This is an installment of Cautionary Tales, an ongoing series about lessons learned the hard way in the Alaska outdoors.
One, three, five, seven, nine, 10. Repeat.
Ten points of contact.
That's what connected me to a cascade of ice above Black Lake last week near O'Malley Peak in Chugach State Park. A novice at ice climbing, I found myself counting over and over again to keep my nerves calm.
I'd swing an ice tool into the surface for solid contact and count, one. Kick into the ice with the dual front points of a crampon. Three. Then I'd let my foot settle until my secondary crampon points engaged. Five. Repeat with the other foot: seven points of contact, then nine. Push up with my legs and hips. Then a swing of the other arm. That makes 10.
My buddy Steven Claggett — who spent the summer working logistics for a guiding company at Matanuska Glacier — had me on belay. Logically, I understood that I was secured in a harness, the crampons on my feet snagged ice like a dream, and that should I fall, Claggett would be in brake position to prevent my rapid descent.
The rational part of my brain knew I was safe, but how did I feel?
I felt like I had to cling on for dear life. And so, the counting resumed.
Trust can be a tricky issue for amateur climbers like me. As a hiker, I've conditioned myself to fall-and-you-die situations on exposed ridge scrambles and in steep gullies around the Chugach. Knowing there's no security blanket forces me into a certain mindset where the wrong step could mean peril. Falling isn't an option in those high-stakes situations.
If that's my approach when friends belay me at the Alaska Rock Gym, though, I'll waste physical and mental energy trying to Velcro myself to the wall. I have to remind myself that falling there, around trained staff inside a temperature-controlled room, doesn't mean certain death. Also, if I'm overanalyzing every handhold and toehold, that means I'll spend more time climbing a route — and I'll burn out faster because time equals energy.
The first time I fell while being belayed at the rock gym, I shouted a profanity or two on instinct before realizing I was safely dangling in midair. A special apology goes out to the kids climbing nearby.
Accepting that I'm able to fall safely is the biggest mental hurdle for me as a climber. And that boils down to trust: trusting the gear, and trusting my partner.
My gear will not climb for me, as much as I may wish it to. But when used correctly, it makes climbing much safer than some of my harebrained hiking adventures. Climbing gear and practices — like knot-tying, the hardcore climbers I know are veritable knot encyclopedias — are beautifully utilitarian. (I said this last week to Claggett. His response? "Spoken like a true gear junkie.") Plus, having the right gear opens up all kinds of terrain that otherwise would be out of reach.
Good communication is paramount in establishing trust with a climbing partner. (No comment on whether a romantic partner would be ideal in this role.) I err on the side of possibly too much communication. But I know our safety and possibly our lives depend on a mutual understanding of what's going on and an attentiveness to what my partner is doing.
On last week's climb above Black Lake, sometime between counting to 10 and worrying about whether I'd drop an ice tool, I looked down and realized I couldn't see Claggett anymore. I'd shout out questions or commands, and each brief pause afterward was enough to make me break into a sweat.
Then I'd see the rope move, or hear him shout back, and I'd feel comfortable moving again. I slipped once or twice and, to my own surprise, I didn't panic. I didn't even curse.
Blind trust. It's a beautiful thing.