I’m going to start this post with an “icy” anecdote:
A few months ago, I was in the darkest days of my life. For a good week, nothing could distract me or take me out of my sadness. Looking back, I remember that the first time I felt genuinely excited about something again was talking to a non-climber friend about ice climbing. At that moment, I realized that ice climbing means something special to me – something different than running, skiing, or even rock climbing. Why ice? What is it about the ice?
If I had to give up one mountain sport, it would easily be ice climbing. I live in a region, the Pacific Northwest, that has lackluster access to winter water ice, it often scares me shitless, and I honestly just don’t do it very much. I have maybe ice climbed a total of 15 days in my life? But some of my most memorable experiences have been with tools in my hands and ice beneath, swinging over and over into this merciless medium.
Jacob and I started ice climbing last winter in Hyalite Canyon. We came in as complete newbies, but by day 2, we felt comfortable enough to lead some easy WI2+/3- routes. We realized that ice climbing was technically simple: keep your legs apart, swing on balance, trust your tools and feet. It is more of a mental game: remaining calm, making every pick placement perfect, moving slowly yet meaningfully. Falling on lead is not an option when ice climbing. So naturally, neither is freaking out. The cruxes are usually not physical, but mental. To two computer geeks with only an average physique, I think this was a battle we understood and appreciated.
After a total of 6 days in Hyalite, we took our talents to Triple Couloirs, the famous route up the North Face of Dragontail. Dreaming of fat Hyalite ice, we instead found thin, mixed Washington ice. We should have been in way over our heads. But we were not, because we love that mental battle, we understand the headspace necessary to complete such a route. The climb of Triple Couloirs was like unlocking the key to a whole new alpine realm. It was an inspiring moment, realizing our potential when we live life with commitment and without fear.
Ski touring this last winter, I felt like I rediscovered the Cascades. I saw epic ski descents where previously I had only seen meadows. I saw ski traverses where previously I had only seen spiny ridges. And seemingly everywhere I looked, I saw ice. Secret, unpublished, and possibly unclimbed (?!) ice. Not just like little drips; I’m talking about huge, tall, fat flows. I became more engrossed with finding new ice than actually climbing it. Ice is transient; it is always changing with the seasons and the weather, much like how we go through cycles of happiness and heartbreak. And like love, we often find ice when we are least expecting it. There is so much adventure in the seeking of ice and beauty in its impermanence.
Eventually, Jacob and I had to try climbing some of this “new” ice. So we met up on a record-breaking day of January heat, hunting unicorns: fat Washington ice. What followed in our first ascent of Hot Tubbs (WI4) on Bryant Peak is one of the proudest experiences of my life. To find and climb a line that has never felt the picks of man was surreal. To venture up into the vertical unknown was simply magical. For a few short moments, we could imagine what it felt like to be Fred Becky, the Cascade pioneer. In a world of 7 billion people, we finally understood what it was like to go places no others have been before. And I know that there is so much untapped potential out there in Washington. I have barely scratched the surface. Endless adventure awaits those brave enough to seek it.
After talking to that friend about ice climbing, I knew that I needed to get back in the mountains and I needed to be swinging tools. This time, Jacob and I went huge, with our 22 hour epic on the Ice Cliff Glacier on Stuart. The whole Ice Cliff Cirque had a larger-than-life feel: tumbling seracs, vertical rock cliffs, wispy summit clouds blowing in and out. We felt like we were entering the jaws of a giant. It was the most raw and powerful setting I have ever climbed in. You could literally feel the power of ice and gravity, carving through the rock, shaping the terrain at a pace usually unobservable to a human. We live but for an instant on the geological scale. Some feelings seem to last forever, but they always erode away eventually.
So why ice? I guess it is a combination of many things: the adventure of finding ice, how a climbs is never the same, the beauty in the frozen flows, the power of the landscape, and the relationships I have built along the way. I know I am never going to be a great ice climber, but you do not need to be technically gifted to leave your mark on the community. In an era where cutting edge ascents are all about increasing the difficulty and speed, I feel drawn to the other end of the spectrum, where the experience is all about emotions, authenticity, and aesthetics. Some people go into the mountains to prove something about themselves; I go into the mountains to more deeply understand something I already know to be true about myself: that I want to live a life that is meaningful and beautiful.
It is about that time of year to trade the tools and crampons for some cams and rock shoes. The long days of summer with big faces and smooth trails are calling. The ice is melting now, but it will be back in time. Some years are worse than others, but it always rebounds, just like we do.
To greater heights, to unforgettable sights.
The only way is up.