Ryan McElroy

Faces of the Ice 

  Zach   —

“ICE!” Zach’s voice echoes through the falling snow from above, louder than the wind whipping through the surrounding spruce and the trucks passing by on route 73 far below. It cuts across the frozen Chapel Pond, which I had just crossed less than an hour ago. I hear it, but nothing registers in my brain. My gaze is ever upwards, neck craning to spot the orange blob that marked the other end of my rope. Just barely making out the moving speck of a man, my eyes shift focus to the dancing shapes falling from the sky. Like pieces of glass, these shards spin and flip, clatter and sing, bounce down, down, down… Oh shit. That’s what he meant – I suddenly drop my head and curl inwards after being struck by a flying slab. No way I’m forgetting that one! Now I know: ice is the name of the game. This season’s first day of climbing was off to a slippery start.


I guess I should have had some idea of what I was getting myself into when I emailed Zach over winter break just to see if by any chance he knew how I could get a hold of some boots and crampons. I wanted to make the best of what was forecast to be miserable skiing weather in Vermont. Maybe I would head out to the glistening ice. I had only been twice the previous winter. Derek Doucet, the college’s outdoor programs director, and Scott Barnicle, a student dean had taken me. And now Zach was down for more. “How about Tuesday when we get back?” Great! But why are these guys so willing?

Last year, Zach Perzan hired me to work at the school’s climbing wall. I had met Zach early my freshman year at a Geology Department pizza lunch. His large shoulders and burley frame were softened by his calm voice and dimpled smile. We soon became friends, and I learned he was one the most patient teachers I’ve ever had. He could have been in his thirties, speaking so eloquently, knowing so much, and climbing so well. Yet, he was only a year older than me. The story he told me on the way to the ice, the one about fishing for crawdads, keeping them in his apartment sink, and coming home to find one on the carpet, pincers raised, looking up at him, reminds me he’s not all grown up. He’s still a kid just like me.


Or maybe not. I feel like a modified kid. Like a kid who lost his essential fearlessness. Now, taking that first step is the hardest. Putting off an assignment, postponing a phone call, or stumbling to let someone know how you truly feel about them – it’s always so damn scary. Zach continues ascending, now beyond my line of sight. And then there are those other fears. Smashing in my teeth. Eyeballs. Wolves. Abandonment. Addiction. Living an incomplete life. The list lengthens at a frightening pace while I stand belaying Zach at Crystal Ice Tower. He’s gotta be there soon. The anxiety is closer to freezing me than the single digit temperatures. I wait and wait.

“Ryan, off belay!” That’s my signal. He’s made it up. It’s all me now. If I can just manage to breathe… Here goes.

My mind is blank. I reach. Swing. Swing. Step. I’m up. Steel robo-talons pierce the ice and miraculously hold me. Swing right. Check the feet. Packs look like dots below. Kick. Test weight. Breathe. Swing left. Shattered ice. Swing again. Dinner plates. Swing and… perfect. Hero Ice. You can’t plan for it, but when you sink it, there is nothing better.

In the car on the way out, Zach prepped me on basic ice science. We search for that “plastic-y, ductile ice.” It’s an ice climber’s nirvana. Forever swingin, listening, feeling, but rarely attaining. Most of the time it’s too brittle or too wet.

The variability of each flow excites Zach. Even if he’s been to a spot already, “it will always be different.” Getting out to new ice each time is crucial to keeping it exciting. Keeping a keen eye on the weather and on sites like NEice.com is key.

Zach began swinging tools in high school. He was fortunate to have a few generous teachers who took him out and taught him the basics. His technique improved over multiple trips to Kinsman Notch in New Hampshire. Soon, he and his mentors, were confident in his ability to lead routes, placing all his own protection as he climbed first from the bottom. He still keeps in touch with the guys who shared it with him. And now he passes on his passion, glad to have better access to Vermont and New York ice than he did when he was living in Boston.


Our day out ended just as it began: dark skies, temperatures just pushing double digits, and turkey sandwiches on my mind. But my body ached more than it did at 6:25 am. That’s for darn sure. “Classic rookie mistakes,” Zach explained on the drive home from a full day in the Adirondacks. “You gotta have your systems, man. At least two sandwiches. Make ‘em before breakfast. Three gloves. Each with a purpose. Oh yeah, and you can’t leave your boots in the trunk – there’s no heat back there!” I certainly made the mistakes, and my lack of systems was laughable, yet I had managed to keep my feet nice and toasty. I brought my boots with me in the front seat. At least I had that going for me.


Later that week, Zach and I are working at the rock wall, setting new routes for a competition. In three days, we will have to pull down all the old holds, wash them, come up with 44 fun problems, and bolt them up. Today each of us sets a route, and couple of the other monitors climb it and give feedback. Much like the writing process, we work through suggestions and make revisions. We strive to create that flow of movement – graceful transitions from paragraphs to handholds. I think back to my trip with Zach. No room for edits there. On ice, you have one shot to get it right. It won’t be perfect, but it will be good enough. It must be good enough to get you up.

Taping up another hold, I try to listen in on a conversation. Power drills and stripped bolts make it difficult, but I am pretty sure I hear Doucet. Something about belaying and safety checks. I down-climb, and off at the far end of the gym, there he is with a crew of young students. They look as confused as I did when I first tied a figure eight knot.

“Hey Ryan! How’d it go with Zach the other day?” Doucet asks with genuine interest. I tell him about the cold, the pitches completed, and the beginnings of the crawdad story. “You know, if you want to go out again, two friends of mine are leading an intro class this Saturday. You know Derek Anderson, right? Yeah, you’d be totally welcome to hop on board and get some sweet footage. Maybe even some climbing!”

Wow. I did not see that coming. Saturday was going to try to sleep in and then finish up a job application. And there is that photo project from this summer I want to get back to. The list of reasons not to go swirls around. I was pretty much just scared all day when I went out with Zach. It’s going to be cold. But, man, why are these guys so generous?

“Thanks! That would be awesome!” The words spill out despite the internal voices. Sometimes you just have to trust in the opportunities. Proceed as the way opens. Embrace the unknown.


 Derrek & Gus —

There’s something funny about waking up at the crack of dawn, donning all the warm layers you can gather, and driving out to a frozen waterfall. For one, the van is full of Michelin Men; puffy coats bundle up tight, obscuring your and everyone else’s face. Then, you park yourselves in someone’s driveway and ask them if it’s all right if you sneak around their backyard so you can suspend yourself hundreds of feet up in the frigid cold. They say sure, “just don’t block me in, now! You all be careful.” Hmmm. All right.

Next you have your “approach,” which should really be called “slippery, precarious rock-scramble.” Pushing thirty minutes, the clambering over fallen boulders and careful stepping on the talus zaps any confidence you may have woken up with. Instead of a “coming nearer,” as the name suggests, you soon realize that, here, the word “approach” best translates to: figure out how the hell you’re going to stay warm, dry, and unbroken till sunset. It’s a funny mental game you start to play. Some chuckling mixed in with fear and then the certain spill on a loose rock to shake you up again. And just before you put on all the gear you schlepped out there, your guide casually offers this one up: “ice climbing is basically about mastering the art of suffering.” Great.

So why are you here? Who knows why you go out. I tell myself I seek a new perspective, a higher vision. From midway up the gnarly ice flow at Bristol Cliffs, I look back behind me at the browning farm fields, the distant expanse of Lake Champlain, and the majestic Adirondack Mountains standing silent and still. Shades of white I have never seen before paint the wall inches from my face. Above, a bird flies, only its silhouette visible between my burning skin and the piercing sun. “What’s that one?” I call down to Gus, our field naturalist for the day. “Well, all I can say is the first rule of bird identification is that if it’s got a red tail it’s not a Golden Eagle.” So much for that. Lofty sights? That can’t be really be it.

Maybe I choose to ice climb today to test my body. I seek defeat and total exhaustion. I know by the golden hour, when the sun glows orange off the now dinner-plated ice, my quads will burn and toes will respond as one digit attached to a limp lower leg seemingly held on to the rest of me by the heavy chunk of plastic boot encasing it. My triceps will ring with the quiver of cold steel biting the wall. I will return home with energy zapped, scarf down some food, and crawl into bed all worn out. Just like ten-year-old Ryan. Pooped from spelling tests in Ms. Cooper’s third grade class, laughing and shoving Quinn and Moultree at a pickup recess football game, and then launching myself off homemade rollerblade jumps over and over in the street out front. That’s it. I want to feel physically beat and have some fun with it. I am trying to relive my childhood. No wonder I find it all slightly amusing. Out here on the ice, I’m a kid once more.

And I’m not the only one. My instructors share my intentions. “There’s a bunch of good ice out there we can play on.” Play? Really? Who plays with twelve-toed talons and hammers with saws for heads? Derrek Anderson and Gus Goodwin do. Their toys of choice: two hundred dollar ropes, an arsenal of screws each worth a nice dinner for two, and a wardrobe straight out of a Patagonia catalog. Yes, these soft-spoken young men smile and joke around at their cliff-side office. “When it stops being fun, it’s time to go home.” They are professional children, doing what they love for a bit of money on the side.

A couple more layers of technical gear and a little beard stubble might appear all that sets Derrek and Gus apart from two high schoolers driving around on a Saturday morning. It looks like they even coordinated outfits today; each sports boxy, neon-yellow plastic glasses with lightning blue reflective lenses and matching leather workman’s gloves. “Have you heard this? Doucet turned me on to it. It’s 24-7 standup comedy! I’ve got it on all the time now.” From the backseat behind a pile of packs, matching blaze orange helmets, and ropes, I listen in, and the guy on this hidden AM station is going off on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. They chuckle.

Conversation between the friends then turns to topics that remind me the boys are not actually boys. Derrek mentions a new teaching job with a better commute. Gus brings up rumors of some guide services shutting down and questions the future of Mooney Mountain Guides, their part time employer. They go on about how Doucet has got it made as Middlebury Outdoor Programs coordinator, guiding on the side, college job stability, his family, and his home with access to the Greens in his backyard. Tone has changed, and I can tell that below the humor, there is a stronger bond. They listen patiently as the other presents his current struggles. I strain to hear, but the words are obviously not for me.


“How was your fall season?” Derrek asks me as I lock down my carabiner to give him a belay. He is curious to learn if I’d built any anchors or placed any gear since we met last year for a rock climbing clinic. As I am hopping along on this Intro to Ice Class thanks to a chance run in with Doucet, I am glad to be trusted to help set up the ropes for the day. “Ah, not so great,” I reply. “Didn’t get out as much as I’d like to have. Mostly indoors working at the wall. And you?” “Same. Busy. And getting ready for the new baby,” he replies, with his usual downward gaze. I think I know what this response could really mean. It reads something along the lines of I sent some projects I’ve been working on, checked up on a couple favorite sights, and got out almost every weekend! – but I hold myself to very high standards and didn’t meet my expectations, so it’s not worth over-sharing.

Gus and I had this conversation earlier. The climber’s curse, he called it. He admitted in his nasal Wisconsin timbre, “yeah, even when I was working for the Nature Conservancy and was climbing at least three times a week before work in the Adirondacks, I was still saying it wasn’t as much as I’d like.” You never get out enough as a climber.

These guys are modest to an extreme. If you want to know anything beyond the skills they are there to teach, you have to tease it out. They’re great listeners, but guarded sharers. I see myself as one of them. I too tend to play things down. Partly it’s that everyone here at school is so accomplished and high powered it’s just not worth trying to compete in a conversation. Then when I’m home with family and friends, I stay reserved because no one does this crazy outdoors stuff. I don’t want to brag or compete, so I mostly just stay silent. Sometimes I’ll make jokes or look for ways to be helpful. But the internal drive to go higher, steeper, faster, longer, colder – that never stops.

“Nice camera – is that yours?” I nod and explain that I’d love to get some footage for a class. “As long as there are no interviews, that’s fine with me,” Gus says with a nervous chuckle, his jet-black eyebrows bobbing atop his lanky frame. He’s the younger of the two leaders, just a few years older than me, yet there’s no way a formal interview will reveal anything. The only way to go deeper with these guys is through movement. Walking and talking, climbing and joking. Throughout the day, I piece together the snippets Gus chooses to share. There was a trip out to Yosemite, then that time in the Tetons (crappy ice that week), and some Cascade mountaineering. I ask about college, and it turns out he was a Middlebury graduate a few years back. Involved in Mountain Club, he became interested in climbing for the first time as a student. This grew to a love, and since graduation he has found ways to climb all over the map. But he won’t admit to making it happen himself – “you know, I was very lucky to have solid mentors.” Doucet was one of them, and I think it’s pretty neat that I’m tied into the same network as Gus once was.

Later I learn that Gus and I share even more in common. Jeff Munroe, my geology advisor, was Gus’s favorite professor. “Taking classes with him almost made me switch to Geology my senior year. There was just a level of mutual respect he fostered. And of course he taught Arctic and Alpine Environments – doesn’t get much cooler than that.” Solid relationships matter to Gus. When he asks me questions, he listens in full. He gives time for a completed thought, never cutting off, never rushing.

I tell him about my summer experience working on Mount Washington as a naturalist, and then Gus opens up about just graduating from a UVM field naturalist program. “So what kind of tree is that?” I ask. “Striped maple. Also known as Moosewood. Moose will actually eat the wood! Here, look, like this –” he lowers his head and bears his upper molars to mimic scraping off the photosynthetic bark. “These guys are super cool ‘cause they have a jump on the other understory plants in the spring before leaf-out and — Please tell me to shut up whenever. I love this stuff!” I love it, too. And I’m glad to have gotten him going about something he’s clearly interested in. I think he appreciates conversation outside the confines of climbing during a guided trip. He then confides he wishes he’d been a geologist. I wish I’d been a biologist. “It’s all connected though,” we both spout out, almost simultaneously.

Belaying the rest of the group at the cliff face, Gus continues to joke around. He looks lean and mean in his matching Mammut tops and bottoms, but his words and full smile show his fun-loving side. He ducks behind another participant when ice tumbles down, and then laughs, “hiding behind the client – classic guide move.” Later, he patiently works with someone on tool placement technique while connecting with her via their time spent in the High Sierras of California. “Stately Pleasure Dome. Oh yeah, that was one of my favorites.” Catching only snippets of this conversation, I ask, “oh, did John Muir send that one, too?” “No! That would be great, though! Especially if he named it. Man that guy was a boss! Clambering up first ascents all over, bringing tea and bread. Whoah.” Gus’s enthusiasm and warmth shines throughout the day and just about melts the ice.


Derrek’s lime-green puffy against the white out wall catches my eye, and I think back to his earlier comment about the fall season. Maybe it’s not about hiding accomplishments or playing the “no big deal” card. Derrek’s priorities are shifting. Climbing has taken the back burner to a new family member. His baby girl is his focus. He is worried and conflicted. There’s not enough time for everything good. Maybe he doubts everything will be okay. The high standards set for oneself in the climbing world migrate to the human world. All this he communicates simply – “getting ready for the new baby.”

Like Gus, Derrek is patient, kind, and even more knowledgeable. An aura of leadership hovers around his compact build, and we all know he is quietly in charge. He teaches at an alternative school and has worked countless outdoor education seasons in the backcountry for NOLS. His genuine concern for the people he helps out shows through. While up at the ice, someone hiked up to where we were set up. “Sea-bass!” Derrek’s face lit up as he recognized a former student of his. “Wow. That must have been three years ago you were learning with us. Look at you now out here!” A proud teacher will most certainly become a proud father.

I sense Derrek’s focus as he ascends the ice. Each hammer swing falls perfectly into position. His feet kick in, stabilizing with a perfected triangle stance. Perched upon this transient surface, he is grounded. He pays close attention to the ever-changing character of the ice as he screws in protection. An implicit trust in the relationship with his partner down below has grown out of patience and deep-rooted appreciation of each other. Nothing matters but the challenge in front of him. He climbs for the clarity of these moments. I have no doubt that his skills practiced season after season will translate over to family life. Most would shy away from the discomfort and fear inherent to his climbing. But for Derrek, the pay off is worth it. And so it will be with parenthood.


 Scott —

On my way to dinner one night back at school, I ask my friend Adam if he’s ever met Scott Barnicle.

“Who? Barnicle?” He asks.

“Yeah, he’s the Atwater dean. Real cool guy, outdoorsman, deep thinker.”

“No man, but that’s the best last name for a Scott! Barnicle – bagoo!” Adam’s incessant excitement over the naming of things steers the conversation elsewhere. We spend the rest of the meal brainstorming a marketing campaign for artisanal molasses. “Mole-asses Molasses! Brilliant! Draw some moles dancing dirty and slap a label on a mason jar. Hipsters will be slurpin that shit up!” I always appreciate Adam’s levity. Somehow we find ourselves hiking halfway up the Snow Bowl that night, skis over the shoulder, stars shining bright above, singing songs about cheap malt liquor.

When I share this story with Scott in his office the next day, his starts nodding, hands raised for emphasis: “I live for this. Mixing it up keeps it fresh.” He’s a make-your-own-adventure kind of guy who skillfully avoids getting stuck in routine. His decades of climbing, mountaineering, and traveling take a backseat to his current pastimes: sunrise hiking Mt. Abe, sledding down Lincoln Gap, or ski touring a chunk of the Catamount Trail. The list goes on, but rarely will he bring this up unless you ask. And it’s even more unlikely that you’ll get the details on his past escapades. It’s that climber’s modesty again, filtering both thoughts and words. Any lessons or snippets of insight are prefaced by, “I hate to sound like I’m lecturing here” or end with a “take that and do what you will.”


Scott’s past completely covers his office walls. Glossy prints are tacked up in no apparent order, and their matts lack a common color palate. This is to be expected from the man who confesses he struggles to match a shirt with a pair of pants in the morning. But it’s not the photos themselves that matter. Mountain peaks, blue skies, snow-covered spruce, laughing children – all the images bring back memories. When Scott sits back to sip some tea, he can instantly transport himself to a specific place and time. To visiting students, the wall may seem like a trophy case or highlight reel of summits reached and countries checked off the list. But Scott’s pictures are for himself. They add richness to his workday. And the blank space on his world map reminds him of stories waiting unfold.

Listening is one of Scott’s greatest gifts. When we first met, I was taken aback by how much I opened up – and how comfortable I felt doing so. Early sophomore year I struggled with direction and with finding a place to be comfortable here at school. The year before was real rough and lonely. I was searching for something to fix me. I tried studying harder, running further, crying louder, and sleeping longer. What I really needed was someone to hear my story. Finding Scott was a huge turning point. I dumped out the jumbled mess of thoughts I’d been carrying around with me since walking from Georgia to Maine just over a year before. Thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail was unbelievably satisfying. The hardest part was stopping. Scott got this. He honored my pain of the ‘in between’ and deeply understood the complexity of life off-trail. His hanging pictures were proof that I’d be back out there soon, and that we’d have many more conversations.


“There’s old climbers and there’s bold climbers. But there’s no old bold climbers.” Scott smiles, eyes twinkling. He tries not to take full credit for any of his wisdom, attributing this phrase to his good friend, David Stone.

It was 1987. His first time out was a local Vermont spot, Bristol Cliffs, where I had been out just a few days before with Derrek and Gus. “I fell in love with ice climbing, right away.” But that’s about as far as Scott goes with that story. His focus shifts almost immediately to the person at the other end of the rope. Speaking of his mentor David, Scott tells me, “I had a lot of respect for him as a person. I learned a lot of really interesting life lessons, well beyond climbing, from him.” David has since passed away, but his spirit lives on in the way Scott approaches a life of adventure.

“I don’t know why going up has such a draw.” After my couple climbs last winter and the two trips out this month, I am still struggling to articulate the sensation. Scott is the same way, even after decades of ascending ice: “it’s a total exhilaration, but I don’t know how to put it in words.” That’s it. You can only feel the movement and the rhythm. Beyond that, it’s just silly. The ice raining down on you, fingers frozen, and wind whipping past your face – we laugh at all of it. “I could just throw rocks at you all day if you want,” Scott jokes. It might just do the trick. Pausing a bit longer, he echoes what Zach, Derrek, and Gus have all mentioned. There’s an “addiction to that ‘thunk’ when you first set a tool and it goes right in…it’s almost like bliss.” He holds out the ‘s’ as he sits back, eyes closed. I picture the ‘hero ice’ he’s dreaming of. “How do I get that back?” he asks longingly, more to himself than to me.

As with the other climbers, there’s a tension in Scott between a striving for more and a restraining of this drive. Modesty usually wins out at the surface, but today I see deeper. Scott appears to be wrestling with finding peace in his life, whether or not climbing is a part of it. “I don’t climb much, sadly,” he tells me. “It’s not that I’ve ruled it out…” but just that there are other things keeping him busy. And fulfilled. He appreciates a good cup of tea and loves conversation with his family. But he’s the same guy who gets upset when a good streak of getting outside is interrupted by poor weather or personal commitments. I, too, struggle with finding a sense of balance. The outdoor pursuits can start to dominate and run my life without allowing me to breathe. But then the plodding through a semester crammed full of class and scheduling with no time for climbing brings me way down, too. I have been plotting my next long hike for years now, but I still doubt it will do what I need it to. Do I spend too much time in the future, sifting through all the self-created possibilities? And the reminiscing on the past? It’s so hard to stay engaged. So difficult to focus. Maybe that’s why we climb – to center ourselves.


“Derrek… Doucet or Anderson?”

“Anderson this trip, hopefully Doucet next week,” I clarify. It’s funny that in this small, self-selecting ice world, two Derreks are the best of friends. Someone always corrects with, “the other Derek,” or resorts to using last names.

“Oh, and Goodwin? Yeah, Gus is an old student of mine. Glad you got to meet him.”

Scott relates well with most everyone, so I am only half-surprised he’s pals with the two guys who just took me out. Scott knows everyone worth knowing. He has an extensive network of hiking friends, climbing buddies, and interesting characters on campus. It’s easiest for him to connect outside, usually on a hike. The trail conversation brings people together, he explains. I don’t need any explanation, as I lived this truth for five months on my trip through the Appalachians. “It’s what I call, the ‘good date feeling,’” when all the crap from work or school just fades away and you’re totally clicking with someone. “When I could change my focus to the adventure and who I am out with – that’s what I’ve enjoyed ever since.” His early experiences with Dave helped form this attitude. Once he realized “it doesn’t have to be epic,” he opened up this other avenue into experience.

And he has carried this lesson around with him since. At home, Scott makes little photo albums, each page featuring a person he’s done something outdoors with. He has scribbled some with notes about the numerous trips and excursions shared, others just with a line or two. “It’s like my bible,” he professes. While less glamorous than the goal-oriented, summit-seeking side, it is this people-loving part of Scott with which I am most intrigued. Turning to the books, he remembers the goofiness, the bumbling, and the adventures. When he can recall fear, anxiety, and beauty of a climb – and the sharing it with someone else – “that to me is life at its richest.”

I feel slightly reassured that it has taken Scott nearly fifty years to “understand the phrase, ‘be present.’” Maybe I’m ahead of the game in trying to learn this lesson in my early twenties. His appreciation of the continued education throughout the journey of life is something I admire. In his professional role as college dean, he has chosen to share his enthusiasm for discovery with his students. And I have learned from him that contentment is possible. “The greatest thing I’m learning when I get older, is right here.” It’s hard as hell to truly see that this is what it’s all about, but getting up on the ice has reminded me of Scott’s words. Focusing on the little moments in a day, on olive oil, a smile, or a new beer are the “micro-quality” pieces of life that “up the quality quotient of life.”


Grateful to have Scott in my life and to have shared a few cold, raw, snowy mornings on mountain peaks, I wonder if we might soon share a climb. I trust him on the other side of his office and would absolutely trust him on the other end of a rope. Just as he looked up to Dave, I now look up to Scott and hope to keep learning how to climb and how to live.


 Doucet —

It’s now Thursday night, and I scroll through the backlog of email. It never stops. Perpetual sounds, images, messages. Buy our jacket, sign up here, this weekend at Midd! I don’t care. I hate the clutter in my life. Dirty dishes fill the sink and half-eaten bags of chips litter the counter. It all piles up and grinds down. After each trip, I religiously pull everything out of my grey, beat-up pack and hang it all to air out. Before bed, I make sure it all gets folded and put in the appropriate drawer so it’s all ready for the next outing. Each morning I make my bed and arrange the rocks on my windowsill. It’s the least I can do to feel some sense of control.

Midway down the screen I find an orange dot flagging a note from Derek Doucet. “Ice Is Nice!” reads the subject line. “Hey there, looking forward to seeing you at 8:30 tomorrow morning.” How could that have slipped my mind? I scramble to pack up and leave a yellow sticky with a list of things not to forget in the morning. Thermos. Lunch. Sunglasses. Wallet. Maybe I’ll actually get some sleep tonight.

Doucet has contacted me about leading an outdoor trip for incoming freshman. I’ve done this before. Now, though, I’d swap snowshoes for crampons, paths for pitches. As I lay in bed, I think about how full circle this whole thing has come. Just over one year ago, I found out I’d be going ice climbing with Scott. Doucet provided instruction for us at Cascade Pass, near Lake Placid in the Adirondacks. A couple weeks later, I was up again for an afternoon multi-pitch with him. The ice melted, and I’ve waited ten months to get back out with Zach, Derrek, and Gus. Now, back at the beginning, I will climb with Doucet again. But the stakes seem much higher. I have learned something and will move smoothly on the ice. I should be good by now, right?

In my dreams tonight, ice shards ominously rain down. It does not stop.


In the morning, I dress and run across campus after barely slapping together a peanut butter and jelly for the road. I still haven’t mastered the to-go lunch. I remember once when Zach told me that climbing guides are always fifteen minutes ahead of schedule. I have some work to do on that front, but Doucet sure enough is ready to go when I get there.

We grab a seat on the sweat-stained, floral couch that rests up against the copy machine in the dingy basement of the FIC building. It’s seems immoral to keep the man who loves the outdoors at a computer in this dark corner of concrete. At least he has a window. The tassle of his green beanie bounces around as he lays down the expectations for the day. His eyes open wide behind his glasses, emphasizing each of his goals for today’s training. I listen with a nervous excitement. We will practice anchor set-up, swing some tools, and learn the most effective teaching progression to lead our participants through the basics of ice climbing. We jump back up as quickly as we sat down.

Doucet sends me to the back of the gear room to grab necessary equipment for our day out on the ice. I coil two 60-meter dynamic ropes and two blue 100-foot static ropes we would use to build top-rope anchors. I fit a new pair of front-point Petzel crampons to my size 10 hard plastic Scarpa boots. With a handful of lockers and a pair of ice tools, I am all set to go out. The harness, helmet, belay device, and the rest of my layers are already packed.

Sure enough, when I hop in the car, 1390 AM is cued up. Same station other Derrek was listens to. Three-minute bits play one after another, and Doucet nails the stand-up comedian every time before they announce it. “My knowledge of world affairs has dwindled recently,” he giggles. But the comic relief is much needed among such ever-present risk.


Most adults Doucet’s age avoid risk. They are far more likely to stop at Cookie Love for a creemee or the Teddy Bear Factory for a bit of amusement along Route 7. Why then does he cruise past these spots in search of icy walls? For Doucet, being out in the extremes – the cold, wet, and wind – is “perversely amusing.” He laughs. It’s appealing to some. To us. “Operating within an acceptable level of risk, never recklessness, is a fascinating thing.” He chuckles again, well aware that what he says does not ring true with most.

I am so curious about what it is exactly that keeps him going back. He struggles to find the right words. “Immediacy and focus, maybe.” We so rarely are present in our lives. “I think it’s the necessity of being right here, right now.” We all feel the distractions. Preventing them from consuming us is so difficult. Doucet describes the power of a climb to “strip away the noise.” I get goosebumps when I recall Scott’s words matching Doucet’s almost exactly. And I feel the same way. It’s nice to know none of us are alone.

When I ask Doucet if he can achieve the same level of focus in any other part of his life, his answer is a pained no. “I wish I could say yes, otherwise the whole thing smacks of addiction.” After some thought, he mentions that really long days of trail running with a “healthy element of suffering” can bring him a similar feeling but that it truly is a unique headspace when climbing. Where in my life can I achieve this? Must it be inherently dangerous to bring clarity?

Complete honesty. Doucet values this in climbing of all surfaces. You must assess every flake of rock, each piece of gear, all knots and hitches, the individual muscles contracting and relaxing to get you up the pitch. If you can’t be truthful when evaluating the risks, it’s bound to catch up with you. Climbing requires an honesty I wish to emulate in my living. Scott and Doucet, both older climbers, let this value speak in their lives. Clearly, with practice, it begins to permeate all aspects of life off the wall. For Doucet, one reward is feeling more engaged at work and at home with the girls. But it is painful to realize that every time you go out, you put yourself at risk. “I don’t know if I’m comfortable with that.”


Suddenly, we make a right hand turn and pull into a parking lot. Sitting in front of the Shelburne Aubuchon Hardware store, I am a bit perplexed. Where’s the ice? But given the gravity of what we were just talking about, I don’t want to ask such a dumb question.

I follow Doucet’s lead, open my door and walk around to the trunk to pull out my boots. We both start lacing up right there on the asphalt in silence.

“You know, I have thought about quitting altogether.”

I swallow, not knowing how to respond. Surprised Doucet has told me this much, I need a second to take it all in.

“Wouldn’t that be hard?” I ask. Of course it would be! What kind of question is that? Climbing “consumes your life,” Doucet explained earlier. He grew up in a climbing family and began exploring as a kid. Now, his day job as Director of Outdoor Programs at Middlebury College involves overseeing the gear room, managing the indoor climbing wall, advising the Mountain Club, and coordinating all climbing clinics and trips. He guides clients, runs on call with a volunteer EMT team, and frequently climbs recreationally outside of work. “I don’t have any close friends who aren’t climbing, guiding, or thinking about their next trip.” There’s no escape. The odds are stacked against a cold-turkey halt. I mutter something about all the “Enormocast” podcast episodes loaded on his computer as potential triggers, but thankfully I am cut off by a passing shopper.

“You all got your life jackets? Don’t know about that river crossing,” the grey-haired woman expresses her concern for what I soon learn is a treacherous walk to the ice. I guess the two of us suited up with packs and ropes hanging off us wasn’t enough of a surprise to her, but her non-climber background reminded be that we are appear a bit “off” to most people.

The stretch LaPlatte River and surrounding floodplain in the woods behind the hardware store are frozen solid through. No lifejackets needed today. I just wish I had brought tougher pants. The thorns of some half-dead shrubbery keep lodging themselves in the hard-to-reach spots back by my quads. Soon, we come to the east side limestone cliffs, exposed as this river cut its path over deep geologic time. Ice beards now hang from imperceptible joints and fissures in the rock, growing bushier and longer with each seepage and refreezing of melted snow from the ground cover above.

“Here would be a great spot to have your participants practice swinging tools.” Doucet breaks the peaceful silence of the approach. I have been pensively mulling over our conversation from earlier in the car. Am I ready to take this to the next level? Who am I to be teaching other people how to climb? What is it that separates these early steps, these first swings, this ‘catching the climbing bug’ from a lifetime of obsession? How will I proceed in this world of ice and rock? I seriously question why I am out on a Friday when I could be sleeping in and watching Seinfeld or pitching specialty molasses ideas with Adam. Or filming a Middlebury-cast version of The Big Lebowski.


Focus. Wake up. The day of cold, old, vertical ice pushes me to place feet more deliberately. Brittle ice shatters, even as I am careful to stack tools vertically as Zach taught me, rather than the vertical matching I still revert to. C’mon, Ryan. Smooth, triangle, breathe. He’s watching. Why did you have to hike seven miles yesterday – before 9 am? Sunrise, was it worth it? And the seven o’clock ski at Rikert on Wednesday? In -5o weather? You’re wiped. You can’t do this. Just give up, man.

My left foot scrapes out the thin ice. I look down to watch it delaminate from the rock below, not registering what’s happening. I’m suddenly thrown off balance. My right hand slips. Harness jerks up into my crotch. The voices stop as I immediately let out: “Damnit.”

Mom likes to tell the story of my young frustrations. I was four or five and sitting on the linoleum floor of my kitchen, back up against the creaky wooden drawers. My fingers were busily assembling a plastic toy plane with a wind up-propeller. I couldn’t quite get the wing to fit in there, and I just wasn’t having it. “Damnit.” I let the word out with the same barely audible tone and furrowed eyebrows then as I do today on the ice.

I have broken the number one rule in ice climbing – don’t fall. Zach, Scott, and Doucet had all emphasized this early on in our discussions. Unlike climbing rock, especially bolted sport routes where falls are part of game, ascending ice brings with it unimaginable risk with one mis-step or tenuous swing. Snapped ankles are the most common injury, and it doesn’t take much. Falling even just a couple feet on an ice route generates enough force to instantly shear through leg bones if crampon points stick the ice. And you better hope they’ll stick if you want to climb with the orange talons.

“It’s been close to thirty years, and I’ve never taken a lead fall. And I hope I never do.” Doucet’s words ring in my ears as I hang there. At least my anchor holds. I am safe today, though, by the nature of our climb. Top-roping maintains a tight belay the entire lap, so falls are much shorter and are caught by sturdy trees critically chosen pre-climb. The risk for injury is still there, but it is significantly reduced because we are not lead climbing today, as Zach and I were in the Adirondacks two weeks ago. Falling on ice screws then would not have been a non-option. I top-rope today to screw this lesson deep into my being.

Different from rock crag climbing, ice should not be about testing physical limits. “Often it’s a mental and emotional issue on the ice.” I think I’m starting to understand this. “A huge part of the game is keeping it together.”

My climbing today is far from perfect. I blame myself and the crappy conditions. But I must let go of this negativity and keep it together. I think back to Doucet’s story in his Suburu. He talked about how when things get “funky, goofy, or hairy” in the mountains for he and the other Derrek, they laugh it off. “We got ourselves into this mess,” said Doucet, “we better get out smiling.” These two men so quickly hit it off when they met at a crag in Vermont just about seven years ago. Doucet admires Derrek’s “complete control, kind of laughing” the whole way out of a pickle. And Derrek appreciates Doucet’s careful, detailed planning. Both rely on humor to keep them going, and now I choose to follow their lead and laugh it off.


“Nice, man. Get those hips up. Sweet stance. Maybe stem your right leg?” Who said that? Belaying Doucet at the end of the day, I catch myself coaching. He certainly doesn’t need it. But maybe this is why he has offered to me out today. I do enjoy helping people. And I am probably more encouraging, approachable, and trustworthy than I give myself credit for. Maybe he wanted to share that, to help me see myself in a better light. Perhaps we all transition from student to teacher. And there is much learned beyond the hard-skills I feel obliged to pass on. How great it must feel to inspire wonder, provide a sense of accomplishment, and stand as one honest person willing to help another along, up, and away.


— + —

I feel fortunate to have been so warmly welcomed into this community of ice climbers. Reflecting on my time with each, I catch glimpses of an unwritten future. Might my senior thesis involve work with ice flows? Will I take Zach’s job as head monitor at the wall? May I so easily move from one interesting opportunity to the next as Gus has? Might I, too, lead mountaineering trips out west with kids and be able to laugh off the dark times like Derrek? What would a family change? Is there hope of being as calm and content as Scott? And might I someday question all of it? Like Doucet, might I ask if it is all worth it? Is this my future?

Possibly. Possibly not. I will forever be awe of the extreme. Rigid peaks, ancient rock, gnarled trees, and violent storms – they captivate me. But the people testing themselves out there are even more interesting. Their pushing of physical, mental, and emotional limits fascinates me. Why do they do it? What is the point? Should I bother trying? Are they worthy role models? As long as I continue to meet these people and seek answers to these questions, it’s likely my story will read similar to those of the men I’ve met. But nothing is written in stone. I proceed with caution as on ice, aware that my words may melt, freeze, flow, or shatter at any moment.



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