For the extreme sport of ice climbing, grip and control is everything
We join ice climber Tapio Alhonsuo as gets his kicks stepping into the unknown
Man climbing an almost sheer wall of ice
Suoja. Kuura. Kiteinen. Hanki. The Finns have more than 40 words for ice. For Tapio Alhonsuo, it is much more than just frozen water. To an expert ice climber like him, it creates challenges that test all your capabilities
Conquering a frozen waterfall with an ice pick – and determination“When I climb on the ice, I feel like I must become part of the ice fall,” says Tapio Alhonsuo. In the sport of ice climbing, he explains, a big part of the thrill is the risk they take every time they ascend a wall of ice. These formations may be beautiful to look at, but climbing over frozen waterfalls and up ice walls in ravines is also an extreme activity. For Tapio, his most important piece of equipment isn’t anything tangible – it’s really about understanding the ice. And that comes from experience. So, crampons do not grip in ice if it is too cold. On the other hand, the ice layer starts to thaw in the afternoon when the sun gives rise to higher temperatures. This can be particularly dangerous as the ice can then start to fall off the rockface and tumble down, like an avalanche. But it is exactly these kinds of conditions that Tapio loves the most – unique formations created by the forces of nature, offering up huge challenges to those who do battle with them.
Man in green jacket, standing in a snowy forest
Finnish ice climber Tapio Alhonsuo comes from Rovaniemi, near Levi – where the Porsche Ice Experience is located
A burning passion for an ice-cold sportAs nature is in charge, every ascent is unique. Using his ice pick deftly and with care, for Tapio there is only one way to conquer the ice wall. And that, he says, is to be part of the ice wall. “Sometimes she is furious and makes mean noises. She wants to scare you,” he says of the wall, a big grin on his face. “But when the ice is in a happier mood, you feel welcome.” After a few days up here north of the Arctic Circle, we agree. The Porsche Ice Experience is just an hour away from where Tapio’s icy vertical ascents are taking place. To get to grip with this frozen material, we are using spikes instead of crampons to help ensure safe progress.
Climbing boots with spikes on to conquer ice
Whether it’s driving, walking or climbing on ice, good grip is essential
“When you’ve made the top of the rockface, it should be clear that you are only halfway there. After all, you have to come down safely,” says Tapio. Before you climb, the view of the summit of the ice wall leaves you in no doubt that the challenges posed by ice climbing are not just a matter of physical fitness. Ice climbing requires a resilient mindset too. The focus is on technique, determination, as well as taking on the challenge boldly and carefully. “Don’t be where sharp ice can fall,” says Tapio as he starts to make a hole in the frozen snow with his ice pick. It is absolutely freezing now. “You don’t see the hole. You don’t feel the hole,” he adds. In the sport of ice climbing, you can only sense the state of the ice through his ice pick. It becomes, in effect, an extension of his hand.
Close-up of ice climber showing hooks and ropes around waist
A plentiful supply of hooks and ropes is essential to safeguard you when ice climbing
For Tapio, ice climbing is more than just a pastime. It is a true sport too. By 2017, Finland had still not entered a competitor in the Ice Climbing World Cup. This was a situation Tapio was not willing to accept. To represent his country in the World Cup was his lifelong ambition. His eyes sparkle as he mentions the name of his fellow teammates, Enni Bertling, Mira Alhonsuo and Albert Kaikkonen – Finland’s first-ever ice climbing team, who travelled to Switzerland and then Italy to take part in the World Cup. “It was exciting. We didn’t know what to expect. I was scared that I wouldn’t be able to take a single step,” he says.
What I really love about competitions is that they make me become the climber I always wanted to be
Tapio Alhonsuo | Ice climber
Bird's eye view of an ice climber. Ice climber hangs on the rope and climbs an ice wall
Every ice wall is a new challenge – and creates a spectacular memory
Tapio spent hours studying videos on YouTube and Vimeo as well as climbing on an artificial wall. He and his teammates had no trainers, no team manager, nor even any medical back-up. But it didn’t deter them. “We just wanted to be there,” explains Tapio. But this steadfast determination, as well as building up his experience, eventually paid off. Tapio has now been an Ice Climbing World Cup champion several times over, the last of which was in 2020. When it comes to getting to grips with ice – and conquering it – this part of the world is better equipped than most. As participants in the Porsche Ice Experience up here in Levi can readily attest to.
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