Wednesday, 27 January 2021

Remembering Slingsby

William Cecil Slingsby’s book, Norway the Northern Playground, was first published in 1904. It is a tale of exploration, adventure and the exuberant joy of high endeavour. It was one of my earliest inspirations and I still have my 7/6d (37pence) 1941 edition. Born in 1849, he visited the country over twenty times between 1872 and 1921 and is considered the ‘Father of Norwegian mountaineering’. It was said of him: “There are two patron saints of Norway – St Olaf and Cecil Slingsby.”

Climbing in the early 1950s, when I began, was far more esoteric than it is today. It was rare to meet anyone who knew anything about it. In the northern Peak District where I grew up, scrambling in my pre-teens on what were then famous gritstone cliffs such as Laddow and Dovestones, I only glimpsed ‘real’ climbers a couple of times though never actually met them. For me, books like this were an introduction, temptation and escape to the climbing world. I read them avidly and dreamed of exploring wild mountains.

Slingsby and other early pioneers opened my eyes to the climbing world. Winthrop Young, another world class mountaineer of that period, comments in his Biographical Notice to Slingsby’s book about “the all consuming zest for adventure in high places which was at the core of Slingsby’s life”, saying, “his business instincts were not a little jeopardised by his picaresque sympathy for schemes and enterprises with names suggestive of forest and cañon and mountain fastness and far, sun-tinted lands and places”. Exactly!

Walt Unsworth observed, “[Slingsby] spent a dozen short "seasons" in the Alps, and [was] the first to climb several formidable peaks… He climbed with friends, but without guides - an almost unheard of thing in those early days”. On Slingsby’s passion for Norway, Walt wrote, “Time and again he made the journey across the North Sea, pushing his way over remote glaciers and wild valleys to forgotten hamlets and farms; exploring, climbing, making friends wherever he went. On these journeys his guide would be a local farmer.” In fact, although he also made some first ascents in England, Norway’s mountains were Slingsby’s consuming passion. On his first visit, he saw the Hurrungane Massif in the Jotunheim, later writing, “I shall never, as long as I live, forget my first view of Skagastølstind, the grandest European mountain north of the Alps. Our guide told us that it was the highest mountain in Norway, that it had not yet been ascended, and that no doubt this was impracticable. Can it be wondered that I determined, if possible to make the first ascent?”.

His routes were made by preference with local mountain people. They will be found from Lyngen in the far north on peaks with “wild beauty and eerie forms” but plagued by “the musical mosquito and the bloodthirsty klegg”, all the way down to the Jotunheim, “the finest mountains in Scandinavia”, to which much of his book is dedicated, and south again to the ice cap and mountains above Hardangerfjord. He writes about this golden age of pioneering and often bold mountain exploration with the same attention to detail and happy, unassuming style in which he made his climbs, both benefiting from the same joie de vivre.

It is hardly surprising therefore, that Norway was to be my own first experience of real mountain exploration. We set out in the summer of 1962, armed with the Northern Playground and some thin but inspirational paperback guides to Rock Climbs in Norway written in 1953 by Per Prag. They were sprinkled with Slingsby’s first ascents and tantalising references to unclimbed walls. The Arctic islands of Lofoten were our destination. Slingsby had climbed there in 1903 and 1904 making first ascents, often with Norman Collie, of peaks that variously “rise precipitously out of the ocean”, “resemble the Drus” or have “climbing of the very best Chamonix aiguille type”.

Like Slingsby, we had a great time, climbing two or three known routes and adding numerous climbs of our own. It was wild and remote. The weather was at times either glorious or foul. Almost penniless from the start, we eventually ran completely out of money despite the hospitality of fishermen and farmers who displayed, as they did to Slingsby, “the kindness and gentle attentions … of a race that we are nearer akin than to any other in Europe”. The die was cast. With the aid of Slingsby, mountains became a lifelong obsession.

Hitching south, we passed through the magnificent Romsdal valley, tempted there by Slingsby’s tales of “good sport” on its many peaks, and also by curiosity about Trollveggen, the Troll Wall, which was then Europe’s greatest unclimbed rock wall. Though partially rain shrouded, this awesome vision gnawed at us for three more years until, in 1965, we climbed it. Slingsby’s eye, however, was drawn to the classic alpine peaks above and beyond the other side of the valley where the partially concealed ridge of Vengetind was an irresistible attraction. He made the first ascent of both its summits with Patchell in 1881, saying “the scenery is too grand to describe”.


Standing guard at the head of Vengedalen and looming high above Romsdal, the great truncated tower of the Romsdalshorn dominates the view. Slingsby climbed it in 1884 with his wife Alizon, the first woman to reach the top, commenting “The mountain is more difficult than the Matterhorn when in good condition”. They returned in the following year with Bowen for the first ascent of the neighbouring fang of Kvandalstind which he described rather enthusiastically as “the steepest mountain in Europe”.  It was also a peak I was keen to climb, rising between two glaciers with the dramatic pinnacle of Torshammer standing between it and its grander neighbour, Vengetind. Slingsby who discovered it in 1875 had named it Thors Hammer, quoting from Olav Trigvasson’s Saga:    

“I am the God Thor,
 I am the War God,
 I am the thunderer!
 Here in my Northland,
 My fastness and fortress,
 Reign I forever!” 

Together they present as alpine a scene as it gets in Romsdal. It was good to ascend the glacier in their footsteps to reach the foot of Slingsby’s North Ridge, but I have to admit we were tempted away to explore its unclimbed six hundred metre North East Face which turned out to be both easy and enjoyable. Part way up we climbed a small pinnacle sticking out above the Miolnir Glacier, naming it Hrungnir after the giant killed by Thor with his fearsome hammer Miolnir. The final steep wall to Kvandalstind’s summit was the crux, which is as it should be, keeping the conclusion in doubt to the end, but at 3+ the route was only around V Diff which left us with plenty of time to climb Torshammer.

Still in alpine mode and tempted by our close view of the jagged Vengetind ridge, another top we hadn’t climbed and the highest in Romsdal at 1852m, it wasn’t long before four us decided on a three day trip from Åndalsnes, making a circuit of the hanging valley of Vengedal by following the ridge straight from town to the Romsdalshorn, over that and the smaller Lille Romsdalshorn, round the head of the valley to Kvandalstind and Torshammer, then along the impressive Vengetind ridge and back down to the fjord. It sounded like fun, and was. We left late one morning and bivouacked near the col under Romsdalshorn. It was a beautiful evening with great views of our cirque, the Troll Wall and the Kongen massif, whilst a long grey finger of cloud drifted up Vengedal and settled beneath us giving us some cause for concern. 

Waking early, the morning was fine and we romped up Romsdalshorn’s classic North Ridge to its flat topped summit then down by abseil to the gap between it and the smaller Lille Romsdalshorn which we then climbed before descending again to the col at the head of Vengedal. Then easily over to Kvandalstind and Torshammer where we bivied again. On our third day the weather was looking doubtful but Vengetind’s jagged South Ridge looked far too good to miss, traversing above a glacier over two smaller tops beyond which, with the weather worsening, we chose the easy but exposed Gallery Route to the cloud-capped summit. By now it was snowing and we were greeted by thunder and lightning, our axes and metal gear buzzing alarmingly. It was no place to linger in an electric storm so we quickly negotiated our way down through the white-out and falling snow until we felt confident enough to glissade blindly down in the general direction of Vengedal. Once beneath the clouds we walked down to the fjord and hitched back to town after a wonderful mountain trip. 

But back to Slingsby! When in Romsdal, he stayed at Aak, an idyllic small farm and hotel used by climbers since the1860s and still a popular hotel today. His route descriptions can be found in the guest book. We stayed there twice in the1990s, enjoying the company of old friends and familiar mountains before returning south, past another haunt of Slingsby’s, the delightful Hotel Union at Øye in Sunnmøre. There, he and others including Raeburn and Patchell, climbed peaks like Slogen, which he called “Norway's prettiest peak" with, according to his entry in the hotel guest book, “the proudest view in Europe”. He was also active in Nordmøre, where he attempted “the fearsome-looking” 3,500 feet Furuveita Ghyll in 1906, only to be halted by a waterfall near the top of “the grandest ghyll it has ever been my good fortune to enter”. He found the neighbouring alpine peaks rather more attractive, writing, “there is an air of mystery and romance about Vinnufjell and its great snowfields”. Unsurprisingly, Slingsby made the first ascent, climbing it by two different routes, just four days apart in July 1906.

I have not yet had time to explore these peaks, nor those of Europe’s great ice cap, Jostedalsbraen, whose “snow solitudes, glaciers and ice-fields were a joy” to Slingsby. To their east is the great Jotunheim Massif “Home of the Giants” and beneath is Turtagrø Hotel, still one of Norway’s pre-eminent centres for mountaineering. Slingsby spent many happy days there and mementoes remain though tragically, the old hotel burnt down in 2001. “What a jolly time we spent at Turtagrø!” he wrote. “Is it heresy to say that the ‘off days’ picnicking were as enjoyable as the days spent on the mountains?”  Here are the most alpine peaks in Norway. In the distance is Galdhøppigen at 2469m, Norway’s highest though Glittertind is a close second. I have climbed both, which, in fair weather, are nothing more than enjoyable snow and glacier routes compared with Slingsby’s favourites, the Hurrungane Group, “with great glaciers and dramatic peaks, none more so than Skagastølstind”.

For me, this alpine spire has remained elusive but Slingsby considered it “Norway’s crowning glory”, epitomising, like the Matterhorn, all that is most appealing about mountain architecture. He made its first ascent in July 1876, four years after first seeing it and two years after making the first traverse of the range, to get better acquainted with his ultimate objective. This traverse was itself considered of great significance to Norwegian mountaineering, crossing the only region of the Jotunheim still unexplored. When he finally succeeded on the mountain itself, he climbed the last five hundred feet alone, leaving his companions over-awed at the head of the glacier, asking him “Should we declare it inaccessible?”. Its north summit is still named Slingsby’s Fortopp in his honour. The 1953 guidebook says “The ascent made climbing history in Norway … it is still a first rate climb with a splendid variety of ice and rock”.

 I continue to be tempted back to Slingsby’s ‘Northern Playground’ whenever opportunity permits, and trust his book will still give others equal inspiration.


Books: Norway the Northern Playground, William Cecil Slingsby, 1904 and 1941.The 2003 edition was published by Ripping Yarns, with an introduction by Tony on which this article is based.
Tony is also author of Troll Wall

Quest into the Unknown also climbing and/or trekking guides to the Peak District, Norway, Palestine and Jordan.

Norway the Northern Playground, William Cecil Slingsby, 1904 and 1941.The 2003 edition was published by Ripping Yarns, with a useful Appendix to Mountaineering in Norway Today by Dave Durkan and an introduction by Tony on which this article is based.
Norway Images all supplied by the author.
Top..L to R: Vengetind and its south ridge, Kalskratind and Romsdalshorn> Photo Øyvind Heen.

Middle..Kvandalstind with its north ridge below.Photo Kyrre Østbø 

Bottom..Kvandalstind and Torshammer. Photo TH.

© Tony Howard 21 Jan 2021.