Three hours later and 200 feet off the ground, the ice reared cold and ruthless in my face. One pick felt rattly, the other was surrounded by white, fractured ice. My feet were good, but a bulge forced me off balance “What the fuck am I doing?” I thought as my hands started to ache. “I’m no soloist. This shit will get me killed.”
It is a blessing to live 15 minutes from the ice. I went to college in Portland in my mid-twenties, and I used to watch the weather like a hawk all week. It didn’t really matter, I had to work at IME regardless of the conditions, but I wanted to know whether I was climbing rock, ice, drytooling, aiding or skiing. There is always something to climb, the question is if you are open to discovering it.
When I pulled into Frankenstein’s parking lot at 1 p.m. there were four cars. Snow piled on their windshields, fostering a deserted feel. I parked, amazed at the emptiness, and shouldered my backpack. I had sent out a handful of text messages to see if I could muster a partner, but trying for a same-day session as noon approaches is like whale hunting in the Great Lakes. Instead I threw 30 meters of rope, three screws and a handful of slings alongside my harness, helmet, crampons and tools in a pack. It felt light as I left the parking lot. I hoped that lightness would persist on the ice.
There were no footprints on the railroad tracks that lead to the cliff, but the snow had only recently begun falling. As I passed the Amphitheater, however, it was silent. So was the Trestle, then Walk and Lost in the Forest. No one was anywhere. Low clouds swirled around the snow, muting my footsteps. I felt alone, and I welcomed the feeling.
As I walked up to Standard Route I heard the first sign other climbers. Two stood a pitch up in a sheltered cave. The distinctive voice of Mark Synnott drifted downward.
“Mark?” I shouted.
“Yeah,” he shouted back.
“Erik,” I said.
“Hey man,” he said. “There’s no one here. And it’s GOOD!”
I smiled and dropped my pack to the ground. I slid on my harness, racked my three screws, stepped into my crampons and buckled my helmet. I’d been up Standard dozens of times before, with clients, friends and partners, but never without a belay. This was a chance to wipe away the haze.
The first swing felt like butter. The ice was moist, oozing. The tools bit inches in with every swing, and my newly-sharpened crampons sliced through the cold. Thunk. Thunk. Kick. Kick. This was different than grade two. The terrain wasn’t steep, but there was no mistaking this for a jog. I honed in on my feet. Thunk. Thunk. KICK. KICK. I examined the ice for weaknesses, looking for any depression or bulge. Thunk. Thunk. KICK. KICK. I moved right to avoid wet ice, opting instead for steeper terrain. Thunk. Thunk. KICK. KICK. I drifted upwards, barely noticing where I was on the route, engrossed in the ice, in the way it swallowed the points of my tools and crampons. Thunk. Thunk. KICK. KICK. Soon I was even with the cave. I stood flatfooted on a shelf for a moment to let the blood back into my fingers, my tools sunk into the ice and tethered to my harness. After a dozen breaths, however, it was time to continue upwards.
The ice was steeper above, and I could feel the weight building in my stomach. My brain began to spin as the clouds crowded around me. “This is stupid,” I thought. “Why am I doing this? Plug in a screw and rappel.” But I didn’t. I tried to ignore my mind, listening instead to the sound of my tools. Thunk. Thunk. KICK. KICK. I took in a breath and let it out, still examining the ice for weakness. My mind screamed at me, “WHAT ARE YOU DOING?” The ice was getting steeper. It was fully in my face. Thunk. Thunk. KICK. KICK. “WHAT ARE YOU DOING? THIS IS MADNESS!” But the ice was soft and responsive, welcoming my tools with each swing, swallowing my frontpoints whole. I listened to my breath, deep and regular, shutting out the pleas inside my head to stop, to PLEASE GO DOWN. I let go, falling upward, out of control and yet completely composed. I popped up over the final bulge to Mark smiling in the snow.
“What a day,” he said. “Can you believe no one’s here?”
“No,” I said. “It’s perfect.”
I’m not a soloist. I am not a climber. I am a person, a human, a man. It is a simple definition, free of judgement. In my head, however, I am not a soloist. Nevermind that I have soloed every gully in Huntington, the pillars on Cathedral’s North End, Pinnacle Buttress and Parasol Gully numerous times. We close ourselves off to possibilities, and then we live within the walls we erect. We call ourselves sport climbers or ice climbers or alpine climbers, when we aren’t even climbers. We are people. We are all the same, and we are all uniquely different. And any one of us can blow our own minds at any moment, simply by doing something we have told ourselves 1,000 times before we can’t do.
Where does this end? I’m not sure. On the descent I walked up to Dracula, which is significantly harder than Standard Route. It is another route I’ve guided and climbed dozens of times, and as I looked at it I thought, I knew, “I could climb that.”
But I didn’t. It was thin and beautiful (I’m not sure how much good a rope would do in sections anyway), but it didn’t feel like the day to make that leap. Instead I scrambled around the base of Coffin, a route I’ve never climbed.
This whole thing is an interesting game. The mind is an interesting thing. With a belay I’ve calmly led unprotectable pitches that last an entire ropelength, yet I’ve never thought I was soloing. I’ve soloed thousands of feet of ice in a day, and I’ve never called myself a soloist. Today I decided to eschew the label and simply explore my fear. In doing so I discovered focus. Embracing the unknown is beautiful, if for no other reason than you realize YOU ARE THERE. The fog isn’t a problem 200 feet out.
Where is the line between self-discovery and recklessness? I’m not sure. I know a rack of screws and 30 meters of rope help me keep my distance from that edge. I also know when the ice gets vertical (a.k.a. Dropline) I don’t need to be unroped to explore my fear. I’m delving into this idea of embracing fear and relinquishing control everywhere, not just on ice. It’s happening right now — opening my writing up to include a window into my thoughts and emotions is another kind of fear, one free of a gravitational component but paralyzing just the same. Another is swimming with my eyes open in murky water (don’t ask). Will I hide from those, the way my mind today begged me to shield myself from continuing upward unroped?
You can guess the answer to that.