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Weathering Heights

I had a few days off from work last weekend and my buddy, Will, drove in from the Bay Area to spend some time in Bozeman.  Will moved out west after law school and has enjoyed the Berkeley gym climbing scene, but a pending trip to Mt. Hood had him ready for some real action in the mountains.  We spent a couple of his days here climbing in Hyalite and a couple more hiking laps at the “M” for a pretty decent training shakedown.

Will, puttin' out the vibe in Hyalite.

Will, puttin' out the vibe in Hyalite.

I was relieved to find Will all smiles after our second climbing day.  This wasn’t his first ice climbing experience (that came on a trip we took to Mt. Baker with my dad and brother two summers ago), but it’s impossible to tell how accurately one will remember things like that.  Kelly Cordes, American Alpine Journal senior editor and general mountain badass, calls it Type II Fun: “fun only in retrospect, hateful while it’s happening. Things like working out ‘till you puke and usually ice and alpine climbing.”  In other words, ice climbing belongs in the same category as tequila shots and Brontë novels: you’re proud to say you did it, but you sure didn’t enjoy it while it was happening.

It seems, though, that Will did genuinely like climbing ice.  I certainly enjoy it in real-time, so that’s at least two people.  It got me wondering: what is it about ice climbing that makes it so attractive to me despite its pretty clear drawbacks?  I have to admit, I was a little disturbed by the answers I got; it appears that ice climbing satisfies mostly the dark side of my soul.  Here’s the list.  I hope we’re still friends when you’re done…

1. It has just the right amount of violence.

I never played football or hockey.  I don’t hunt.  I’ve never tried boxing or martial arts, and I’ve never really wanted to.  I probably would’ve enjoyed lacrosse, but it hadn’t made any inroads in the Georgia public school scene back in my day (besides, that was baseball season).  I’m generally a pretty laid back dude, and my choice of sports has reflected that.  Even still, everyone needs an aggression outlet; ice climbing is mine.

What do I have in common with the ice at my feet?  We both exude detached cool...

What do I have in common with the ice at my feet? We both exude detached cool...

At its most basic level, ice climbing is an exercise in swinging and kicking spikes into a big block of ice; it’s a pretty raw concept (after all, Sharon Stone didn’t grab an ice pick by accident).  Add to that the fact that the ice is shattering, fracturing, and falling all around you, and it’s no wonder ice climbers gear up like modern-day centurions before leaving the deck.

More than once this winter, I’ve been kissed by exploding ice that has left me bruised and bloody.  It sounds miserable, even hateful like Kelly said.  Imagine it: you’re fifteen feet above your last screw; you’re cold, wet, and scared, but the anchors are right above you; alright, homestretch; you swing a heavy tool into the last bulge, and POW; the ice shatters and a dinner-plate crashes into your face; you grip hard on your one solid tool and steel your feet because you know that in a split second the ice will be falling fast onto your boots trying to unseat your crampons from their already tenuous placements; a wave of pure relief washes over as you remain on the wall, and you listen as the shards careen down to the bottom; “ICE!” you yell, hoping your belayer gets the message; then you taste the blood – warm, metallic, unmistakable; every racing heartbeat throbs in your lip; you steady yourself and turn in a screw; you clip the rope and swallow just enough blood to allow you to yell down to your belayer to lower you off; but you don’t; instead you smile; “Really, Ice?  That’s how it’s gonna be?” you ask; you swing your tool back into the blast zone and it sinks soundly; your blood no longer tastes like fear and pain.

Man, I love that shit.

2. There’s something to be said for good, old fashioned masochism.

If you’re not willing to suffer at least a little, you’ll probably never climb ice.  If you can’t find some perverse enjoyment in that suffering, you’ll probably never climb ice again.

All-too-common scene in the mountains... Will ducks until a boulder to free the stuck rap ropes.

All-too-common scene in the mountains... Will ducks under a boulder to free the stuck rappel ropes.

Rock climbing is an altogether different story.  The basic motions are intuitive, the settings are often comfortable, and the gear is generally blunt.  Sure, there are dirtbag trad climbers who keep it pretty real, and there’s not much out there that can touch A5 in terms of fear factor; but, more often than not, climbers are hanging out in the gym or in the sun at the sport crag.

I get it.  Really, what’s not to like?  It’s pure sex appeal.  You’ve got a whole population of toned and tanned bodies wearing next to nothing, and they’re moving with skill and grace up a stark, sunlit wall; it’s hard to frame a model more aesthetically than that.  Rock climbing is relatively safe, it’s accessible, the weather’s great, and, on the off-chance that you don’t enjoy it, you can just walk over to the hammock that you inevitably set up earlier in the day and work on your base.  Everybody wins.

Ice climbing, though?  There’s nothing sexy about that.  You’re covered head-to-toe in Gore-Tex and polypro.  Your windburned and bloody face exists as the sole piece of exposed skin.  The rare and fleeting moments of true comfort simply serve to remind you that you’re wearing too many layers.  Your primary equipment list consists of several razor-sharp points and high-top boots.  Frankly, if you do become involved with someone who finds that scene appealing, I suggest you give grave consideration to what else your little Pandora may be into and whether or not that’s a box you really want to open.

The payoff for all of this cold, wet, puncture-prone misery is in the reconstruction.  Every time you go into the mountains to suffer, you come back stronger, more resolved, and more acutely conscious of how much you can take.  Self-awareness and sunshine rarely coincide.

3. I feel like I’m getting away with something.

This one’s not hard to explain.  Ice is practically frictionless.  Ice is ephemeral.  Ice is cold and wet.  I should not be able to climb it.

Even if we take for granted the fact that humans have devised tools for all sorts of hard-to-imagine activities, we still have to account for all of the links in the ice climbing chain.  When I’m on an ice pitch, I’m trying to hold on to my tools…which are trying to hold on to the ice…which is trying to hold on to the other ice…which is trying to hold on to the rock.  At any given moment, each one of these links could be the weak one, and, during the course of long climb, each one is.  Just thinking about it is enough to send me running for the rock gym – at least until tomorrow.

Will finds a rhythm on "Mummy Cooler I" -- Hyalite Canyone

Will finds a rhythm on "Mummy Cooler I" -- Hyalite Canyon

So, there you have it, friends(?) – three of the reasons I enjoy ice climbing so much: violence, pain, and disregarded consequences.  It’s healthy to talk about these things, right?  If you think so, feel free to leave your own questionable motives in the comment box.  After all, misery loves company.

1 comment to Weathering Heights

  • Sharon Weaver

    ‘Self-awareness and sunshine rarely coincide.’ Insights of this sort does not evolve by staying in the rock gym. Whatever you reasons, I appreciate you sharing the resulting wisdom. And the pics are breathtaking…friend.