My life tends to be a moving paradox: I hate being cold but I love winter, I don’t like heights but I climb 800 foot cliffs, and my 108 pounds can lift a surprising amount of weight. When winter hit New England last year, I said I was not going to try ice climbing—cold, wet, scary ice? No. Climbing on rock was one thing, climbing on slippery, easy-breaking ice was a whole other game that I had no interest in playing.
But when Jeremy showed up with my size boots, extra ice tools, and hand warmers, I only had two choices in front me: work on my graduate thesis or go play in the woods. I put on all of my Black Diamond, Mammut, North Face, and Patagonia gear (it pays having a partner who works in a gear shop), opened bags of foot and hand warmers, said bye to my dog (just in case I didn’t come back), and headed in 10-degree weather to Vermont’s Smuggler’s Notch.
Smuggler’s Notch, known for its ski resort, is close to some of Vermont’s most popular winter get-a-ways and attractions—Stowe and, of course, the Ben and Jerry’s Factory. But deep inside the notch, tourists are scarce, and aside from the occasional backcountry skier all you see are snow-covered trees, frozen boulders, and vertical waterfalls. And amidst this winter wonderland, all you feel is the not-so-pleasant wind tunnel that sweeps through the notch.
The only advice that I received from my ice-expert partner was “shake out your arms often so you don’t vomit from pain later.” And all I heard from that was “vomit” and “pain.” I giggled nervously, checked my rope and crampons, swung my ice tools around my wrists (no one trusted me climbing without leashes), and made my way over to the waterfall.
It was beautiful. Stoic. Unyielding. I swung my first pick high above my head, shouted a good “woot!” when it stuck solidly into the ice, swung the other, and baby-stepped up to my arms. Shake. Swing. Step. I glided up the route, forgetting the -10-degree wind chill and my fear. Although I was thankful that the route was short (I was exhausted after about 20 feet), I also did not want to stop.
What amazed me most about climbing ice was the mental transformation that occurred organically. Nothing was paradoxical and nothing invaded my mind except my movement. I was not a skinny 26-year old bookworm attempting to ice climb. I was strong. Focused. Empowered.
Climbing ice, like climbing rock, takes so much more than brute strength; it takes strength of the mind and strength in movement. You can have chicken legs and weigh half of your (often male) climbing partner. For me, it is a sport that empowers mind and body as well as closes that gender gap that I find invades many other sports.
As ice season grows near, I am stocking up on hand and foot warmers, and I’m saving up for my own gear. And although ice screws seem a bit scary, I can’t help wondering what it would feel like to lead-climb ice.