Lofoten car trouble

Occasionally, random events can ruin a vacation. But on the other hand, another experience might come along and you’re grateful for getting lucky. This is a story about a climb that helped me forget a newly broken car. Well… not really the climb, but the descent.  I am getting ahead of myself. Lets start from the beginning…


A successful climbing trip to the Lofoten region of Norway was coming to an end. We climbed many classic routes including the Godfather (350m N7/6c/5.11a), Storpillaren (500m N7/6c/5.11a), Korstoget (350m N7/6c/5.11a), and Fox Club (N7+/6c+/5.11c).  But just one face remained on our list of the larger walls in the area: Pillaren. With only 3 long routes whole face, we chose to do Der König hat Gesprochen (trans: The King has Spoken) as a reminder of our yearning for our friends, lovers and families back in our German speaking home.

With one pitch of N7- (6b+/5.10d) and an easier approach, we planned to do Der König hat Gesprochen at the end, but the guidebook noted music to our ears: rap stations in place. This spared us a long, exposed walk-o, like our 14-hour trip on Storpillaren only two days before. The prospect of climbing 14 pitches of Lofoten rock without having scramble down exposed faces was good news. We made sure to pack a second rope.

The Spoiler

The 15-min drive from the campsite in Kalle was silent and happy. Mathias and I climbed well and remained (mostly) unscathed during our previous adventures. Now we were climbing one more of these beautiful pieces of granite and were heading home soon.  

As approached the parking spot, we saw two familiar climbers and with a smile and a quick wave of I turned the wheel. The rental car smoothly rolled into the desired parking spot and I started to apply the brakes gently. Then, everything went very fast. Instead coming to a halt where I wanted, it jerked and stopped abruptly with a loud, short screeching noise.

Turning off the motor, I pulled the handbrake and removed the keys. Playing it cool, I greeted our friends, trying to (falsely) enjoy the moment. But Mathias went the front of the car, and after a quick look, he turned to me, “Jef, da rinnt was aussa.” (“Jeff, it’s gushing”) There was no escaping from it now, he was right, and the coolant liquid was gone within a minute. Our Norwegian friends translated the car-rental contract for us: If the car is damaged, we must pay a sum of 15.000 NOK, (1500 euros!)


The parking spot a rock in front of a bush hidden from the driver. I steered right into the rock like a ship’s captain, lured by the singing of a beautiful siren only into a cliff, wrecking his boat. Amazing how little speed it takes to turn a car into bunch of scrap. Now had a decision to make, call the rental car company and get the car towed, (probably meaning no more climbing Norwegian granite), or don’t worry about it yet.

With 40 hours till our flight, we shouldered our packs and started the approach. But with only a moderately dicult trail, I had enough mental capacity to beat myself up, switching between angry and disappointed at myself.

The climb

Arriving at the base, I equipped myself with the cams, nuts and quickdraws. I wanted to lead the first pitch, so I could lead the 11th pitch; the crux of the route.

The climbing was nice and for a few at minutes at a time, I wouldn’t think about the car. A 20-meter runout here, anchors built from scratch there; route finding on technical, slabby (wet and dirty) N6’s were my oasis from the desert of self-despair and self-loathing about the car. The atmosphere was peaceful. The only sound was the soft gushing of the stream below and an Italian trio attempting the loudest known ascent of the nearby classic route, Bare Blåbær (Only Bilberries, N5/4c/5.6). But as peaceful as the atmosphere was, I was violently fighting with myself.

After several hours swapping leads, Mathias and I found ourselves looking at the last 5 pitches. And hoping for salvation from my torment, I started to climb the crux pitch (N7-/6b+/5.5.10d). We had only done one pitch below N7 during the trip, and I did not really notice a dierence with the easier pitches below. But after 55 m of climbing on a pitch that was supposed to be just 20 m, I disappointedly made the belay station. The crux pitch had not managed to relieve me of my anguish. Little did I know that I would mental peace in the activity that had promised to be easy: the descent.

Looking for Freedom

A couple of pitches later, I made the final belay just below an old dusty sling knotted around chock stone. When Mathias arrived at the belay, we high-fived and I wondered how Mathias could be so happy knowing that later we would be 1500,- euros poorer. But a couple of hours later, it would be me sporting a similar facial expression, but little did I know at the time.

The remastered Rockfax guidebook led us to believe there was a nice fixed rap station. So I rigged a rappel from the old sling and backed it up, as I was skeptical of it holding body weight. Then, I started down the 60 m rope, looking for the next rap station.

Unsuccessful after 30 m, I rapped 10 more meters. Then 10 more. I repeated this process, scanning left, right and below in short sections, further and further into the unknown. Soon I started looking my phone with it cracked screen, for the relevant pages from the guidebook and the photograph that made me none the wiser. But soon enough, I reached the knots at the end of the rope with no trace of a rappel station in sight.

I started to worry, what if the guidebook is wrong? Nervously, I used a combination of slab climbing and rope ascending techniques to scale the 60m back to where Mathias stood waiting. Another read of the descent description, I scanned for a possible walk-o, but everything around us was either steep littered with loose rocks. There was no way down safely. Maybe I was wrong, maybe I had not looked enough. I changed the position of the rope and rapped again. This time in a different direction, hoping I was going to find a rap station somewhere. But 20 minutes later I was back at the belay again. Thirsty and hungry, I sat down and fueled myself with cashews, almonds and water. Without noticing, I had started to forget about the car; I had “bigger fish to fry”. Still, the worst was yet to come.

Another read of the descent description and o I went scouting for possibilities. Following a grassy ledge, down climbing a bit of exposed rock and I was at a dead end. Damn it!

After reading the description once more, I returned a dead end again this time taking Mathias with me. Already in our approach shoes, we climbed up an exposed wall to a ridge, looking down we saw steep terrain, steep, loose, and wet rock and several green grassy ledges in the otherwise grey and black face. But there, under our feet, a sparkle of hope.

How hope can bring new worries

“Yeeeeah! There is a rappel station in place! And it’s new!” yelled Mathias. Happy about the discovery, he climbed down and secured himself. We rigged the rappel and there I went. No choice but to restart the torturing process of looking for the next belay. 20 meters, nope, nothing there. 30 meters, at half rope length, no sight of anything. I started to doubt our decision. Hopefully that sling was not placed by a couple of crazy team, traversing the sketchy face afterward.

Quite a distance below, to the side, I saw a line crossing a large rock. ‘That could be something,’ I thought. With only a meter or so of rope to spare, I arrived at the rock which indeed had a sling on it. A cry of hope to Mathias, and a few minutes of rope work, I was back on the rope sliding down looking for the next abseil.

The terrain got steeper and I lost visual contact with Mathias. I hoped with all my heart to find the next belay. Once again, at about 45 meters I spotted a carabiner on a sling, looking like it was positioned around a nice rocky horn. But 15m lower, a wave disappointment flooded my mind: the sling was old and was lying on top of a small brittle horn. No way anyone had rappeled from there, it must have dropped down from above.

I picked up the sling and carabiner and there I was again, at the end of the rope, scanning for opportunity. I spotted a solid looking vertical rock, attached solidly 10 m above my head. With my rope ascending skills, which I had practiced enough already, I worked my way up the to the rock. I wrapped the sling around it and called Mathias. While he rappelled, I made a discovery: the rock was hollow and loose.  Despair overcame me. Would we ever get down this face?

I asked Mathias to make a belay there, but he seemed hesitant but did it anyway. When I got there, I then understood why I had found the sling lying below and Mathias hesitance. The bulge was good, but very round and only sticking out mere centimeters. As I descended the sling started to ‘roll’ of the bulge, but Mathias held the sling in place. Terrified and 35 meters down, I found an old piton placed poorly behind a flake that could ‘go’ at any moment. So I made a belay on 2 cams that would probably hold my weight, but I was not inclined to test it. But what if the rappel ‘breaks’ and Mathias comes crashing down on the belay I’m at? Will it hold?

Mathias came sliding down the rope with incredible courage. The uneven terrain lead to uneven tension on the rope, dynamically trusting the sling down steeper sections, with slack on the slabs. Luckily the sling stayed where it was. Mathias came to the piton at the next rappel, and a couple of minutes later, I was dangling at the end of the rope again, looking… hoping… for the next rappel.

Down 60 m and nothing in sight. Damn it! What are we doing here? Why did we trust the guidebook so blindly? Why didn't we take a bit of gear to leave behind, just like we had done on Storpillaren? I scan and look, above me, left of me, on my right, nothing there! Out of despair, I looked downward and to the side to a small but solid looking crack. But at the end of the rope and still 2 meters away, I opened the knots I downclimbed the last meters with wet slopey handholds and wet grassy footholds, until I could place a small blue cam in the crack, Yes!!

Ladies and gentlemen, please strap in as we make our final approach. Although I was secured at this point, but our descent was still uncertain. We were so close. Maybe another pitch, and then we could traverse the grassy ledges to the bolted rappels on the Bare Blåbær face. With my remining stoppers, I dropped one in the crack and rappelled.  I felt it drop another 5 cm down the crack, throwing me off. Sixty meters below a grassy ledge so large I could take myself off rappel.

When Mathias was again beside me, I already had made a plan, and a belay where it would start from. After pulling the ropes, coiling one and knotting myself in.  I made sure to put a cam every 5 meters or so, not only for my safety, put especially for Mathias’, he was going to have to reverse lead this pitch. When the rope was up, I made a belay on two solid cams. I looked around and saw a white helmet. Other people! We could not be far from a safe way down anymore! ‘Is this what happiness feels like?’ After a couple of failed attempts, I could finally make contact with the girl under the white helmet. She told me that she thinks there are bolted abseils a little to the side of us. Yes, yes, YES! We were saved.

Still in my approach shoes, I traversed out 10- 15 meters, and saw bolts only 40 m below me. I climbed with running speed up the slab. Then I saw a bolt and climbed even faster. A cry of joy signaled Mathias that the adventure was practically completed.  

The rest is history

As we followed the rappel route, we enjoyed ourselves again. With bolted rappels, we sped down the face. We arrived at a belay where a couple of Norwegian climbers were preparing for their next rappel, and were gone again before they even properly realize that were there, we could only enjoy the moment. The speeding down the rappels fulfilled us with so much happiness and joy, we were back in an environment we perceive as safe, and could now play around a bit.

The car was still broken, but I didn't care anymore. I was happy that we had made back down in one piece. I was glad that the car’s cooler broke, and the old piton we rappeled from earlier didn't.


All photos copyright: Jef Verstraeten

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