Lizzy Scully recently visited Iceland after her Greenland expedition was cut short (read about that trip here). She lucked out and got to climb with some of the most active climbers in that country. One in particular, Kristin Martin Hakonardottir, showed her a superb sport climbing area and invited her to check out a new, “secret” crag. In fact, the crag wasn’t so secret. Kristin Martha had tried to find an active new router (climber who likes to put up first ascents) to try to climb the cracks at this crag for a couple years, but had no luck enlisting her fellow, mostly male, climbers. She showed Lizzy what was to become the very first route on that mountain.
Few people climb in Iceland. It’s a new sport in this country, just a few decades old. Even fewer people climb cracks. There aren’t many to climb. So the first day I arrived to Hnappavallahamrar (dare you to say that 3 times fast) with the “Father of Climbing in Iceland” (Stefan “Steppy” Stelnar Smarason) to do a bit of sport climbing after my Greenland expedition,” he looked at me incredulously when I wanted to climb their one perfect crack route, which they call “The Waffle Iron” (5.10-) because it apparently eats up peoples’ hands.
“Really? I have more gear in the car. I can get it,” he said, looking at my single set of cams (climbing equipment) skeptically. Apparently he didn’t think it was enough.
“But it’s only 40 feet tall?” I said. He wasn’t listening.
“I’ll go get my gear,” he repeated.
“No really, I’m OK, thanks,” I responded.
“Well, if you need to back off, no problem. I can walk around to the top and rappel down to get your gear for you,” He suggested.
I looked at him, looked up at the route, and shrugged. “I won’t back off, Stefan, really.” It looked perfect to me. Short and sweet. Just like my favorite stomping grounds, Indian Creek, Utah, where cracks split sandstone faces for miles. American style climbing.
“Wow! You’re the first girl to do that,” he said, surprised when I finished it without even one cut or scrape on my hands.
I sent Kristin Martha a Facebook message from the Spanish Hostel in Quessiarsuk, Greenland, where I was staying after our trip to Greenland ended.
“My expedition has been cut short. Maybe I should check out the climbing in Iceland? Are you busy?” I wrote.
“For sure! We’ll go to Hnappavallahamrar for a few days to sport climb and then maybe Brunnhorn. I found some great cracks that we might be able to climb there.”
On maternity leave for nine months, Kristin Martha had a lot of free time, plus visions of establishing new routes in this area that she found while hiking around the nearby mountain, Vestrahorn. Kristin moved back to her homeland, Iceland, in 2004 after learning how to climb in England while getting her PhD in Fluid Dynamics (she studied snow avalanche movement). Since then, she’s inspired a younger generation of Icelandic climbers by organizing events at local crags and running and/or teaching at the local climbing gym. Plus she has been active with new routing, putting up a half dozen sport routes, ranging in grade 5.5 to 5.11a.
“Somehow it’s adventurous, but it’s also creative,” she says of putting up first ascents. And she loves climbing… borders on obsessed with it. “I like the simplicity of just going, staying and climbing, and I love the movement and being outdoors. It’s so relaxing in a strange in a way. Calming. I probably have a lot of energy. It has to go into something.”
Climbers everywhere are the same. I love it.
I arrived to Reykjavik a few days later and met Kristin Martha, her infant child, Ragnhildur (aka Una), and another climber pal of Kristin’s, Andrea, for coffee. Kristin mentioned the cracks again.
“I think they could be really nice. No one will climb them with me…” she explained. “Not many people have gear, really, except for Stefan.”
Our third day climbing, Kristin Martha, her husband Bjarni, Ragnhildur, and I drove to Vestrahorn to meet two young Icelandic rock stars, Valdimar and Eythor. “Valdi”, one of Stefan’s proteges, has climbed or put up many of Iceland’s hardest routes. The two of them and Valdi’s girlfriend, Thorey, also a climber, live in a dilapidated former Cafe, complete with a coffee-making equipment, a counter, and a chalk board that still reads, “Cheese & Ham Sandwich: 1.300 Kr. (Kronars: Icelandic cash); Waffles: 1.000 Kr.; Sexy Viking: 1.000 Kr.”
“We’re not sure what that is,” Vladi said pointing at the chalk board with a laugh. Typical climber habitat, a bouldering pad/bed lay in the corner, rusty cars with climbing stickers out front, and climbing paraphernalia littered on the dining room/living room tables and floor.
“Check out our boulders! Every day we do brand new problems,” Valdi said, showing us the computer images of the guidebook the three cafe inhabitants were working on that summer, as they developed the area.
Kristin Martha and I invited them along to check out the new crack climbing area, but they opted for bouldering. We declined their invite as well, as this was the opportunity Kristin Martha had been looking for for years–getting someone with a rack of climbing gear to hike up the 45 minutes to her new crag. After two days of sport climbing, I felt pretty exhausted, but it’s hard to pass up the chance to open a new route in a foreign country. New routing in the States isn’t this easy. So we drove around to the other side of the Vestrahorn, hiked up and over a fairly steep, ball-bearing slippery hill, and we were there. And there were splitters. Not so many as Kristin Martha had imagined, but definitely two worthy fissures and a stack of possibly excellent face routes. We choose the most obvious line, a perfect crack in a corner. It turned out to be a well-protected 5.10 or 10+; it’s hard to say as I was feeling quite tired and had to force myself to squeak out a clean lead because it was the first ascent of any kind on the mountain, and it was awesome. I had to send. The crack started out with a fingers lieback, to a sweet crack in a face, and then finally back into the corner, where a steeper hand to fist crack led to a crux pulling over a bulge. Fantastic!
“I’m really pleased about our route; it’s the first climb in Brunnhorn,” Kristin told me the next day. “Nothing has been climbed on that mountain yet!”
My last afternoon in Iceland, I biked by the ocean on a path frequented by families and fit, healthy people to meet Kristin Martha and Una at a sweet health food cafe near the hot pools. We shared dessert and appreciation for meeting each other. She again expressed her excitement about finally finding someone to climb the cracks with her, and she offered a name of her new area, “Bloodroot.” It’s an herb that grows in Iceland, is plush at the bottom of the new crag, and sometimes dyes the rock red.
“I’d love to call the route, The Girls Did It,” I said to her over a cocoa-chia seed dessert. “And we’ll rate it 5.9+ instead of 5.10+.” We both laughed.
“I showed the pictures of the crack and the wall to Steppy,” she mentioned. “Finally, he said, ‘well maybe I should go up there with you and check it out.”