Some days plans just don’t work out.
Peter and I met at 8 a.m. this morning in a grocery store parking lot. He tossed his pack in my car, and we started the hour and a half drive from Glen to Grafton Notch. A friend had let it slip that Hackett-Tremblay, a classic grade 5 that makes rare appearances, was in. The ice in the Mount Washington Valley was looking haggard so we were skeptical, but we figured it was worth a shot. 60 miles later we saw it: a dribble of yellow ice spilling down 200 feet of rock. Perfect. Time to go ice climbing.
We tumbled out of the car, packed our bags and started up. It was barely freezing as we followed a snowshoe track up the side of the mountain. Eventually we split off toward the cliff, with Peter leading through the boulders and trees. I was close behind, excited to get back on ice after a week or more of scratching rock.
Huge chunks of ice dotted the base. This was not the place to hang out on a warm, sunny day. The cold temperatures the night before consoled us, but it was clear large sections of ice down low were delaminated. The black rock behind the ice was ready to capture the sun’s rays, so we weren’t disappointed to see the blue sky gathering clouds.
We dropped packs and started sorting gear. I wanted the first pitch, which looked scary but straight-forward. I figured Peter could easily manage the upper columns and curtains, which from the road looked more like grade 6. I started racking screws on my harness as Peter flaked the rope. I breathed deep, knowing the pitch would go only if I was fully committed.
Sometimes you never see it coming, the thing that knocks your plans clear off the tracks. Sometimes you are moving forward perfectly, doing exactly what you should, and still there it is — BAM! — slamming into you, tossing you off balance, derailing you completely.
I was arranging the rock rack when something rocketed past my head. It made a whizzing sound as it passed my ear and exploded into the snow. A second later I heard another, then another — ice, let loose from 200 feet above, slicing the air inches away. I stood up straight and froze. For a moment my neck arched — I considered looking up to see what was coming next — but my body overruled the reflex. I kept my face down and pulled in under my helmet, standing still and straight as an arrow, trying to hide every inch of me underneath the three-quarters-of-an-inch of foam on my head, my only protection. Chunks of ice slammed into the snow all around me. I pulled my shoulders in, desperately trying get everything under my shell, like a turtle on the highway feeling cars rocket past in both directions. Then… CRACK! A piece of ice somewhere between the size of a golfball and a baseball glanced off the center of my helmet. My neck snapped back, but I stayed standing. I kept straight as possible, my head ringing. My body swayed gently back and forth as a final hail of frozen shrapnel splashed around me. Then it was over.
“You OK?” Peter said from 40 feet away. The ice bouncing off my helmet was the first indication he had anything was up. I felt like I’d withstood a half-hour assault, but it was probably less than 10 seconds. “Yeah,” I said, grabbing my stuff and moving behind a nearby rock for the illusion of shelter it offered. “I’m good.”
But I wasn’t. My neck hurt a little, but what really suffered was something more foundational: my commitment. That bullseye shot not only spiked me, it ricochet through the part of me that had what it took to fire steep delaminated ice. I didn’t know it yet, but in cracking my helmet (which it did, barely) the ice knocked away my confidence, my knowledge that this pitch will go. It slammed me into a place of self-doubt. Suddenly I kept seeing everything that could go wrong, knowing if I tried to LAUNCH, it all would go wrong.
But I wasn’t ready to admit it. I tied in, grabbed my tools and started up. Even the first step was arduous. Every swing felt terrible, and the ice sounded more hollow than it was. I got up to where things got steep, and even good sticks felt insecure. “What am I doing?” I thought, looking up at the umbrellas far above. They must have weighed 500 pounds. “One of those won’t snap your neck back, it’ll kill you.” And with every passing second I knew it was about to. I made a few half-hearted moves up, then down, then up, then all the way down. I looked back at Peter. “You’re up,” I said. “I don’t have this.”
The ice was OK. Peter, as usual, fired it. There were delaminated sections, and above the first steep section he knocked down a good portion of a column, but all in all it was reasonable climbing. It was the sort of thing on a good day I would have sung my way up. But not today. My plans didn’t come together they way I meant for them to. As Peter climbed, the clouds descended. Soon the wind was whipping, and snow was wiping across the face in horizontal sheets. Peter built a belay below and to the side of one of the daggers as it poured roughly a gallon of water per hour. When I got to there I pulled on my Das parka and told him get to the top. He obliged, working his way up awkward formations with finesse. By the time I started climbing again all four layers below my Das were soaked. The wind howled as I worked my way up the cave and out onto the column. With every gust I watched the dagger above me sway and moan. I yanked gear out as fast as I could, trying to traverse out from below it, sure I would die if it let loose. I still had my Das on, but water was oozing down my left side. My hands were frozen into claws. Carabiner gates refused to open. It was not ideal conditions. I wanted to be done, to be down, to go home.
But I kept going. I worked my way up through the cave and popped out onto the column, where finally nothing was dangling above me and the sticks came easier. I kept going, and as I moved upwards I started to feel my hands again. I started to remember why I wanted to be there.
Sometimes plans get fucked. Somedays shit just goes wrong. Today, one of those days. It sucks. Its hurts. It makes you want to go down, go home, to put away the gear and call it a season. But I didn’t start out this morning to go home. I started out this morning with a mission, and although chunks of ice seemed to be flying at my head all day long I kept moving forward. When a piece knocks you over, that’s when you have to decide what’s next. Today, I kept going. I’m not sure that’s always the best plan, but it was what I stuck with today. Maybe next time I’m out there will be less ice falling my way.
|Replace? It may be time…|
Epilogue: By the time we topped out the wind had died down and the sun was back out. The day had swung from beautiful to ferocious back to tranquil. I’m glad I kept going up, and I was even happier to have a toprope. Hopefully a few days off will restore my psych, confidence and commitment.