Sub-Zero Highs

The Ultimate Test
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Climbing defines high adventure. To reach the summit, you must transcend fear, conquer gravity, and push yourself to the limit. There is nothing equivocal about a successful climb, this I know to be true from rock climbing. When you've made it, you've made it, and the accomplishment is unconditional. That is perhaps why climbing has always appealed to those who want to put themselves to the ultimate test.

After watching fellow classmates pass the test and successfully climb to the top, it was my turn to take a crack at it. The encouragement of my fellow climbers at the Mountaineer and the desire of the group to see me succeed helped me launch that first ax into the ice. With my nose dripping relentlessly onto my body as my arms and legs assumed a proper "square formation" on the ice, I remained focused and methodical. I heard the chatter below and appreciated the sudden anonymity as I strategized my next swing. Occasionally, Nick who had me on belay, would offer suggestions and reminders. "Pelvic into the ice and straighten the legs." That helped.

The 50-foot or so ice face was difficult to penetrate with the pick ax. The extremely cold and windy temperatures had caused severe freezing, leaving the ice very solid and brittle. This is why helmets are an important part of the sport. Chunks of ice can easily fall onto your head or into your eye. A good stick comes when the ice is fleshy—penetrable. It makes a satisfying sound like biting into a juicy Granny Smith apple. It took many energy-draining swings—some actually bouncing off the ice—to securely lock the ax in place enough to support my ascent. My sticks were not stable. But according to seasoned climbers, your legs should do most of the lifting while your arms serve only as a balance support.

After about five minutes or so, I realized why efficiency is key in successfully climbing ice. Blood does not flow north, and having your hands above your head, where it doesn't get any flow, causes quick loss of feeling and movement. I pressed on despite the numbing, but after some rather rubbery, flip-floppy flings of the ax I had to bring my frozen hands south for a while.

My urge to cop out and rappel down was strong. However, I wanted to touch the top of that cliff badly. I wanted to sit around the fireplace drinking a beer with fellow climbers that night contributing my own personal stories of victory and defeat. I wanted my first story to be of victory. A little snot and some frozen hands were surmountable. So I found a rest stop where my crampons securely attached me to the ice and dangled one hand at a time, trying to shake out the freeze.

Then came the pain.

According to our guides, clients have fainted because of this thawing process. The renewal of heat comes on like a surge of electricity. What felt like throbbing jolts of electricity was the rush of blood coming back into my hands and my capillaries widening, or opening the gates so to speak, embracing the much-needed warmth. It is painful. And strangely hot. Many freezing victims are found naked and it is assumed that this surge of intense heat to the surface of the skin is the reason. But after the torture comes euphoria. My hands had captured warmth after about ten minutes.

I was determined.

I value the soul-searching head game climbing involves. The serious consequences of what I was doing deepened my tie to the mountain and when fear seized me, the moment and all the details seemed to sear itself on my mind. I will never forget the name, North Face of Pitchoff, the smell, the pattern of the ice in front of me. And after finally reaching the top, I will never forget the relief.

After it was all over and I was warm and toasty once again under my goosey comforter, I wondered if I liked ice climbing. I generally hate being cold and wet, the pain of that thawing was unforgettable, and it is a rather pointless pursuit. Yet I find myself pricing gear, seeking weekend outings to ice cliffs, and subscribing to Rock and Ice magazine. Am I a martyr seeking some sort of self-punishment and pain? Do I have a death wish? Pondering the appeal and reasons for such a frigid and pointless pursuit is like attempting to figure out if there is life after death. So I don't ask. But I received as close to an answer as I think I will find. And I agreed. As Jeff Edwards, one of our guides during the clinic, wrote in a correspondence to me, "Patrons return to the Mountainfest each year not because the adrenaline calls them, but because the warmth of camaraderie wills them."

I will share more tales of my trials and errors on the unforgiving ice around a fireplace—I am registered for next year's intermediate clinic.

Published: 30 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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