Stepping outside this morning, I pulled some good, frozen air down into my lungs and a smile crept across my face. It was cold, really cold. I looked around to see the few Colby students outside bundled up like it was the winter apocalypse. A brisk wind gently brushed my face like a long lost friend, hardly even a reminded of the windswept Patagonian plains where it howled at a constant 70/80 miles per hour throughout the day, with gusts at upwards of 150. I was back in my element. I love the cold.
As temperatures plummet well below zero, I can’t help but get excited. Time to load up the pack, grab the axes and go out and bash some ice. A quick message rallied the troops and we headed for the hills, armed and dangerous.
There is something about the cold, something majestic. The air is so still, clean, pure. And the quiet. The world seems to be at rest. Peacefulness. These were the thoughts that crossed through my head as I began my way up a frozen waterfall. The only sounds to be heard were the distinct metal-on-ice collisions from the swing of my axes and the kick of my crampons; the hollow sound of broken shards tumbling their way down after; and the sound of my own breath as my heart rate began to rise.
I got into a good stance, kicking each foot hard to ensure they were in place. Hanging from one ice tool, I pulled a screw from my harness with the other hand. I was in a race against time to place the tubular ice screw into a solid section of ice, hang an alpine-draw from it, and get the rope clipped in before the lactic acid build-up was too much to bare. A few twists and the screw still wouldn’t bite. I was high above the ground and a fall would mean a serious consequence, especially with 12 razor-sharp spikes attached to each foot. This is where the mental battle begins. Keeping cool under pressure. I switched hands for a minute to shake out my fading arm, then returned to the screw. I was starting to feel it in my calfs now too, balancing from a single metal point on the front of each boot. No messing around now, I had to get this screw in, but I couldn’t let the urgency of the situation get to my head. Panic is dangerous in a situation like this. I let the thought drift away and patiently worked at the screw until it finally bite. I quickly cranked it the rest of the way in and secured the rope. I was safe again, protected. At least for the moment.
Climbing is such a mental sport, especially on ice where protection is sparse and questionable. The constant cycle of fear and relief throughout a climb. The huge wave of comfort you feel after getting in a piece of protection, which then fades away as you climb higher above it and the danger increases until you get the next piece in, and so it goes.
I climbed higher, my muscles warming up, becoming more relaxed. A necessity in this sport which blurs the line between anaerobic and aerobic activity. Another ice screw in and safe again. I climbed higher, finding the rhythm. After reaching the top, it’s back to the bottom to complete the whole process, again and again.
As the sun began to nestle on the horizon, we made our last laps, satisfied with a day well spent. We made our way out of the woods, our path light by the bright light of the moon, to a well deserved meal. Got to replenish those fat stores (good for insulation too)!