Soul on ice 

A million reasons a climber won't let go

My heart stops as a thunderous report reverberates through the Bass Creek valley. My ice-climbing buddies, Jesse and Dan, must be severely injured or, worse, they're dead. I've been climbing above them with two other friends, and the three of us strain to hear any sound of survival from below.

After what seems like forever, Dan's deep, crackling "I'm okayyyy!" echoes off the azure-blue ice wall. A sloppy, wet-snow avalanche just missed them. They were a measly 10 yards below and to the right, hidden from view by a small ridge of ice. Before I have time to feel relief, I realize that although we dodged the bullet, we're still staring down the barrel of a loaded gun—the snow on the avalanche-prone slope above us hasn't slid yet. If the slab does break loose, it'll rip the five of us off the 200-foot cliff.

click to enlarge Montana Headwall

"Why the fuck do I climb ice anyway?" I think to myself.

I can list about a million reasons why the sport is as dumb as poking a mama grizzly with a stick. Crab-walking up frozen water molecules with knife-sharp ice tools and crampons attached to your every appendage (while relying on a hand-cranked metal screw to keep you from hurtling to your death) seems like an excellent way to win a Darwin award. Not to mention that the best routes are usually a dilapidated hodgepodge of falling ice, rocks and avalanche paths.

Climbing ice is miserable. I wake up before sunrise so I can post-hole through mid-thigh-deep snow for hours. When I finally reach the staging area, my sweat freezes and turns my body into an exhausted, quaking popsicle. As quickly as I can, I gear up with crampons, harness and ice axes to begin my upward grovel. At first my hands are like frosted stumps, but after a while they feel like they're on fire, and my arms burn with fatigue. When I reach the top—if I make it—the veins in my forehead swell until they seem ready to burst. The blood rushes to my extremities, with reliably gross results: a violent heaving of last night's pizza and beer. Ice climbers call this the "screaming barfies."

As unappealing as that sounds, the even scarier proposition is the drive to the mountains and back. Since so many climbs are in remote drainages, balls-to-the-wall off-roading is required. I've seen and been in plenty of close calls and accidents in my hippie-ish Subaru, and I can't count the times I've careened off the bottomless ruts of logging roads or gotten stuck in snow up to the windows.

So why do it? I climb because it is dangerous. Scaling ice requires a singularly intense combination of focus, physical ability, and the mindfulness to make the right decision in a split second. When my body is physically spent, throbbing with pain, and teetering on disaster, I push the idea of falling out of my mind. I'm immersed in the moment. I ignore the turmoil of "what if," and the clarity quickly dissipates the weight of fear and doubt.

click to enlarge ROBIN CARLETON

I climb ice precisely because it is so miserable. The days when everything goes smoothly are never as vivid as the days when my partners and I are challenged to the point of failure, but still manage to come back with all of our fingers and toes. Being frozen, exhausted, drenched and terrified is the epitome of what most people try to avoid in life. Ice climbers crave it. We struggle and suffer and joke about our weaknesses, but we're optimistic that we'll succeed.

I'm not a pro; I never will be. I'm not interested in bragging rights or being a badass. I climb for the farcical adventures and misadventures, the lifetime bonds with friends that only the mountains can provide. The sport makes us feel alive, but it could also kill us: that's a given. The avalanche in Bass Creek was a reality check, something that made me wonder if the risk was worth the experience. But it's a challenge I need.

I don't climb ice because it's easy, or safe. I climb because it tests my mind, body and soul. It's suffering and danger, success and failure, passion and awe. Like everything worth living.

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