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The White Giant The White Giant
2023-01-21 07:11:00

Jiehkkevárri, "the mountain covered in snow”.

I could not help the feeling that something was missing. I had jumped off big cliffs, been chased by scary avalanches, tomahawked down faces, and ridden as fast as I could down narrow couloirs. In the back of my mind however, I had always been drawn towards Jiehkkevarri.

Splitboarding  Jiehkkevarri National Park

The last couple of years in northern Norway has been some of the best years of splitboarding in my life. I have developed as both a climber and a rider which has enabled me to access places I could only dream about when I first started. Spending a lot of time in the mountains has also given me the time to reflect upon myself, my relationships, my achievements, and my goals.

Jiehkkevárri is the highest mountain in my region. You can almost always spot it in the far distance if you are visiting one of the peaks around Tromsø. The name of the mountain originates from the Norwegian indigenous people, the Northern Sami, and means “the mountain covered in snow”.

It has insanely steep lines on all aspects, but one of the lines that really catches your eye is the south face, also called the “Artic Brenva” face. The face was first climbed in 1979 by David Nicholls. My fellow Rab Ambassador Eivind Jacobsen and a good friend of mine, Finn Hovem, skied it in 2020. Listening to my friends talk about their adventure and seeing all the footage made me sure that this was something I really wanted to experience for myself.

My goal this season was therefore to ride three different lines on Jiehkkevarri, with the Artic Brenva face as the main objective. All of them would be first snowboard descents.

Reaching the Artic Brenva Face

After carefully watching the weather and snow for a couple of months, a weather window appeared on the forecast. I decided to give it a try with a couple of friends. It would be a fun adventure to camp on the glacier just beneath the face.

After pulling our sleds for seven hours it suddenly appeared. There it was, the Artic Brenva face, rising 1000 vertical meters in the air with crazy spines, no fall zones, rock, and ice.

My heart stopped for a minute as I realized the seriousness of my chosen line. I started to think about everything that could go wrong. Pitching camp distracted me just enough to forget my concerns, but as the darkness settled in and I was tucked into my puffy sleeping bag, the doubts returned. Trying to sleep with the constant rumble of massive serac falls did not exactly help.

4 Days, 0 Successful Ascents

The next morning, I woke up as the first rays of sunlight hit my tent. In that second, I realised that I had lost my shot at riding my main objective this season. Feeling the warm sun on my skin, already baking the south face meant that there was no way I could reach the entry by climbing from the bottom.   

Quickly reorganising both my head and my gear, I figured out a way to reach one of the other lines from our camp. This would require us to climb the south ridge to the summit, traverse the peak and enter the line from the top of the north east face.  

My alarm went off at 3am the next day, and by 4am we were on our way. Two hours into the climb we got shut down by a blanket of thick fog.  

While navigating our way back towards the camp, I was feeling frustrated and disappointed. I kept thinking about whether my project was even doable. On the fourth day we were hit by bad weather and were forced to go back down.   

5th Time Lucky

A month went by, and April was over. Heading into May, I knew that I was totally dependent on a big snowfall to ride any of my objectives. Suddenly out of nowhere it started snowing like crazy for a week.

I knew that this might be my only chance to ride the south face this season. I packed my bag and waited for the next good window. In the meantime, I called Finn Hovem and Jacob Wester to ask if they wanted to join. They are both good skiers and we get on well. Luckily, they both said yes.   

Dropping in on an empty space

At 10 pm we set off. We approach the summit from the west side to access the line from the top. At 3 am we reach our entry while watching the most beautiful sunrise I have ever seen.  

The line looks good from above, and we start to get ready while waiting for daylight. While I organise my gear, I cannot help thinking about the lasting feeling that something is missing. Is this it? Am I really about to fill that empty space? I am scared and nervous, knowing very well that this is the most exposed line I have ever set my eyes on.   

The light is good and Finn drops in. He makes his way down the highly exposed traverse, suddenly a slab releases just beneath his skis. I gasp and hold my breath, but he continues across a spine until he is out of sight. Not long after his voice appears on my radio, he is in a safe spot, we can continue. I am next. I approach the entry. I am holding on to one ice axe in each hand, my  boots are tighter than ever, and the edges of my board are as sharp as knives.

I am ready

Half way down I find myself at 55 degrees, I plant both my ice axes in the snow and navigate through rock and ice cookies. I have never been more present and focused. I feel like all the years I have spent on my board comes down to this moment. Is this the feeling I have been missing?

I approach Finn and we discuss the slabby conditions. Finn thinks that because of the lack of tension in the snow, it will most likely only release beneath our feet.

The worst part is done, now we enter the main gully. The snow is still slabby, and Finn makes his way down releasing all the spines. Luckily the lack of tension means the snow slides only beneath his feet, as he had predicted. It is my turn again. I make short jump turns on hard grippy snow above the big cliff in the middle of the face. If you lose your balance here, it is most likely over.

I make my way over to the big spine to go down a narrow gully, but suddenly my edges pop. The ground starts moving and I am dragged down a few meters before my edges thankfully dig in again. I stop to look around for more moving snow, I breathe heavily. Everything looks okay.

I approach the next section, a crucial traverse that you must get right. Looking down the narrow gully, it has a small drop at the end. The snow is thin. I have no choice but to sidestep my way down holding on to both axes.

Now I am at the edge, looking down at the rest of gully, and I get a glimpse of the last open flank. It has a clear passage all the way to the bottom. I point my board and jump. I need enough speed for the traverse. In my own line out of Finn’s tracks, I get to really feel the snow and it is seriously slabby. I release several slabs crossing the face, some bigger than others. I finally approach my safe spot at the end of the traverse, and I know I will be safe from the exposure. Now I just wait for my partners to join me.

Even though we are only half way down, it feels like we have been on this face forever. The last section is a big gully filled with fluffy snow, hidden rocks, and a huge cliff at the bottom, so falling is not an option.

We enjoy beautiful turns down the gully, the crew is doing a really good job navigating from safe spot to safe spot. It is now 6am and my body feels exhausted after being out all night. I really have to stop my self imagining how it will feel to be safe at the bottom. I regain focus as it is my turn to take the lead down the lower part. Remembering the slabs higher up, I ride slowly and conservatively.

We approach the last part of the face. Over the radio Finn says that it looks good and that we should just continue all the way down to the glacier. I copy and set off, gaining speed, and making big turns. I approach the glacier at high speed, and as I turn back to look at our tracks I can’t spot them, as the face is so massive.

As we reunite on the glacier we all burst with excitement. We cheer and hug each other, discussing the different parts of our descent. In this moment I feel completely satisfied, fulfilled, and most of all, happy.

I allowed myself to enjoy the adventure for a couple of days, before I am reminded about my two remaining lines. I have only completed a third of my winter project. So, I check the weather by looking for a window., I see one and pack my bag.   

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Words by | Krister Kopala

Words & images by | Athlete Name

Krister is a highly unique snowboard athlete from northern Norway who is dedicated to exploring big mountains, climbing steep lines and riding them back down.

Read more about Krister here or on Instagram