By Beth Goralski

Cracking The Ice

Photograph by Janette Heung

The moment I swung my ice axe and heard that solid, “thwunk” of the pick setting solidly into the ice, I was hooked. The screw I’d placed into the ice could hold an elephant, but ice flakes chip away every time contact is made. Ice climbing is very unlike the rock climbing I had previously done. In comparison to ice climbing, rock climbing is a gentle caress of the rock face. Ice climbing on the other hand, permits a bit of aggression and violence in order to ascend to the heights. Kicking and swinging are movements that are unheard of in rock climbing. Yet that violence must be done with exacting delicacy when ice climbing, since the medium of ice is full of contrasts. Ice is strong, yet fragile. An ice climb can be here today and gone tomorrow. When I first started ice climbing, the thought of climbing something so ephemeral terrified and excited me.

I had been rock climbing for several years before I participated in an Ice Climbing Outdoor Education class offered by my university. I’d seen magazines with glorious photos of mountains and the brightly dressed, smiling people standing on their summits with ice tools in hand and I wanted to experience that.

There’s something incredibly satisfying and almost zen-like about climbing. It is a moving meditation; I follow my breath and stay ever present, mindful of every moment. The repetitive motion of swinging my tools, kicking my feet, breathing. I’m not thinking about anything else. It’s just me, the ice and my tools. Worries about financial matters, work issues, relationships, politics all disappear when I step up to the ice. It always makes me feel very present. I am attuned to every sound, every muscle twitch, every jolt of adrenaline, every sensation around me. I am alive.

I’ve always been active in and excelled at athletics. Long before I discovered ice climbing, I knew the power of endorphins and searched out ways to maximize my exposure to them. I revelled in the way my body felt after a long, debilitating sports practice. My mother would bring me a plate of food and I’d melt into the couch, muscles tingling with the memory of an intense practice.

David Roetzel

Photograph by David Roetzel

I’ve always wanted to get better, to improve, to succeed, to win. Individual sports like swimming, running, downhill skiing and climbing have always appealed to me. I like the idea of competing with myself, the elements or the clock.

But there were a few years, twelve to be exact, between the time I first swung into ice and when I decided to focus on ice climbing. I was climbing casually, enjoying it every time but real life got in the way. I went to graduate school, got a job, got into a relationship, and put my ice tools away. I was living in a big city known more for its breweries and food carts than its climbing. I had forgotten what it was like to ice climb. I still climbed a few times a week at the local gym, but I wasn’t very serious.

Every now and again, the universe elects to make decisions for us that we could not make for ourselves. The job ended. The relationship ended. It felt as though I ended. Or so I thought at first. It turns out that the adage is true, every ending is indeed a beginning.

Ice climbing
Ice climbing
Ice climbing

All photographs by Scott Cramer

This disruption in my life caused me to think very deeply about what was important to me. What did I want to do with this one life I’ve been given? I felt as if I’d been sleep walking through my life, but I didn’t recall hitting the snooze button. Suddenly, staying in the big city didn’t seem so appealing. Finding another stressful, high-paying job sounded suffocating. The memory of ice climbing surfaced from my subconscious. The more I thought about it, the more certain I was. I wanted to feel alive. I wanted to go ice climbing.

I’ve now been highly focusing on ice and mixed climbing for 8 years. During this time, I’ve climbed dozens of beautiful frozen waterfalls and have had the opportunity to climb all over the world. The desire to push myself is persistent. Each success leads to greater dreams, bigger goals. In pursuit of those goals, I’ve pushed myself to physical and mental limits. Recently, though, my body has begun to push back. A persistent pain in my elbow, a tightness in my shoulder. A physical therapist diagnosed tendinitis in the elbows and impingement in the shoulder. Last fall, it hurt to climb so I started trail running more in order to get my endorphin fix.

Photograph by Janette Heung

Photograph by Janette Heung

I had just begun a trail run in early October when I felt a sharp pain in my left hip. In the past, if I ran too many consecutive days, I’d get a dull aching in my hip, but this time felt different. I took a week off from running because typically a little rest allowed the pain to subside and I could resume my exercise routine. Alas, when I tried again, I took barely twenty steps and I knew that something was amiss.

The phone rang. It was my orthopaedic surgeon. My left hip labrum was torn and would require surgery to fix it. It was early January and with that phone call, I knew my ice climbing season was completely wrecked. I had held out hope that I’d be able to salvage the latter part of the season as my tendinitis was finally getting better but now, with this additional diagnosis, I had to accept what I had been denying. My season was over.

Photograph by Janette Heung

My dreams and goals slipped away as this new reality took over. I required fairly major surgery and the recovery period was lengthy – I didn’t know if I could return to the same standard of climbing that I was pursuing before.

As an aging athlete, I don’t believe it means that I must give up on my goals. But I must change how I prepare for them. Rest was a four-letter word in my twenties and thirties, but now that dirty word has become my creed. For years I had been reading training books, and while the books championed rest, I always felt that advice didn’t apply to me. “I’ll rest when I was dead.”, I often joked.

This winter, as a result of my injuries, I severely cut back on my activities. But something interesting has happened as well. I have been climbing on the weekends, easy climbs, climbs I might have spurned in the past because I felt they were beneath my skill level. What I’ve rediscovered is my original love for the sport.

Photograph by Janette Heung

When I first began ice climbing, I didn’t care about grades, difficulties, or pushing my limits. I cared about having fun, laughing and being with my friends. Being injured has forced me to remember why I was participating in the sport in the first place. Somewhere along the way, my focus had shifted from pure fun and enjoyment to harder, better, stronger. The irony of the situation is that I had to take a step backwards in order to go forwards.

I’m fortunate. In time, my body will heal. This is just a temporary pause in my playbook, and I have many good years ahead of me. It’s made me grateful for my body and the activities it has allowed me to do. My body has done well by me; it’s performed at a high level for years and I never took the time to say, “Thank you”. As a function of youth, I expected and assumed it would always do what I told it to do.

Ice is ethereal in nature and frozen waterfalls form slightly differently each year. With the seasons, a waterfall changes from a climbable Swarovski crystal to a nebulous cloud of descending water. The physical properties of ice make it both solid and fragile. As living beings, we are also both solid, fragile and ever transforming. Ice climbing reminds me to breathe, to be alive, to be present in the greatest gift I have, which is this moment because with time, change is the only constant.

Rock climbing

Photograph by David Clifford