Sunday, February 17, 2008

Weekend climbing photo essay: Tony scares us with death-defying antics

A slightly wintery Finland (all photos 'clickable' for larger resolution versions)

My mate and regular climbing partner, Tony, has been accusing me of being far too nice to him recently. Being English, he is hopeless at taking well deserved compliments - therefore just to make him feel a bit better this post will be filled with personal attacks on him, and particularly on his ice climbing competence. The weather had been sub-zero on the south coast for some of last week and we were desperate to get out and climb after two weekends of watching the rain come down, so decided to chance going back up to Valkeala to see if there was some ice on the crags.

Tony fails to make a confidence inspiring start

We staged a small Commonwealth invasion of Lintojanvuori, with a main force of three Englishmen, plus an Australian adding special forces support. I was quite disappointed to see no other cars at the pull-off, and indeed we didn't see any other climbers all day. Perhaps most other ice climbers have given up on this awful winter, and are just going to the wall to get strong for summer? We did the 'carpark fall' first - it was harder climbing than when we did three weeks ago, with fewer features for your feet, but it was frozen to the rock behind this time and felt generally a lot safer. Tony tried leading it first, but after battling to get the first screw in without much success and generally making a complete hash of it, he backed off and I led it instead.

Simon gamely pretends he thinks this is as fun as steep, sunkissed limestone sport climbing

Tony then seconded the line and we top-roped another steeper line on the same fall. Then we wondered along the rest of the cliff to see what other ice had formed. Jody did his first lead of the winter, and Simon followed, the same route as Tony and I had done on the last visit (pic above), with Jody managing to dislodge a large brick of ice onto his face whilst halfway up. Some blood was involved, but it wasn't exciting enough to deserve a photo. I climbed an exciting little route next to it which involved a narrow ice flow up into a little niche two thirds of the way up the cliff, then exciting bridging on very thin ice to escape it. After this, Tony announced he was going to lead the steepest and longest route on the cliff - a 20 mtr pillar of vertical and near-vertical ice.

Tony gets stuck in, Jody's facial expressions suggest this isn't going to end well

After Tony's, frankly, hopeless attempt at the first route of the day and subsequent moaning about not having had any chance to lead ice this winter and get into the swing of things, this seemed a somewhat ambitious, possibly even rash, target. Tony did nothing to alleviate these concerns by looking at the flatish and not too rock-strewn ground at the base of the ice and commenting that even if the worst came to the worst, the landing zone "didn't look that bad". He also elected to borrow my tools and lead it leashless just to add to the challenge. Using the spurious excuse of having the best camera, I elected myself expedition photographer and told Jody to belay so I could get some shots. This gave me the opportunity to run a safe distance away in the likely seeming scenario that at some point in the next few minutes, one Englishman complete with flailing, razor sharp ice tools and crampons would come hurtling groundwards from some way up the pillar. Simon wandered around looking much like what a slightly confused Australian sport climber at a small Finnish ice-covered crag would look like.

Tiger Tony shows that fingerboard training pays off

Tony attacked the lower, narrow and plumb-vertical part of the pillar with élan, and made good progress to about femur-snapping height where he decided, sensibly enough, to place a screw. This did not go so smoothly, but eventually got clipped and we all breathed a sigh of relief. A body-length of so higher, the next screw also looked like something of a battle to place, with Tony hand-swapping a couple of times - suggesting that he couldn't hang on one-handed long enough to get the screw in fully with other. This made the process even more tenuous than it normally is. But with the protection arranged he powered on upwards towards what appeared like the last vertical part of the climb.
Nearly there...

Here he stopped to place the last screw that would be needed to protect the finishing moves. This did not go well at all. Tony's pumped forearms meant he had to keep swapping which hand he was hanging on by, whilst trying to place the screw with other. When climbing with leashes this is when you really let the leash take the strain and whilst it might hurt like hell, at least you know you aren't going to just fall off your tool. But leashless, as you feel the lactic acid fill your arm, you have no choice but to swap if you don't want to fall and this means that Tony was at times trying to place a screw he had started on his right with his left hand, leading to all sorts of contortions. The number of times he was swapping his hands on the tool, whilst still making limited progress at getting the screw in made those of us on the ground really rather nervous that this was all about to end in tears. I still remember from last year the feeling of real helplessness as you feel your hands start to uncurl off the handles of your tools no matter how hard you will them not to. Then there was a muffled curse as the screw touched rock behind the ice. Things were really not looking so good now as Tony had remove that screw, find a stubby one on his harness and then place that instead. This was after much wobbling achieved, and he quickly asked for Jody to take, so he could rest on the rope. Normally when your climbing partner has got some crucial gear in and then asks you take, you might ask "are you sure?", willing them onwards to do the route clean without rests, but this time even those of us down on the ground seemed quite relieved that Tony could just rest safely now. No clean ascent is worth getting really hurt for. After a bit of rest and getting another solid screw in, Tony blasted up the last few steep metres of the route to the top. Not perfect, but a really ballsy attempt. We all did it on the top rope afterwards and it felt really physical and hard work - particularly with the narrowness of the bottom pillar never allowing you to really spread the weight onto your feet. The thought of leading it was terrifying.

The DMM chaps will be pleased to see that their gear is still being thoroughly tested

The pic above is just to show that I'm taking my duties as a gear tester for seriously, and we're still putting the DMM Shadows and Phantoms through their paces. I'm finding that although the Phantoms are small krabs they don't seem noticeably harder to handle, with at least thin gloves on, than any of my older krabs. A good thing for winter climbers to know, perhaps. If you look carefully at the photo you might also notice a DMM Shadow being used for something that DMM might not have envisaged themselves - they make ace ice screw racks as part of the great Swedish DIY ice screw rack system. The smooth keylock gate system makes them particularly good for this purpose, whilst they weigh a lot less than other various old keylock krabs that I have.

Post-match analysis at the petrol station

That was quite enough excitement for one day, so the remaining daylight was spent checking out another crag to see if it had icefalls on it, before adjourning for tea at a nearby petrol station. Not too bad a day in the end at all, particularly after relatively unpromising weather.


Anonymous said...

That is one worn belay screwgate there!

Toby - Northern Light Blog said...

Yep - I nearly commented on that myself - but interestingly that happened from pretty much three or four weeks when Tony was on a climbing trip to Indian Creek and other parts of US. The sandstone there seems to eat gear! Tony actually met the guy who owns Trango gear on that trip and was interested to hear that they have tested HMS krabs half worn through and found they are still plenty strong - but it still scares me! I retired my first HMS when it looked a bit like that, but that was after ten or twelve years of regular use!