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The First Finns in Ice Climbing World Cup

Tapio Alhonsuo recalls last January when he entered the Ice Climbing World Cup with Enni Bertling, Mira Alhonsuo and Albert Kaikkonen as the first ever Finnish participants.

Finland hadn’t had a competitor in the Ice World Cup ever. That was just lousy.

Entering the Ice World Cup has been one of my lifelong dreams.

It first occurred to me sometime maybe seven or eight years ago. I knew it back then that I was in good shape, and I was young and inexperienced enough to think that it would be all I needed. But I couldn’t fund myself to participate then, so it had to wait.

That dream got replaced during the years, as snowy mountaintops and iced-up cracks began to inspire me more than the bolt clipping I had in reach. I thought that I was done with it – that my sport climbing days were over, no matter if it was on sunny rock or with axes in hand. I was 100% happy concentrating on traditionally protected routes, longer ice falls and the occasional trip to mountains.

But it wasn’t over yet, and I’m glad of it. The annual drytooling comps held in Helsinki fired up that flame for competing again, and this season I had the necessary resources to enter international competitions. It had also really bugged me that Finland hadn’t had a competitor in the Ice World Cup ever. That was just lousy. We had ice in Finland, and some could say that up north there was a lot of it. Yeah, I felt like it had to be done, there had to be a Finnish team in the IWC.

At the end of last January, a national team of four Finnish ice climbers had been built. We travelled first to Saas-Fee (SUI), and then to Rabenstein (ITA), for our first-ever Ice World Cup competitions. As the first ever Finns!

The day before the Saas-Fee comp was mind-bogglinly thrilling. Not because something exciting happened then, no; only because I had my mind full of question marks. We all had. We had no clue how the next day would end. I was afraid that I didn’t have a clue about the level of climbing we were about to face.

I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to do a single move on the qualification route.

Of course I had spent the previous months with only this goal in mind. Those months had been carefully planned, but I wasn’t sure how the power gained from our training would transfer to the competition walls. I had spent hours studying Youtube and Vimeo trying to figure out what was needed. I had tried to see the nuances and tried to implement these techniques into our training cave, but there was no way to know how it would work out in real life. In the competition.

No one in Finland knew.

My last moments in the Saas-Fee isolation zone were filled with mixed emotions.

First of all, I was very happy to have come this far. I was really going out of the isolation in a couple of minutes, and I was about to go do something I had wanted for years. I had prepared myself as well as it had been possible, with the limited knowledge and training facilities we had. And I was very satisfied with the journey that had led me to this point. All the training, all those months in our cave, and all those years I had had axes in my hand, all of them would culminate in a single performance soon. If I was to fuck it up, there wouldn’t be a second go. It would be somebody else’s turn by then.

Was I good enough? Was I a couple of minutes away from a total humiliation? Was I about to enter a worldwide live stream only to show I couldn’t get my feet off the ground?

I was a bit embarrassed about my anxiousness. I had thought I’d be experienced enough to not stress too much about a situation like this. I had lost a good night’s sleep many times earlier in my life as a climber, usually because I had been so scared of the next day. But to be frightened by a scary mountain route was a different kind of fright compared to this.

Objectively I had nothing to be afraid of. There wouldn’t be a mountain face above me threatening to avalanche when it would get afternoon sun. There wouldn’t be bad pro or a no-fall-zone. There wouldn’t be a complex descent involving downclimbing when rappeling wasn’t an option because of lacking pro.

But I had to perform at my best, and I would have to utilize everything I had ever learned.

What the fuck am I doing here, amongst these pros? These guys have team managers and doctors, coaches, team jackets and decades of experience in this shit! What do we got, we paid for this shit by ourselves?

Of course I failed in way that I hated most. Both axes in hand, meaning I slipped off hold. If I would have had only one axe with me, then it would have meant that I’d slipped off my axe, which is always a completely different story. If that would have been the case, then the cause of fail would have been pumping out or a move I was unable to do. I would have preferred that. But no, I had them both.

But there was so much I knew better now. I knew now, how it felt to kick my frontpoints to the plywood, or why we were allowed to have binoculars in the route preview. I also knew the needed pace of climbing, if I was ever to dream about semifinals. These may not sound much, but they were all just huge question marks before finally making those first moves on a real comp wall.

Competition ice climbing has evolved a long way from traditional ice and mixed climbing. The ability to use feet effectively on overhanging plywood is a skill you’re not gonna learn by frontpointing ice. Reading sequences and memorizing them from below seems to be an art form in itself. It’s all very sport-specific, something that’s best learned by doing it. And I liked it, because ice climbing presented it’s most athletic aspect in it.

There was no room for bullshit or grade speculation. Conditions and rules were the same for everybody. No grey zone if something was climbed or wasn’t. By the evening everybody would be ranked from best to worse, and it was your job to do as best as you could.

That’s why it’s called competition ice climbing, and that’s the reason I like it.

Tapio Alhonsuo is an ice and crack enthusiast living in Rovaniemi, Finland. You can follow him on Instagram @rollomixed .

Team Finland placed in Saas-Fee and Rabenstein as follows:

Tapio Alhonsuo (Saas-Fee 45/61, Rabenstein 45/69)

Mira Alhonsuo (Saas-Fee 21/34, Rabenstein 27/36)

Enni Bertling (Saas-Fee 28/34, Rabenstein 24/36)

Albert Kaikkonen (Saas-Fee 55/61, Rabenstein 57/69)