Peace In A Tin Can

Peace In A Tin Can

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

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