ice climbing

“Yeah I went ice climbing the other day,” I imagine offering nonchalantly to my gym climbing partner during another endless winter session pulling on plastic, “… it was pretty rad.”

Cue the AC/DC soundtrack, vague swinging of dangerous metal objects, and frosty ride home in my buddy’s pickup to cheers over a triumphant send and you can almost stitch together the perfect, totally unrealistic montage of my first time ice climbing. Unfortunately, my first escapade into the vertically frozen world was neither heroic nor epic, but it did yield that omnipresent sense of peace and stillness that never seems to escape me while climbing.

Like any respectable rock climber, the first time I got on ice was, well, on the way to go rock climbing. A mentor of mine picked me up after work to go try some harder trad lines at a local spot but the road to the trailhead, ever the victim of the East Coast’s freeze/thaw cycle, was closed. After a few minutes of expletives, groaning, and general loudly-expressed exasperation, my friend nonchalantly said, “Well I do have the ice stuff in the car.”

I know about ice climbing like my grandmother knows about Beyonce. She seems like a nice lady, my nana likely muses, but it’ll be alright if I never meet her.  I do know that the main implements of ice climbing seem to be the mutant offspring of a scythe and a sawzall blade and that rock climbers talk about it like the dark underbelly to Type-2 fun.

One time in Crested Butte, CO I heard a friend say he hoped a flow wouldn’t be “picked out” while holding an ice tool in his living room. That seemed pretty cool. I’d also heard of something called the screaming barfies. Or was it the barfing screamies?

However, like any rock climber in the midst of the winter blues I jumped at the opportunity to ascend anything that was not indoors and set smugly by some dude named Tad. As my buddy and I drove from the closed road to the climb I unabashedly asked for pointers and tips on the best way to not look like a total idiot. On the way, we would slow down and he would point to an obscure point of white/blue on a faraway cliff band that would like something dripping from my freezer at home.

“That looks pretty fat,” he would say and look at me assuredly.

“Oh yeah,” I responded each time, “SUPER fat.”

With few guidelines about what we were about to do other than that judging ice quality seemed to amount to the inverse of anything resembling a compliment (analysis of other flows amounted to “brittle,” “super fat,” and “hollow”) we parked on the side of the Blue Ridge Parkway and got out of the car.

We had originally aimed to hit rock and not ice this particular day because it was a rare 60-degree anomaly in mid-January in North Carolina. This meant that when we got out of the car, instead of the wind of some imaginary beautiful frozen tundra howling over the hills all we heard was the gentle drip, drip, drip of melting ice. The flow was right off the side of the road, only about 40-feet tall and tangibly wet. Just like my entrance into the world of granite and limestone, I realized my first experience on ice was about to have that same flare of danger and brashness that made me fall in love with climbing originally.

We both hopped out of the truck and looked for a long silent time at the flow. I had absolutely no idea what to be looking for and asked as much to my friend.

“Well, really, I haven’t even gone ice climbing that much,” he stated nonchalantly, “I really have no idea what we’re looking for.”

He proceeded to take a large rock from the side of the road and bash it into the ice. Nothing moved on the flow we were attempting to assess. He gave me the classic Good Enough shrug I have come to both love and hate from so many of my partners and handed me the rock. I repeated the bashing. I confirmed with my own shrug.

“Let’s do it,” I said, feeling less than semi-certain about the whole ordeal.

“Cool,” he confirmed.

We moved the truck to a pull off nearby and gathered the anchor building supplies. No North Carolina climb is really complete without some requisite thrashing through rhododendrons so we hiked around the back of the little cliff band, replete with thrashing, set up a top rope anchor and rapped down to the base of the climb. We’re just top-roping after all, I thought to myself, what’s the worst that could happen? As if on cue, a large shelf of ice fell away on another part of the cliff line about 30 yards from us.

We exchanged the type 2 ‘Good Enough’ shrug, which involves a little bit more of a noticeable show of apprehension while still implying that both parties are okay with going through with whatever ill-informed decision they’ve already made.

I put a pair of my partner’s old boots and crampons on and held the weight of the ice tools in my hand. The air was light and the sunset was just an afterthought in the distance, like the skyline itself had almost forgotten to include it in its daily schedule. A motorcyclist drove by, doubled back, and parked. The rider got off to watch. We exchanged nods.

I drive the first tool into the soft ice as high as I can. I set the second pick. Acknowledging that informal pact we all have with gravity, I kick in my right foot, then my left. Snow and ice break off the formation onto my face and jacket. I try to move higher and both tools blow out, I swing backward.

The flow stays, albeit wet and soft. I am only ten feet off the ground. I am weightless. I’m grinning like a fool. I couldn’t care less. I’m not at a desk or in traffic or imagining the type of life I’d like to live one day far in the future when the stars all magically align. I am trying. I reset my tools.

“Ok,” I say, “Let’s go again.”

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