On a climbing trip to the Lofoten Islands, the author finds that the site of past conquests can be just as good the second-time around
A scary crumbling sound rises from under my left foot as I carefully place it on a small ledge to the left of a wide crack. I feel it sliding and losing grip. Fortunately, I have my other foot on a stable hold and my hands jammed into the crack, so I manage to avoid falling. This is good, because I made a mistake.
Some gravel became stuck in the sole of my shoe but I hadn’t been careful enough brushing it off before starting—despite knowing how such a simple error can have deadly consequences. “Well climbed,” offers Elias with an ear-to-ear grin when I reach the belay stance. I can’t really agree; I feel heavy and a bit nervous, unused to climbing long cracks and further compromised by a heavy backpack full of camera equipment and drones. Will I manage the entire 400-metre-long route when I feel this way after only 50 metres? I’ve just started one of the most classic climbs in Norway’s Lofoten Archipelago—Vestpillaren (The West Pillar, grade 6) on the majestic granite wall known as Presten—with local climbers Andreas Widlund, climbing instructor and Tierra Test Team member Karin Eknor, and her super-strong Finnish partner, Elias Annila. It could be a long day.
Nostalgia might help. It’s almost 25 years to the day since I first visited Lofoten to climb. The main goal then, as today, was Vestpillaren. Visiting a place or climbing a route a second time is always a bit of a gamble. On the one hand, past experience makes you feel a little safer and at home; on the other hand, the adventure and joy of discovery of that first time is largely gone. But when it comes to incomparable landscapes and climbing routes like Lofoten, the trade-off is worth it.
Back then I was an idealistic teen, dreaming of becoming an adventure photographer or maybe even a mountain guide, hitchhiking from Narvik to Lofoten with a heavy load of climbing gear and cheap food purchased in Sweden. Though nowadays a rental vehicle helps me realize my dream of adventure photography, not much else has changed: I’m still attracted by the simple life in outposts such as this—and steep granite walls. Since the others all live in their camper vans, the back of my rental is home for a week of photographing for Tierra.
For every metre climbed, technique floods back to wash the nervousness away. “Do you see the whales?” Karin shouts at one point, gesturing down at an absurdly azure ocean. From 200 metres up, the whales look mostly like fish.
A special feeling of calm takes over when you’re high on a wall, fully surrounded by a vertical granite world. You know you’re too high to turn around without a lot of hassle and risk, so upwards to the top becomes the logical mantra. While the feeling is strong, it’s also a bit scary—you feel quite small and vulnerable to the forces of nature. When I first climbed the route, we began in glorious sunshine like today but ended in dense fog, rain and strong winds. We’d barely managed to reach the top. Coastal weather can change incredibly fast, changing your plans and making it important to always carry a headlamp. Today it seems we’re on the lucky side with the weather.
Most of the climbing in Lofoten is found between Henningsvaer and Svolvear, where there’s something for everyone—from short, easy beginner routes, to moderate alpine ridges, to the longest, hardest of climbs. Each sporting beautiful lines and amazing rock quality. If you don’t like to climb too high, there’s also plenty of high-quality bouldering in the area, the most famous being the iconic lines on Kingfisher.
On Vestpillaren, we climb rope length after rope length before reaching the well-known “slanting corner,” offering balanced movements with a lot of air underfoot. The last bit to the top is a grassy gully climbed without rope or other protection—maybe the scariest part of the whole route. We top out. The view is unbelievably beautiful. Especially given that the last time I stood here, it was so foggy I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face—like trying to look through a glass of milk.
What I’d completely erased from memory was that when you climb something, you also have to get down it. Now a few kilometres of easy but exposed scrambling and a thigh-burning downhill hike await. Eventually, we reach the vehicles and I fall asleep in the back, only to be roused by the rattling of dinner preparations and a celebratory beer chilled in the cold, clear waters of the North Atlantic. It was a good day after all.
The next morning, I wake to the pounding of rain on the car roof. Channeling my inner contortionist, I wrangle on my raingear in the enclosed space. Dark, heavy clouds hang low in the sky and cancel our rock-climbing plans. In this weather it’s better to climb an alpine ridge—like Rock and Roll on Lyngvaerfjellet. We navigate upwards through dense cloud, at times the rain pouring hard enough to turn steep sections into small waterfalls. The climbing isn’t difficult, but it’s airy and exposed; in small gaps that appear in the cloud cover we spy the blue of the Atlantic far below.
The pressing clouds and poor visibility also make it feel quiet and a bit spooky. “On belay.” I hear Karin scream down from somewhere, and off I go. The biggest challenge with today’s climb isn’t so much getting up the ridge as the way home, a narrow, now-muddy grass path winding down from the top. It’s incumbent to take great care in placing each step to avoid slipping. Back at the cars, the weather changes again, sun appearing despite a forecast that predicted increasing rainfall.
To really challenge our climbing abilities, Andreas introduces us to the beautiful boulder problem, Kingfisher 7a. The early darkness of August has already begun to descend, so we do the boulder session in the light of our headlamps. The technically difficult and balanced movements required make me realize I’m not strong enough for such gymnastics, and instead I watch Elias dance gracefully along in my light beam to mantle up over the edge and into the darkness. With nothing to see, only a roar of victory signals his arrival at the top. The evening is rounded off nicely with a grilled fish caught on rod-and-reel by a German climbing friend.
To list all you can do or experience during a week of climbing in Lofoten Islands would be a bit of a boring read, but advice is always handy. First, climbing here is very much about adapting to the ever-changing conditions, taking advantage of the weather gaps given and always being prepared for things to get better—or worse. And finally, yes, returning to a place like Lofoten is always worth it, whether once or several times. Even when you’ve climbed dozens of places around the world, these islands offer something unique, adventurous and truly beautiful.
Getting here: Night train from Stockholm to Narvik, then by bus or boat. Flights to Svolvaer or Narvik. It’s good to have a vehicle for travelling between climbs.
Accommodation: There’s a simple campsite in Kallestranda, and service parks and other places you can park a camper van or motorhome. Hotels, Air BnB and the like are also available, but limited.
Guides: Contact Northern Norwegian climbing school in Henningsvaer.
Karing Eknor is most easily found on Instagram under @karsinfjelliv.
Food: Nordsnorsk Klatreskole and Trevarefabrikken in Henningvaer have good food, or, like us, eat your catch fished from the shoreline rocks.
Text and Photo by: Linus Meyer, he is Marketing Manager for Tierra and has worked as an adventure photographer and writer for 20 years.