Sausage Fingers

Travails of a first-time ice climber. 

Ice climbing is a strange sport, if you can even call it a sport. A sport is a game – it has cheering, beer-drinking fans, there is usually a ball involved, and most importantly there is a score.

Ice climbing possesses none of these crucial traits. You are not competing with anyone, you’re out in the woods miles from the nearest television, and the best score you can have is zero-zero, because if anyone is winning it’s the mountains and they only have to score one goal to win.

Why claw your way up a column of icicles with nothing but a pair of ice axes keeping you from pounding the ground? Why subject yourself to the pain of bloodless, frozen hands that can no longer grip when it is most essential that they do? The answer must lie in the old evolutionary principle of fight or flight. Ice climbers embrace the struggle for survival as an essential part of life. Either that or they’re too brainless to figure out that life does not have to be that hard.

Seven years ago I went to a Mark Twight slide show on climbing ice. I remember two things vividly about the experience. I remember the tape recordings Twight had made, which captured the sounds of running water, shattering ice, and heavy irregular breathing as he climbed what sounded like a desperate frozen waterfall. Ice climbing involves a lot of bashing and breaking of ice and the sounds that sifted through the auditorium turned my stomach to pudding. I also remember a story that Twight told about climbing up one pillar of ice, while a second smokestack-sized pillar next to him collapsed unexpectedly. What I got out of the slide show was that ice climbing was cold and wet, it involved flying shards of ice, and it was unpredictably dangerous.

I bought my tools that winter. I was gripped just buying the gear and scared as a little field mouse thinking about the actual climbing. Buying the ice gear was primarily a result of a personality defect: I like to pursue those things that I am not good at or am most scared of. In college I chose to write lots of papers even though math was my stronger subject. The one sport I played was intramural hockey, despite that fact that I could barely skate and got routinely creamed by pro-material players who had wisely given up full-time hockey in favor of their studies.

Jim, a coworker with me at Dana Design, had picked up the ice bug at about the same time, and begged Nels, a giant, barrel-chested ice wrecker, to take us out for our first time. Nels eyed us with suspicion, but agreed to lead us on a few pitches.

On the designated morning, we piled into the front of Nels’s truck and began the drive up to Hyalite Canyon in total darkness. This was not an ordinary drive. Two feet of fresh snow covered the road, and even with chains and a 1,000-horsepower engine we had to stop to dig ourselves out. At times I imagined us in a sleigh, sliding over the hill and through the woods, but the scream of the engine kept reigning in my imagination and reminding me that we were going to climb ice. We were going to climb ice! I don’t think I would have been more nervous if we were headed to the moon.

After an eternal hour we arrived at the parking lot and trailhead to Hyalite Peak. On the left I could see blue bits of ice through the trees and on the right vertical smears of frozen water seeped down a steep rock wall. The sun had just poked its head out from the east, shrouding the forested canyon in soft pink light. My nose and the tips of my ears stung from the cold. Not owning any gaiters, I duct-taped my ten-dollar rain pants to my plastic boots.

Off we went. Nels broke trail with elk-like strides and within fifteen minutes we were at the base of an ice wall. After roping up, Nels launched up the climb, a beautiful 60-foot sheet of smooth blue ice, effortlessly flicking his tools and even placing a couple of ice screws on the way up so that if he fell he would not hit the ground. After topping out he returned to the ground with a grin. His beard was covered in white crystals and his eyes held a mischievous sparkle. "Have fun," he said and handed me the rope. I tied the rope to my harness. Hell, I’d rock climbed before, how hard could this be? It wasn’t even vertical.

I swung once and got an awkward stick in the ice. I swung with my right hand and the pick ricocheted off and my knuckles slammed into the cold hardness. I swung again and succeeded in placing my axe at a 45-degree angle into the ice. Both my axes were at head height, and as I stepped my feet onto the ice, my body bunched into a little ball. If I moved either axe, the force from the coil that I had formed with my body would propel me headfirst into the ground. I felt a bit ridiculous having put myself in this predicament only two feet off the deck.

I stepped down to the snow and started with a much higher swing, which almost skewered Nels’s rope. He shot me a look. "Almost bought the rope, Hans." I finally managed to get both feet and ice tools into the ice and move fully onto the waterfall. I was amazed at how quickly the blood began to drain out of my forearms. I gripped my axes with the strength of Thor because I was not coming off of this climb. Ten feet up and I had to take an ice screw out. The extra-large mittens I had bought for warmth did not offer much dexterity. Turning the screw was a slow process, for the cold temperatures had made the ice dry. It squeaked and I squeaked and after what seemed like an hour I got the thing out. I glanced down and Nels and Jim were chatting and drinking hot cider, oblivious to the battle I was waging above.

I crept upward. I hung my left hand down by my side to allow some blood to flow into it and somehow managed to clip a mitten strap to a carabiner on my harness. I hung from my right arm, which was securely tethered to the tool above with a nylon wrist leash, while my left remained pinned to my waist. I managed to pull my hand out of the mitten, unclip the biner, put my mitten back on, and then slap the ice tool back into the ice – but not before my arm above had been turned into silly putty. I was totally spent. "What’s the matter, Hans?" Nels teased. All I could do was kind of cup the ice axe in the palm of my hand and flick it at the ice hoping for the best. I kept reminding myself to fight. I had not fallen yet. Fight. With the cup and flick technique I had just developed I managed to claw my way over the top bulge. Victory was mine. As Nels lowered me to the ground, I hung limp like an overcooked spaghetti noodle.

Jim’s turn to climb and mine to heckle. While Jim climbed more confidently, he had his own problems to deal with. Halfway up he pulled out the ice axe at head level and hit himself in the chin. On the next swing he dislodged a piece of ice the size of a brick, which also hit him in the chin. Every other swing Jim slammed his knuckles into the ice. I swear I heard him giggling, which is a testament to the kind of person who wants to go ice climbing. He’s the kind of guy who would laugh if you hit him in the chin with a brick.

Later that evening, while Jim and I played pool at Montana Fats, we reveled in our war stories. Jim had blood all over his chin and we both had sausage-sized pointer fingers. We proudly told our stories of ineptitude to our friends, who gathered around us in wide-eyed amazement. We were hooked. Our selective memories had convinced us that it all was fun, and we could not wait to get back out there and do it all again. Our beer-drinking friends cheered with each stupid mistake we unveiled. But there was no ball, no competition, no score. And the playing field, we realized, was much bigger than any sports field in the universe.