Whenever I find myself in a sticky or otherwise unpleasant situation, I draw upon the wisdom of Mark Twight, a prolific alpinist and writer who initially rose to fame after his first ascent of “The Reality Bath,” a since-unrepeated ice climb in the Canadian Rockies described by one guidebook author as “so dangerous as to be of little value except to those suicidally inclined.” So, this guy is not fucking around. There are lots of little Twightisms, and when the going gets rough, I use them to remind myself that nothing worth doing comes without a little (or, as the case may be, a lot of) suffering.
And so, keeping in mind that it doesn’t have to be fun to be fun, I set out to learn to ice climb. It was a brisk -2°F when we pulled up to the approach, which was a fine, Twightian start if you ask me. While it’s certainly not ideal weather for lounging on the beach, it’s a perfectly reasonable temperature for ice climbing, because when you’re relying on the tips of your crampons and ice tools to adhere you to a frozen waterfall, you’d better make damn sure it’s really frozen. Plus the suffering and all that.
For today’s moderately terrifying activities, we headed to the Beer Walls, an appropriately frozen destination just outside Palmer proper, for what my friend Gil insisted would be an “easy, relaxed day.” (In all fairness, he did warn me that we would be repeatedly hit in the face with ice.) Gil is getting ready to lead a trip of undergrads on a similar excursion in a few weeks, and Kevin and I generously offered to be his clueless guinea pigs.
As you can probably imagine, making one’s way to a frozen waterfall involves hiking up a frozen river, which is made easier when one is wearing violent-looking metal spikes on one’s feet. They look a little melodramatic, but I think hacking one’s way up a river of ice in the dead of winter at -2°F is an activity that lends itself to melodrama.
After a few minutes of hiking/slip-n-sliding, we arrived at our objective. We were just top-roping today, which means a competent person (Gil) set up routes and anchors for us to climb, and our party of five took turns belaying one another to avoid reducing our number to four. While this meant we weren’t exactly pulling a Ueli Steck, all this was just fine with me, as I didn’t relish the idea of having Kevin call my parents to explain that I’d slid uncontrollably down a frozen waterfall/sustained a fatal crampon stabbing/fallen on my own ice tools and punctured a lung/any number of equally undignified deaths.
I took to ice climbing like a seal takes to land: awkwardly, and looking somewhat silly and out of place. It took me a long time to oafishly hack my way up the easiest parts of the wall, which was made even more annoying by the dexterity with which Kevin, who has also never been ice climbing, ascended his first few routes. He ended up with several bloody scrapes on his face as a result of falling ice, which added to his general air of badassery.
Fortunately, I was so distracted by impending doom that I had very little time to be concerned with Kevin’s insistence on being better than me at everything. If poor Gil was inwardly wincing as he patiently coaxed me up the waterfall, he didn’t show it; instead he cheerfully shouted instructions over the constant tinkle of shattering ice as it careened down the slope. Despite my incompetence (and the fact that my pants kept freezing to the ice), I started to actually enjoy myself a little, in a doesn’t-have-to-be-fun-to-be-fun sort of way.
Unfortunately, with two term papers and a thesis proposal looming in the next two weeks, my Alaskan sufferfest has only begun.