This text supported a photo essay by Chris Noble in Climbing Magazine. He and I were working on picture book of waterfall ice climbing in North America. Sadly, the book never came to fruition but Chris shot a lot of amazing pictures and I got to do a lot of good climbing, often with old friends or people who I had just never tied-in with. It was a great experience and today I am grateful the book never went to print because it would have associated me irrevocably to a particular sponsor, which would have limited future freedom.
In the beginning there was a pair for crampons and an ice axe. These are the tools of the climber and I knew I would need them because I had just finished reading Climbing Ice by Yvon Chouinard for the fourth time. Coming from both a technologically oriented and punk rock background, I chose the most advanced and meanest looking crampons and tools I could find. I bought Lowe Footfangs and Big Bird ice tool with modular pick and adze. I painted them a flat, light-absorbing black. My tools could climb better than me but I counted on getting better quickly. I fitted the crampons to my full-grain leather, full steel shank Lowa Civetta climbing boots and tried them and the axe on the pear tree in my back yard. I ended up with five stitches in my head but at least it was a start.
Today is 14 years later and I spend winter days in sub-zero conditions with ice exploding beneath the impact of my tools, sending a hard rain of terror and plate-sized chunks earthward. I usually enjoy it.
But most of the time I enjoy having done it.
Sometimes I wonder why I bother at all. Waterfall climbing is tedious and uncomfortable -- the same motions and impressions and noises over and over again. I often use it as a quick fix, litmus test: for fitness and technical ability, for boldness and the capacity to handle pure unadulterated suffering. What am I willing to solo? How many can I climb in a day? How much objective danger am I willing to accept? I don’t care what I climb, only how it affects me. On the “The Reality Bath” I wanted to vomit all day long. I was sick with the fear of being unable to do the climb or worse, getting splattered by icefall. My muscles cramped and ice tools broke. I had dark music running through my head and a black, suicidal mood around me. Still, I felt the instinct to live through it.
Because if you lose control, you lose. Period.
The ice on the big alpine walls in the Alps and Alaska is not renewing itself like it used to. It has turned black and inhospitable over the mean, hard years. But the waterfalls are always fresh and clean looking; blue, steep and textured, with an innocence that has disappeared from the mountains. Because waterfalls change from year to year and month to month I can have fresh experiences on the same routes every time I do them.
Waterfall ice is renewable and ever changing.
The grades mean nothing in the end, action and competence are what counts - the ratings reflect more on the men who climb than on the routes themselves. While climbing Grade 5 boosts self-confidence and esteem, and earns a few domestic beers at the bar, it’s a solid Grade the most ice climbers comprehend. What about the guy that put up several Grade 6+, X routes last season? Is he a real bad dude? I’ll bet he’s a little twisted. Because to do hard Grade 6, to even conceive of being able to do it is a strange trait in a human being. As Barry Blanchard says, “…describe hard ice climbing? OK, it’s weird man, it’s about as weird as it gets – and being good at it doesn’t mean you’re good at anything else in life.”
Ice climbing is weird and bad and wonderful. But doing it for the camera is just plain weird.
We missed direct sunlight on the crux pitch of “Ovisight” outside of Cody, Wyoming. Chris blew up. We’d tried hard to find situations where he could shoot pictures with light on the climbs but hadn’t woken up early enough and it faded fast, the sun dipping behind a ridge at eleven in the morning. Chris pushed me to hurry and rack up and I blurted, “Fuck off Chris. I’m not sure this pitch is even climbable.” He shut his mouth and appeared to have seen the formation for the first time. My climbing partner, Jack Tackle – in typical Tackle deadpan – said, “Damn, that’s a nasty looking piece of ice.” Chris agreed. Sobered, we prepared and Jack moved to a belay 30 feet away from the base of the pillar where he wouldn’t get “wet” if it fell down with me on it.
Chris climbed up to a ledge about one-third height next to the pillar so he was looking straight in on the crux overhang. Overhang? You say, “yeah, sure…” The climb gets Grade 5 in the topo but malformed, it deserved better. I wondered whether or not I did. Twenty feet up the initial cone I twisted a screw to its eye, clipped to the rope and pulled tentatively onto a three-foot diameter pillar. It was easily thirty feet away from the wall, hanging off the lip of a huge cave. God, the ice was shit. No screws, no solid placements. It was brittle and rotten and terrifying.
I choked each lungful of air down, down past the throat-tightening hope that the whip-crack-thunk of the tools wouldn’t punctuate the collapse of six tons of waterfall.
I gently back-stepped against an icicle and it was too much: the stalactite snapped and plummeted while I swung down onto my tools with one foot thrashing. All three of us were dry heaving in chorus and I swallowed over and over to hold it back. I locked off and spun a screw in and its threads caught some ice and some air. I clipped a load-limiter between it and the rope. The “protection” inspired no feeling in me at all. I felt nothing but dread. At the roof I was so pumped I could barely see and all of the energy-saving techniques I had developed deserted me when I needed them most.
I careened down the highway of fear, shaking and burning.
When fear is constant reaction to it is habit and an odd sense of calm develops. I breathed deeply, in rhythm with movement as acid shut me down capillary by capillary. Ten feet above the roof I placed another screw that wouldn’t have held a fall, and neither would the next. The pillar cracked and popped but never settled with the deep, hoarse grinding prelude to disintegration. Fifteen feet below the top and so far into the ground-fall zone that I had quit caring I turned in a screw and every thread bit hard. At the top I tied off to two trees and two screws and slumped beneath the realization of how much I had gotten away with. Spent, I pulled slack and Jack followed.
That day I passed the test. But deep inside I know there is something bad waiting at the end of the day I don’t get through. It keeps me scared. It keeps me honest. I am stronger because I know there is consequence. I can’t get away with slacking off because the thing that happens after mediocrity is the ground. It’s a game. It’s a test. It’s the way I live my life. The highs are balanced by lows, the accomplishments complemented by defeats.
The mountains are weary and further away than they've ever been, suffocating in clouds and mist and a sickening rain that licks my ambition with its infected tongue. I don't want to go up there any more. There is illness in my house where I smoke cigarettes and waste my time, where I spend my money on how I look rather than on becoming more of a man. I substitute posing, pity and emotional poverty for training, desire and preparation. I write words of despair when there is no real pain. My music is sad although my heart isn't broken. Heavy words fill my mouth even though hope is inside of me. My lungs take oxygen, my heart pumps blood and I am far from giving up because hope, no matter how anorexic and hobbled offers redemption in some bright and distant future.