Sometimes you just gotta get out of town and hack your way up a frozen waterfall.
The maple-colored mushroom of ice loomed above my head. Snow piled atop my helmet, pelted my face, and coated the thick Northern Minnesota forest. I had just hiked up a short 60-degree incline to reach the vertical wall of ice. Now I was supposed to hammer my axes above my head, kick into the ice with my crampons, and step up onto my toes. It was maybe twenty feet to the top, and this handful of narrow metal tips was supposed to hold all 145 pounds of me as I climbed my way up the frozen waterfall.
Fear paralyzed me.
Not because anything I was doing was particularly dangerous. I was on belay: in a harness, tied into a rope that was held tightly by my belayer, who stood on solid ground behind me. Two instructors coached us up the wall; one had 20+ years of experience leading climbing clinics; the other was about to finish her last year of nursing school.
But I have a decade-old co-dependent relationship with ice climbing, and I had signed up for the women’s ice climbing clinic to make peace with this complicated friend.
My mind spun. I wouldn’t be able to climb. All these women half my age would think I was a dumbass with mascara smeared all over my cheeks (who wears mascara to climb ice? This girl). The whole day would be wasted hiding from the instructors, which would be impossible because there were only five of us. And I’d have to get to the gym tomorrow because the workout I’d expected from a day of climbing would not happen if I were ducking and cowering all day.
I shouldn’t have come. I knew I hated ice climbing. Why the hell did I sign up for this?
My instructor Kyra hiked up the incline and stood just behind me. Okay, she said, you see that shelf to your left? Kick into it. Or something like that. I can’t remember exactly what she said, because the hamster wheel in my head churned at full speed, super-loud, run by a hamster of fear and self-loathing. Kyra patiently coached me through one move at a time. Put the axe tip here, the other one here, look down at your feet, kick in here.
The whole thing defies logic. Small metal spikes on our feet and on our axes are going to hold our weight solid against a frozen wall of ice? But one inelegant stretch at a time I made it to the top. I paused to look around at the forest of pine and birch coated in thick new snow – wow, that’s probably beautiful except I hate this – then rappelled down.
This was going to be a very long day.
Early that morning I had walked into the quiet university hallway to meet our instructors and the other newbies. Our group of six held two students from Sweden, Erica and Emilie, who were studying in northern Minnesota for the semester; Erica had just tried ice climbing and wanted as many chances as she could get in her only Minnesota winter. Emilie had never climbed before. Two first year students were from Minnesota but also new to ice climbing: Maddi loved rock climbing and described herself as a little too adventurous for her own good. Danielle believed an important part of friendship was trying new experiences and understanding why your friends love to do what they do. Marielle was a recent transplant from Portland (originally from Monterrey, California) who wanted to find her tribe. And me, a 43 year-old writer and who spends a lot of time wrangling three small tsunamis, who figured she’d be the oldest person on this women’s ice climbing clinic making its way up to Gooseberry Falls, a state park known for its gorgeous cascading waterfalls on the shore of Lake Superior.
I’m not especially talented at anything except trying new things, which means I get to do a lot of cool stuff (fly an airplane, live on a boat), but I also fail – a lot. The humbling experiences evolve into exceptional metaphors, and so I head out on the next adventure, looking for the next life lesson.
The last time I’d climbed, eight years earlier, I was five months pregnant with my first baby and desperate to prove nothing had changed. Twenty extra pounds weighed me down, my center of gravity didn’t exist, and an inner voice screamed, “You have a five month old baby inside you – get off the ice!”
Not like I was a super-experienced ice climber before then. I had climbed a half dozen times, including a Chicks with Picks class in Upper Michigan taught by Zoe Hart and Sue Nott. Three months after the class, Sue Nott disappeared with her partner Karen McNeil in an attempt to do the first all-female ascent of the Infinite Spur route on Mount Foraker in the Alaskan Range. Reading of Sue’s disappearance got under my skin. I started a novel about climbers who summit the Infinite Spur.
Now, my book is almost done. But before I could finish it, I knew I needed to face my old frenemy: the frozen waterfall.
After my first time barely making it up the wall, I was terrified to start again. I belayed a couple people before Kyra cheerfully cajoled me into trying another line. (Kyra’s infectious laugh and encouraging spirit pushed me in just the right way.) I followed her simple instructions: axe, axe, straight arms, squat, look at feet, get an idea, toe, toe – stand up.
I could feel the strength training I’d been doing in a gym since the summer before. I thought for sure my muscles wouldn’t hold, but I’d stand up and there I was. Focus on the movement, the moment. Trust my equipment, trust the metal points to hold. I went right up the second route in no time.
I was hooked.
Over the next few hours, I climbed again and again. Erica said to me, “Looks like you moved past your fear.” Marielle said, “Your body remembered how to climb!”
Four others had stopped and were ready to head back. I wanted to keep going. “Keep going!” Kyra said. “Your muscles are learning, now’s the time to do it. You’ll be lying in bed tonight thinking of the routes you wish you could do again, that you could have gone two more times.”
What started as the worst day ever turned out to be the best day I’d had in a long time. In the silent forest, thick snowflakes covering us, out of my normal routine, I didn’t think about work, family, or any of the tiny niggling worries and anxieties always gnawing my neck. Once I began to trust my body to do the task ahead of me, it was all I needed to focus in that moment.
On the way home, we stopped for pie and coffee, the standard post-ice-climb practice. A roaring fire warmed the lodge’s knotty pine, the slices of pie outsized our hands.
The next day I checked in with the other climbers. I was curious how they felt about the experience the day after. Erica, who had gone ice climbing one other time, was glad it went so much easier than the first time. “It’s fun when you feel you are developing.” Non-climber Emilie was impressed she actually made it to the top of the wall.
For Marielle, who was looking for her tribe, the best thing about the day was the community. “The people I was with were so amazing. We had such a positive, supportive environment with great vibes going.”
Maddi – who had been rock climbing since coming to college that fall – was surprised we were all able to get a handle on the technique. “Ice-climbing isn’t as technically challenging as I was expecting,” she said, then added she was sure the routes were intentionally easy.
Danielle talked about how the experience affected her mindset. “There is something about being outside interacting with the beauty of the world that just affirms however much I try to convince myself otherwise, the world is a lot bigger than me.”
The great metaphor of climbing always pulls me in. We need the courage and humility required to do it, plus the help of others. We are alone, but we are not alone. We keep trying, taking direction and suggestions without getting defensive. We learn to be open to the experience, whatever the experience is, and to pause, look around, and recognize the beauty of the world around us.
Felicia Schneiderhan is the author of the memoir Newlyweds Afloat: Married Bliss and Mechanical Breakdowns While Living on a Trawler. Her work appears in Real Simple, Chicago Sun-Times, Lake Superior Magazine, and elsewhere. She lives on the northern shore of Lake Superior, where she writes in whatever closet she thinks her three tsunamis won’t find her. (They always find her.)