by Chad Chadwick

On Thanksgiving Day 1972 Silver Falls seemed damn steep to Dougal McCarty and I. We decided to climb the falls while cross-country skiing on the Red Lodge golf course, the day before. The next day Warren Bowman, Dougal and I arrived at the falls warmed up by the ski and hike it takes to reach Silver Falls. We were ready to do battle with this thin pillar of ice, and a battle is exactly what climbing was for us back then. Ice climbing was a young sport. We had no ice climbing books to read – no one to ask for pointers – no one to give us advice. Our tools were unsophisticated by today’s standards, but they served their purpose better than their predecessors, the straight picked ice axes that, at best, gave a precarious hold on the ice.

Dougal got the lead. He clawed, hung and swung his way to the top to wait as he froze at the belay. As I labored up the 70′ pitch, my grip tightened on my tools, forcing the blood down into my arms. My hands were cold in the first five minutes of the 20-30 minute climb, and they only got colder as I bashed my tools into the ice. As I departed the steep section, I had spent so much energy smashing my tools into the ice, pulling myself up, then fighting to get the tools back out of the ice that it was anybody’s guess whether I’d be able to pull myself over the top lip. By this time my hands were icy cold and my forearms were gorged with blood. As I leaned into the belay the blood started to flow back to my hands, leaving them racked with pain – a pain so intense my entire body was abruptly immobile and useless.

Brute force got us up those waterfalls. It was cold and uncomfortable, scary and difficult, not to mention dangerous. So what made us climb this ice? What was the driving force?

About four years later I discovered the answer to this question. After climbing off and on during the winters, I stumbled onto a small vertical smear of ice about 20′ high in the rims surrounding Billings. Not wanting to dull my new tools – shorter ice axe and longer shafted hammer – my swing was lighter, sticking into the with one blow, not the many bashes I was accustomed to. A bit more arc found its way into my swing, and miraculously I wasn’t smashing my knuckles anymore. As this revelation began to materialize, my grip loosened from a death defying squeeze into a light but firm hold. I was using less energy, conserving strength and discovering more confidence in my ability to climb steep ice. This relaxation enabled me to get my hips into the ice, freeing my shoulders and head to look up and find a spot to place my tool, and finally , to smile. In the space of about ten minutes it finally dawned on me that I could have fun climbing very steep ice. I was amazed that it could all come together and click into place in such a short period of time, after all those years of scaring myself on the very same routes that I now find such a joy to climb. I had discovered the simple adventure of ice climbing.

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