Tuesday, August 06, 2013

Unicorns and other creatures

Part of the Cloisters Unicorn tapestry

While reading the classic King of Elfland's Daugher, by Lord Dunsany, I came across the unicorn, again. It figured prominently before (or rather after) in Neil Geiman's Stardust, and got me interested in the subject. That is why, while in NYC, I decided to go back to the Cloisters museum and check out their famous tapestry as well as the current unicorn exhibit all over again.

It was interesting to learn that the horns of the unicorns became very popular relics during the Middle Ages for kings and churches to keep. They were actually the tusks of narwhals, arctic whales not familiar to the Europeans then. These tusks grew from 1.5 to 3 meters in length and served as the artifacts justifying the unicorn legend over the years. In medieval times, believed to come from the unicorns, the tusks were said to cure poison and melancholia, and provided a great trading opportunity for Vikings, that bought them from Inuits, and sold them to crazed European monarchs for a small fortune.

Cloisters, a beautiful part of the Metropolitan museum in New York, hosts the Unicorn tapestries, the gift of John Rockefeller. These are seven tapestries telling a surreal story of the hunt for the unicorn by adrenaline-filled hunters - a vivid reminder of the scenes from the Lord Dunsany's novel. Although mentioned by Greeks, Jews, and Arabs, Christians have been interpreting unicorn as a symbol for Christ's suffering, and that is one of the possible allegories for this particular tapestry. An enchanting visit!

Enjoying the "art minute" at the Cloisters

Friday, August 02, 2013

Lofoten Adventures

This year's visit to the North lands of this planet included sightseeing of Lofoten Islands after some climbing in Sweden.  I first heard of the Magic Islands when living on the East coast in the US, when listening to the folk stories about various adventures of the local Ed Webster, who wrote the first English-speaking guidebook for the area and spent a couple of summers exploring the Northern granite.

Moskenesøya island

After a long and rainy drive (road connects the islands to the mainland through several tunnels, achievement of Norwegian public investments), our first stop was in Henningsvær, a small fishing village at the end of the world. Although it was raining cats and dogs, the village still preserved its charm, drawing unabashed on the climber population due to the climbing school and shop being located in its center. We had some coffee and ate the very expensive cinnamon buns, one of the favorite desserts in Scandinavia, that helped keep our spirits up that first rainy and cold day.

Rainbow after the rain, on the way to Henningsvær

View on Lillemola island from Henningsvær

Sunset over Henningsvær bridge

When wondering through Henningsvær, and after admiring the old Volvo sports car (supposedly the proud property of the climbing shop owner), we came upon Pobel's graffiti on one of the walls. Not much is known about this shadow-painter, except that he lives in Norway, and his name translates to "hooligan", or part of the plebs. Depicting fishermen seems like one of his favorite themes:

Pobel, "In cod we trust", in Henningsvær 

Despite the hopeless downpour on the first day, the weather cleared up and we started climbing the day after.  Although the horror stories of rain on Lofoten I have heard have been many over the years, we were very lucky to hit a high pressure system for over a week during our stay.  We used the days well on the beautiful granite of the islands, starting with the classic West Pillar on the Priest:

Leading up on the Priest, West Pillar

We continued with more climbing on the Priest, and around Henningsvær, exploring the Spring Wall in particular. There, Jonas tried the very hard 7+ finish variation to Blod eller gul, and I enjoyed very much the Gaukerisset crack.

Jonas following the incredible 3d pitch of the Crusade up the Priest

After the tame Priest experiences we decided to go West, towards the less explored territories of the Moskenesøya island.  It is one of the least developed islands in the archipelago, where several inland villages can only be reached by boat.  It is famous for its Bunes Beach, that can only be accessed with a 40-minute hike after taking the ferry to Vinstad from Reine, and is one of the more scenic Norway beaches accessible only by foot.

 Departing ferry from Reine to Vinstad.

Unfortunately, we never reached the actual beach despite all the fame and excitement about it.  On the way to the beach we decided to climb a nice-looking wall towering above Vinstad, with one known route reported in the 2010 update to the Lofoten guidebook.  However, after a longish approach (definitely not 30 minutes...), the first pitch spooked us with its water and grass enough to renounce on the rest and turn back. On the way down the slope, my leg slid through some rabbit hole, and although I did not disappear under the earth following the white rabbit, my ankle decided to twist itself in a painful way as a punishment for all my whining about carrying the heavy backpack.  After finishing the even less pleasant descent, we decided to camp there and then, and not continue the exploration of the island further.

Continuing in the same vein, we woke up at 3:45 am the following night, when Jonas suddenly realized that he did not hear the creek anymore.  It took his sleepy brain a couple of seconds to realize that the creek was not flowing downwards toward the ocean anymore...because we were in the ocean!  Fortuna has struck again, as Ignatius J. Reilly would repeatedly say, and the high tide got the best of us and our gear. 

Ocean at our door.

After this adventure, we decided the island was cursed and did not wish to push our luck further there. After a cold and wet morning spent drying out gear, washing camera and cams in the fresh-water creek, and praying for the electronics to start working again, we turned around, and came back to the more known lands around Svolvær, going to the Paradiset area for some single-pitch fun, Jonas climbing the classic Butter Arms, and me trying out the Svenske Dihedral and the Dosethrisset crack. Apparently, the lines opened by Hans Cristian Doseth have a seal of quality upon them, as he was one of the best Norwegian climbers of his time, with a very good eye for impressive cracks. He died in 1984 on the rappels after establishing the Norwegian Buttress, first route up the East Buttress of the Trango Tower.

Paradiset view towards the open sea

We finished our stay with a long day first trying the Ormen Lange route on Kallebukta, then climbing the very recommendable Pan route on Geitvika buttress, and then finishing with Running for Rasmus on Store Festvag.

Logistics tips for Lofoten

Norway is an expensive country, thus usually climbers are advised to come prepared - i.e. bringing the full provision of food from the less expensive neighboring Sweden is a good idea.  It is possible to camp at several places on the islands free, the rule in Northern Norway being that you can put up your tent anywhere, as long as it is not visible from the nearest house.  There are paid showers at the climbing school and the paid campgrounds.  Wifi is scarce, it is available free at the library at Svolvær.

The weather is the biggest challenge and unknown, as it can rain for several weeks in a row, although high pressure systems are not unheard of, and those can last for a week or two, with full sunshine and t-shirt climbing on the menu.

Climbing is mainly trad climbing on granite cracks, similar for instance to Chamonix, although not much red granite is around.  There are a couple of spots with sport climbing and bouldering, but those as a rule are not the main objectives for climbers on the islands.  There are several quality routes in the guidebook, although there is a certain lack of routes in the higher grades (7b and higher).  The original Rockfax guidebook contains several errors, somewhat corrected by the 2010 supplement.  Especially beta about gear is not totally correct, although sometimes even the lines are drawn wrong...or even drawn on the wrong mountain (!).  There is a folder with the new route updates in the climbing bar in Henningsvær, although it is rather thin given the expense of rock available.

There still seems to be an abundance of possibilities for new routes - although usually a long approach might be involved.  Many routes might stay wet even after several days of sunshine, especially if overhanging cracks are involved.

Most pictures by Jonas.