Monday, March 16, 2009

Spring drips in

Drip, drip

The changing guard: out with the Frogs in with the Yanks

Rain on the windscreen and it’s not looking good. The trees have all long since shed their loads of snow, but not in the gorgeous sloughing off their winter coat that happens under the first blue skies and sunny days of spring, but with the soggy, heavy greyness of warm south-westerlies that also soak the air with moisture sucked up out of the snowpack. Low cloud, mist, sleet and an all pervading dampness. Southern Finland looks monochrome, white snow in the fields, brown dull forests behind them. We drive westward getting sprayed with muddy water from every truck we overtake on the new motorway.

Me, trying out my new ice tools for the first time

Yesterday had been perfect – bright sun, a cloudless sky, the deep snowpack in the forest soaked but gleaming in the sunlight. We had stumbled down into a steep-sided and shaded valley and found fat ice against a steep little cliff. It was soft in the above freezing temperatures and easy to climb, yielding to first time swings of the ice tools. The birds chirped in the trees, enjoying the warm sun as much as we were. But Sunday is dawning damp and miserable.

Dave's lead

We get to the cliff in Angelniemi and our optimism from the night before is rewarded; it is still plump with fat, white ice. Dave meets us there and with him my gleaming new ice axes – personally imported by Dave for me from Canada, and the Mountain Equipment Co-op; a shop that has an almost mythical reputation amongst European climbers as an Aladdin’s cave of ridiculously under-priced and high quality outdoor equipment. My new babies live up to their name – Vipers – and bite firmly and reassuringly into the fat, soft ice. I had been just about to start leading a route when Dave had arrived at the crag, so I put my trusty old Quarks aside and decide just to jump in the deep end with the new tools. I haven’t quite got the leashes quite at the right length but still bash up 15 metres of 75-90 degree ice in pretty passable style. Pretty good going for my first ever try with the tools. I think we're going to get on well. I climb the rest of the day with them leashless, the secondary hand position making a big difference when hand swapping from my Quarks which lack this.

Tony's lead

The countryside is full of the sound of dripping and occasionally small pieces of ice drop off from the cliff and crash to the forest floor, but at the top of one of the climbs we can hear another rhythmic sound - the high speed tap-tap-tap of a woodpecker. I spot him high above at the very top of tall dead tree. I can see black and white and he looks to be a good size from a distant - so at a guess, a Great Spotted Woodpecker. Just as we are about to leave the cliff there are strange noises echoing down the valley, and then a flight of huge swans - pure white and in perfect line formation sweep past us. We can easily hear the beating of their wings even from 100 metres away. It's grey and dank and dripping, but the climbing and company has been good and the signs of spring and tapping and honking all around us. Even when it's not a nice day to be outside, it is often still nice to be outside - if you see what I mean.

Skinny start

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