If you were into new routes and big walls in the 1960s you would have known about a monster in Norway about which ominous stories circulated that can be summed up in one word: ‘unclimbable’.
The Troll Wall (Trollveggen) in Romsdal was also known as ‘the Vertical Mile’, and described as ‘the largest overhanging wall in Europe’. It was reputed to be smooth and holdless for 5,000 feet, and impossible without the aid of bolts. It also faces north and is as far north as Alaska’s Mt McKinley. Quite a proposition!
By Tony Howard – Member of The Rimmon Team from the Peak District in England which climbed the Troll Wall in 1965.
Troll Wall – The ‘unclimbable’ mountain
Strange then that none of the ‘big boys’ went for it. Instead a team from a small Peak District club called The Rimmon decided it was worth a go and in July 1965 despite everyone’s doubts and some horrendous weather they actually climbed it.
Apart from me, the rest of the team were Tony Nicholls (Nick), Bill Tweedale, John Amatt, Rob Holt, Jeff Heath and Margaret Woodcock. The six lads spent numerous days in bad weather on rain-soaked rock establishing a bivy at the foot of the face above the Introductory Slabs. The first attempt by Bill, Nick, John and me failed after five days, once again in atrocious weather, Nick getting us off the wall and trashing his hands in the process, which made it impossible for him to return. Bill, John and I returned a couple of days later and succeeded in five and a half days summiting just before another storm broke.
Following the ascent, one well known British climber who was very familiar with Norway actually wrote to JEB Wright, the editor of Mountaincraft implying that we must have found a way to sneak up the back without being noticed, but in the end the letter was never published. Conversely, Joe Brown said “The ascent must rank as one of the greatest ever achievements by British rock climbers”, and Aslak Aastorp, a top Norwegian climber, described the route as “a masterpiece of route finding at the highest free and aid standards of the day”. I think his grade comments were over enthusiastic, but I liked the route finding bit, as finding what proved to be the best natural line up the wall was something I was always pleased about.
“One of the greatest ever achievements by British rock climbers.” – Joe Brown
‘The competition’ – The Norwegians already had a rope fixed on the wall
Perhaps the most unusual thing about the ascent was that a team of Norwegian climbers arrived in Romsdal a day or two before us and by the time we arrived they already had a rope fixed on the wall. They had claimed their route. To our great relief it wasn’t on the route we had planned. To this day I’m not sure if it was a coincidence or they had been tipped off by Arne Randers Heen, Norway’s elder statesman of climbing with whom I had been corresponding.
The presence of two teams on the face was tailor made for a press hey-day. ‘The competition’ was in the news every day both in Norway and the UK. Though it never was a competition. The Norwegians, Leif Norman Pattersen, Odd Eliassen, Ole Daniel Enersen, Jon Teigland and girlfriends were camped not far from us. Leif Norman and Jon had both climbed in the Himalaya, whilst Ole Daniel and Odd were also amongst Norway’s top climbers.
Unlike us they were armed with an impressive collection of American hardware including Jumars and chrome-molly pegs which had been brought out from the States by Leif. It was all brand new on the market and totally unavailable in Europe. We, on the other hand, were stuck with Heibeler prusiks that were untrustworthy and our soft steel European pegs that crumpled at the first obstacle. Descenders were still to be invented as were sit harnesses. The Norwegians had chest harnesses. We had a waist belt of my design which could be made into a sit harness for abseiling and climbing roofs by the addition of a sit sling. It later became the Troll Mark 2 which led to the design of The Whillans Harness, then the Troll Mark 5 Harness designed by me, on which almost all modern climbing sit harness designs are now based. Our Troll Wall ascent was probably the last of the world’s big walls to be climbed in the old style with with ‘old gear’. No sit harnesses, no reliable ascenders, no descenders, no modern range of nuts, and bivy gear and waterproofs so bad we almost died.
But I digress. When we retreated on our first attempt, the Norwegians were in a better situation and survived the storm. As soon as the weather improved they continued with their route and topped out a day before us after eleven days on the face, much to the jubilation of the Norwegian press. Of course Bill, John and I were unaware until we came down after completing our route the following morning to be met by the press and members of both teams armed with copious amounts of celebratory beer before we were all feted in the Grand Hotel. It was reported in the Norwegian press that the Norwegian team ‘thought our achievement on the Troll Wall put theirs in the shade’, which was over-kind of them and far too modest.
The years after the climb – and the 50th anniversary in 2015
On the 50th anniversary of the climbs, both teams were invited to Romsdal for a celebratory reunion at the annual Mountain Festival in July. Arne Larsen wrote an article in the Norwegian magazine Klatring (Climbing) about the leader of the Norwegian team, Leif Norman Patterson. The story, which was later translated to English by Anders I. Ourom, says of Leif, he “was, by far, the most experienced of the four man team.
By 1965 he had nearly ten years’ experience on the hills, and was well known in the USA for his many challenging winter climbs. In addition he also brought much newly designed climbing equipment to Norway – hard steel pitons, several hundred metres of first-class ropes and slings, and Jumar rope-clamps which would be indispensable on the wall. It isn’t overstating the case to say that without Leif Norman Patterson’s initiative there probably wouldn’t be a Norwegian Route on the Troll Wall, and the British team would not have had to share with others the honour of the first ascent of North Europe’s highest and steepest mountain wall.” Which overlooks the undoubted ability and commitment of the the rest of the team who, I’m sure were quite capable of overcoming any obstacle met on their route even without their new American gear and Leif’s undoubtedly inspirational leadership.
Rob Holt and I were the only two Brits who were able to make it to the 50th reunion. Though he was not on the actual ascent, Rob, who was 18 at the time, had provided unselfish back up for our climb getting gear up to and down from our first bivy then in 1967 he did the third ascent after Pete Livesey and John Stanger did the second.
Jon, Ole and Odd represented the Norwegian team, Leif Norman having been killed in the Himalayas. The five of us were together on stage reminiscing about our ascents, taking questions from the audience and later being interviewed by the press and Norwegian TV. None of us had expected the fame and limelight created fifty years ago by the press in their concocted stories of ‘Climbers Compete on the Troll Wall’, so it was a perfect opportunity to dispel the myth.
In the intervening years the Norwegian Route has only had about ten repeat ascents. I still think it was technically the most difficult of the two whilst the Rimmon Route became the most popular climb on the face until 1998 when a huge section of the wall collapsed. Rumours of subsequent ascents have never been verified. I’m happy to say that both the first ascents (if I may call our route that, since actually we were second!), were the epitome of good old fashioned adventure climbing, poking the dragon to see what happens. How good it was to get together with the Norwegian lads once again after all those years!
Tony Howard, 2015
- For the full story, see Troll Wall, published by Vertebrate
- Quest into the Unknown – Book by Tony Howard
- Nomads Travel – Tony Howard and Di Taylor´s website
- Vertebrate Publishing
Trollryggen – The description of the first climb in 1958
Re Trollryggen with Arne Randers Heen in 1958. He was 53 and I had just turned 21. Trollryggen had been attempted many times before. Arne Randers Heen had himself tried at least 5 times. The high point on the previous attempts was an off width crack about 1/3 up. (The vertical difference between the start and finish of the climb is approximately 1600 meters). He had also been to the summit of Trollryggen from the backside and had looked down the summit gully and believed that that was climbable.
Standing on the summit of Romsdalshorn with Trollryggen on the opposite side of the Romsdal valley, Arne out of the blue asked if I would like to to make an attempt with him. I was flabbergasted. He was 53, older than my own father. His time was out, I felt. Myself I questioned if my time had come, and we would be an odd partnership for a major undertaking. We had only done one climb together, a short grade 4 climb. I ended up saying yes. Life does not present that type of opportunity every day.
Arne put together the equipment for the climb: 6 – 8 pitons and the same number of caranibiners and a single 30 – 40 meter nylon rope. I knew that that was a fraction of what would probably be needed for a safe undertaking, but did not have the guts to protest. After all he was a living legend, I was a nobody. We brought an old Bergans rucksack with a few loafs of bread and maybe a liter of water. Arne believed that we would pass some patches of snow where we could find melting water. (After the climb he said that the reason for not taking more gear was that he did not believe that we would get any higher than the previous attempts).
We started the afternoon of September 3rd in beautiful weather, and made it to a large balcony where we spent the night. Only bivuac equipment: a sheet of transparent plastic for cover. Being early september and clear sky, the night was cold.
The off width crack was difficult, grade 5+/6-, but not extreme. I had lead more difficult climbs in the Alps earlier that summer. But knowing that climbers that I respected and looked up to had turned back, was a psychological burden trying to pull me down.
In the middle part of the Pillar, climbing got much harder: smooth slabs with no holds and no cracks for protective pitons, more difficult than the 6+ climbs that I had been leading in the Alps. In addition the natural line had taken us above the patches of snow. So we had no water no food and little equipment.
Arne proposed that we should turn back. But at this stage I was euphoric and was not in the mood for a retreat.
We got to the bottom of the summit gully in the afternoon. Here we found water and spirits were high. But entering the gully, we got a frightening sight: the lower 100 meters were wet and overhanging. We were forced to climb the ridge to the left of the gully, very steep, very exposed, very difficult. I had my first authentic close call, pulling out a loose rock and only miraculously did not fall. Arne was sitting 15 meters below me with a single piton and nothing between us. A fall would have ripped us both out of the wall.
Around 8 o`clock in the evening I climbed the last few meters of the ridge and found the cairn that Arne had built 20 years before as he looked down the summit gully. Extreme relief, I have never experienced anything as intensive. Effective climbing time was 15.5 hours, which I believe is very little for a party of two.
There was much media coverage after the climb in the Norwegian newspapers.
I have climbed Trollryggen two times after the first ascension: In 1968, the 10th anniversary, again with Arne Randers Heen, now at the age of 63. We did a blitz climb in around 13 hours without a bivouac. And then in 2008, the 50th anniversary together with two friends with one bivouac.
In 1965 I had just signed on as the managing director of a start-up company and could not just drop everything and go climbing in Romsdal. But I wanted desperately to be there. I had in 1961 climbed the North Ridge of Store Trolltind and had looked straight into the part of the Troll Wall where the English and the Norwegian climbers would climb. I new exactly where I would have put the line: where the Rimmon Route penetrates the wall. It is the obvious line that links climbable parts of the wall.
TROLL WALL – An Unforgiving Climb up Europe’s Highest Wall
Video/Text: Wide Boyz
Troll Wall, the tallest rock face in Europe, and possibly one of the most dangerous. The danger of the wall doesn’t come from difficulty, steepness or height, but from the quality of the rock itself; It’s loose.
From snowy mountains to beautiful coastline of islands and reefs. Experience all this in one day due to the short distance from mountains to coast. Ona Island and Lighthouse, The Atlantic Road, Midsundtrappene, Trollstigen, The Troll Wall, Romsdalseggen, The Romsdal Gondola and Litlefjellet are great places to visit. The Romsdalsfjord is located in the county of Møre og Romsdal, north in Western Norway.
Grand Hotel Bellevue at Åndalsnes
Aak Hotel at Sogge outside Åndalsnes
Hotel Geist at Øran at Åndalsnes
Åndalsnes Vandrerhjem på Setnes
Åndalsnes Camping by Rauma River
Mjelva Camping at Mjelva outside Åndalsnes
Trollveggen Camping by the Troll Wall
Accommodation in Isfjorden
Troll Wall – Map Overview