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!