Pete Edwards shares the beta on urban bouldering spots in and around Helsinki, Finland...
Climbing on a city break these days is more likely to involve a trip to a local climbing gym, but pick your city and it needn't be. Fontainebleau is well known as being "near Paris" and the scene around Madrid is certainly growing but what if I were to tell you there is a venue buried inside the city limits of one of Europe's capitals where all of the crags are accessible easily, quickly and relatively cheaply by public transport and there is ample bouldering of significant quality?
Welcome to Helsinki, Finland: a sparsely populated capital city in a country housing only 5.5 million people over an area nearly three times the size of England. To give that some perspective, London alone houses more than 8 million residents. It is noticeable when you arrive, too: the city certainly seems very spread out for the few people adorning her streets. The crags, likewise, yielded very little traffic; so much so that at two of the crags we visited, we saw more canoodling couples looking for solitude than we did climbers.
Now don't get me wrong, I'm not suggesting that the quality or quantity of the climbing rivals that of Europe's major venues but there is ample to occupy a visiting climber for a week or more, especially if you are willing to travel further out of the city. We stayed in the city for three nights, visiting four crags that held their own against most other venues I've visited across the continent.
What we found surprised and impressed us in equal measure. With grades across the board and more stars than metro stations, Helsinki's bouldering is certainly something to behold. In the Southern Finland Bouldering Guide, there are 21 crags listed around the city, with all being a short hop from a nearby train station, metro station or bus stop, with typically efficient Scandinavian public transport.
There are downsides, of course: most notably the cost of living and we spent a bit more than either of us would've really liked. However, this was a choice – eating and drinking out for my birthday was a nice treat after all – and it would've been possible to reduce these costs substantially had we been so inclined.
The other major downside is the lack of concentration of climbing. The whole city seems to be built on a sweeping wave of granite rising up to the east of the Baltic sea, meaning that there is plenty to go at on crags or boulders. The flip side of this coin, though, is that sections are often isolated and we did not find a cluster of boulders anywhere in particular.
For the British boulderer, this will be reminiscent of climbing in North Wales, the Lakes or even large parts of the Peak District and each crag housed an ample amount of projects for any visiting climber. Every day, we left not because we had run out of climbing and more because energy levels were sapped from the powerful nature of much of the bouldering and from a lack of skin, taken from us by the rough granite.
The temperature didn't help, being late June and around 20 degrees; conditions we weren't really expecting, being so far north. What we didn't realise at the time was that this was during a heatwave enveloping the whole of Europe – something that became very apparent as we stepped off the plane for our connecting flight out of Munich as we were suddenly slapped with sweltering evening heat. It seems that conditions were actually probably better where we were than anywhere else we were likely to head.
Meilahti is spread out over a couple of sectors: one tall wall hiding in the woods and another shorter wall found on the banks of the Baltic. You couldn't ask for a more picturesque setting than this seaside craglet, with a growing number of problems as the gaps get filled in over time, ranging from nice 4s and 5s right the way up to the high 7s. As this spot is popular with locals enjoying the evening sun, you may find some rubbish and mess but this could not distract from the fantastic setting.
The Main Wall pushes the boundaries of highball slightly and I wouldn't have been surprised to see trad grades on many of them or to see the boulder problems finish half way up the wall. At either end there are more typical sized problems or for the brave, there is plenty to go at.
You'll find the rock here slightly sea-washed but still rough enough for you to know about it. At both sectors, the walls are near vertical but you can still expect some big moves between some very average holds; slopers and crimps alike.
Our only session here was by the sea and it was ample for a good session, with the climbs around Sloupperri Origa 6A+ being recommended.
If you were taken by the setting of Meilahti, you'll be blown away by the Koivusaari boulder. Reminiscent of the Pebble at Stanage or the Bowderstone in the Lakes, this isolated and monolithic granite bloc yields problems at a large range of grades all the way around.
Koivusaari is actually found on a small island to the West of the main city and is a short walk from a Metro station reached easily from the Central train station. It is a very popular spot for sailboats and sea kayaks, so there's plenty to explore during rest periods. The views across the water both onto the neighbouring islands and back to the nearby urban sprawl are impressive too and on a nice day, it would be quite easy to get distracted from the original purpose of a visit.
The side of the bloc sheltered by the woodland plays host to some slightly high, straight up 6s that draw you in or the climbs get steeper around the other side of the bloc on the shoreline. There is fun for everyone, climbs ranging from the stand up version of Platoon 5 and Yhnä 5+ right the way up to Spiral Architect 7C+ and the link-up Peppu le Slip 7B+.
They are quality lines, with landings being excellent on all but one side, where some commitment is a prerequisite to staying in one piece. Platoon 6C in particular is a striking line that is a must try, preferably before the rough granite claims too much skin and the steep climbing saps the body too much. While there aren't stacks to go at here, there is plenty for at least a session or two and should not be missed.
Venues with a cluster of low grade problems are always popular options – think Burbage South or the RAC boulders – and you'll find Helsinki's offering to this type of climber to the North in Taivaskallio. There is much history here too, with Karhea Laatta 4 being climbed back in 1955 by legendary Finnish climber M. Jokinen.
Sometimes cited as "the birthplace of Finnish bouldering" it is easy to see why. Much as with Koivusaari, the Käpylän train station can be found just a five minute walk around the corner and Taivaskallio has seven sectors located in a small park.
The downside to this is the graffiti that sadly marks the walls and the occasional litter of urban youth socialising in the old war bunkers on the top of the hill. It's a site to behold though, overlooking the city and with a rather large gun perched on top that I am assuming (and very much hoping) is long since out of commission.
You'd be forgiven for not making it that far, as the most popular sector is Keulamuuri with 44 routes up to 6B+. Most of these are 3s, 4s and 5s so this is the perfect place for those either taking their first steps onto outdoor walls or those looking to get some mileage in.
Even for the experienced climbers though, Taivaskallio is worth a visit. This is where we met the vast majority of the climbers on our trip (5 out of 7 in total for the week) and the historical aspect is worth the short trip.
After three crags in two days, this was to prove our last venture before we admitted defeat and spent the last afternoon of our trip exploring the city proper. It turned out to be a real shame as Melunmaaki – to the East of the city limits, found in a park in suburbia, once again a ten minute walk from the Mellunmäen metrosema station – is a crag to rival many that I've visited around Europe.
Once again, there isn't a huge abundance of concentrated problems here but the 79 problems from 5 to 7C offer some outstanding lines in a small number of craglets and boulders. There will doubtless be more, too, on nearby blocs so there's a little temptation for those in search of foreign first ascents.
The Metropolis boulders catch the eye on the walk in: tall, featured and reminiscent of many of the blocs in the Alps. The rock is again rough, the landings typically good and the lines inspiring. We didn't climb here but could've easily spent the whole day on just one of these giant pebbles.
Instead we headed across the path to the Melankolia boulders, instantly taken by the easier lines including Hantaaki 5+ and Vincent Vega 6A. The grades felt a little soft here and sometimes eliminating holds is necessary to really feel justified in climbing the given grade. Still, the quality of movement was certainly worthwhile.
For those operating in the 7s, the adjacent bloc quickly slaps you around the back of the head and calls you over. Mini Hueco 7A is a slightly squeezed line, with a jumble of rock behind you distracting slightly from what felt like excellent movement, but the draw has to be Melankolia 7B+.
This classic line is apparently oft-repeated but certainly not soft: a wild swing to hold after a dynamic move from two thin crimps onto a large sloper. I couldn't quite manage the line proper in the time we had, having to settle with completing from two moves in at around 6C+/7A. While it is disappointing not to get the tick, it did prompt me to realise that climbing isn't just about ticks in guidebooks, that it can be about the feeling you get simply ascending a piece of rock and experiencing the local offering.
There is more there, too, on the wall above the boulders that we didn't touch. The eye catching prow of Erektio 6B screams out for you to get on it and there are more near-vertical faces with more lines for those favouring balancey technical climbing rather than powerful thrutching.
Instead, we finished our day – and indeed our trip – on the 6A dyno Reebus that proved to be not only a new style for my travelling companion and father-in-law but only his second 6A. In a similar way to me earlier, he neglected the tricky top out, instead happy to enjoy the feeling of flying through the air to catch a juggy lip for the first time.
Helsinki bouldering: The Verdict
I would not suggest Helsinki can hold her head alongside the crème-de-la-crème of European bouldering destinations. What I would suggest is that for a convenient and worthwhile trip of around a week, there are few places I've been to that are better.
While the crags are spread out it is nothing that won't be familiar to any British climber and isn't problematic, with all having plenty of climbs at all grades. There are plenty of places to keep any visiting climber occupied with good quality problems but for anyone who does exhaust the city crags, venturing further out is certainly an option. You'd need a car for it but a pilgrimage to Lappnor to see the world's first 9A boulder problem Burden of Dreams will take a little over an hour each way.
The conditions are quite unique, with the best time to go different to the usual suspects, who all require spring or autumn weather, whereas Helsinki is more than suitable for a mid-summer trip, much like neighbouring Sweden. There are other parallels too, such as the everyman's right (The Right of Public Access) meaning access issues are few and far between. Some common sense will offer climbing pretty much anywhere you could want really and it is worth a quick read to find out more about this.
What is different from Sweden are the mosquitos. It may be the urban nature of Helsinki or the plus side to the parasitic birds but we found VERY few mossies, only being eaten at all in Melunmaki, and even this was sparse. There is still some fantastic wildlife in other forms, including a cheeky red squirrel who was happy to run around us while we climbed.
We had no problems with language, which was a relief considering neither of us speak a word of Finnish. While many of us learnt some French, Spanish or German at school, I dare say there aren't many of us that have come across Finnish before. There are three national languages here: Finnish, Saami and Swedish and possibly as a consequence, EVERYTHING in the city also appears in English. Signs, menus and announcements on transport are all also in English and everyone spoke to us in English too.
In the past, I've always shied away from city breaks, preferring my bouldering to be in a more natural and mountainous setting. While I wouldn't say I'm entirely converted to staying in suburbia, this was a brilliant compromise between logistical challenges and quality climbing that I would thoroughly recommend to anyone.
When do I go?
We were here for my annual birthday trip towards the end of June and conditions were on the hotter side of ideal. Given this was during a continental heat wave, this isn't really much of a surprise and daytime conditions were fine. Harder sends would've been fine later in the evening.
Given the latitude, Helsinki stays cooler than many other destinations. The downside is that it will be cold in winter and I would recommend a trip between May and September.
How to get there?
Couldn't be simpler, with Helsinki airport a short hop out of the city to the North. We did need to change in Munich to bring the costs down. Once at the airport, an excellent network of trains, metros, buses and trams will take you wherever you need to go. There is even a network of rental bikes and scooters available around the city.
Where do I stay?
We opted to book an Airbnb to the west side of the city, which turned out to be walking distance from Meilahti. It wasn't super cheap for two of us but could house up to eight (at a squeeze) if we'd recruited enough people. A local suggested to me that the eastern side of the city is a little cheaper.
What's the food like?
As you would expect from a city centre. There are plenty of bars and restaurants, with quite a few Nepalese restaurants for those who want a Himalayan feel to their food. Watch out, though, as eating out can be expensive, more so if you like a drink with your dinner. Supermarkets are much cheaper, with beer around €2-3 per bottle and food easily affordable. We also got some street food down by the waterfront in the city, enjoying moose sausages and reindeer meatballs which were delicious and mid-range prices.
One thing to beware if eating al fresco are the birds. We were almost dive-bombed eating pizza outside one evening and the seagulls in particular can cause problems. This is also something to watch out for when eating lunch at the crag, as a crow nearly stole our bag of crisps at Koivusaari.
Which guidebook do I get?
We had a copy of the Southern Finland Bouldering Guide that is sadly out of print and showed us a good overview of the crags. However, it is not in any way extensive and within an hour of arriving at our first crag, I'd paid for premium membership to 27crags.com.
Where can I buy chalk?
I'm not actually sure, as we didn't explore the local climbing shops. A Google search suggests a few options, including at the local climbing gyms which would be my first port of call.
What else is there other than climbing?
So much. This is a capital city, meaning there are plenty of museums and attractions, not to mention the many boat rides available to show you the archipelago. My personal pick has to be the Central Library Oodi which is a must see; both outside and in. Stunning wooden architecture adorns the outside of the building while the inside is even better, especially considering the free entry. Failing that, simply wandering the city is very entertaining
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