Thursday, 14 March 2013

Ice-climbing at Rjukan

Vemork power station, Rjukan
Rjukan, situated in the centre of southern Norway, is possibly the best, and certainly most sociable, place to ice-climb in Europe. There are over 150 routes and icefalls in a deep gorge, all easily accessible from the road. Climbers can scale the frozen waterfalls without having to spend hours trekking up a mountain or worrying about getting caught out in the dark. And many of the routes are single-pitch affairs, often close to each other - thus enabling friends to chat between climbs.

As well as having a stable climate that guarantees a long season and conditions that mean it is possible to climb almost everyday, another attraction of the place is its history. As mentioned in a previous blogpost, the ice-axe and crampon business takes place in the same area as the Heroes of Telemark raid, one of the most daring attacks of the second world war. Here, Norwegian saboteurs scaled the steep gorge sides before blowing up the part of the plant in which Germans were collecting 'Heavy water'  which was needed to make a nuclear bomb.
Tim Wilkinson at the start of Bakvien
The remaining building is now a very good museum that is well worth visiting. However, on a recent climbing trip to the Rjukan area, I came a little closer to understanding just what the Norwegian saboteurs achieved.  Tim, my climbing partner, and I had just finished Bakvien, a three-pitch route in the upper gorge that tops-out at the museum when we were approached by two people. It turned out that one of them was the daughter of Fredrik Kayser, a member of the Gunnerside saboteur team. We were a little dazed after spending the past hour being battered by strong winds and falling ice, but it was fascinating to hear about her father's exploits during the war.

Kayser's daughter explained that she was there to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the raid. A high-profile ceremony took place at Vemork on the 28 February, but she was back at the museum to meet a group of modern-day Norwegian soldiers who were just about to finish a re-creation of the original journey over the Hardangervidda plateau. We were lucky enough to see them marching up the route of the old railway.

Along with Joachim Ronneberg (the last surviving member of the raid), Kayser's role was to place sausage-shaped explosive charges on the cylinders used in the heavy-water process. These were located in the cellar of the building, but the door was locked so the two found an entrance through a cable duct. After crawling through this, they surprised a Norwegian caretaker, whom Kayser held at gunpoint while the team began to lay their charges. Eventually the cylinders were destroyed and 3,000 pounds of heavy water, about four or five months' production, flowed towards the drain.

Vemork bridge. Photograph: Mathias Willerup

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