I was with a handful of my best friends on a drive from the ocean to the mountains when I had a bad idea. I have had my fair share of these, to be sure, but hindsight would later prove this one to be both one of the most hazardous and least thought out. I sat up a little farther in my seat, closed my magazine with a flourish, and announced to no one in particular that I would spend the winter learning how to ice climb. I was met with a rather tepid response (no one seemed to care all that much), which only deepened my resolve to get all sorts of gnarly on the ice.
Perhaps it isn’t immediately obvious why that was such a bad idea, so I’ll do my best to make things clear to you. It starts with my almost complete lack of technical experience in the mountains, leads to the stupefying amount of objective hazard that accompanies ice climbing, and ends with my hubristic insistence on pushing on anyway.
Do you see the issue?
That is not to say I am totally clueless; I have been climbing rocks for practically my entire life (somewhere in my parent’s basement there is a VHS of five-year-old me scrambling up a classic warm-up route in the Needles of Mt. Rushmore) and I have been skiing for almost as long (there also exists a home video of my first time on skis, as well as the subsequent faceplant/tear-streaked-face combo). Climbing on rocks, however, is entirely different from attempting the same on ice, and floating down a soft expanse of fluffy snow with boards strapped to my feet is wildly dissimilar to attempting to thrutch my gangly body up a frozen waterfall.
Despite my obvious lack of qualifications, part of me couldn’t help but think: how hard could it actually be? From rock climbing, I have a full understanding of the ropework needed for ice (or so I thought) and my knowledge of snow conditions from skiing would surely translate directly to ice (a laughable assumption, in retrospect). Along with that, I also had family history on my side. I have grown up surrounded by pictures of my dad, his brothers, and my grandpa, all brandishing ice axes and smiling into the harsh alpine sunlight from atop various summits across the globe. Most of my life I’ve shied away from trying to follow in the footsteps left by their insulated mountaineering boots, but part of me always wished that one day I would be able to stand on the same playing field as them.
My grandpa’s history with the activity goes back to when he was even younger than I am. As a first year in college, he bribed a bell-hop and slunk underneath a red velvet rope to sneak into a crowded theater. The event hall was packed to the brim; someone was dangling off of the edge of every seat and the isles were thronged with reporters, each jostling the other for a better viewpoint and more elbow room with which to scribble on a tiny notepad. Business men in navy suits chuffed down cigarette after cigarette in a nervous frenzy, gently pulling at their collars in a futile attempt to cool themselves down. Children were pushed to the corners in a huddle and shushed with great vigor and regularity. The mood was one of tense anticipation, and no one could quite bring themselves to sit still (Somewhat unfortunately, my grandpa’s propensity to keep his trap shut has forced me to essentially make these details up. Even if he had wanted to describe the scene to me, my grandpa was probably so singularly focused on the front of the hall that all auxiliary information melted into the periphery, leaving him only with the memory of two men on a stage with a handful of slides).
The people in the room had amassed themselves in the theater-hall that day to watch a presentation given by Sir Edmund Percival Hillary KG ONZ KBE OSN and Tenzing Norgay OSN GM. Earlier that year they had become the first people to ever stand on the top of Mount Everest. Theirs was one of dozens of attempts to climb the mountain, but also the only one to firmly plant two pairs of feet on the summit.
The men and women of the mountaineering community were shocked to see that the impossible had become possible, but perhaps none more so than my grandpa. He had spent every summer since he was sixteen as an AMC Hut System porter in the White Mountains, shuttling load after load of camping gear through wooded trails in a quixotic attempt to strengthen himself for the world’s toughest peaks. The presentation given by Messrs. Norgay and Hillary were the water, sunlight, and soil to his mountaineering seed, and he would go on to dedicate a large portion of his life to climbing tall peaks.
But that, sadly, is about as far as my knowledge goes. All that I know about him and his adventures comes from snippets of stories I’ve overheard, pictures of the summits, and articles that have been written about him. The chance to sit down with him as friends and to chat about his exploits has, as of yet, eluded me.
Over the years, his adventures took on a mythical quality, and it seemed as if there was nothing he couldn’t handle (even if he was mostly done climbing by the time I could walk). I grew up across the country from him, which ultimately added to his mythical status in my eyes; it is much easier to idealize a person’s accomplishments when you only see them twice a year, thereby avoiding the mundane events that comprise most people’s daily lives. In my mind, my grandpa occupied a guarded slot usually reserved only for heroes and celebrities. He became less of a ‘Grandfatherly Figure’ and more of a ‘Person to Emulate’. In his presence I found myself straitening my back, forgoing all colloquialisms, and wishing I had listened to my dad’s advice and worn a goddam tie. I made small talk about the weather and never quite figured out what to do with my hands.
I find it strange to admit even now, but a large part of my drive to learn the craft of ice climbing came directly from the hope that it would help me to connect with my grandpa. That may sound silly, but at the time (and maybe even now) it made sense. My logic comes from a phone call I once had with my dad, where he told me about the only times he has seen his father cry: on the summits of mountains. True vulnerability, perhaps, only reaches my grandfather after a hard-fought test of his strength, both mental and physical. As the air thins, the wind picks up, and gravity insists that going up will be much more strenuous than going down, he finds what it takes to be open to his emotions. I wanted to know what that feels like, and to see if that knowledge would help me relate to my grandpa.
So I bought an ice axe and made a plan to climb some ice (finding boots and crampons was easy; luckily I had a chance to raid my parent’s garage and came away with some gear that had doubtlessly been cutting edge sometime in the last thirty years). Besides the gear and stoke (both of which I possessed in spades) there were three other elements missing from my list of essentials: partners, experience, and frozen dihydrogen monoxide.
The first was easy. It took me all of five minutes to round up three very excited and terribly ill prepared partners for the expedition: Trevor, whose loving of climbing is only matched by his love of eight-hour long recordings of Phish concerts; Max, a tall and perpetually smiling boy with unkempt hair and genuinely infectious kindness; and Leo, a New Yorker with a taste for hand-carved spoons, Carhartt overalls, and double IPAs.
The second I had none of, so I decided to cross my fingers and charge on anyway.
The third proved to be tricky. Vermont winters are finicky, and the weeks leading up to our planned outing were filled with intermittent rain and snow, making good and reliable ice hard to find. The winter before, during a cold spell, I had spotted what seemed to be a massive flow of ice not twenty minutes away from where we lived. I had written it off at the time, but my newfound urge to test myself against some frozen water reminded me of its location, and we set off to see what we could find.
As it turned out, what we found was a line of trees decorated with private property signs ensuring either immediate death or incarceration. Seeing as we had already driven the requisite twenty minutes we decided to find a line through the woods at least somewhat out of view of the house and make our way towards where we hoped to find the ice.
In retrospect, we were hilariously unprepared. We were lost, trespassing, sans proper equipment, and attempting to find a frozen waterfall on a 45° F day. We were down to our t-shirts by the time we miraculously stumbled upon the dripping white curtain we were planning on climbing (which should have immediately tipped us off that we never should have been there in the first place). Panting, we shouldered our packs onto the frozen ground beneath the falls and traced the contours of the ice with our eyes. Two tiers of rounded and rolling waves flowed up the mountain, each about fifty feet tall. The heat of the last few days had exposed the bare rock underneath, revealing a torrent of water underneath the ice. The sound of rushing water drowned out our voices, which forced us to shout and gesticulate to get any point across.
Unperturbed by the threat of fragile and melting ice, we scrambled around to the top to set up an anchor for our top rope. What followed was a true lesson in humility: nothing was easy and nothing went according to plan. We could barely get our crampons, and the ice axes were so unfamiliar that swinging them felt like trying to write a research paper with our non-dominant hands.
Once our crampons were precariously affixed to our feet we began the painfully awkward process of making upward progress up the ice flow. Because it was so warm, every swing of our arms, no matter how delicate, buried the picks of our axes deep into the ice. This forced us to wrestle the pick out of the flow every single time we swung in a sort of undignified modern rendition of King Arthur’s origin story (with far less glory and honor). We were forced to scoot around the massive holes in the ice, which surely would have sucked us in to the rushing water beneath. Every fourth or fifth kick of a leg would dislodge a sizable chunk of ice, and those of us at the bottom adopted a fearful adeptness at sidestepping the cranium-busters that periodically came careening down the slope.
After one particularly large slab of frozen water crashed into a thousand pieces not two feet from where Leo was sitting, we packed up and called it a day. To tell the truth, we were all a little relieved to be walking away from the silently malignant wave of ice. We had had fun, but something felt off, even if we couldn’t quite put our fingers on it.
It wasn’t until days later, talking with a local climber, that the idiocy of our endeavor was put in perspective for me.
“Are you kidding me? The Bristol flow is notoriously dangerous, and the conditions have been absolutely terrible. I would never have been up there, not if you had paid me! The base of that climb was surely an absolute death trap.”
I knew I had been unprepared, but as it turns out, I had been so unprepared that I hadn’t even realized I was jeopardizing my life. I was shocked. I had planned and executed a trip with three other kids, all of whom could have been seriously injured had we been even just a little unlucky. None of us had put two and two together to realize that trying to climb ice that was slowly melting out from underneath our feet was incredibly dangerous.
We all walked away from our adventure totally fine, but the risk wasn’t worth it. In trying to find a way to connect with my grandpa, I missed all the warning signs for danger and plowed on anyway. I let my familial issues cloud my judgement, and only came away unscathed because of dumb luck.
I don’t plan on telling my grandpa this story. He is many things, but reckless is not one of them. He would not be proud of the choices I made that day, and recounting my adventure would do nothing to break the barrier between us. It makes me sad that my plan failed, that I won’t have any grand tales to woo my grandpa with. There is still time though, and hopefully I’ll be able to learn enough from these mistakes to avoid making them again.
The one positive takeaway from my ill-advised outing is this: I now know the best way to reach my grandpa (or at least how not to do it). Sometimes he seems as unattainable as Everest, but it’s clear to me now that I don’t need to be risking my life just for an opportunity to talk to him. His life’s path led him to the mountains, but I shouldn’t have to follow in his footsteps to get him to talk to me. Instead of spending my winter learning how to climb ice, my time would be better spent simply reaching out to my grandpa, person to person, and asking him about his life.
 Order of the Garter, Order of New Zealand, Order of the British Empire, and Order of the Star of Nepal, and George Medal, respectively. It would seem that royal awards tend to heap themselves upon you if you so happen to be the first people to make it to 29,029 feet.