The Climbing Life

Posted on: August 14, 2015

[Photo] Thomas Senf

WIND POURS THROUGH THE GULLY as swiftly as a waterfall. Snow crystals fall down a cascade of ice, covering the oceanic hues with thin layers of white. The grey sky sinks into the trees and merges with the snow. The rope tightens on my belay loop. It's the same tug I ran away from: a tug I've felt ever since my mother climbed with me in her round belly. Once I was old enough to scramble up the snowbanks of our driveway, she took me to Smugglers' Notch, Vermont. From the base of the cliffs, I gazed at the shifting blues of ice while her hands cautiously orbited around me. I smiled up at her as I touched a frozen waterfall. I felt my finger stick, briefly, to the surface. It seemed to be holding on to me, too.

In elementary school, I closed my eyes and vanished from the concrete rooms as I pictured my father in the Himalaya, the Andes and the Alps—a silhouette on snowy ridges cutting into the sky. At home, I listened to his slides click through the old projector, transforming our white walls into the greys and azures of distant mountains, the neon colors of tents. Already, I was captured by another world.


At twenty, I felt a need to see what lay beyond the ice and rock. I left for New Zealand to wander through humid forests without the pull of the rope or the weight of climbing gear. To follow the contours of a landscape that was alive—amid the breeze that shook the countless leaves, the sun that danced with their shadows. The strange birdcalls that sounded nothing like home. The peaks swathed in jungles instead of snow. But the images from my father's photos seeped into my dreams again. The silence of winter drew me home like a lullaby. Singing me back to the ice.

Here, in the gullies of Mt. Willard, New Hampshire, the trees are skeletons rising from clouds, rattling with wisps of white and with branches that creak and groan. If I close my eyes, I can still trace the ridgeline in the distance with my finger. As I walk toward the route, I feel as if I've turned into my thirteen-year-old self on my first winter climb with my father. The tools weigh heavy in my arms; my boots are like bricks.

The ice arrives in front of me, and it looks like an old mirror. The surface fogged with centuries, the silver scratched and cracked. I see myself in there—frozen. When all points are on vertical ice, I feel a little beat of warmth in my chest. It's my heart reminding me: this is how I move.

My father takes in rope. I strike my axe again, and I hear the familiar orchestra of cracks, scrapes and falling shards. The haunting stillness of northern woods. I am cradled in the trees, rocks and peaks of this intimate range. Spindrift flows down from the ridge. The wind picks up the flakes and disperses them in a mist around my feet.

I know each peak around us like the neighborhoods in the towns where I grew up. I remember the trail names like those of my childhood friends. Gullies, paths and natural trellises create intricate, homespun patterns—a pale lace laid over dark-grey, blue, black granite.

On top of the treeless summit, I see as far as I need to.

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