Peace In A Tin Can

Peace In A Tin Can

Thursday, February 21, 2013

The Climb

Planning an adventure always leads to expectations about what the time will bring.  As I prepared to begin my journey to Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore for the Michigan Ice Fest, I had months' worth of fantasies about how the weekend would unfold.  Based on my research, I pictured myself exerting great amounts of physical and mental strength as I climbed a 60m tower over Lake Superior, or possibly hanging by my fingers and gathering the strength to avoid plummeting to my death.
Courtesy Google Images

Neither of those expectations were the least bit realistic.

I also imagined that after climbing all day, I would retire to my motel room to organize my thoughts, jot down some notes, and maybe even write a little bit.  I had brought some simple food along, and pictured myself thawing out after a cold day with a cup of Lipton's Noodle Soup, munching on trail mix, and drinking coffee while I sat in front of my computer.  This, too, proved to be a wrong assumption.

Being a part of the Michigan Ice Fest was nothing like I expected, it was so much better!  Walking over to the Ice Fest headquarters at Sydney's in Munising, Michigan on that cold and clear Saturday morning, I found myself thinking about the climb ahead, and also being excited for the people I would meet and the stories I would hear.

The day started splendidly when I arrived and found the process of renting my climbing gear and learning how to use it simple and efficient.  For someone with OCD, I could really appreciate the outstanding organizational skills of the event organizers and the ease with which climbers were prepared for their day.  Once I had my gear and had adjusted my crampons (those metal spikey thingys you put on the sole of your boot) I joined my Intro to Ice Climbing Class for Women and checked out the white board listing our instructors for the day.  Ben Erdmann was on the list.  The same Ben Erdmann who had given a slideshow on Thursday evening and lives in my dream home in Alaska.  I cannot begin to tell you how excited I was to learn that I would be climbing with the guy who happily lives in a tiny cabin in the woods in the middle of nowhere.  It's like we're connected, even if Ben doesn't realize it.

I met the women in my class, and we all boarded the shuttle to the drop-off point.  There were 15 women packed into the van, which took me back to my college days of seeing how many people can fit in a VW Beetle, but no Ben Erdmann.  Where was Ben?  Was he not coming?

On the shuttle ride, I sat nearly on top of a young French woman named Jen who is a graduate student at Purdue.  Already I was hearing a story worth telling.  Jen loves her home country of France and plans to return there to live, but is studying for an advanced degree in Aeronautical Engineering.  Just to be polite, I asked her in which motel she was staying, and she said she'd been sleeping in her car for two nights.  What?  It's been, like, really cold at night!

Evi Nott and Maddie
Throughout the day, I also met the other winner of the Sue Nott scholarship, a 17 year old girl named Maddie.  Just like her co-recipient, Rachael, Maddie proclaimed herself to not be a winter person, but adventure wins out over discomfort every time for Maddie.  She talked about her friends and being so ready to go off to college, like any typical teenager, but I knew she was not typical, so I asked her the same question.  She had said none of her friends do the things she does outside, so I asked what makes her different.  Giving the response I was getting used to hearing, she said "I don't know".  I pressed her on the subject, listening while she spoke of pushing herself mentally, tolerating harsh conditions, and reaching goals.  Maddie likes ice climbing because in that moment, nothing else matters.  Her friends think she's crazy.  Yeah, I get that.

I grew tired of trying to explain my question to people, so once we had hiked up the steep hill (I was beginning to really hate that hill) and reached the Opening Curtain, I approached a group of four women and simply asked "Why are you here?"

Gina, Tina, Suzie, and Renee are a fun loving group of gals, but their story is amazing.  Two of these women were diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis in their 40's.  Both women were told by their doctors to give up, take to their beds.  They refused to accept that prescription, and became inspired by a motivational speaker named Lori Schneider, who climbed the Seven Summits after her own diagnosis of MS.  Lori has taken these four women, two with MS and the other two as their caretakers, on adventures beyond anything they've ever experienced.  They have climbed Kilimanjaro!  The Michigan Ice Fest was one more opportunity they seek to push themselves and laugh in the face of challenge.

They do it well.  They never stop laughing and smiling and cheering each other on.  "The Girls" were not just inspiring, but brought much enthusiasm, support and joy to our little group.  I loved them.  Later, when I found them throwing back shots of whiskey at Sydney's, I loved them even more!

Zoe and The Girls
I was still wondering where Ben Erdmann was when our other instructor, Zoe Hart, gathered us around for some tips on climbing.  Zoe is a very energetic and commanding person whose passion is contagious and whose sense of humor is almost painful in its honesty.  As she was explaining the "poop and thrust" method of climbing for women (you had to be there), Ben Erdmann appeared out of nowhere, like a mythical figure of God-like proportions.  Maybe I was the only one who thought that, but he does, after all, live in my dream home in Alaska.

I was anxious to climb.  So were the others, because when Zoe called out "Who wants to go?" several women beat me to it.  I ended up climbing with Ben as my partner.  First he showed me how to configure the double figure-eight knot in my rope, then I learned the verbal signals between climbing partners.

I asked, "Belay on?" to which Ben replied "Belay on."

I said, "Climbing" and Ben said "Climb on".  As I approached the ice, I turned back to him and said "Just like that?  I've never done anything like this before!"  He assured me I could do it, and I assured him I wasn't so sure.   I was arguing with Ben.  I told myself to shut…up

Ben Erdmann and Me!
This was the moment.  I was determined to make it to the top.  I was also scared out of my mind.  I did not believe I could do this.  But Ben Erdmann believed I could, and Zoe Hart, and Jen, and The Girls.  With much encouragement, including Ben telling me I'm a natural at climbing (I bet he says that to all the girls), I found my rhythm and kept going.  Suddenly, I knew the answer to my own question, though I'm not sure I can explain it.  Like everyone else I had asked, I have difficulty putting it into words.   While I was climbing, everything else fell away.  There were no thoughts of bills to pay, schedules to keep, dogs to feed, dinners to prepare.  There was no hurt over losing my job, or feelings of failure, or questions about who I am.  For 30 minutes, I was an ice climber who heard and felt the frozen wall, listening to its voice telling me when to go on and when to rest.  I was part of something big.  It wasn't that I felt small compared to the ice, I just felt like I was part of it.  An incredible peace washed over me and WHAM!  I fell.  Ben had my back; it wasn't until he had stopped my fall on belay that I remembered to call out, feebly, "Falling…"  Ben told me to get right back on the ice, so I did.  I was done arguing with Ben.  I focused on the simplicity of climbing.  Toe, toe, heels down, push.  Wrist flick, stick, pull up.  Over and over and over until I reached the top, surprised at its sudden appearance, and disappointed that the climb was over.

Zoe Hart
I looked down at my climbing partner and called "Take" so Ben would belay me back down.  When my feet touched the ground, I was overcome with emotion.  Zoe Hart walked up to me and said "So?  What do you think?"  Unable to say anything of what I was experiencing at that moment without bursting into tears,  I looked Zoe in the eye and said "I…am…AMAZING!"  She loved it, and was so excited to see a newcomer experience what she herself has felt so many times that she made my words our battle cry for the rest of the day.  Every time a woman finished a climb, we would all hear her call out how amazing she is.

My expectations for the climb were all wrong.  I came here with something to prove.  I wanted to show myself and everyone else that I will not be defeated; that I can and will do something hard and face adversity and climb a mountain and come out on top.  But that's not what the climb was about at all.

Jen and The Girls
Every person on that hill has faced a challenge.  We each have our own story, but we all had to climb on and reach the top.  But it was less about me than it was about the community of strangers who stood beneath me, watching me squeeze my butt cheeks (thanks for the tip, Zoe, it really helped) and believing I could do it.  Because of them, I believed I could do it too; and I did.

Climbing the ice was empowering and humbling at the same time.  I felt strong for having done it, yet I also stood in the shadow of nature's power knowing that I could never match it.  I knew that no matter what was going on in my life, this was something no one could take away.  I did it.  I can do so much more than I thought.  Even though I am almost 50 years old, I found a place where I belong.

I wasn't done yet either.  I climbed again, I hiked with Jen to the next ice formation and took pictures of other climbers.  I introduced Jen to Zoe, who is from New Jersey but married her French climbing partner and lives in France.  She and Jen chatted away in French and it sounded beautiful.  I also whispered to Zoe that Jen had been sleeping in her car.  The funny thing is, we've all done it, when we were young.  But once you become a mom, the thought of a young woman sleeping alone in her car when the temperature is below zero is horrifying; Zoe took Jen in that night and gave her a bed.  Zoe is awesome.

Grimpez sur, Jen!

I did not want the day to end.  I had climbed with a group of amazing women, and Ben Erdmann, who got quite an education that day.  I met Evi Nott, the incredible mom of Sue Nott.  I watched Evi climb, not believing it had been 10 years since she had done this.  But my toes, with their distinct lack of feeling, were telling me it was time to leave the climb.  I may have limped away and left the climb, but the climb will not leave me.  Something inside of me has changed.  Sure, I went home the next day and it was right back to laundry and cleaning and errands; it will be quite some time before I can go on another adventure.  But this feeling remains.  I went, I saw, I felt, I learned, I did, and I was embraced.  I'm one of those crazy people now that does that sort of thing, and I love it!

Be sure to check my next post for the inspiring stories of Zoe Hart and Will Gadd, and to read about an incredible woman, Evi Nott.  My day of climbing may have come to an end, but I did not retire to my room for microwave soup.  My Michigan Ice Fest experience was far from over!

Friday, February 15, 2013

Returning to Bagwaji

There is a pleasure in the pathless woods;
There is rapture on the lonely shore;
There is society, where none intrudes,
By the deep sea, and music in its roar;
I love not man the less, but Nature more.

-Lord Byron

This is one of my favorite poems; I carved the words by hand with a pocket knife on the door of my Shack, which is no longer mine.  These words always come back to me when I travel, so even though I had driven many miles to participate in the Michigan Ice Fest, I simply could not be five days in the U.P. without spending one of those days doing what I love best, the solitary Bagwaji.

Despite several invitations from my new friends at the Ice Fest to go climbing on Friday, I resisted the temptation and stayed true to my nature by spending the day alone, hiking in the north woods.  Bagwaji is an Ojibwe term for into the wild.  Perhaps my American Indian ancestry calls me to the woods, or possibly I just gain so much from a solitary communing with nature that I felt drawn in the direction of the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore's North Country Trail to hike, breathe, and take it all in.

Wearing many layers to combat temperatures in the single digits and the ever-present wind coming off Lake Superior, I drove to the Munising Falls trailhead, left my vehicle, and took the path toward the North Country Trail.  A Cross Country skier had gone in the same direction, which made my hiking easier as I followed his tracks.  The hike was steep and mostly uphill, making me think the skier ahead of me must be in very good shape, and as I huffed and puffed and once again cursed myself for the many bowls of Captain Crunch I have consumed, I continued on at a leisurely pace (as if I was capable of a brisk pace) and stopped often to capture images of snow, snow, and more snow.  I don't often see that much snow where I live.

Upon reaching the level of 200' above the shoreline, the trail evens out and follows the stone ridge from which the ice formations originate.  There are few opportunities to actually see the frozen waterfalls, as they are below the ridgeline, though at one point I was hiking in silence, only to come upon a sudden vantage point for watching the climbers below.  I didn't even know they were there until I was quite literally standing over them.  As I took photo after photo of people climbing the ice, I realized that they were unaware of my presence, which made for some good candid shots.  I have to admit, it felt kind of creepy to be standing there watching people who didn't know I was there, so I moved on.  Later I ran into the Cross Country skier, who turned out to be a climber I had met the night before, so he slowed his pace for me and I hiked out behind him.

I then continued on alone again, hiking down Sand Point Road and finding the access point up to the ice.  Once more going up a steep incline, I found climbers from the Ice Fest and went a little wild with my camera, climbing ledges and outcroppings to get the right angle and the close-up shots without actually strapping on crampons and climbing the ice with them.  Angling ever up, I eventually made it back to the North Country Trail and continued east to the marsh trail, which was deserted and gave me two hours of being completely alone.  When I say completely, I mean it.  No birds, no wolf tracks, no moose, no cougar (one of which had been in the general area 4 months ago), and of course the bear and snakes were all hibernating.  Thank goodness the snakes were hibernating; I was in a marsh, after all.  I focused on the snow and the many unusual formations the wind twists the white flakes into, including finding my first snow snake.  Even that made me breathe a little quicker.  I studied the different species of trees, pleased to see so many birch, with their curling bark and smooth trunks.  I hiked, I listened to the wind and the moments of complete silence, I reveled in the contrast between blinding white snow and dark trees which held their secrets waiting for Spring to reveal their full form.
Snow Snake!!!!!!!!!!

I indulged in my fascination with brightness and darkness, shadow and light.  It never fails to amaze me the patterns that are formed by natural light, though instead of getting my camera back out of my pack, I just sat for a long while on a snow-covered log and contemplated the shadow and light.  Filled with inspiration and longing to better understand the natural world, the winter landscape displayed black and white simplicity,  and in every object a purpose.  What a beautiful reminder to stay focused, to give purpose to my words and actions.

That purpose of action came about quickly when I realized the sky was growing darker.  With much reluctance, I left my perch and hiked back to my vehicle.  Eager for the evening festivities, I made my way back to Sydney's for companionship and food.

What sets the Michigan Ice Fest above other adventure weekends is the efforts of Bill Thompson to bring us all together at the end of the day for camaraderie and even more excitement.  Bill offers food and drink, new and rekindled friendships, reps on site for advice and gear, and the extremely popular slideshows!
Friday's lineup was every bit as awesome as the previous night with Bill Thompson and Ben Erdmann. First up was Fabrizio Zangrilli.  Seriously, with a name like that, I knew he would be fabulous, and he did not disappoint.  Fabrizio lives in Colorado, but for the past 22 years his climbing has taken him all around the world, from Alaska to Antarctica.  His slideshow told stories of leading expeditions to Everest, K2, Cho Oyu, the Gasherbrums, Nuptse South Face, Ama Dablam, Pumori and Cerro Torre.  According to his blog, Fabrizio is one of the few climbers to go from K2 base camp, 5000m, to Camp 4, 7900m, and back to base camp in a day.  He believes in speed and safety.
Fabrizio told us that many people ask him how to get started as an alpinist, how does one prepare to take on such an adventurous lifestyle?  His advice is "research how to be cold and lonely".  From there he told many stories that made us laugh, accompanied by photos of his expeditions.  But Fabrizio also spoke of safety and caution, and friends lost to the mountain, and gave us all a sobering reminder that such a lifestyle carries inherent risk.  Alpinists are not reckless.  They are prepared and educated and aware of the risks.  Again, the question came to mind;  why do they do this?  What makes them different?  I was only beginning to understand the answer, but I'm pretty sure it has more to do with the mountain in front of them than the lure of adventure.

Fabrizio's tales filled the room with laughter, and as he concluded with a message to be safe and climb on, it occurred to me that the people brought to the Michigan Ice Fest are indeed professionals, not just because they are sponsored Alpinists, but because they are educated and amusing speakers who draw you into their lives and share their passion.  

I'd had the privilege of meeting another of these professionals the previous night when Bill Thompson introduced me to Joe Josephson.  Bill did not tell me Joe is an alpinist, he just said there was someone I should meet.  Joe spent a little time talking to me about growing up in Montana, but it wasn't until he began speaking after Fabrizio that I realized who he really is.  He was so friendly and down-to-earth, I was amazed to hear the stories of his many accomplishments and roles other than climbing.  

Joe is the published author of Winter Dance: Select Ice Climbs in Southern Montana and Northern Wyoming, and a marketing force for the alpine community.  He organizes the Bozeman Ice Fest each year and works tirelessly to promote safety and achievement on the mountain.  As Regional Coordinator for the Access Fund, Joe has received national recognition for his multi-year campaign regarding winter use in Hyalite Canyon.  He promotes stewardship and conservancy, as well as increasing understanding of landscapes and wildlife through direct experience. (Huffington Post, Feb 2013)  

In addition to being an author, alpinist, sales rep, photographer, and event organizer of the annual Bozeman Ice Climbing Festival, Joe produces videos. One of his recent works,  Genesis: 40 Years of Hyalite Ice Climbing, is a delightful story of old vs. new as Pat Callis, the first climber ever to complete and name the Genesis route in Montana in 1971, climbs Genesis again with Pat Wolfe, a young but experienced alpinist.  The twist in the plot is the use of Callis' original climbing tools from the 70's, which has Wolfe wondering if he can even accomplish the climb.

Courtesy Google Images
Tools have come a long way since then, thanks in part to Yvon Chouinard, alpinist and founder of Patagonia.  A visionary in climbing and in business, Chouinard believes that "how you climb a mountain is more important than reaching the top" and even though he has developed many improvements in climbing gear, he strongly believes that the equipment doesn't matter nearly as much as ability and experience.  His philosophy drives the point in "Genesis".

It was also Chouinard who said "It's not an adventure until something goes wrong".  Joe Josephson knows a little something about that.  Throughout his presentation, the prevailing theme was aborted climbs due to equipment failure.  The story becomes even weirder when you discover that it was the same piece of equipment that failed every time:  the stove.
Joe has more stories of being in the middle of an expedition and being unable to rehydrate due to the stove not working, the stove being accidentally kicked off the mountain, the stove's fuel running out, and more.  Without the stove, climbers cannot melt snow to purify it and drink water.  Since climbers dehydrate quicker in cold temperatures, the stove is absolutely necessary to complete the climb.  If it's not an adventure until something goes wrong, Joe has had a lot of adventures!

Courtesy Google Images
I also posed my question to Joe.  When most people do not spend their life on such extreme adventures, what makes him different?  He paused for a moment, and answered, "that's a really hard question".

Joe grew up with the Beartooth Mountains in his back yard.  As a child, he would stare at those mountains and knew in his heart "that's where I wanted to be".  The only answer Joe could give me was his awe of the scale and magnificence of the mountains, which pulled at him and drew him in.

The answer that was emerging all weekend was that unexplainable something that draws these alpinists to the mountain, or in the case of our weekend, a tower of ice.  I don't think it's the challenge of climbing that makes the climber different, it's the call of the land that not everyone hears.  Each of the alpinists that presented at Michigan Ice Fest have gone to college and studied nature.  It's almost as if they need to know the mountain.
Joe Josephson has faced and conquered many challenges in his life.  An accomplished alpinist, he has known adversity and embraced success.  All of the professional climbers in the room had this same quality. But as I spent time with the participants of the Ice Fest, I heard so many personal stories of life's challenges.  Every one of the 450+ people there had a reason for being there to climb the ice, and we had all overcome challenges to be a part of this weekend.    There is a reason people put aside their daily lives to spend a few days climbing a frozen tower of ice, and the reasons were important.

I had my own reasons for being there, but my personal challenges do not matter so much as my experience on the ice.  Regardless of why we were there, we all shared the experience of being called to the mountain - or Pictured Rocks - and becoming part of something bigger than ourselves.

I have as hard a time answering my own question as the other climbers did.  When the people at home all thought I was crazy to come here, what makes me different?  I hear the call, and I answer it.  I go to immerse myself in the scale and magnificence of the landscape and learn from it, pushing myself to be worthy of the land.

These people aren't crazy.  They are informed and careful planners.  What sets them apart is they do not ignore the longing inside of them, they chase after it.  As I left Sydney's that night to get a good rest before the Saturday climbing class I was taking, I wondered why on earth I had waited so long to answer this call.  I was right where I longed to be, with people who understood, and the ice was waiting for me.

Climb on!

Friday, February 8, 2013

What Makes You Different?

As I spent last weekend trying to take in all the new people, places, and experiences at Michigan Ice Fest, one burning question was on my mind.  When I told friends and acquaintances I would be traveling to Michigan's U.P. to go ice climbing, they all asked "Are you crazy?"  After my experience at the Ice Fest, I have to say maybe I am a little bit crazy.

It seemed to be the theme of the weekend.  But still, I looked at all my new companions, from the people who were there for the first time to the ones who go back year after year to the professional alpinists, and wondered what it is about them that makes them want to climb the ice.

This group of people didn't seem to realize that 99% of people simply don't want to climb…anything. So to the members of this select group, I posed the question all weekend.  When most people would be terrified to do what you do, what makes you different?  Why do you do this?

I first asked this question of my unexpected climbing partners on Thursday.  I hadn't planned on attempting my first climb until Saturday in the Women's Intro to Ice Class, but I met a man named Bob at the motel who said he had enough extra equipment to take me out to the ice formations.  All I needed was climbing boots.  Right away, I felt some apprehension, because I didn't even know that I needed "special" boots.  I walked over to Sydney's, the bar-slash-official headquarters of Ice Fest, and met Nic, who works at Down Wind Sports and is one of the many people who aided me in my quest for knowledge.

The first thing I asked Nic was, can I trust this guy?  I am a woman traveling alone, attempting to do something I've never done before that holds inherent risk, and I'm considering trusting a stranger to keep death at bay while I dangle from a tower of ice.  Nic gave me some great information about safety, and even showed me what to inspect on the borrowed equipment.  He then suggested a few questions I should ask Bob, and if he gave the correct answers, I should be able to trust that Bob knows what he is doing.

I was fitted in a pair of demo boots by Nic.  They were pretty cool boots.  Made by Salewa, the Pro Gaitor Mountaineering Boot has many critical features that I came to appreciate as the day went on.  They were warm and stayed dry, but have a breathable membrane so my feet didn't sweat.  The grippy Vibram Salewa Pro outsole gives a good grip in snow without strapping on a crampon.  And the best feature of all is the adjustable tension system which allows you to switch between walking and climbing mode with a twist of the included allen wrench.  Usually, wearing a pair of rented boots would lead to blisters and swollen toes, but these boots were so comfortable and warm, I forgot I had them on.

Armed with boots and advice from Nic, I went back to the motel and knocked on Bob's door.  He introduced me to his climbing partner, Francesco from Rome, Italy, and after some time spent adjusting gear and packing up my back pack, we left in my Yukon to find some ice!

Again, this was all new to me.  I didn't know that we had to drive to the parking area at the end of Sand Point Road, leave our vehicle, and walk most of the way back down the road, find an access point, and hike up a steep incline.  I was exhausted before we even reached the ice!  I was so focused on putting one foot in front of the other, that when I glanced up to finally see the ice in front of me, it took my breath away.

I had to wait, a rather long time, while Bob found the higher access point and hiked above the falls to place the top rope.  I kept my feet moving to stay warm, and when Bob finally came back down, helped me into my harness, and told me to start climbing, I panicked.  Just like that?  Start climbing?  What do I do?

Bob on Belay
Bob said that when my ice pick was firmly grounded, I would know by the sound the ice makes.  Huh?  What on earth does that mean?  But this was what I came here to do, so I strapped on my crampons, grabbed my picks, and started climbing.

I didn't get far.  I was exhausted from the horrendous drive the day before, I'd had little sleep, I'd already put a few miles in just getting here, and my arms were shaking from fatigue.  No worries though, because the first time my pick hit the ice and stuck, I heard it.  A light dawned in me and I realized this is what I came for; all thoughts left my head, it was just me and the tower of ice in front of me, talking to me, breathing on me, keeping the promise to stay motionless in its intended purpose.  I trusted the sounds, the feel, and the ice.  It was that moment of me being one with this natural wonder I clung to, knowing I was part of the ice and it was part of me.  Crazy?  No.  Just right.

I began to answer my own question in that moment.  What makes me different?  The answer doesn't come from words, it comes from a feeling of being part of nature, understanding the world around me that God made.  I felt the ice, and it was all good.

I asked Bob to belay me back down.  He said I did okay for my first try.  I wasn't embarrassed that I didn't go all the way to the top, however I was determined to get some rest and push myself to go much farther the next time.  I was already hooked; ice climbing is like nothing I've ever done before, and I wanted more.

While Bob and Francesco completed their own climbs, I hiked back to the Yukon alone.  I needed time to absorb what I had learned and done and felt.  When I finally reached the car, I planned on sitting in it with the heat running until Bob and Francesco returned; I was too restless.  Even though the wind was at gale force coming off Lake Superior, and it was 4 degrees F, and the falling snow was almost horizontal, I started hiking.  I hiked for an hour, thinking of nothing but the sound that pick made in the ice, and arrived back at the Yukon just as my partners were coming down the road.
My First Climbing Partners
Francesco and Bob

Later that evening at Sydney's, I experienced my first of several slideshow presentations from some of the most experienced and respected climbers in the world.  This became something I eagerly looked forward to each night!

I had introduced myself to the organizer of Ice Fest, Bill Thompson, and he graciously pointed me in the direction of all the people he thought had stories to tell.  Through him, I met so many amazing people!  First I met Mary, who until a year ago was in a wheelchair, a victim of Cushing's Syndrome.  Her bones had weakened to the point she had fractured her spine.  After several years of misdiagnosis and poor treatment, she met a doctor determined to help her.  One night, as Mary slept in her hospital bed, she dreamt of a voice telling her she would be okay.  When she woke, her newest doctor was sitting at her side, holding her hand, and when he spoke, she realized his was the voice she heard in her dream.  He had stayed by her side all night, praying for her recovery.  Within weeks, she was walking with a walker, then a cane, then on her own.  She is now strong enough to attempt ice climbing.  She knows in her heart that the doctor's prayers cured her, and she is determined to embrace life and new challenges.  She had climbed the ice that day and was feeling on top of the world!

I also met Rachael, a 12 year old girl who was attending the Michigan Ice Fest as the recipient of the Sue Nott Scholarship (more on that later).  Bill helped me set up an interview with Rachael and her mother.  Rachael is a delightful young lady who claims to not be a winter person, which gave me a laugh.  I asked her why she applied for a scholarship to climb ice if she hates winter.  She told me she is a rock climber who is looking for a new challenge.  In her words, ice climbing is a scary concept, but her first attempt was "epic" and changed her life.  Rachael, at such a young age, already understands the power of pushing herself to embrace nature, and she is an extraordinary girl.  When I asked Rachael what makes her different from other girls, she grinned and said "I like to challenge myself outdoors".

Then came the first presentation, by Bill Thompson.  In case there is any doubt, it really was accompanied by the best music out there!  After slides of previous years' Ice Fest antics, Bill gave an overview of the weekend and with great excitement, announced the release of the Third Edition of An Ice Climber's Guide to Munising, Michigan, which he co-wrote with Jon Jugenheimer.  This beautiful and informative guide is a far cry from the First Edition, which was typed on a single piece of paper by Mark Reisch in November 1990.  The guide is not only invaluable to ice climbers, but anyone interested in exploring Pictured Rocks National Park should purchase one here.

Bill also announced, with great enthusiasm, that the Michigan Ice Fest has grown to be an INTERNATIONAL event!  He called out to climbers in the room from France, Italy, Australia, England, and Iran.  Yes, Iran. There were Canadians there, too, but Bill doesn't count those people as foreigners, since the U.P. and Canada are essentially the same place.

Ben Erdmann

Then Bill introduced Ben Erdmann.  I had no idea who he is, or what to expect, but as soon as I heard he lives in Alaska, my ears perked up.  Alaska is the dream, the top item on the tick list.  For those of you who aren't in the know, as I now am, the tick list is a list of places you've been to that were on your list of places to go, or more specifically, climbs you've accomplished.  Once you complete a certain climb, you tick it on your list.

Courtesy Google Images

I am planning a trip to hike in the wilds of Alaska four years from now.  When Ben Erdmann showed a slide of his home in Alaska, my heart swelled with longing.  He lives in my dream home, a tiny stone cabin that "would fit in most people's living room", surrounded by woods in the middle of nowhere.

Courtesy Google Images
Ben introduced himself as a native of Marquette, Michigan who now lives in Alaska, working for a conservation organization inspecting the BP Oil Pipeline.  He works in between climbing expeditions, but his job consists of hanging on the ropes over the massive pipeline, so whether he's working or climbing, he's on belay and loving it!  Ben gave a great presentation about his many climbing adventures, and spoke of his one true unrequited love with bush pilots.  Ben thinks bush pilots are the greatest people on the face of the earth, and whenever he can save enough cash, he reignites his passion for them.  Apparently, being flown in to base camp beats hiking in every time.

Courtesy Google Images
Climbing is dependent on the weather, especially on the bigger mountains in remote regions of the world.  Ben told tales of waiting for days in the village of the Patagonia Andes, checking weather charts daily waiting to climb Fitz Roy.  In Ben's words, it's not like the Weather Channel, where a picture of a smiling sun tells you it's a go; the climbers check all sources of weather related charts and must interpret them.  When the window opens up, the rush begins to pack everything up and head out.

Courtesy Google Images
Patagonia experiences very strong winds from the North and West, carried off the Pacific Ocean.  These winds create winter conditions in the western Andes year-round.  Predicting the window of weather suitable for climbing to the summit is tricky business.  Often, a climbing team begins an ascent, only to be forced to bivi up for several days under harsh weather conditions before continuing.

Listening to Ben's stories, I heard many people in the room mutter "that's crazy!"  But later, when I asked Ben what makes him different, why does he live this way, he replied he doesn't know.  He said he's just always known he wanted to do this.  Is he crazy?  No, because all climbers try to take every precaution before and during a climb.  They gather the beta, they analyze, they make informed decisions.  There is risk; but there is also skill, and knowledge, and respect for the conditions.

By the time I went to bed Thursday night, I did not have a clear answer to my question.  What makes climbers different?  I had a feeling, but could not put words to it.  All I knew at that point was, I was part of something very special, and I couldn't wait for tomorrow!
Storm Approaching, Mount Fitz Roy, Patagonia

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Michigan Ice Fest: The Beta

If you had asked me a week ago what the term "beta" meant, I would have referred to IBM software development or digital video descriptions.  I am a geek, after all.  But today, when I see the word beta I have a whole new understanding and respect for the word, because now, I am an ice climber.

Bill Thompson,
I recently attended the 2013 Michigan Ice Fest, which was without a doubt the most well organized, fun, challenging and fulfilling weekend of my life.  Bill Thompson from Down Wind Sports in Marquette and Houghton, Michigan, works tirelessly and with great passion to organize and promote the event, and he does a top-out (pun intended for you ice climbers out there) job.  I was impressed on so many levels with the Michigan Ice Fest, and am excited to share my experience with you, as well as toss around the many new terms I learned about ice climbing, as if I were an old pro.

Ice Climbing Beta is a term that refers to gaining information about a climb before attempting it.  It encompasses advice from other climbers, weather predictions, ice and snow conditions, routes, grades, and much more.  I intend, over my next several posts, to give you the beta about the festival, so that if you go, and I hope you do, you will be prepared.

After a nerve-wracking drive to Michigan's Upper Peninsula last Wednesday, in which I completed my first solo drive through blizzard conditions, witnessed a fatal accident, prayed, and drove
20 mph for the final 50 miles, I settled in at Munising's Superior Motel with a headache and cold feet.  I mean "cold feet" as in what the hell have I gotten myself into?  But my room was so cozy and comfortable I was able to calm myself and be reminded of my resolve to accomplish something this weekend.

The owners of the Superior Motel have been busy renovating the rooms, and with a brand-new tile floor in the bathroom, a very clean room, and an "up north" ambience, I felt right at home.  The new mattress on the bed welcomed me and my headache, and at midnight I fell asleep with dreams of giant icicles in my head.

I have many stories to share about the Festival, which will come in later posts.  But the most overwhelming theme of the weekend was community.  The incredible support and passion of the people, from Bill Thompson and his staff to the professional alpinists to the repeat attendees to the newbies like me, there was camaraderie and help, a thread of the common bond of people who live outdoors and want to challenge themselves in nature.

I spent the weekend hearing of Denali, Hyalite, Kilimanjaro, and Ararat.  I didn't know where any of the mountains are located, except Denali.  People threw the names of Huaraz, Vinson, and Aconcagua around like I talk about Target and the local grocery store.  Last week I went to the local hiking trail.  Last week Ben Erdmann was in Alaska.  I eavesdropped on conversations about caribiners and clogs, whippers and belays, top rope, anchors, and crampons.  I was confused by the light and fast lead of someone who was dialed in.  It was like hearing a foreign language.

Crampons courtesy Google Images
In the beginning, I hung back.  Intimidated by the language and experiences of the rest of the crowd, I lurked on the fringes of conversations, laughed when everyone else laughed, nodded like I knew who Will Gadd is, and tried to absorb what I could of this confusing world of climbers.  I watched how their eyes lit up when someone spoke of a mixed climb at 17,000 feet, or a six day bivi.  I saw the momentary pause when the name Sue Nott came up.  I wanted to know more.  I felt a pull to understand this community and feel what they feel.  I wanted to experience their language so that instead of words, they became actions.

And I did.  As the weekend progressed, the members of this small club took me in, welcomed me, encouraged me, and taught me.  They introduced me to their passion and ignited a flame in me.  I have to say, I'm hooked.

In subsequent posts, I will explain all these words, and places, and people.  I am honored to introduce my readers to this community of fine people and their passion for living.

Last Saturday, I walked into the Michigan Ice Fest Headquarters in the late afternoon to return my equipment.  As I opened the door, a pair of climbers came out, looked at my gear, and said "Did you climb today?"

The Curtains
"Yeah, yeah I did."  And just like that, I became part of the community.  It doesn't matter that I've only climbed WI3 9 Meter Opening Curtain.  (Sounds like I know what I'm talking about, doesn't it?)  No one cared what my name is, or where I've been, or what I've done.  All they knew was at that moment, I was a climber at the Michigan Ice Fest, one of the most popular destinations for climbers of every level.  It felt really, really good to be nobody but a person who did what the rest of them did and lived to tell about my day.  I was part of something that is so much bigger than the personal details of our lives.  I faced frigid temperatures and wind, stayed out all day, gazed up at a frozen waterfall, and climbed it, with a lot of help from my climbing partners.
Look at me go!

That's what Bill Thompson is all about.  The beta on the Michigan Ice Fest is get out in it, be a part of it, be safe, and embrace every aspect.  It is so worth it to climb on!