Canyon Tales
by Koen Viaene

We had planned this very carefully: the descent of a number of unknown canyons off a side of a fjord in Norway. For that we had put together a very experienced team, all friends and guides in mountains and canyons. On paper we looked unbeatable ... on paper that is.

On arrival in the fjord we could see we had hit the mother lode, it was not a question of ‘where’ but ‘which one first!’ So we sorted out our gear, nearly fainted at the prices of Norwegian beer, and went to bed not so early and in high spirits.

The next day we geared up, put one car at the bottom of the first convenient canyon, and drove up to the top through a tunnel that went corkscrewing up inside the mountain—neat!

Our first choice was a steep canyon on top; a bit lower it opened up to the fjord wall and a waterfall of about 500 ft. Short work was made of the canyon part, downclimbing and scrambling. The big drawback of our ‘dream team’ surfaced at the very first big drop we encountered ... we were presented with a steep slab of about 60 ft and then the big drop.

It went like this:

“I would go through the channel and try to set up the next anchor on that overhanging boulder just at the edge.”

“No way, we’ll be getting the full force of the water on our heads, I’d set it up right on the edge but 10 feet to the right.”

“Why not check it out first?”

... 20 minutes later ...

“I’d set it up even more to the right.”

“No, into the channel ...”

“Let me have a look ...”

... 20 minutes later ...

“Maybe you’re right, but I’d set it up as close to the channel as possible.”

“Let me have a look ...”

We are all used to being leaders and having it our way. Being good friends didn’t make it easier: we didn’t want to impose ‘our way’ on the others too much, afraid of hurting feelings. It took us literally forever to rig that big drop. Never, ever had we been so slow.

Back at the camp we discussed the day because it was clear we couldn’t tackle the big ones in this manner. From now on, one of us would take the lead in a canyon, the other ones would shut up and follow unless asked for.

Our new setup was put to test the very next day. We approached another canyon from the side and were looking for a route in. We hadn’t decided who was going to lead that day yet so it took us about an hour to decide where to drop in by a 120–foot rappel; that and a short discussion about the time frame—it was already 2 PM. But since it stayed clear long after midnight we voted by majority (!) to go on and do it. I had one of the drills so after rappelling off a wedged rock I took off to set up the next rappel. We hadn’t exactly voted but nobody seemed to mind that much. So I just kept going in front.

It worked out really sweet: by the time the others had caught up, I had chosen the next rappel spot and was already rigging the anchor or putting in a bolt. By the time I had repackaged everything, the rope was rigged and off to the next one. We covered good terrain in a rugged and steep canyon with a lot of water. At times we had to rappel down a vertical crack a few feet wide and a huge shower pummelling 60 ft or more down on us. No jumps or slides though.

We exited the canyon on the side for a short stretch and were amazed at the ‘friendliness’ outside: nothing to sting or prick you (willow and birch), no bugs (yet, too early in the season), we were walking on a 2–foot cushion of moss and low vegetation—never walked on something more comfortable!

After about 15–20 rappels we came close to ‘the edge,’ the fjord wall. The canyon opened up and we went down the first stair of about 200 ft off a tree. At the bottom there was a boulder field full of loose sharp–edged table–sized rocks—careful hopping required. One of us shifted a rock which rolled over an end of the rope and nearly cut it!

The final drop was about 1000 vertical feet. I had the honour of going first again. Rappelling down, I was very careful in choosing the line and kicking off loose rocks. It would be me standing or hanging somewhere below waiting for the others so I was very motivated to do that right!

About 250 ft down, I came above a huge flake of rock, apparently in very subtle balance. The flake was about 4–inches–or–less thick but at least 15 × 15 ft. So no way I was going to rappel below that without some testing. I stomped on the thing and tried to wedge it from the wall with my feet, which was not so easy because there was no foothold along the sheer wall. While doing this I bumped with my backpack against the wall above the flake, sensed more then felt something shift and BRRMMM down went a few tons of rock just behind my back ... the flake still stood?!

I called it quits and rappelled/traversed another 50 ft to the right until I found a perfect 3 × 3 plateau just behind a corner and below a small overhang—very cozy and sheltered.

Next came another 300–foot rappel and then what seemed the last one into the river below. Three of us were already down and waiting for the ropes to be played through by the other two. We waited, and waited ... We had one 270–foot 8–mm rope (used to be 300 ft but was damaged and cut earlier on). I thought it would reach but it would probably be damaged if rigged single because we could see a few sharp edges down the drop. The others said it wouldn’t reach but that (their) the rope was plenty sturdy. We decided to make a bet: I’d go first. If it would reach they’d have to pay me a beer and not complain about a roughed up rope.

So off I went, taking great care with rope placement and preventing seesawing. Near the bottom, I rappelled off a series of ledges and came short about 45 ft. I could hear the gleeful shouts out of the radio but they had forgotten my secret weapon. Fully decked out with neoprene, stuffed backpack, drill and batteries, assorted hardware, cord, walkie–talkie, food, water, etc. I must have weighed in close to 300 lbs. I jumped off the last ridge and the single 270–foot strand of thin (static) rope caught me like a climbing rope and gently deposited me down—bingo and a beer. My friends spent another 45 minutes, waiting, swearing and rerigging the whole setup because the rope was completely shot in one place!

That last rappel figures on the May page of the ACA calendar.

We were very happy that day because we had covered a first descent of more then 20 rappels (4 in the 250–300 ft region) and about 2000 ft of height difference in just 5 hours—not bad for the things to come.

March 1, 2005

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© 2005 Koen Viaene