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Learning the Ropes at the Ouray Ice Park
I did something I never thought I would or could
Running is so simple. I lace up my Hokas, fill my hydration pack and head out the door. I might have to carry safety gear for mountain outings, and perhaps extra layers or traction devices for inclement weather or snowy footing. Longer runs require closer attention to pace, hydration and fueling to prevent a run-stopping “blowup.”
But really, it’s so simple, almost anyone can run anywhere.
And when I run, the mind wanders. Concentration comes into play only at critical moments, such as when I’m closing the gap on someone in a race, or managing sketchy footing and exposure on mountain trails.
By contrast, last weekend I experienced an extremely complicated, slow, gear-intensive sport that requires laser-focused concentration at all times.
My husband Morgan and I took a two-day workshop in ice climbing at the Ouray Ice Park.
Just the phrase, “ice climbing,” sounds to me as absurd, terrifying and oxymoronic as “sky diving.” Ice is not meant to be climbed, just as people are not meant to dive into the sky from planes.
I never pictured myself doing this. I tell people, “I can’t climb,” just like, “I can’t draw” or “I can’t speak Mandarin.” It’s not my thing, it intimidates me, it’s awkward, I have no desire to do the work to learn.
But then, last winter, during a run up Camp Bird Road (at the south end of Ouray’s box canyon), I glimpsed people scaling walls of frozen water with curved tools in their hands. I paused and peered into the river gorge that forms the ice park, a magical canyon where frozen waterfalls cascade down rock walls and giant icicles form spiky columns. The ice formations come from a series of pipes at the top of the gorge, managed by “ice farmers” who work for the park, and they spray water at nighttime starting in November. The result is more than 100 ice climbing routes, each unique, on a mile-long stretch of the river gorge.
During that run past the ice park, I thought, “I could never do that … that’s insane … that looks miserably cold.”
But then, while trying to think of an original Christmas gift for Morgan, I remembered the ice park. Morgan has a climbing background, and I sensed he’d like it. I thought: Maybe I’ll get an ice-climbing guide for him and for our daughter, who wants to get into climbing.
Then I felt a spark of envy and motivation. What about me? Why would I willingly sit that out? What kind of role-modeling does that show my kids, that I’m too old and timid to try something new and adventurous? Also, I’d like exposure therapy to calm my fear of heights—a fear that can cause my legs to pulse uncontrollably like a sewing machine needle while scrambling on rocks to reach or descend summits.
And so, as a gift to us both, I signed up for a two-day class with San Juan Mountain Guides, which provided two guides for a group of six.
Last Saturday morning, the intensive and immersive learning experience began.
I had so much to learn: how to put crampons on my shoes and a harness around my hips, and how to hold and swing an ice pick. How to tie knots and fasten carabiners to the fixed bolts at the top of the canyon wall, to create an anchor rope; how to attach the climbing rope to the anchor; and then, how to toss the bundle of rope over the edge of the cliff so it’d make it all the way down to the canyon floor rather than getting hung up on the wall’s side.
Once the ropes were fixed, our excellent guides Chad and Greg led our small group on a short but steep hike down to the canyon floor. We located our ropes dangling there, and more learning ensued: how to tie a rope around a tree to create an anchor for the belay, and how to belay the person climbing—which means, how to safely handle the rope that holds that person’s life in your hands and break their fall.
Finally, we were ready to climb and learn the technique and best form for ascending.
I approached the wall of frozen water and studied the ice, looking for a place the pick would stick. Indentations or fissures work better than bulges or smooth spots. Then I swung the pick straight at the chosen spot, as if throwing a dart with force. It stuck, and I pulled down slightly to make sure it would hold.
Then, I swung and stuck the other pick slightly above the first one, so the two picks formed a vertical line. It’s better to have the picks aligned vertically than side by side at the same level. The feet should lodge below, roughly side by side, so that your two feet and top pick form a triangle.
Now it was time to kick a toe hold. I moved my hips away from the ice wall to look down at my boots, flexed my foot and slammed my toes into the ice. Amazingly, the front points of the crampons stuck.
My whole body weight hung from two hand-held ice picks and the front points of crampons on my feet. I struggled to accept this lack of sure footing and the tenuousness of the picks’ points. Every time I had to dislodge a foot or the ice pick to move upward, I had to trust the remaining three points of contact to hold.
Every movement I made was careful, deliberate and demanded full attention. Every brain cell worked to perform the steps: dislodge the ice pick (without accidentally hammering my face in the process), swing and lodge it higher, step up and make another toe hold, move the other foot up next to the higher foot, then dislodge and swing the second ice pick higher.
Around me, other climbers yelled “Ice!” as a warning, and chunks of broken ice rained down and occasionally came close to hitting my helmet, rattling my nerves. It seemed that at any point, the ice could break and I could peel off the wall and fall at the mercy of the person belaying me, hoping the harness and rope would catch.
But I never fell. With each ascent, I’d get halfway or two-thirds to the top and think, “Enough,” and, “I can’t believe I’m doing this.” When I’d look down at my feet to make toe holds, I’d catch my breath and feel electric nerves from realizing how high up I was. I’d rest on the ice, trying to relax and breathe deeply, and recommit to a few more steps. Eventually, I’d get there.
The satisfaction of making it to the top is hard to explain. It’s not exactly joy, and not fun. It’s a feeling of accomplishment and survival, which creates deep satisfaction and some pride. With each climb, I gained confidence and then chose a different, more challenging line the next time.
Ironically, the technically easiest part, lowering—that is, returning from the top back to the canyon floor by leaning back on the rope and trusting the person belaying to lower my weight slowly and evenly—never felt easy or comfortable. The sensation of letting go and leaning back to lower scared me each time.
“That was challenging,” I said after every climb. “I did it.”
We began the weekend stressed about various things and wondering if we could afford the time spent focused on this two-day workshop. I also felt a little guilty about taking two days off from running and missing a weekend long training run.
We ended the second day with a changed perspective. Exploring another nook in this region expanded our minds and skills. Work seemed more manageable and a little less important.
Afterward, I felt tired and beat up but youthful, not defined by my age of 52. My triceps, lower calves and bruised toes ached, but I felt motivated to get back to running this week, having taken a break.
I wonder, what else could I potentially try and learn that intimidates me because of the gear and learning curve involved? Perhaps kayaking or bike packing? I’m not sure. But I know that I have the ice climbing experience to contradict the assumption, “Not for me, I could never do that.”
What have you experienced that you thought you couldn’t do, until you tried it? Share your story in the comments below. And thank you for reading. Please subscribe if you haven’t already!
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