there, and we actually managed three! Check the video above where you can see the cave-like belay station for yourself on a drone shot after about 1:01 minutes.
The Crown Jewel
The Crown Jewel of ‘Sabotørfossen’ (WI5) is indeed the third and last pitch. It holds an immense 12 meter frozen pillar that is near straight vertical. The difficulty definitely increases on the last pitch and I would reckon this is where the route becomes a WI5. The rest of ‘Sabotørfossen’ (WI5) felt more like a WI4 climb in the conditions that we faced. The pitch begins with a short ice covered slope that is climbed with ease, but ends abruptly when you smash into the 12 meter ice pillar. You could probably set up a belay station just below the ice pillar if you would like your lead climber in your line of sight when conquering ice pillar, but it will make two rather short pitches. The choice is yours. We didn’t.
The ice final pillar is tough, but really fun. I lead the pitch and found it pretty hard to find good ice screw placements as there ice cracked a lot or several pieces broke off. There is a short GoPro clip after 1:03 minutes in the video above where you can see me hauling myself up the pillar. At the end the steepness decreases dramatically and the pillar turns into a snow slop for 10 meters that you walk up. You will find a couple of trees from there you can belay from.
Bring a full rack of ice screws and quickdraw. I would include 10 of each. The ice was pretty thick at most places. My rack included both 13 cm and 16 cm Black Diamond Express ice screws. The guidebook we brought with us on the trip, “Rjukan – Selected Ice Climbs” by Steve Broadbent, mentions you can bring rock gear as well. You can, but whether it makes sense to carry the extra weight really much depends on the conditions. I did not place any rock gear. Bring two 60 meters half ropes should you find yourself in a situation where you need to abseil as an emergency procedure, or a 60 or 70 meter single rope. I hope I do leave behind an impression that I am not fond of abseiling ‘Sabotørfossen’ (WI5), so only do this if you really have to. Anyway, we climbed with a 70 meter Mammut Serenity Dry and that was fine.
The ‘Sabotørfossen’ (WI5) three pitches ice climbing route in Upper Gorge near Rjukan is definitely worth a couple of hours of fun. You should be able to do it within 2-3 hours based on how much traffic you encounter on the route. We encountered a lot, so it actually took more like 4 hours. The route features some really great climbing on frozen pillars inside a narrow chimney. To me, this would have been a perfect hideout for the Norwegian saboteurs and should I pick a way to plan a commando raid against the Nazies this would have been the way I would do it.