Hook, Line & Crampons

I took one glance at the giant wall of ice and, heart full of confidence, began suiting up for the day. Crampons? Check. Helmet? Check. Harness? Check. Though I was only technically on this trip to film and photograph the DC Burn Foundation’s ice climbing day, I was itching to sink my hooks into the ice as well.

Until we were standing around our leaders Jared and Jeff at the base of the icy cliff as they explained the technique of ice climbing. “It’s highly technique based,” meaning if I didn’t swing my hooks or kick my bladed boots into the ice with precision, I could majorly mess up. Suddenly my heart’s confidence turned to terror. Shoot.

I watched – and filmed – as the dozen firefighters (many of which had ice climbed before) made their way up the giant icicles. Some participants made their way up the ice with grace, easing the knot in my stomach. Yet others seemed to be struggling, especially with the height, which brought back my nervousness. Maybe I wouldn’t try.

What a joke.

At lunchtime, when I was sure the guys weren’t paying attention, I decided to take a stab (pun intended) at the ice. This way, with the guys across the river, busy with eating their sandwiches, nobody would take notice at my soon-to-be feeble attempt at scaling the cliff. My arms and legs already sore from too many pull-ups and overhead squats the day before, I made my first moves up the wall, my program director belaying behind me.

Knowing my slight aversion to heights (how the heck did I routinely do flips and twists off of 3 meter when I was a diver?), I kept my focus upward. Hook, hook. Kick, kick. (More like stab, stab…but I’m not a serial killer, so I’ll avoid that terminology.)

From time to time, I would lose footing or pull through the ice with my hooks, lurching my body downward toward the snowy riverbank below. Of course I was filled with panic in these moments. Falling to an icy death is not something in which many people would find comfort, myself included. But every time I felt the surging dropping of my stomach, the rope would catch and Read would still be below, holding me in my safely suspended position.

I was surprised when, about halfway up the ascent, Read yelled up to me that I was a natural. Say what?! Yes, a natural. Me, a small little blonde girl who has never seen a wall of ice, much less climbed one. I was immediately emboldened and continued my climb, hooking into the natural and already-made crevices of the ice, climbing farther and farther than I had originally expected. And all of a sudden, my new firefighter friends began yelling affirmations in my direction. I climbed onward, onward, onward until I reached the apex of the carabineer keeping my rope attached to the hillside. And then I looked down, astonished by the height I’d just climbed. I was at least ten meters above the ground, if not more. I had made it: my strength and Read’s support working in tandem. In all reality, I wasn’t that surprised. I wasn’t going to give up just because the climb got difficult at points. I’d started, and of course the drive in me told me I had to finish.

Now came the hard part. After taking in the scene below and around me, it was time for the descent. If the ascent took a large portion of trust, the descent required the entirety of my trust as I willingly leaned my entire body weight down and backward. I willed myself not to think about what would happen if Read lost his grip on the rope and just “leaned like a cholo,” as my new firefighter friend Luis would say.

At the base of the ice, I was greeted by high fives and celebratory applauses. All the guys claimed I’d shown them up, and some didn’t quite believe I’d never climbed other than in a gym before. Though I pretended not to hear their cheers, I was inwardly proud of my accomplishment. Here I was, a small, blonde girl, showing up firefighters’ strength and technique. It was exhilarating. It was encouraging. I felt empowered and strong: just the way I strive to feel on a regular basis. It was awesome.

Two things stick out most when I think of my grand ice climbing adventure last Thursday: partnership and strength.

Though I was responsible for climbing my way up the face of ice, it was just as much Read’s (and Will’s, on my second climb) responsibility to keep me safely hoisted above the ground. By going through the communicative commands (“Belay?” “Belay on.” “Climbing.” “Climb on.”) and beginning my climb, I verbally and nonverbally committed all my trust – and more – in my belayer’s hands. At all times, whether successfully climbing or losing grip, I had to trust that my belayer had my back. While I would definitely recommend this activity as a team-building practice, I realize it is not the most feasible adventure for a variety of reasons. Nevertheless, it stands as an illustration of what a partnership is: working together in a trusting manner to ascend to a greater destination.

Spiritually, it illustrates my dependence on and trust in God. Though I couldn’t see my belayer behind me, I relied on his voice to direct me when I got off track because he had the big picture of the ice wall. In the moments when I slipped and began the horrifying yet momentary drop toward the ground, my trust was reaffirmed when the rope would catch and I would bounce back in order to continue my way upward. Finally, I kept my gaze upward. If I focused on the increasing distance between me and the ground, I would be overcome with fear, and would be distracted from the impending move I would need to take to take me closer to my final destination. In the same way, remembering to look upward and listen for direction keeps us in step with the achieving the greatest good for our lives.

Second, my ice climbing adventure reassured me of my strength. Of course, there’s the physical strength, which I admittedly doubted I had before I began my first climb. But it also reminded me of my mental resolve to continue on with the climb despite my shortcomings. Though I will surely botch life up from time to time, I can’t keep hanging on my mistakes. I can instead take these into account, learn from them, and keep climbing. Because I have a tendency to dwell on the negatives, this is especially important to me as I work toward creating a life of increased positivity and growth. And shifting my perspective from shaming myself for mistakes to accepting and learning from mistakes has already made a world of difference. It allows me to practice self-compassion and realize my capacity for momentous growth that I would not have otherwise.

If you’re up for the adventure, take an ice climbing expedition. Or if cold isn’t your preferred climate, try some rock climbing, even if it’s in a gym. I promise you it will open your eyes to strengths you had never noticed before. And you might just be a natural at scaling huge walls of ice…who knew?

As for me, I'm hooked!