Lapland is more than just Santa Claus’s hometown – it’s also a mecca for winter adventure sports, particularly ice climbing. Fresh from my trip with Bliss Adventure/Much Better Adventures, I discovered some of the freshest, powdery snow and excellent ice walls in Europe.
Only two hours from Rovaniemi Airport, Pyha-Luosto National Park is an adventure junkie’s playground. This is the youngest national park in Finland, and as such has yet to attract the big crowds. This means miles of pine forests, mountains and ice walls are yours to explore.
Fat biking in Pyha-Luosto
After our early arrival at Hotel Pyhatunturi, we packed on the layers and ventured out into the -12C wilderness. Finland’s Lapland region offers an ideal landscape to try fat-biking. There’s a good number or maps and directions so it is possible to extend or shorten routes on a whim. Plus, if you fall over, you simply fall into a soft pillow of snow (which I did plenty of times).
We spent several hours zipping around the national park, admiring its ancient forests and gorges. Most of all though, I admired it’s silence. After years of living in London, silence is reduced to a steady hum of background noise. In Pyha-Luosto though, silence permeates everything and gives the feeling time has stood still for its forests. In short, it is completely refreshing.
Pyha might not have the biggest hills for fat-biking, but it does have plenty of switchbacks that give you some small air and enough momentum to easily overcome the tiny hills. My biggest love from fat-biking in Pyha though? The fact they have these huts with small fires going for anyone needing a break. Ideal for when you need to defrost your face after speeding around the park.
Auroras Borealis Photography in Pyha-Luosto
With hardly any light pollution and being so far north, Pyha offers perfect conditions for photographing the northern lights. It even has a handy app, the Aurora Borealis watch, which monitors the skies and sends notifications when the skies fire up.
On the other hand Pyha receives such a steady coverage of snow in winter it’s skies are often cloudy. As is typical with my luck this happened to be the state of the skies for the duration of my time in Finland. No matter though, as our photography guide for the evening, Sampo, organised a general night time photography lesson and at the end we hunkered around the campfire with mugs of tea. Sitting there with the flames casting it’s shadows around the ice wall, and Sampo telling us Viking folklore of the Aurora Borealis, it was easy to imagine how the Vikings came to create such fantastic stories.
Ice-climbing in Pyha-Luosto
The main event of our trip though was learning to ice-climb, and Pyha’s Tajukangas ice fall offered the ideal setting for beginners to swing their axes into.
Measuring approximately 15 metres high, Tajukangas ice fall is a slow steady dribble of water from a spring, which gradually freezes in winter. After spending ages piling on gaiters, helmets, crampons, etc., Bliss Adventures guide Tomas gave us an introduction to ice-climbing.
Having spent years climbing, the skills I learnt from that sport kind of helped, but equally didn’t. Ice-climbing is a precise sport that requires good technique and to take a slow and methodical approach to climbing up the wall. No dynos or speed climbing here, and definitely no standing on tip-toes to reach holds, which I discovered to my detriment multiple times as I slipped off the wall in a style reminiscent of a tap dance routine.
After a few flailing falls though, you tend to pick up a rhythm, and trust your ice axes and crampons to hold your weight. There is a knack to the technique; essentially, you stick the axes high above your head for balance, stick your bum out, and then take several small ‘kick steps’ up the wall. And repeat.
When not ice-climbing, our group warmed up around the campfire with fruit teas, spinach and lingonberry pancakes, and sizzling meat sandwich rolls. It was the perfect remedy for heating up fingers frozen from toiling up an ice wall.
Snowshoeing in Pyha-Luosto
There’s an old proverb in Finland: ‘although easier, one cannot lead their own path by staying on the trail’. Whoever said that must have gotten inspiration from snowshoeing.
In the afternoon sun we strapped snowshoes to our feet, and walking poles to our hands, and headed out into the Isokuru region of Pyha-Luosto National Park.
‘Iso’ meaning ‘big’ and ‘kuru’ ‘gorge’ in Finnish (they’re a straight-talking lot, those Finns) we stomped and stumbled around in fresh snow, taking a leisurely pace downhill. The region was shaped by glaciers over several millennia, but time and erosion have worn away much of the region’s mountains. Although smaller in size compared to similar geographical areas in Scandinavia, the region is home to a variety of arctic birds and ancient birch trees, whose trunks continue to twist and shape with the weather long after the tree has withered and died.
You won’t necessarily get anywhere fast on snowshoes, but you will greatly enjoy the scenery, and the journey – particularly when it involves sliding down a gorge on your bum.
Ice-climbing in Korouoma Nature Reserve
Around two hours’ drive from Pyha-Luosto is Korouoma Nature Reserve, home to numerous ice falls and a deep gorge filled with forests, steaming rivers and boulders.
Accessing the ice falls takes around an hour’s hike, but the viewpoints along the way are ideal for getting you pumped for what’s to come.
The first we passed is called Jaska Jokunen, more commonly known as Charlie Brown – why, no one seems to know.
Our destination was Mammuttiputous, the ‘Mammoth Fall’. Suitable for all levels of ability, the ice wall reaches up to 50 metres in height in some places. The steep climb to reach the ice fall though, a narrow path through boulder fields, was a lung-busting workout to prepare us for ice-climbing.
Our guides at Bliss Adventure had set up three ropes across Mammoth Fall, and in no time we were scraping our way up the wall. While you do not need to be an experience mountaineer to climb the route, a good level of fitness is required. In some areas the ice can be very dense and hard, and other times it can be loose and break off with a single light kick, so patience is key.
Being utterly focused on reaching the top however, Tomas had to remind me to take a moment and look around. There’s very few places in the world that look as crisp and pure as Finland’s frozen landscape, making it all the more special.