Thursday, December 31, 2009

Another day, another Finnish mass killing

A guy walks in to a shopping centre with a hand gun and it seems that at least four people have been killed as a result. After the mass shooting last year in Finland where 10 were killed before the killer shot himself to death, the government considered a legislative change, but as far as I'm aware nothing substantive has happened yet.

At the time I wrote on this blog:
...either just ban the public ownership of handguns and be done with it (as many seem to want), or carry on as before and accept the chance that once every few years some nutter is going to butcher a handful of his or her fellow citizens. Those who want to keep their hand guns should just man-up and say that's a risk they're willing to take with theirs and others' lives.
It seems that the gun fans have got another four families to justify their position to now.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Wild Wales - a winter ascent of the Cneifion Arete

Yesterday Matt and I staged a quick raid across the border into Wales. In some, frankly, pretty shitty weather we climbed the Cneifion Arete (III,3) in decent mixed conditions. I started up a crack system a little to the right of the normal start which was reasonably well protected but had some hardish moves. It's a long time since I've done British mixed, but I'd guess at tech 5 for that line and was a good fun in challenging conditions. The second pitch is mainly walking but the third pitch much better if you stay on the arete itself.

Matt in the Devil's Kitchen on the walk-in

Fellow travellers - another team heads off higher into the Nameless Cwm

Matt approaches the belay at the top of pitch one

Me at the belay

Matt on the fine arete near the end of pitch three

This is fun. Honest. Self portrait in the icy blizzard on the top - the Gribin Ridge

Below are a couple of film clips, the first is Matt battling to get the last runner of the route out, and the second - a panorama (although you can't see much!) from Y Gribin, looking first towards Tryfan and over a frozen Llyn Blochlwyd.

Cneifion Arete - Welsh winter climbing from Toby A. on Vimeo.

A 'view' from Y Gribin from Toby A. on Vimeo.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Christmas running

To keep up my own blog's tradition:

Christmas Running from Toby A. on Vimeo.

This is third time I've remembered to do this! In internet years that must be like a century or something. See 2008, 2007, and 2006.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Marmot Ion Windshirt - a review

I wrote this review ages ago back in the summer, after Marmot had sent me a few test items to try including the Ion. For various reasons beyond my control, UKclimbing didn't put the review up. I was reminded of the piece now after seeing a post by Andy Kirkpatrick again talking about using windshirts as part of a wider clothing system (see the last paragraph of this review as well). I was wearing the Ion today whilst ice climbing (pic below) over a heavy merino base and under a Marmot Genesis softshell, and it works great. You don't really need the windproofing under a membraned softshell like the Genesis, but it is so slippy as an underlayer, the sleeves on the Genesis don't pull down as much when reach high with your tools when using the Ion.

Ice climbing at Kauhala today - the Ion shirt is under the Genesis softshell

So my review from back in the summer was as follows:

Lightweight, unlined windshirts are probably the best value items of outdoor clothing available if you balance their weight in your pack and their cost on your wallet – both minimal – against the protection and comfort they provide. They are great for mountain routes both in the UK or alpine areas; I use one for walk-ins and as an extra protection layer for grim winter climbing and also on sweaty ascents when ski mountaineering. Weighing so little it is easy to chuck one in your pack when summer cragging, just in case the wind gets up or for when the sun goes down. Additionally I use one for cycle commuting in cool and damp weather, when mountain biking, hill walking, for the rare occasions when I force myself to go running, and when cross country skiing. You probably get the point by now – there are really very few times doing an outdoor activity when a windshirt won’t come in handy. So if you are going to get one you might as well get a good one. So what make one good?

Firstly, a windshirt rather self evidently has to be windproof. Almost all are made of some sort of lightweight, close-weave nylon and there don’t really seem to be degrees of ‘windproofness’ – they all are; unlike some slightly thicker softshell materials that seem to be of a slightly looser weave and offer noticeably less wind protection. Therefore, leaving that fundamental to one side, the most important consideration becomes how breathable the material is. From rather bitter experience, I know it is very hard to tell in a shop just how breathable various lightweight nylons are and this is one of the reasons that I was so interested to try this year’s Marmot Ion windshirt. About three years ago I bought that seasons version of the Ion. It was an excellent fit, had all the features I wanted and none I didn’t, was super lightweight and being sold at a good discount at the time. It seemed the perfect replacement to my aging Pertex windproof; that was until I went running in it. This was running a muddy ten kilometers through the Worcestershire countryside on a driech Christmas morning. Whilst the drizzle beaded up nicely on the outside, through the very thin fabric I could actually see my sweat beading up on the inside of the jacket. About halfway through the run I stopped to take off the jacket that was wet to touch on the inside, and had wetted out my baselayer beneath – exactly what you don’t want. I asked on the UKC forums and a few others had found exactly the same issue, and also provided a link to one of the US-based backpacking forums where exactly the same problem was being discussed.

This year’s Ion is a different material, the same as Marmot use for the shells of their excellent Driclime range. Now the Ion breathes perfectly; just as well as Pertex, which is my benchmark for this kind of fabric. I sweat a lot when biking hard, but the Ion didn’t get any more than slightly clammy inside. Having got the fundamentals right, everything else on the Ion is just a bonus. As outdoor gear becomes progressively better designed, cut and manufactured, fit becomes more important to what works best for you. Marmot’s clothing tends to fit me well, I find some other firms cuts are for people who are both taller and skinnier than I am. Nevertheless, despite fitting my stout frame, the cut remains a trim, athletic shape. There is no flapping under the arms or around the midriff, even when cycling. Other multi-sports types will be glad to hear that the designers seem to have kept cyclists in mind. The sleeves are plenty long enough when holding onto handlebars and the back doesn’t ride up. So even though it isn’t a cycling specific jacket it does that job well. There is also no riding up when climbing in the jacket. The Ion has a hood; it is not big enough to go over a helmet but, being such light material, it could easily go under a helmet on a breezy belay. The hood can be rolled down although the securing strap isn’t very tight and it can slip a bit. I found that when cycling, the breeze would loosen the hood and make it flap around. There is one small chest pocket which the jacket packs into – this has a loop on it so, once packed up, the Ion can be clipped to a harness. The cuffs are elasticated but can be pushed up if you are hot. That is about it; for example, in the interests of being lightweight, there is not even a hem drawcord on the jacket.

Overall, the Ion is a great windproof layer. It is both very light and breathable, packs down to nothing but still gives huge amounts of protection against the wind and some limited protection against drizzle. It has virtually no features, but then it also weighs under 150 grams, which to most is far more important. In this case, less really is more.

A top-tip: For those who warm-up easily, a windproof over a baselayer is often all you need for walk-ins to winter climbs. But once you get to the climb don’t take it off and stuff it in your pack. Keep it on over the baselayer and then stick your softshell over the top. The smooth nylon means there is no binding between the layers, and in my experience, non-membrane softshells at least, don’t tend to be completely windproof, so the keeping the windproof jacket on under the softshell creates a cosy micro-climate further in whilst not compromising the breathability of your system. This idea is based on what Andy Kirkpatrick call the “comfort layer” of his super alpine system but being two pieces instead of one, it’s slightly more flexible for less gnarly conditions.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Last weekend climbing

I'm annoyed I don't understand iMovie and video compression more, but until I work it out, this is the best version of my first attempt at helmet cam footage whilst ice climbing:

Helmet cam ice climbing from Toby A. on Vimeo.

Sunday around Vakeala wasn't as good as I had hoped. Lots of ice forming, but the only thing I led was a semi icy groove where I got some uninspiring tricams and nuts in for pro (below is Tony seconding it). From there we could set up a top rope for the ice line you can see in the clip above.

Monday, December 14, 2009

1977 by David Peace

I've just finished reading 1977, the second book of David Peace's Red Riding Quartet. I've always had my suspicions about Yorkshire, but this is just ridiculous. Who ever knew - the inner circle of Hell appears to be the Leeds inner ring road. Here's my review, written in style as an homage to Peace, (who is in his own way writing an homage to Ellroy).

Whores and hopelessness, moor and murderers. Cups of tea and kicks to the head, chip supper and backhanders, racist plod prowl in their pandas. Rain washed streets that flow with blood, pints and fags in place of love. Forgiveness sought and never found, floral carpets blood stained brown, pain for no gain, corruption without interruption. A city drowning, it people fucked up, bodies dumped on wasteland abused and cut up. There is no salvation there is no heaven. This is Yorkshire, 1977.
I put it down in disgust.
I pick it up again.
I put it down in disgust.
I pick it up again.
I put it down in disgust.
I pick it up again.
I put it down in disgust.
I pick it up again.

So it's not going to be everyone's cup of tea, and there definitely aren't any sugars added, but if that's your bag, it's a hell of a book. In both ways.

Saturday, December 12, 2009


Now that's what I call a real weather forecast.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Little victories and righteous anger

These are the dark times in North. It doesn't last forever but whilst it does it can beat you down. It messes with your sleeping patterns and with other parts of your mind. Humans only came to these latitudes recently in evolutionary terms, we evolved under African suns. Today, in the north, the sun rose at 9.15 and it will set at 15.11 but you don't see it anyway as it's so low and hidden behind a thick smog of grey clouds. It snowed a little through the night and it is brighter now for that, but yesterday the dusting of snow didn't even settle everywhere, and was dripping and melting where it had, only adding to the damp, cold, claustrophobic dampness of it all.

I rode my bike because I hadn't for over a week and felt bad about it, not because there was much pleasure to be had from it. A certain grumpy, bloody-mindedness is probably the right the attitude to get you through these weeks, and for that you need little victories and a pinch of righteous anger. Fortunately biking can provide both. First the victories - I went past 3000 kms ridden this year on my commuting bike yesterday. I was just coming out the forest and into Pasila when my bike computer clocked the big 3. I must have actually done 3000 kms ridden this year a couple of weeks ago as there a few hundred more kms logged on my other bikes' computers, but somehow seeing it on that display felt good.

The next thing was the righteous anger: I climbed up over the bridge that crosses the railway at Ilmala station, turned south again next to YLE and started the swoop down the hill that takes the cycle path down over the level crossing and up into Pasila station. Going downhill, picking up speed, round the corner and there in the middle of the cycle path blocking basically the entire track -crash-barrier to bank- is a cherry picker. Somewhere high above some blokes were working from the basket on the side of the Fennia building. Fortunately between disc brakes and studded tyres and I managed to stop and had to duck to get under and around the bloody thing. Yet again, cyclists get treated as if they don't matter. If some other vehicle needs somewhere to park, you just block a cycle path because, who gives a fuck? They're only cyclists aren't they... So if you're the people working on the Fennia building with a hired cherry picker from Leino Lift, you are antisocial idiots of the highest order and you could try having a bit of common respect for other people.

Now I'm glad that I got that off my chest.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Is cyclocross the next big thing?

I've seen more cyclocross bikes whilst riding in to work this autumn than ever before. If summer 2009 was the time that fixed gear mainstreamed in Helsinki, is 2010 going to be the year of the "CX"? At least they are a lot more sensible than fixed gear bikes. This may account for their riders being disproportionately men in their 40s or even 50s around here. In which case, CX can't be that cool can it.

I'm undecided as to whether I'm hip or not thinking this is funny.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Institutions of one type or another

Last night, after the office Christmas party, we ended up at a club that seems normally to be referred to as an "Helsinki institution". If a night club is known as a "city X institution" does it generally guarantee it will be shit? I wonder if I have unintentionally stumbled onto a universal rule. Doesn't matter anyway. Good mates can make shit places great. They are the real institution.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Stuff that works #1: DMM Cobras

It's a bit sad to call an inanimate object made of aluminium and nylon "sexy", but come on - to all the climbers out there: look at the curves on that - phoarrr!

I've decided that on blogs you get a lot moaning - it's the democratisation of the media, finally the little guy gets chance to yell "this is really rubbish" about a crap consumer good he or she got tricked into buying by clever advertising or whatever. I write gear reviews that, if done well, is basically institutionalised moaning. So I think I need to sometimes sit back and look at stuff that really works. This will probably be climbing gear and outdoorsy stuff, but maybe other stuff as well and might become an irregular series.

So to start with the DMM Cobras - mid-90s welsh engineering at it's absolute finest. Ridiculously strong, and with brilliant ergonomics - I still don't think there is any karabiner that is easier to clip. I think there is a probably reasonable fear that the bulbous nose makes it slightly more likely that the krab could unclip - particularly if back clipped and that is why this design has been superseded. But basically back clipping is your own dumb fault and easily avoided - whilst in its favour, that nose made even the most tenuous of clips a breeze. Cobras would be considered heavy in comparison to modern krabs, but that probably about the only thing against them for rock climbing to my mind.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Halt! Or you will be merchandised!

I was looking at toys on the Sainsbury's website today and was rather surprised to see a range called HM Armed Forces. If you don't believe me, their own website is here, they have a not very good blog here and of course, a (pretty tacky) youtube video:

Thanks to having little kids, I've started paying attention to toys again in recent years. It has struck me that when I was little there were far more realistic 'war' toys around than there are now. My Action Men of the late 70s/early 80s were dressed in the UK uniforms of the time and armed with contemporary weaponry. One was in olive drab and DPM and armed with his SLR so presumably was going to play his part in stopping the Russians getting to the Fulda Gap; another was in all white, had skis and a white SLR so seemed destined to clash with the Spetznaz in a defence of Narvik along side his fellow RM Arctic Warfare Cadre. The last one, most obviously of all, with his all black uniform, H&K MP5 and gas mask was going to go through windows to neatly double tap Libyan terrorists. This was clearly all good educational stuff for a young lad. The Action Men of now are like comic book heroes who seem to fight wars in day glo colours on jet skis of no obvious military utility.

So it's interesting that there seems to be a gap in the market now for "realistic" action figures, but with British troops dying almost daily in Afghanistan it does seem very slightly in bad taste. Is the market gap a new engagement with global reality amongst the male, 5 to 10 year old demographic? Or perhaps more like the nostalgia of thirtysomething dads remembering the SLR wielding Action Men of their childhood. The HM Forces do have an enemy character: "the Mercenary", a suitably PC solution for who it is OK to blow away (although look carefully, that's a German rifle isn't it? Hmmm....). I wonder if next up will be a Taliban insurgent figure? If so, we fortunately already have a Harrier available should your infantryman need some close air support. You can also get an HM Forces radio set, although of course to a be like a real HM Forces radio set, it would have to have taken 20 years to procure, weigh a tonne, work considerably worse than the commercially available alternatives and have costed the tax payer hundreds of millions of quid.

But leaving politics aside - what the hell are HM Forces doing franchising their name? Does Her Maj herself get any say? Or perhaps even a cut of the profits? Will the income stream generated from HM Armed Forces Toys be enough to the plug the helicopter deficit in Helmand? I was just thinking recently how smart HM Forces have been lending their assets (from a Eurofighter to a tank regiment) to the BBC in recent years for various episodes of "Top Gear"* but, in effect, merchandising the Afghan war to toy manufacturers does seem like a rather postmodern step.

*and you have to admit, this is one of the funniest and cleverest pieces of TV entertainment in recent years no matter how much I want to loath Clarkson for everything he stands for.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Jumaring experts sought

I'm semi finished with the preliminary Westcomb reviews for UKC and I've written the review of the far-better-than-expected La Sportive Cliff5s (actually, more fairly that should be the "bloody excellent La Sportiva Cliff5s"). Next review gig? UKC has sent me a pair of jumars. I promptly rigged a rope up the side of the house and gave them a go. Result? I have no idea how to jumar. Couldn't quite work out what lengths to attach them to allow that neat jugging up the rope effect. If you have any tips, please share!

Saturday, November 14, 2009

First ice...

If you are a climber in Finland, November is generally a pretty crap month. Dark, dark, dark, cold and wet. Drinking lots of beer is one option to fill the days but it's been chilly this last week and the snow hasn't melted so I thought there might be some ice at Kauhala. There was just enough. A couple of centimetres, but enough to take your weight. Don't swing your axes too hard though as they just bounce of the rock underneath.

But hey, having done the first ice of the season, you have to celebrate. So now I'm having some good beer and watching DVRed last season episodes of Flight of the Conchords on my own. Yeah, I know, wild. It's kinda sad how much fun you can have with some beers and old episodes of Flight of the Conchords. And, did you know that you can write "David Bowie nipple antennae" into Google and get exactly where you want to be?

How great is modern technology?

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Suuri Leikkaus

In a continuing effort to maintain some semi-regular blogging with out actually doing any work, here's a good video I found last night of someone else climbing what I think was the best climb that I did this season: Suuri Leikkaus at Olhava.

Anu liidaa Suurta Leikkausta from PitoniFi on Vimeo.

The climber in the video, Anu, seems to layback the whole way up the crack. This is good if you are strong and skilful. The alternative ugly method - which I adopted - is to jam it.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Winter tyre time is here again

Sunday night I admitted meteorological defeat and put the winter tyres on my bike - hopefully I won't fall off any more! The Schwalbe Marathon Winter tyres do work well on ice and hard packed snow but despite still being relatively narrow and not particularly knobbly, the studs do make them tediously slow. Cycling in to work yesterday it felt like I was pushing hard and I took the absolute shortest route, and it still took just over an hour - about 10 minutes more that my PB on summer tyres. I average around 25 kmph with the summer tyres on my commuting bike - Schwalbe Marathon Plus (superb tyres by the way, about 4000 kms ridden on them with no punctures and little wear) - but with the Marathon Winters on, my average speed is more like only 21 kmph.

I cycled home again late in the evening and was pretty knackered when I got back at a little before midnight. I reckon I'll try through the winter to keep cycling regularly but to do more just one-way trips and use the bus in the other direction.

Monday, November 09, 2009

Loads of Helsinki bloggage

I'm in sight of finishing my PhD thesis and submitting. That doesn't actually mean it will pass of course, but even submitting will be a huge release. It's boring, boring, boring, but there you go - someone told me a long time ago if you're not totally bored with your PhD subject by the end it suggest you don't know enough about it.

Anyways... pretty poor blogging performance has resulted. But whilst skiving from making yet more changes to chp. 3 today, I found three really interesting new blogs about Helsinki in English. So it doesn't matter if I don't write much, because -at least on Helsinki- these folks are more interesting. Check 'em out.

Jees Helsinki Jees - architecture and urban design, but not in a boring way. Everybody lives somewhere and when you start thinking about whether where you live works or not, it's really interesting.

Instant Kaamos - Seems to be another English bloke who has been here for sometime. He's totally right about the stupid give way to the right sometimes thing.

Helsinki According to PPUsa - a Helsinki photo blog. Loads of great photos.

They're all a bit downtown-hipster feeling, which is absolutely fine, but remember there is more to Helsinki that the inner suburbs (although most of my hipster colleagues wouldn't agree). Downtown is the interesting bit of Helsinki, but somehow it is quite different to the suburban reality of many Helsinkians. Maybe I should try and blog about that myself sometime.

Thanks to Jonas at the ever interesting Svenskfinland in English blog for pointing the way.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

First Snow in Helsinki

A few shots taken about midnight last night. Still snowing now, and windy.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Welcome to Westcomb

It's been a long, tiring and slightly shitty day trying to make final changes to my PhD thesis. Not only can I no longer see the wood for the trees, I've lost sight that any carbon-based botanical life forms were involved to begin with. I'm going dizzy staring at words I once wrote, not really sure whether they make sense on either a micro or macro level anymore. Oh well. If it's OK - it passes, and if the worst comes to worst, I fail. No one dies. I don't get blown up. Could be worse. So chin up and all that. Crack on.

Anyway, mid-afternoon the postman came and I got a parcel, and these things can cheer you up. It was some Westcomb kit for me to test for UKC, from the chaps at Beyond Hope, Westcomb's UK distributors. Westcomb are a young, small Canadian firm made up as I understand it of some folk who used to work as designers at Arc'teryx. They are new to the UK market this winter, so obviously are looking for some reviews in the outdoor media as part of becoming a better known brand.

I'm trying out a Spectre LT Hoody - a lightweight eVent shell jacket, and a pair of Recon Pants (I really have to try and get over my childish delight at North American trousers being called pants - for Brits, doing some 'recon' in your pants is an image with huge comic potential). The Recon Pants are softshell trousers made out of fancy Schoeller Dynamic material. Indeed it's so fancy it has "Nanosphere technology" - which just sounds da' bomb and I'm sure will fascinate and impress all my friends.

My first impression: are these Canadian dudes goths? I got a black jacket, where even the logo is black. Black on black - all very "tactical". The trousers are also dark grey that at a distance looks, well, black. This isn't fair, because looking on the Westcomb website, other colours including bright ones are available, but Beyond Hope sent me what is the most popular in the UK market. So, it must be that my fellow Brit climbers are goths. Or perhaps it's just this season that the ninja-look is going to be in.

On a more serious note, the Arc'teryx heritage is clearly visible: great silhouettes, great cutting creating a sculptured fit, very careful and close stitching, clever bonding technology, no loose threads, no raggedy edges. Real attention to detail stuff. I'm excited to try an eVent jacket and see if it lives up to its rep for great breathability. I've never been a huge fan of Goretex due to my well proven capacity to sweat at a considerably higher volume than the transmission capability of Goretex, even though it has improved over the years.

Note the "made in Canada" label - not something you see too often in apparel these days. As a subscriber to the Economist, I swallow my weekly neo-liberal-hegemony pill regularly enough to really believe that "Made in Canada/Wales/Finland" doesn't necessarily guarantee anything is better than something with a "Made in Vietnam/China/Bangladesh" in it. But clearly for Westcomb living next to their production line is a big part of the growing reputation for quality. We shall see. The forecast for the end of week is for sleet and wind. Just the ticket.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Armenians: badass killerz or total geeks?

So I'm watching the Shield and the Armenians are back. In the criminal underworld of LA as depicted by the Shield, the Armenians are the 'other', not under control of anyone, not scared of anyone and not really understood by the locals, cops or criminals. If you upset them, they cut your balls off. If you really annoy them they cut your feet off and watch you bleed to death. They play the same role as the Russian Mafia do in many other crime series - an impenetrable and out of control force of berserkers who will do anything to anyone. Most ethnic minorities get their chance to be the bad guys in some US cop drama series eventually, so maybe it was just poor Armenia's turn to be cast as the baddie, but then I also happen to be reading White Jazz by James Ellroy at the same time. Despite being set in a L.A. half a century before the Shield, an Armenian crime family is at the heart of the murder, chaos and perversion once again. It appears there is a meme here and at least in SoCal, the lesson from popular fiction seems to be don't fuck with Armenians.

But then about the same time I was digging on the L.A. Armenian crime scene, the BBC had to come along and spoil all the hardass gangsterism with a documentary about the real Armenia - Armenian: the cleverest nation on earth. It appears that actually Armenians are all totally hardcore... errr... chess geeks.

Monday, October 26, 2009

“Helsinki Homicide: Against the Wall” by Jarkko Sipilä. Long dark nights do not noir necessarily make.

On my way to Brussels last week I happened to notice in an airport book shop a recently translated Finnish detective novel – “Helsinki Homicide: Against the Wall” by Jaakko Sippila. Although I’ve only read (and liked) the first two of Steig Larsson’s Millennium trilogy, I know there has been a bit of craze in recent years for Scandinavian crime fiction in the UK and US. For instance, I first heard Larsson reviewed on NPR’s Fresh Air and bought the first novel on that basis. So it seemed pretty cool to read a crime book set in my hometown and particularly one where the original Finnish version had won an award as the best crime novel of the year.

The book has been translated and published by a small, new American publishing house, started by Sipilä and his brother, and I wish them good luck in bringing more Finnish crime fiction to the English speaking world. But they still have some room for improvement. Not being good enough at Finnish to read the original is a bit annoying as it would be interesting to know whether it is the translation or the original Finnish that is a bit flat. With the book having won this crime novel of the year award, I presume it’s the translation because otherwise it doesn’t say much about Finnish crime fiction currently. Being translated primarily for an American market means that there were some slightly confusing American terms in there; it took me a second to remember that a “streetcar” is a tram and I’m not really sure if “half an ounce of meth” is a lot or not. It is not just that I'm used to British terms, but more that I’ve spoken English with Finns for over a decade and never heard one of them call a tram a “streetcar”. Likewise a Helsinki cop would have an even harder time than me working out what half an ounce is, so it just sounds unnatural for the word to be put in his mouth.

I guess these are really hard issues for a translator to resolve, but in Against the Wall, it seemed the translation never really did go one way or t'other. Things are half translated – the road Kehä I gets translated as “Beltway I” (despite the fact the Swedish name for it – remember Finland is bilingual so the signs say both – is ‘Ring I’, exactly what everyone, both Finnish and foreigners, call it in English). Yet the street where one of the characters lives is only half translated as “Tehdas Street”. This totally confused me: Tehdas means ‘factory’ and as I know that part of town I was trying to think where there is a “factory street” – completely forgetting the genitive of Tehdas turns the streetname in Finnish into Tehtankatu – a street name that EVERYBODY knows in Finland. Tehtankatu is the address of the imposing and rather intimidating bulk of the formerly Soviet, now Russian, embassy – a building that has long cast shadows over both the street and Finnish political life far more widely. So why does “Beltway” need a translations whilst Tehdas only needs half of one? Similar issues crop up through the book, which had me back translating words into Finnish so I could work out where or what in Helsinki was being discussed.

Having said all that, it is an enjoyable read if you like that sort of thing and anyone who knows Helsinki will enjoy spotting places they know. For example, my old local in Kallio – a dump admittedly, but a cheap one at that – appears to be where to go when trying to make contact with a contract killer. I never noticed this when I used to drink there but was probably distracted by cheap beer. I also, rather embarrassingly, realise I know most of the petrol station cafés of the greater Helsinki region and have eaten donuts in many of them. They pop up quite regularly through the book and the author even gets to note which serves the best coffee (personally I see myself as more of a donut connoisseur).

I think perhaps I was hoping for the book to say a bit more about modern Finland, being Finnish, and the like – like Steig Larsson’s distopian vision of modern Sweden. But Sipila isn’t that interested in this – it’s a detective story from a bloke who clearly know about how the Finnish police work. There are few nice snatches that hint at more – the modern Finland I know; a scene where a middle aged man can’t bring himself to hug his grieving grown-up daughter. Finns aren’t the most ‘huggy’ of nations. Helsinki is also dark and cold throughout the book, but also generally damp. In these days of warmer winters forget any tourist bureau bollocks of arctic winterscapes, at least down here in the south. The damp cold is a fitting background to a story of corruption and people trying to rip each other off. But don’t expect Against the Wall to make and deeper points, it sticks within a formula and keeps to the rules, even if the hero cop gently prods at the margins of acceptable behaviour.

It is may be not a fair comparison but I also read in the last few days 1974 by David Peace, the first book in his Red Riding Quartet. Peace is James Ellroy’s British acolyte, and a worthy one at that. That book drips with despair like, well, piss and shit would once thrown in your face by a corrupt rozzer in a cold interrogation cell. You may not actually enjoy reading that descent into hell but it is bracing to say the least. Peace’s world is one where there are no rules: as one of the policemen screams as he beats the “hero” half to death “THIS IS THE NORTH. WE DO WHAT WANT!” Maybe in the Yorkshire of 1974 but not in Sipilä’s Helsinki. The good guys are generally pretty decent, and they hold the line. The book may be more realistic but is less exciting as a result.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Brussels; Tehran. No connection.

I'm in Brussels again. It's a sad thing when you have to head to Belgium for better weather, but it's better here than in Helsinki! I'm back in a few days but minimal blogging this week may well be the result.

Apropos to nothing really beyond that I was listening whilst wandering around Brussels after finishing my meetings today, the BBC has a really interesting programme about religious tensions inside Iran and how the version of Shia Islam that President Ahmadinejad follows is increasingly being seen as heretical and anti-clerical by the Shia establishment putting them at odds with the authoritarian government and in league with the democracy protesters who took to the streets this summer after the stolen election.

Now out for what Belgium is famous for. Beer.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Smackdown (part II)

The road to work and some morning mist - the gravel cyclepath sections are great as they aren't slippy in the frost like tarmac!

It has been pretty frosty first thing in the morning all this week and every morning up until friday I couldn't quite bring myself to get on the bike. But Friday dawned sunny and the thermometer at home was only just touching freezing. I started off riding cautiously knowing that there was a chance of black ice. I felt my back wheel slip once just a few hundred metres from home, but after that it all felt ok. About three kilometres into the ride the bike path takes a 90 degree turn to the left, a spot I remember seems to catch frost, so I touched the brakes slowing down my approach and even unclipped my left foot from the pedals ready to put it down if necessary. Going into the corner all of this made absolutely no difference at all and the tyres lost all gripon real black ice, not just frost, and down I went.

Oddly I had recently been trying to work out how often I fall off my bike - buying a new helmet had led to this speculation. I'm sure I came off at some point last winter riding in the snow, but I don't actually remember when. So twice in two weeks is a) sore and b) totally annoying. A grazed hip, knee and elbow were yesterdays injuries, but between this and last week's fall I now own:
  • 1 pair of windproof trousers with rips in left knee and left hip
  • 2 pairs of bib tights, one pair with a hole in the right knee and one with a hole in the left
  • A Pertex windproof top with a hole in the left elbow
  • a thin micro fleece with a hole in the left elbow
  • A Helly Hansen Lifa base layer with a hole in the left elbow (and, yes as you might guess, a small hole in my left elbow)
  • One pair of windproof winter cycling gloves with a hole in both palms
Interestingly, and fortunately, I haven't hit my head in either spills but I am starting to wonder if during this annoying time of the year with the chance of ice, but not enough to make you want to change to winter tyres, elbow and kneepads might be the way to go!

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

A multilingual Finnish political history

I forgot to mention this last week: Helsingin Sanomat International had a great piece by Unto Hämäläinen looking at the language skills and language needs of various Finnish political leaders from its independence to the present day. It's one of those great articles which is actually much more profound than it sounds at first. It uses one specific prism, in this case what foreign languages were spoken and needed to be spoken by leaders involved in the country's international relations, to show the profound changes in Finland's geopolitical situation and internal political culture during the period. I won't try and sum it up, if you are at all in interested in Finnish politics or history just read it. Overall though I was left with the image of a tide of cosmopolitanism that went out from Finnish shores after independence leaving all sorts of strange things lying on the beach. But the tide always turns and that lost cosmopolitanism has returned again in the form of Finland's European vocation and its globally competitive economy.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Olhava the great

The view from Olhava's summit

Olhava never fails. It's the best cliff in Finland, even if it gets too busy, or you think you've done all the routes there you can do, or it's a bit too far to drive and a bit too far to walk, too difficult for a busy family man to fit into his schedule. Make the effort and it will repay you. Dave and I got there for sunset on Saturday. It's a touch gloomy down in the trees but high above the top of cliff is orange in last sunshine. I tie on, grab the gear and sprint up Mänty. Mänty is a good climb, easy enough to do swiftly, but not well protected enough to take lightly. I enjoy the sunset from the belay as Dave seconds. We rap quickly back down to the ground. Dave puts his head torch on his helmet and starts up Honey in the now thick gloom. He boulders through the steep start and by the light of the lamp he places gear, but its now really dark. I lower him off, and pull the ropes. We'll do it in the morning and get the runners back then.

I put my little tent up, Dave rolls out his bivvy kit then we wander over to the fire place to cook sausage, drink beer and chat with the other small collection of climbers who have braved the autumn chill in search of good climbing conditions. As people head to their tents around midnight I take the row boat out into the middle of the lake and marvel at the stars. The air is well below freezing and the now warmer lake is covered in a fine low mist. If a hand had appeared from the inky waters and given me a sword, it wouldn't have seemed surprising. Magic. I row back to the shore and head to my sleeping bag.

Morning breaks and with it being -6 getting out of your pit is a real struggle. I linger snug inside my little tent. Eventually I get out and start on breakfast - Dave gets tea in bed as reward for having slept the night out in his bivvy bag with just the stars for his roof. Then we make coffee, then some more tea, just putting off the need to take off our thick duvet jackets and start climbing. But the sun comes around the temperature inches out of the frost. We climb a couple of routes above the camp site but know we're still really avoiding the main issue - the main face. What Olhava is all about.

Dave starts up Josse, 6- (E1 5b)

After a quick lunch, we take the row boat out to island that forms the base camp for climbing on the main wall. It's Dave's lead. He picks Josse, a soaring crackline. He's done it before but a more than a decade ago. I've seconded it before as well - on my first ever trip to the cliff 12 years ago. I don't remember much beside abject terror and falling off the crux. Dave cruises it in the perfect afternoon sunshine. I second less smoothly but I don't fall. Now it's my turn.

Your correspondent on Suuri Leikkaus, 6 (E2 5c although see comments below)

The great corner of Suuri Leikkaus awaits, as it has for a decade. I've always found excuses not to try - mainly based on it being grade 6 and me not being able to climb grade 6. But after recent ascents, mates had assured me that I had at least a fighting chance. It's perfect timing, the shadow has inched away across the main wall as the afternoon has drawn on and finally even the two walls of this 45 metre high open book are golden in the low sun. Weighed down with all the cams and hexes we have between us, I lock a hand in the crack and pull up. It's a physical route and you want to be a confident hand and fist jammer, but it's not actually that hard. I have no idea how it gets grade 6, as all the 6-s to its left, as well as the 5+s, are probably harder. But it is superb. I arrive at the top grinning.

Dave seconds Suuri Leikkaus

The sun is soon to set so we ab down, jump back in the boat, row back to the camp area and pack up. What a day; I've heard woodpeckers tapping, seen a capercaillie fly by hooting, watched mist rise off a silent lake, sun glint through yellow and golden trees and done some great climbing in good company. What more can you ask for.

You can see a few more pics from the weekend here, including another climber who was there, Juha, doing a possible first ascent.

Olhava - the trailer

Home from a brilliant day climbing, and wonderful night out camping. Gotta to sleep now, and will do a proper post in the next few days, but here's a quick clip to be going one with. Dave climbs Josse 6- (E1 5b) on the main face at Olhava.

Thursday, October 08, 2009


A sharpish corner, going downhill, wet sand and gravel from road works covering tarmac. Not a good combo. It all happens so fast, I've hit the floor and rolled before I know what happened. Back wheel skidded out I guess. Dammit, that hurt, but I'm ok and sit on the ground for a bit swearing. Palms of my newish winter biking gloves both shredded. Knee of my bib tights ground away and blood is starting to soak into the muddy material around the hole. It hurt again washing the dirt out in the shower at work later, but overall I'm more annoyed about the trashed clothing than the injury.

That was going to work. Coming home, I stick to the tracks through central park and Paloheina - away from traffic, and sand-slicked tarmac cycle paths. The knee hurts a bit, but the autumn colours and setting sun make up for it.

Monday, October 05, 2009

The Finnish Afghan "debate"

(A Finn on patrol in Afghanistan via YLE) So it's been a big few weeks for Finnish politics, what with the planks an' all. A mate was filling me in this morning on the debate in the Eduskunta (Finnish parliament) he went to watch last Thursday evening - a debate that he reckoned a whole 20 MPs had found the time to turn up to. Regardless of what your position is on the point and purpose of the mission, if troops from your country are volunteering to go out to do a dangerous job in a dangerous place, it strikes me that the elected representatives of that country could at least turn up and hear what the government has to say on it and think about whether it is a wise policy or not.

As recounted to me, the debate amongst the 20 who did make it was acrimonious to say the least, with former chair of the SDP, Eero Heinäluoma, using a rather insulting term for coward from the end of WWII* about Jaakko Laakso of the Left Alliance. From what I've heard Laakso say over the years, the old tankie almost certainly deserved it. The SDP also accused the Left Alliance of knee-jerk anti-americanism, which makes me think this was a certain strain within the SDP talking (which fits with chosen aphorism for the Left Alliance). This is interesting because amongst the other SDP member at the debate was Jutta Urpilainen, the current chair of the party. I don't really know anything about her foreign policy thinking, but she did beat Tuomioja who is from the left-pacifist wing of the party to win the chair. If she had taken the time to be at the debate, and the SDP position is reflected in Heinäluoma's comments, it marks a change in the party's foreign policy thinking from the Tuomioja/Halonen axis perhaps?

Anyway, with sad timing, a Finnish patrol in Mazar e Sharif got blown up by an IED the next day. Two soldiers were seriously injured and have been brought back to Finland, two other are in a German hospital in Afghanistan with less severe injuries. Get well soon guys. Had the poor buggers got blown up the day before, I wonder if a few more MPs might have troubled themselves to turn up to discuss their deployment.

*The insult, käpykaartilainen, or "Pine Cone Guard" was aimed at deserters who hid in the forests and seems to have particular resonance within the different factions of the Finnish left dating back to the civil war. I'm glad I looked that up because just like my teachers said when I was about 7, you learn something new everyday!

Sunday, October 04, 2009

Kakarsberget update topo

Just for any Helsinki climbers who are interested - a quick topo of the big buttress at Kakarsberget which isn't update yet on Kimi's master topo.

The red line is Vesan Reitti, 4, climbed in April 1997 by myself with Vesa Kautto. I don't think it has been done since then so needs a good brush. I will try and do it myself if I get chance. The blue line is Piton Route, 5-, with no known FA details. The yellow line is the Pool Cleaner Guy, 5+ (6-?), done in Sept. 2009 by Jonas Broo.

More climbing photos: Kakarsberget and Muurla

No climbing this weekend - other things I had to do, plus crappy weather. But here are some pics from a couple of weekends back that I never got around to putting up. Any Helsinki climbers reading might be interested in some pics of a couple of new (well sort of - see below) lines at Kakarsberget, Kauhala - which is well on its way from being neglected esoterica to the best collection of mid-grade routes in the Helsinki region.

Jody climbs Pelkkiä Mustikoita (Fin. 4/Sev), that I had done the first ascent of just a week before. The clean slab partly visible to the left is Jody's new sport route Baby Steps 6a+, a really nice addition to the cliff.

Another view of Pelkkiä Mustikoita, showing its offwidthy nature. The route is probably the easiest offwidth I've done in Finland - so if you want to get some practice in the dark arts of the wide, borrow some big cams and get stuck in, literally and metaphorically.

Thanks to Jody for this picture of me on the crack of "Piton Route". "The Pool Cleaner Guy" heads up to the thin crack on the headwall at this point. "Piton Route" carries on to the up right. This is one of the Kauhala mystery routes; in that it has had a piton in it, and has done for as long as I can remember, despite no one seeming to know who placed it and whether it was climbed as an aid route, a trad route or perhaps even a winter line. Anyway I've called it "Piton Route" for the want of a better name. It goes at about 5- (VS 4c) and I found it rather 'old fashioned' in that hexes were more useful than cams. If anyone knows the history of the piton I'd be interested to hear.

La Sportiva Cliff 5s that I have as test shoes for UKC. They are a bit punter-looking, but I have realised a) I'm a punter anyway, and b) they are actually bloody good. A full review will be on UKC at some point in the future.

Gekko, a ferociously fingery 6c

The photo above and those that follow are from Muurla. Muurla is one of those odd Finnish crags that seems to have fallen out of fashion – if it was ever truly in fashion. It is a long, sunny, south facing escarpment above the old Helsinki-Turku highway. The bits of rock that stand proud of the forest below are very clean by Finnish standards. The cliff became famous amongst old school Finnish climbers because of the presence of what is probably the country’s first sport climb – Baby Face, an impressive, overhanging 7b put up by Henrik Suihkonen in 1989. But the Baby Face area is by no means the only one – there are some other sports climbs dotted about. They look a bit dated now: expansion bolts and bent-sheet Petzl hangers whilst the modern norm is chunky glue-ins. The bolting is also of the relatively minimalist 90s school. I’ve never found out for sure but always presumed this was because the of the cost of bolts back when people were paying for them out of their own pockets allied to the difficult of drilling Finnish granite (it takes a rapid toll on drill bits and batteries), rather than any real minimalist bolting ethic. It does mean however that the second bolt is often high enough to make taking a fall whilst trying to clip something you really want to avoid.

Pataässä, a spooky looking 6b

But Muurla is not only about sport, we climbed two trad lines, one very easy but pleasant up a natural ramp and crack feature, and another up the wide crack in the corner at the left end of the Baby Face. I presume these will have been climbed in the past although there is oddly no record of any trad lines done at the crag. There are numerous other possibilities along the length of the cliff for those willing to do some cleaning.

Dave on what we thought was Mefisto 6b+, but isn't. I think it's called "Spedestalli" although puns are well beyond my meagre Finnish spelling skills. It might also be about 6c.

If Muurla is going to have a little renaissance in the style that Kauhala has this summer, the thing that might do it is the at long last completion of the Helsinki to Turku motorway. Not only is the crag now much, much quieter with probably 95 percent of the traffic that used to pass by below it now over the hill on the motorway, you can get there in less than an hour from Helsinki. So for those climbers bored of the same old routes around the Helsinki region – get yourself a brush and get over to Muurla and find yourself some first ascents.

You can't win 'em all

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Bikes, boats and balloons.

My favourite bit of downtown Helsinki cycle path, now with added hot air balloons. Taken sometime last week when it still felt a bit warmer (frosty this morning).

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Finnish corruption: the plank edition

There might be a few readers of this blog who wouldn’t know about the “Great Finnish Election Funding Scandal of 2009”™ if they hadn’t read about it here. So with this sense of grave responsibility, I thought I should do an update. It has got worse. The latest news is the spin off “Great Finnish Birch Plank Bribery of Scandal of 2009”™. Don’t let anyone tell you that Finnish politics isn’t gripping stuff.

Actually, it is getting rather serious because YLE, the national broadcaster (think: BBC, just a lot smaller and a bit more 80s looking) dedicated a current affair programme to accusations from an anonymous source that Matti Vanhanen, the prime minister, accepted free construction material from a building firm back in the 1990s. Firstly, the PM categorically denies this. I’m no big fan of Vanhanen – his party, the Centre, is a rather alien concept to many non-Finns – but nevertheless he has been so firm in denouncing the reports I can only conclude there are two possibilities. The first is that he’s completely innocent; or secondly (and for the cynics) he knows there is no way YLE can prove it. Anything else and he is political toast.

The context is that Vanhanen is very closely associated with the foundation (for British readers I think it is actually a housing association in our terms) that is at the middle of the Centre party's recent trauma. It’s purpose is to provide housing for disadvantaged young people, and the accusation against it is that it has received money from the government owned gambling monopoly (think: National Lottery in the UK) for this, but also channelled relatively large amounts of cash to campaigns of Centre Party candidates and MPs. Vanhanen has been a board member of the foundation through his political career and its chairman during the 1990s. He has also received campaign funds from it. YLE’s mole claims that whilst he was building his own house, the now-prime minister accepted free but valuable building materials from a construction company that wanted more big building contracts from this foundation that Vanhanen chaired at the time.

As stated above, the PM totally denies this. He say the only thing he got from the company in question was a pile of birch planks that he built a book shelf from and the lumber was fully paid for. I think the PM should let the media inspect the bookshelf in question – I don’t think he can lose. If it is endearingly amateurish and wonky, the Finnish electorate would see the PM even more as the unpretentious Finnish everyman – an image he has tried to project. If the bookshelf is Germanic in its precision and looks very professional, the PM will be seen as an accomplished jack-of-all-trades: exactly the type of man you need to oversee the various and complex portfolios, egos and interests of a coalition government. We need to see your bookshelf Prime Minister! Democracy itself demands its.

I live in a country where planks might bring down the government. Go figure.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Reventeenvuori Climbing (part 2)

And a some extra bonus material: Jody shows you all how to style through the crux of Kuukkeli, 5 (VS 5a-ish?)

Reventeenvuori Climbing

Sometimes things just click. We arrive at the cliff as a three so as Tony and Simon get sorted to start a route, I squeak my shoes and solo an easy climb. I don't solo much these days, too old for too much silliness, but I know this route. I know I can cam my toes into the crack, or squeak my news shoes on to its rough holds. My fingers or hands lock into the jams and I cruise easily up it. Walking back to the base of the cliff I discard my woolly hat and puff-vest and start up its sister route, another crack - this one thinner and a little more technical, but still not hard. I get back to bottom and Tony has been having a bit of trouble getting going on the route he is trying. It's a new route called Kitkakoulu or "Friction School", well named for its 25 mtrs of delicate, technical 6b granite slab climbing.

Simon starts up Kitkakoulu, F6b

The soloing has settled my nerves and warmed me up, so figuring it looks well bolted decide to give it a go. The climbing is beautiful, lots of friction padding for your feet and tickling the blank granite with your fingers - piano style - searching for any rugosities to help you pull. I surprise myself by reaching the last, slightly steeper section. Here the holds are slightly more conventional, but the rock rears up to vertical for a couple of metres before the lower-off.


I get my feet high, and stab into the thin finger jam - too much weight coming onto my little finger - from there I snatch for a edge. When I manage to get my second hand onto this I actually feel the rock flex under my weight. I throw my left to another edge slightly higher, try to breath deeply a couple of times and then spring up on to the slab and clip the lower off. Well chuffed, I lower off having done my Finnish F6b onsight - and a really good long one at that. Almost certainly it will get downgraded to 6a now!

Your correspondent on Graduaatio, 6 (thanks to Katja for taking the shots)

Next I decide to push my luck further and try Graduaatio, a trad route in the same sector that I fell off back in May. Having been on it before I had a better idea of what to do this time, although I couldn't find the decent nut I placed before on the crux. This time I made do with an RP placed in the wrong the orientation, although it gave me enough confidence to do a move above to a point where better gear can be placed. The crux move this time felt fine and I easily pulled past the crap edge that I had slapped too when I fell off and this time reached the jug above. After that it was just cruising.

The man in black (me) at the crux of Graduaatio

Next we moved down the crag to try something different. A huge amount of work has been done in the middle section with lots of new routes, both sport and trad now there for climbers.

Diana on Talkkari, 6-

Diana decided to go for a rather obvious crack. It was a struggle and turned out to be more awkward than it looked, but she made it up with a couple of rests points. Coming up second, I arrived at the belay with most of the gear I had taken out still hanging on the rope in front of me - always the sign that you had engaged in a good fight! We subsequently found out that the route is Talkkari, a 6- or E1 5b. I think it might be a bit soft for this, but it is a struggle no matter what the grade.

A few people expressed scepticism about the DMM torque nuts caming ability in horizontal cracks in connection to my recent UKC review of them. Here Diana proved the critics wrong; I had to fight with this little bugger for ages to get it to come out from there!

The crew (yep - we start 'em young!)

The next route was a good looking line of bolts going up the side of a granite tower. It looked doable and I gave it a go. I very nearly came off trying to get a quickdraw into the bolt at the crux - and actually the climbing was OK in comparison to this and I got the onsight. I'm not sure if I totally messed up the clip, or whether the bolter just has much longer arms than me. We later discovered the route has the lovely name of Pupselinos Remastered and is F6a+.

Simon on Pupselinos Remastered, F6a+

With wilting arms Diana and I decided one more route was in order and I set off up what looked like a rather odd bolted rising traverse taking the easiest line across the cliff. Not the most conventional of routes, but someone had put in huge amounts of time and effort cleaning and bolting this F4+ route called Vie Minut Vuoristokiipeilemään which takes the climber through some wild terrain above a large route and must be one of the longest routes at the crag.

Then all that was left was to go to the Matkakeidas petrol station (and Kymenlaakso institution) for dinner. The photo above was the buffet option. I went for the burger meal option which whilst boring at least didn't include a piece of salmon that someone seems to have covered custard. I'm not going to moan about Finnish food culture again though, because bad burgers or not, it was still a stonking day at that crag. Cheers all for the company and belays.