"Turning back was always an option ,” recalls climber Kjetil Svanemyr. He is 49 years old now, and has put aside his climbing shoes and ropes in order to more actively pursue long-distance dog-sledding. But his memories of being the first to climb Trollveggen’s Swedish Route are still clear as day. The year is 1980. A trio consisting of Svanemyr, his friend Håvard Nesheim and the future climbing legend Hans Christian Doseth encountered major challenges on Trollveggen’s scowling rock face. “The key passage was a difficult traverse 700 m up the trail,” says Svanemyr.
We tried throwing ice axes around the corner, we dangled from doubtful skyhooks and we did a hairy pendulum traverse on bad bolts, but nothing worked. We started getting a little desperate. The thought of rappelling 700 m down a series of overhanging wall sections made us feel we had no choice but to go up.
Hans Christian is the leader. But even he – a strong and technically masterful climber – is stuck.The three comrades have already spent many days on the wall. It’s February: the days are short, the nights long, and many of the rock ledges aren’t wide enough to accommodate the tiny rump of a climber. “We had come so far up the wall that just turning back would be a major production. Up until that forbidding traverse we’d had a lot of excellent climbing, almost all of it extremely exposed and technical, aided by rope ladders.”
The three climbers venturing up the Swedish Route are all young. “Hans Christian and I were born and raised in Åndalsnes,” says Kjetil Svanemyr. “We spent a lot of time studying the wall and reading dramatic stories about previous first ascents. With just a few years of all-around climbing under our belts, we felt we were good enough to make an attempt. But winter climbing is altogether different from summer climbing. In the course of two weeks, western Norway can go through four seasons. At least.” He says: “We already knew that what we were doing was pioneering, but it wasn’t until later that I realized we helped lift the sport of climbing to a new level. We were young and rash and truly believed that we had what it takes!”
Kjetil Svanemyr was 20. A year before, when he and his friends first tried the Swedish Route in winter, Norway’s fickle King Winter gave them a soaking. But this time they are not to be stopped. Hans Christian in particular has developed into a tough big-wall climber, thanks in part to spending the previous summer in Yosemite National Park polishing off some of the most challenging routes up El Capitan. Mentally, Hans Christian is a step ahead of his two mates.
We knew Hans Christian was the only one who could manage that traverse
And indeed, after countless attempts in a long day of hanging tough, Hans Christian clears about 30 m – barely a rope’s length. It gets the trio over the crux. “We had quite a bit of snow and wind during those two weeks. When there’s a constant stream of snow running down the wall, everything gets wet. After climbing like that all day, it’s not easy having to sit straight up and down for 15 hours on a shelf 30 cm wide. When daylight finally comes, you’re more tired than you were at the end of the previous day.” Trollveggen’s 1,000-m elevation is slowly consumed, one rope length at a time. After 13 days on the wall, Kjetil, Hans Christian and Håvard reach the top.
“At the summit , pride and joy flows over you ,” says Kjetil Svanemyr. “After two intense weeks, you also feel the fatigue set in. The psychological stress means you never get to relax. Down in the valley, we were met by radio reporters and newspapers. For three young climbers it was strange to be received like heroes.” That first winter ascent of the Swedish Route continues to stand as a milestone in Norwegian climbing history. Trollveggen’s face has since been changed by slides and rock slippage, and no one has repeated the achievement. Kjetil thinks back on the venture with fondness, but also melancholy. Hans Christian Doseth was Kjetil’s cousin. In 1984, Doseth and Finn Dæhli were killed rappelling down from Trango Tower in Pakistan. “I’d say that was one of several things that convinced me to cut back the climbing,” Kjetil says with a note of solemnity. But then he brightens.
If some relatively inexperienced 19-year-olds today said they wanted to try something equally challenging, I would probably try to warn them. Truth is, we were barely dry behind the ears.