Friday, March 29, 2013

Winter Blast

For the last couple of weeks or so Finland has been experiencing an impressive blast of winter weather, thanks to a persistent high-pressure system that has brought blue-dome skies, more sunshine than we’re used to, and nighttime temperatures that are unusually bitter for March. 

As late as last week, the mercury would rise to almost freezing almost every day, but plunge down to well below -15 Celsius (5 Fahrenheit) at night, even once down to -24 (-11 F). Even now, as daytime temps finally reach beyond the freezing point and the melt off has slowly begun, we still have some 60 centimeters (two feet) of snow in the yard. 

The month of March is on track to be colder than December – an unexpected late blooming of winter that I’ve never seen in all my time in Finland. To be honest, it has suited me just fine.

The stubborn departure of frigid weather has given me a chance to do some wintery stuff that I’d put off to almost the last minute, making the most of the cold spell with a winter blast of my own. 

Out on the ice on a sunny afternoon.
I began a couple of Sundays ago by taking an offshore walk -- that is, a long stroll out on the frozen sea. I wasn’t alone. There were hordes out there, in fact. Venturing out on a flat expanse of snow-covered ice stretching toward the open sea is just too enticing for many, especially in the waning days of winter, when the sky is full of sunshine and the ice hasn’t begun to weaken enough to make the exercise suicidal. 

Make no mistake, being on the ice in the wrong place (such as under bridges or where a current flows) can be very risky. But on my outing, I prudently kept to the parts of the ice that had clearly been tread recently by other people, mainly well-worn paths crisscrossing between the small islands scattered offshore, islands I have kayaked around in the summer. I hopped from one to the other for a couple of hours, visiting places that ordinarily require a boat to reach.

I haven’t been out on the ice like that for almost thirty years. It was more personally convenient back then because I lived downtown, only a few blocks from the shore of the Baltic. And in those days, there were even more destinations to walk to. 

We walked once to Suomenlinna, the island fortress a kilometer offshore from Kaivopuisto, the city park at the southern tip of mainland Helsinki. Not only was a temporary boardwalk laid down on the ice for pedestrians back then (at least during the coldest winters), but a seasonal bus route ran across the ice to Suomenlinna, giving visitors and residents a way to reach the island after the public ferry stopped operating for the winter. 

Such a direct, solid route is not possible nowadays, as the giant passenger ferries leaving for Estonia and Sweden now use the channel separating Suomenlinna and Kaivopuisto, preventing the water from ever freezing enough to bear the weight of anything heaver than a swan. 

Two days after my expedition over horizontal ice, I tried a route in a different direction, 90 degrees different. Just a few kilometers from my house is a spot along the Vantaa River called Pikkukoski (“Little Rapids”). There are no actual rapids there, but there is a fine swimming beach and a 15-meter-high (50-foot) kallio (“rock outcrop”) with a mostly vertical face on one side. (When my sons were small I used to take them rappelling off part of that wall.) 

Three winters ago, someone came up with the excellent idea of pumping river water up to the top of the kallio in order to form massive ice cliffs and create a perfect little ice-climbing garden in the middle of suburban Helsinki. 

I’ve done a tiny amount of guided mountaineering, including glacier walking with rope and crampons, but I’ve never done ice climbing, and the idea of giving it a little try at Pikkukoski has kicked around in my head all winter. With the season coming to a close, I decided not to wait any longer. 

A company called Adventure Partners offers novices, like me, a chance to conquer a bit of vertical ice at Pikkukoski. For our two-hour session, they provide all the needed gear, even the boots, plus instruction and, most importantly, close supervision as me and the other four clients took turns climbing and belaying.

The feeling of being able to move up the ice, poised only on the front points of your crampons and the tips of two axes barley biting into the ice, was absolutely awesome. And exhausting. 

I wasn’t sure I’d had any strength left after reaching the top the first time, but I did manage to make four more trips up the cliff before it was time to stop. Although it was a bit pricy, I was completely satisfied. Hands down, the coolest thing I’ve done all winter. 

I finished out my weeklong “winter blast” with more ordinary winter fun, namely skiing. Almost solely on principle, I went downhill skiing one afternoon. In recent years, I’ve gotten in only about one ski trip a winter, which is a shame, since I have my own skis and the nearest hills are only about 45 minutes away. All that’s needed is the cost of a lift ticket. Maybe my only excuse is that no one else in the family is that keen on slalom. 

In any case, I do much more cross-country skiing nowadays, and in that regard, this season has been very good. I’ve put in more kilometers on the tracks this winter than ever before (yes, I’m one of those folks who like to measure and keep track of such things). I just passed the 160-kilometer (100-mile) mark, which might not seem like a lot for some more serious skiers I know, but it’s more than twice as much as I did last winter. 

Normally, I go out for only an hour or so, skiing around the woods and fields near my home on the edge of Helsinki’s Central Park, not far from Paloheinä, the city’s most popular skiing spot. Recently, though, I decided to try something a little different, namely skiing from my home all the way to downtown Helsinki (or as close as I could). 

I got this somewhat contrived notion because of a new pedestrian bridge that was built last summer over a busy thoroughfare at the southern end of Central Park. The bridge makes it possible to (theoretically) ski continuously from Central Park almost to the Opera House at the head of Töölö Bay, if anyone other than me would want to do that. 

When I finally got around to making the 12-kilometer (seven miles) trip last Saturday, it was clear that conditions were deteriorating. A lot of the tracks through the forest were littered with twigs, needles and other plant material typical of late-season skiing, when there is no longer fresh snowfall to replenish the ski paths. Such debris on the tracks has a high degree of what renowned skiologists refer to as “negative back-and-forth non-ski glide factor” – in other words, it’s sticky. It can really cramp your skiing style.

I did make it to the bridge, but not much further, as the tracks beyond that petered out onto gritty, thawed-out sidewalks. Still, by checking this off my list before winter finally ended, I had one more reason to feel content that I’ve gotten all I want to out of the season. I’m really to let winter go, and just in the nick of time. Let the melting begin. Summer, I’m ready! 

The new Aurora Bridge links Central Park
with downtown Helsinki.


  1. Gorgeous pedestrian bridge! It reminds quite a lot of the pedestrian bridge across the Reedy River Falls in downtown Greenville, SC.

    1. Helsinki has a really good network of pedestrian and bike paths, and they keep improving on it. It's something that I especially like about this city.

    2. Here's a link with a photo of the bridge I mentioned. First photo in the essay: