Opinion — Ice climbing and the cold, cutting edge


Fischer Genau/NW

ADRENALINE — Vaughn heading down the static line to scope the route. This was the rope that I hung on while the others climbed.

Fischer Genau

My friend likes to imagine himself falling when he climbs. A lot of climbers caution against this, saying you’ll psych yourself out. Instead, it’s best to just focus on the next move, the next handhold or the next swing of your ice axe. 

But he says it helps him. Thinking about plummeting down the rock face or cliffside helps him to focus, to balance on the razor-thin edge of being in control and losing it. 

Falling while climbing is always a possibility. If you’re on top rope — the rope that’s already through anchors at the top of the climb — you’ll only fall a few inches. If you’re lead climbing — taking the rope up with you, clipping it into the wall as you go — you fall twice the distance between you and your last piece of protection.

That’s assuming your belayer is paying close attention and an ice screw doesn’t pop or a cam doesn’t blow. If you’re unroped on a class four scramble or navigating a 30-foot runout at the top of a route, you might fall a long way. I think that considering this possibility is a good thing.

MJ rappels down to Vaughn, who’s giving her a fireman’s belay. It was her first time rappelling on anything, and she got to do it above an icy Lake Superior. Fischer Genau/NW

When I’m rappelling down a cliff, there’s always a moment when I look down at the little piece of metal on my harness — called a GRIGRI — that holds my weight and stands between me and either serious injury or death, I look at it and I say to myself: 

“Well, that looks pretty good. Yeah, looks okay. Should work, yup that really should work. Carabiner locked? Anchor’s okay? Yeah, anchor’s good, that stand of trees the ropes wrapped ‘round will hold me. I trust my climbing partner and those knots he made. Harness on okay? Yeah feels good, nothing loose, only like a year or two old, probably won’t bust on me right? Right. Okay here goes…”

Last Sunday afternoon, I ran through this internal monologue. I had just clipped into a static line with my GRIGRI, sidled over to the cliff’s edge that shot straight down 140 feet to Lake Superior and began to lower myself down. I was one member of a party out to climb a frozen Bridal Veil Falls on Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. I was there to take videos of the friend who imagines himself falling, Vaughn, and another climber, MJ.

A violent wind hit me as soon as I went over the lip and it wiped my brain clear. For a few seconds, I was all howling wind, cold air and the crashing of waves. I looked around. To my right, a line of sandstone cliffs receded into the distance. To my left, the jagged edge of the point where we had dropped our gear. Behind me was the lake, seething, dotted with ice floes, stretching into the distance until it disappeared. 

The view that greeted me from the top of Bridal Veil Falls. As the day went on, the wind swept in more and more lake ice that gathered in the water beneath us. Fischer Genau/NW

I reached a safety knot in the rope that prevented further descent and remembered what I was supposed to be doing. Fumbling with my camera with my mittens, I started to film. 

The more I do this kind of thing, the more the fear and second-guessing fade. Dangling ‘x’ amount of feet up in the air starts to feel normal. And that’s when I really get scared. There are too many stories about professional climbers and seasoned mountaineers rappelling off the end of their rope because they forgot to put knots at the end and weren’t paying attention. 

It’s not raw skill or talent that’s necessary to be safe. It’s awareness.

We talked about this as we cross-country skied the four miles out to the climb that morning. How easy it is to get lax, do something 10% wrong a hundred times and learn the wrong lesson. Then, when it really counts and something goes sideways, you pay for it. We talked about not taking things for granted, checking and rechecking our systems and not making those little mistakes.

I made a little mistake as I was descending. My rope had slipped to one side of the route and lodged itself under a piece of ice that looked fragile. It had formed on a tangle of tree roots and was shaped like a sculpted orchid, poised menacingly just right of the top of the route. I should have seen this, ascended the rope, and found a better place to run the line. Instead, I saw it, got scared and kept descending, trying to put as much distance between me and the icy orchid as I could.

At the bottom, I checked in with Vaughn and MJ. Vaughn would lead the route while MJ belayed. I would ascend with Vaughn most of the way, then pass him to film from above.

I found a point near the top of the pillar, where I thought I’d have a good angle of Vaughn moving through the steep section. The only problem was this was almost right under that dangerous chunk of ice.

I had a helmet on but didn’t want to find out what it felt like for it to slam into me. The wind was picking up, and I tensed my body against the ice to remain in place, hoping my right foot would not slip and cause me to swing under the deadly orchid. Meanwhile, I tried to keep Vaughn in the frame and focus as he picked and kicked his way toward me.

The day began with a four-mile cross-country ski from the car to the climb. What took us a couple of hours took these snowmobilers about 20 minutes, but the sweat and sore limbs made it even more rewarding. Fischer Genau/NW

He’s a sure climber and proceeded methodically, taking time to find good hand and foot placements, conserving energy and shaking his arms out when he could. I managed to hang on and not get blown off the main route. The orchid didn’t break off. Vaughn scrambled up the last few feet and over the ledge, then raised his arms triumphantly and howled into the wind. I howled with him.

Sitting in class the next day my head hurt. So did my shoulders, calves and neck. Class seemed unreal. That sterile, top-down lighting. The heads bowed over laptop screens. No chatter, no laughter, just a group of people who seem like they’d rather be somewhere else. 

The trek back to the car had worked me. My shoulders complained every time I raised them to push with my ski poles and I was sweating through my layers. Four miles on cross-country skis isn’t all that far, but the day was catching up to me. It had started at 5:30 a.m. and I’d been outside all day, exposed to the elements. 

It was dark when I told MJ, who was skiing beside me, that I hadn’t pushed my body like this in a long time. The strain I was under and its unfamiliarity made me realize how insulated and easy my life usually is.

We kept hoping that every rise and fork in the road would give us a glimpse of Vaughn’s car and when we finally reached it, MJ just stopped and laid down in the snow. That seemed like a good idea so I did too and felt the sweet relief of letting the ground take my weight. Then Vaughn arrived and said that was definitely Type 2 fun, the kind of fun that sucks when you are doing it, but is incredible in retrospect. We all agreed.

MJ’s only a freshman and pretty soft-spoken. Bridal Veil was just her second time ice climbing, but she met each new challenge with a steely sort of determination. As she was dropping over the cliff’s edge she said “sorry mom.”

Driving home, she piped up from the backseat and said this is what life was about, doing this kind of stuff.

I’m not sure about that. But dangling off that cliff with the cold wind blowing, waves and ice crashing, hanging on by a 10-millimeter rope, I knew that I was definitely not dead. 

Stuff like that, it’s not easy, it’s kind of dangerous and sometimes it’s not even fun. But it is stark, undeniable and butt-clenching reality.

Vaughn pretends to check the time on his way up. I was shooting for a winter short film, so I had him and MJ do a little acting during our expedition. Fischer Genau/NW

Editor’s Note: The North Wind is committed to offering a free and open public forum of ideas, publishing a wide range of viewpoints to accurately represent the NMU student body. This is a staff column, written by an employee of the North Wind. As such, it expresses the personal opinions of the individual writer, and does not necessarily reflect the position of the North Wind Editorial Board.