A song of ice and fear: Climbing a frozen wall for the first time

March 05, 2015                 5m read time
Hillary Berkowitz Nussbaum


A former bookish kid puts her worries on ice and discovers an unexpected reserve of courage.

The thermometer hovered around freezing. The sky was overcast, a monochromatic swath of pale gray. And there I was, suspended above a frigid river, barely hanging onto a sheer cliff, desperately kicking my foot in a futile attempt to stab crampons into a thick mass of white-blue ice. In a few more seconds, I would lose my footing entirely, though let’s be real—I never really had any footing to begin with.

From below, the guide and my friends yelled up encouragements—kick your foot a bit higher, you got it, that’s it, almost there—but as much as I wanted to believe their shouts of “You can do it,” I couldn’t. When you’re struggling up a slick surface, relying on a single belay rope that’s been drilled into the very same ice that your pick keeps slipping out of, it’s hard to remember that you’re on a guided recreational trip in upstate New York, and they wouldn’t run these things if they were all that dangerous. Instead, I kept thinking about the waiver that we had signed, which made sure to remind us—in that unnervingly unsentimental boilerplate about death and dismemberment—that there was always the potential that things could go horribly, horribly wrong.

I gave up. I yelled down that I’d had enough, rappelled back to the ground, and almost left it at that. It would’ve been easy to spend the rest of the day belaying as the others climbed, to comfort myself on the ride back to the city with lukewarm leftover coffee and halfhearted rationalizations—I tried, at least I took a risk, I don’t have to succeed at everything.

But as I stood at the bottom of the cliff, pulling in rope and keeping an eye on my climbing partner steadily working his way up the same icy face, I knew I couldn’t give in. I would regret it if I went home without making it to the top at least once. Was climbing hard? Yes. Was I sure I actually could make it to the top? Not really. Was I afraid to try again? A bit. And that was the part that I just couldn’t stomach.

The back of a person walking through the snow between ice-covered rock walls  Brad Noone

The back of a person walking through the snow between ice-covered rock walls 

Brad Noone

 

Fear and I have a complicated history (though really, isn’t that true of everyone?). As a kid, I was timid beyond belief, too shy even to order my own food at a restaurant. Aliens, fires, disease, The Dark—I was scared of everything. I gravitated towards indoor activities: arts and crafts, reading, and the like. I played rec sports to make friends, but never tried that hard at the “sports” part of it. I wasn’t any good anyway. But sometime in middle school, I found something active I was awesome at—climbing.

There was a climbing wall at my sleepaway camp, a big wooden structure sprinkled with handholds. Some of the other campers were scared of heights, but not me (I was probably over my quota of worries by that point). Not only could I scale that wall, I was proud to be the second-fastest girl to scramble up it. Yes, second place is first loser and all of that, but I was such an inept athlete and the girl with the fastest time was one of those superhuman dynamos who excelled at every sport she ever attempted (and probably, at life). So, second place? Second place was pretty damn good. I wrung from that title every scrap of validation I could, happy to be good at something that had currency in the sports-and-outdoors world of sleepaway camp.

I loved the rush climbing gave me. To be clear, at no point was I ever a hardcore climber, nor did I have any training or particular skill. But whenever life presented me with a climbing wall, I made it my business to scale it. Carnivals, amusement parks, every time one of those freestanding pillars was trucked in for the weekend, I was on it. 

As I got older, I longed to try climbing on actual honest-to-goodness rock, rather than stucco-like faux crags, but there was always a reason not to: it required expensive equipment and training, it was dangerous, my friends weren’t interested in joining. I didn’t make much of an effort to go, though it stuck in my mind throughout high school and college. After graduation, I moved to New York City, and with nature feeling farther away than ever, I gave up on the idea of climbing in the great outdoors and did what any twenty-something with interest in a pricey hobby would do—I bought discount passes to climbing gyms and forgot to use them before they expired.

Two people climbing a frozen wall in Ouray, Colorado. Patrick Lewis

Two people climbing a frozen wall in Ouray, Colorado.

Patrick Lewis

A pair picks their way up a wall in Ouray, Colorado.

Things changed a few years into my time in the city, when a new relationship exposed me to a new circle of friends, friends who liked to hike and camp and kayak and do all sorts of outdoorsy things. I eagerly joined in, finding that I liked spending time in the wilderness, which was a surprise to everyone who had known me as an indoor kid more comfortable with a book or a paint set than hiking boots and a trekking pole. My parents couldn’t believe that someone had finally shown me how much fun being in nature can be. They’re still getting over the fact that I actually go camping. Without running water.

It was thrilling to try so many things I had never done before, and I was loving heading upstate for weekend adventures. When a friend sent out an email to recruit people for an ice climbing trip in New Paltz, New York, I was giddy. Climbing outdoors, finally. It sounded awesome, and there was no question I wanted to join.

I did what any twenty-something with a pricey hobby would do—I bought discount passes to climbing gyms and forgot to use them before they expired.

 

The day of the trip arrived, but when we pulled up to the climbing school’s outpost, it became clear that I had underestimated what we were in for. I expected our guide to be a slick, young, adventure-junkie type—someone with a go-getter attitude, a reassuring smile, and a polished safety script to recite before we could climb. Instead, he was tall and wiry, all leathery skin and taught sinew, and he growled safety instructions at us in a manner that must have been designed to terrify us into obedience. After every rule, there seemed to be an implicit “or else.”

On every inhale, he emitted a long, rattling wheeze—at first we thought he was laughing at us, but we soon realized that he was most definitely not. I imagined an array of horrifying scenarios in which an ice pick and a pair of crampons had left him with a punctured lung and that permanent rasp. Frail as he seemed, he scaled the ice with such confidence and agility that for a moment I thought that maybe, just maybe, this would be simple.

It wasn’t. While everyone else in the group seemed to catch on quickly, I had trouble digging my equipment into the ice. When it was my turn to climb, I got stuck about halfway up the cliff, unable to get my footing or make any forward progress. With each failed swing of the pick or kick of the crampons, my heart beat faster.

Two people climb up an ice wall in Ouray, Colorado. Patrick Lewis

Two people climb up an ice wall in Ouray, Colorado.

Patrick Lewis

Two people climb up an ice wall in Ouray, Colorado.

When you’re climbing a wall or scrambling over rocks, your hands and feet are in direct contact with the surface. You know how good your grip is, because you can feel it. You know when you’re secure and stable, or when you’re about to slip. When you’re climbing on ice, you have to trust that when you swing your pick and lodge it in the ice, it will stay. You have to trust your pick’s grip on the surface, and your own grip as you dangle from the handle of your tool. You have to trust that the spikes on your crampons will stay where you’ve kicked them, and you have to be willing to lean back just a little bit, so they fully engage with the ice.

It took a lot of effort to find that trust, to keep my nerves at bay, to quiet the part of me that wanted to give up. But the part of me that wanted to make it to the top ultimately won out, driven by something more substantial than the immediate gratification of standing on level ground. It wasn’t just about conquering that cliff—after all, in a few months, who would even remember or care?—it was about banishing the lingering shadow of the scaredy-cat kid I used to be. The climb was as much a test of mental fortitude as it was a test of physical strength and endurance.

It wasn’t easy, but with each step that didn’t slip, each push I made up the ice, it got easier. My muscles burned with effort, my toes cried out in pain, my eyes teared up from the cold, but I kept pushing myself—harder, higher. Ultimately, the biggest rush came not from the adventure of the climb or the drama of being a few stories in the air. It came from the thrill of letting go of my worry, of trusting myself, and finally—finally—making it to the top of that wall of ice.

Hillary Berkowitz Nussbaum

Hillary is a freelance writer who likes to camp out in small NYC coffee shops and in the great outdoors.

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