I didn’t set out to break the First Commandment of Ice Climbing: Thou shall not fall. I didn’t expect an epiphany to come from it either.
I fell in love with ice climbing the first time I swung an ice axe. In order to learn more I set up a deal with 2 professional climbing guides. As a graphic designer I would redesign their company website in exchange for climbing instruction. Over the course of 2 years they taught me the fundamentals of rock and ice climbing. Their instruction was uncompromising on systems, techniques, safety and objective hazard awareness. They became my mentors and friends.
Fast forward to year two of my climbing. I had about 50 days of climbing under my harness. My partner and I were climbing Shades of Beauty, a grade 4 climb off the Columbia Icefields Parkway in Alberta. I had already climbed this route twice the previous year and felt comfortable about being out there considering I was the more experienced ice climber. I was climbing the crux pitch and was preparing to place my third piece of protection. I had a good stance and was getting my left arm straight and high with the intent of putting in a screw with my right hand. In theory it was all good. However the ice wasn’t cooperating. As I swung to get purchase with the left axe, it would ricochet off. Swing two, no better. Swing three with extra strength but I’m no closer to getting a good placement. Swing four I’m prepared to put all I have into that swing when, with shock and surprise I realize that I’m staring at my right ice axe which is no longer in the ice. This is how Wiley Coyote must feel.
Ice axes directly in front of me and I’m dropping in space. I notice that I have time to think, which means I’m falling a long way. I feel the wind on my face. I’m wondering why I’m thinking so clearly. My protection held and rope stretch had me lightly touching down on what felt like angel wings at the base of the pitch. My fall was about 25 feet.
While my partner had virtually no ice climbing experience he was an experienced rock climber and had seen people fall many times which is a good thing since he helped me to stay calm. I had never taken a lead fall before. I looked up at the climb, stymied as to why I had fallen since I hadn’t felt beyond my ability. I went back up and lead the pitch, albeit with an Elvis leg accompanying me.
After my climb, I began to ruminate about what had happened and soon I realized that a dark angel was whispering in my ear. “What were you thinking, that you could lead ice, look what happened, you’re not on top-rope anymore little sister.” “You sure as hell let your climbing instructors down, they taught you everything an you still fucked up.” “You were lucky you weren’t seriously injured or killed for Christ’s sake, should you be doing this?” I felt embarrassed that I had done what no one else I knew had done, dare to fall on ice. And more disconcerting was I didn’t know what went wrong.
Eventually I did what I was dreading and called one of my guides. He became very professional and asked me to recount exactly what I remembered of the entire event from ice quality to each of my moves. As I was providing a play by play he interjected “What about downward pull on your right ice axe?” “What do you mean?” I asked. “Were you keeping downward pull on your axe while you were swinging with your left?” When I thought about it, I remember that on the fourth swing I actually pulled abit on my right ice axe to gain more leverage. It hadn’t even occurred to me about downward pull, I thought that hold was bomb-proof. He began to talk at length about how subtle movements can loosen the axe.
At last I knew the reason for the fall. But I was shocked and dismayed at my negligence. As I was speaking to my teacher and friend I realized I was close to breaking another Commandment: Thou shall not cry. I felt like such a inadequate asshole in that moment. I felt like I was carrying some mantle of responsibility not only to my teachers but to women in general since I knew so few female ice climbers and fewer who lead and now I had made them look bad too. I managed to mumble “I guess I let you down, after everything you taught me” There was silence on the other end which I assumed was tacit agreement. And finally he said something like “Are you crazy? I’m fucking proud of you, getting out there like you are. But you have to learn from your mistakes otherwise the experience is worthless.” I realized that the only person attending the pity party was me. Over time I talked to other climbers and only after I admitted my sin would their transgressions be revealed. Bulges that dinner-plated while their axes were on either side, slips on the ice, a moment of inattention and sometimes pure bad luck. None of these events resulted in serious injury and on principle they were rarely talked about after the fact. Apparently the First Commandment is broken by others after all.
The epiphany was revealed slowly and with time it dawned on me that falling may have saved my life. Downward pull on an ice tool is second nature to me now. I’ll never know if there would have been other times I would have made the same mistake with more dire consequences. I’ve also become a more aware climber asking myself “What don’t I know? Am I missing anything?” The reality of falling makes my climbing more exact and ultimately more confident.
I’ve come to realize that epiphanies can be wrapped in failure as easily as success. Hallelujah.