Thursday, November 12, 2009

An Intro to Seracs, Where the Ice is Milky Blue

Back in college, when snow dumped in Bellingham we would stealthily conceal dining hall trays under our big winter coats and sneaky-like, tip-toe them out. If you haven’t tried it yet, a plastic lunch tray makes a fantastic sled for flying fast down any slope, gradual or steep. The steeper the better of course. Something about that rigid polycarbonate surface made even the lightest wisp of a college coed fly!

Wearing plastic mountaineering boots for the first time had a very similar feeling, though I didn’t quite get that same sledding-induced thrill as I carefully negotiated my way across slippery river rocks and high flowing water. My body isn’t quite so quick to heal after minor impacts with rocks, trees, and other people like it was when I was a gumby-like 19year old.

Our trip out to the Coleman Glacier with Jason Wheeler was also my first trip in crampons, first time wielding an ice ax, and first time scaling a wall on an icy serac. Can’t say I’ve scaled a wall of ice before, serac or otherwise. I would’ve found a way to go around.

I’m a rock climber and a skier. I’ve snowshoed plenty, scrambled a lot. I’m no badass Lynn Hill or Ingrid Backstrom, but I feel comfortable doing most outdoor activities and felt all these experiences would give me a bit of a leg up on learning to ice climb. This day, however, was a serious ego check. And despite Jason’s incredibly patient and thorough instruction, I spent the day re-learning how to use my body despite any experience I may have. Crampons are not nearly as intuitive as I expected – I still don’t get how to tork my ankles when traversing a slope (it’s seriously unnatural). My rock experience didn’t help me grasp moving on ice and I pumped out almost instantly. I am awed by Jason and his brethren of ice, who climb not only smooth, straight, uncomplicated ice, but anything mixed – how does the brain and body compute that into upward motion?

ChitChitTHWOP! Towards the end of the afternoon, despite tired, overgripping arms, I seemed to be consistently finding purchase in the ice with my tools. My saving grace being a bit of upper body strength (I once won an entirely inconsequential pull-up contest, dontcha know). “Perhaps I’m actually getting this,” I thought as I sipped my rum n’tea for a bit of pre-descent warmth. Standing a little straighter, nose-over-toes, stepping a little more confidently, less tension in my arms gripping the ax, I began to feel like maybe this plastic-crampon-ax-mountain-glacier thing really wasn’t all that hard.

The end of the day neared, light softened on the ridge tops and crampons came off as we exited the glacier, hitting the trail back to the easy comfort of a car seat. A day on the ice in crampons seemed to make the hike out in only plastics feel easy. Easy! I continued these confident, new thoughts…”someday I could be good at this. And maybe, I’ll start climbing big water ice! And go to places like Banff! And Canmore! And..” PHWOOOP! An instant later, feet flying above my head, butt very solidly smacking into the dirt, and my ego bruised a little worse, daydreams of Canadian ice melted as fast as a popsicle in a heatwave in hawaii. My friends might have had good advice when they recommended practicing in boots and crampons in my backyard before hitting a glacier. This is not nearly as easy as stealing dining hall trays.

Me, attempting to stem across and find purchase in the ice. Heels down!

The long hike out, just beginning. Thank goodness for dairy milk and pepperoni sticks!

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