My Reflections Of The Vertical World: From Rock To Ice & Back Again

As the unfamiliar sound of ice “crunched” under my crampons, I couldn’t help but wonder if it was going to hold.  I looked down at Angela, and she winked at me.  “Keep going, Almine!  You’re almost there!”  I couldn’t feel the cold air against my skin.  I could only feel the hot sweat dripping down my face.

I remembered “the egg.”  The egg is a concept that was taught to me by a friend.  One who free-solos some of the hardest routes at “Smith Rock.”  “All you have to concentrate on during a climb is what’s directly in front of your field of vision.  You could liken this to an egg.  A spherical or oblong shape that commands your hyper-focus.  That is all that matters.  The present moment.  Nothing else.” Chris often reminds me.

I felt far removed from the medium I was climbing.  I’m a rock climber.  Ice was new to me.  It felt cold, un-inviting, jagged, abrasive.  “The egg…the egg…breathe, Almine…focus…breathe…” I would repeat to myself under my breath.  I could hear Angela’s encouraging words down below.  They sounded faint, however, compared to the pounding in my heart, and my rapid breathing.

Year after year, I’ve had a ritual.  Seek the climbs of “Smith Rock” in the fall, the waves of Hawaii in the winter.  This year was different.  I’d seen the pictures in “Rock & Ice” and “Climbing” magazines.  Frozen vertical blue-green columns being climbed by the fearless.  I was intrigued.  I decided 2011 would be different.  I would try this new medium, and explore new terrain.  For this to occur, a journey would need to be made.

Ouray, Colorado.  Also known as “Little Switzerland” or “Frozen Yosemite.”  The mecca of U.S. ice climbing.  A place I’d never been.  To here I would travel to meet some of the most amazing women I’ve had the priviledge of befriending and face my fears of the seemingly inhospitable world of frozen waterfalls.

I live in Bend, OR.  Home to some of the world’s most uber Adventure athletes.  There are more Olympians that live in Bend, per capita, than any other town in America.  “Smith Rock” could be considered my “backyard.”  Its is a 25 min. drive from my doorstep.  “Smith” is the place where the locals say “If you don’t like the hold, put it back.”  Known as the birthplace of sport climbing, and the infamous “Monkey Face,” “Smith” draws some of the world’s most elite climbers.  Many of them got their start there:  Beth Rodden, Boone Speed, Chris Sharma.  The landscape has been host to many of climbing’s greats.  It is at “Smith” that I relish every chance I can get to embrace the arid air, and push my limits…whatever that may be that day.

To get my “feet wet” with ice (literally!) I decided to sign up for the “Chicks With Picks” program, based out of Ouray, Co.  I went alone, and had no idea what to expect.  I decided to arrive 3 days prior to the course start date.  I figured it was best to get acclimated to altitude as best I could (I live at 3,300 ft.).

As the women shuffled into a small conference room, situated at the base of the “Ouray Ice Park” the air was electric.  The new comers were asking themselves and each other “Why on God’s green earth did I sign up to freeze my ass off, and scare the bejeezus out of myself?,” I heard one lady ask aloud.  The veteran “Chick” participants were giddy, and grinning from ear-to-ear…knowing the adventures that lay ahead.

As Kim Reynolds, founder of “Chicks With Picks” walked in, the room fell silent.  She introduced herself, talked about the program, and the upcoming week’s itinerary.  She shared that we would be paired with a mentor for the week, and 1-2 other students, so that the student to instructor ratio was kept low.  Little did I know the caliber of expertise that was about to fill the room.  I had the notion that some sweet local gals, looking for a “dirt bag” winter gig would come in and introduce themselves as our guides.  I was fine with that.  What I didn’t expect was 3 of my all-time “superheroine climbing idols” to casually stroll in.  I was speechless.  My jaw dropped to the floor.  “Angela Hawse, Jen Olson, Margot Talbot…will you please pair up with your ladies for the week?” Kim said into the microphone.  Was she serious?  I had videos of these women.  I had read articles and books about them.  I had pushed the “rewind” button so many times on Jen Olson’s Nepal climb, featured in “The Continuum Project” that my husband has joked that I’m going to burn a hole in the DVD.   And those were only 3 of 8 the all-female instructors introduced.  Every one of them had a resume that warranted a “National Geographic” video for each.  The combined experience of our women guides was simply world-class.

The first 2 days of climbing were very intense for me.  I felt far removed from the medium I was climbing.  I’d never put crampons on in my life, and I’d never held an ice tool.  Each apparatus, seemingly, creating a distance between me and the ice.  It was foreign to me.  I felt unsure of my footing, and was not skilled at knowing the sound of the “magical thud” yet of a good ice tool hold.  I wanted to sink my hands into the ice.  It sounds odd, but at least I’d be able to touch it, like rock.

The elevation was another story.  I’m glad I’d been preparing for Ouray the best that I could where I live.  I was doing a fair bit of hiking with a heavy pack, and some low-level mountain running up near Mt. Bachelor to prepare for altitude.  I’m glad I did.  I’m also glad I went to Ouray a few days early.  I was out of breath during the first day’s hike I took upon arrival.  It was only 5 miles too.  That is a warm up for me, and I was taken aback by the effects the elevation was having on me.  It was humbling.  Many of the women who participated in the course were “locals,” in as much that they lived in Colorado, and were used to athletic endeavors in higher elevation.

I did my best to keep up, but pitch after pitch of climbing, created a lactic acid flush in my forearms and legs, the likes of which I’d never experienced before.  Hammering a tool into the ice is an odd motion.  Hammering is not a movement I train with on a regular basis.  I cross-train “like a woman with her hair caught on fire,” as I’ve been told by friends.  I do “CrossFit” 4-5x per week, “Bikram Yoga” 3-4x per week, trail-run 2x per week, mtn. bike and road cycle intermittently, swim occasionally, and climb as often as possible.  Hammering?  No, hammering above my head for hours on end was a different motion.  One that “pumped” my forearms on the level of “Smith’s” renowned “1-finger crimpers,” within a few swings of the tool.  I was taken aback by the rigorous nature of it.

Wearing crampons?  At that altitude, for this “Bend-ite,” felt like I was shoving a brick, step-by-step, hour-after-hour into a wall of ice.  And I was, in a way.  Again, a foreign sense of training for me.  I’ve had some experience in the Himalayas and the Andes.  Most of what I would consider “trekking” vs. “mountaineering.”  It took me a good 2 days to “make friends” with both the crampons and ice tools.

Luckily for the “Chicks” participants, we had an array of ice tools and gear (from a variety of brands) to try out.  I ended up falling in love with the “Black Diamond” Cobras.  Light, yet sturdy, producing the “magical thud” sound I came to relish after 2 days.  In fact, I continued to hear that sound in my sleep for a week after returning home.

Angela Hawse was my guide.  World renowned, accomplished, and truly one of my heroines, without sounding awkward.  I was taken aback at her down-to-earth nature, her kind smile, wicked sense of humor, and gift to be able to discern when to push the student to her limits, and when to let the student off-the-hook.  She had the keen sense of where every student was at, at all times.  A feat for any instructor, to be sure.

Angela sensed right away that I didn’t trust the ice.  She sensed that I didn’t trust that it could hold me.  She took me aside, and showed me one-on-one attention that was priceless.  First, she sensed I needed to “feel” the medium I was climbing.  That I didn’t trust the ice tools, and I didn’t trust my crampons.  “Take off your gloves,” she said.  Climb this route without your ice tool.  You want to use your hands?  Now’s your chance.”  I was aghast.  I was thinking it, but really do it?

It proved to be an incredibly valuable exercise.  One steep climb (for me, anyway) utilizing only crampons and bare (cold!) hands, and I began to trust myself and the ice.   Angela sensed what each student needed, and provided it professionally, honestly, and competently.

One week of  top-notch instruction by Angela, and I began to wonder if I needed to move to Ouray seasonally.  I was hooked.

There were too many highlights to mention throughout the week.  Watching Jen Olson fluidly dance up one of the hardest mixed routes in Ouray was a wonder.  It was truly a milestone for me to be able to watch her in person vs. pushing the “rewind” button on my remote control, yet again.

As my plane landed in Redmond, I felt a warm sense of “being home” with a mixed sense of sadness.  The beautiful, sparkling frozen world would be left behind for another year.  Oregon’s temperate climate is not hospitable for consistent ice climbing conditions.  I missed it already.  There was something about it.  It was harsh, gritty, and powerful.  A different form of climbing from the delicate toes I was used to practicing on the volcanic tuft of “Smith.”

The powerful “thud” of a perfect ice tool hold, with the crunch of my crampons echoes through my mind periodically.  Angela’s words to me “Mileage, Almine…what you need is mileage.  You could be a good ice climber.  You have the drive to make it happen.”

After coming home from Ouray, something shifted inside of me.  I wanted more “grit” and “power” in my climbing.  I longed for the feeling that the ice produced in me.  A need to “swing that tool!” as Angela would say.  I’ve found myself, since returning, settling this year into the “Lower Gorge” of “Smith Rock.”  Cracks are where I find my solace and comfort now.  For me, they require the same amount of “Umph!” on the rock that the swing of the tool and the sound of my crampons produced on the ice.  I’ve begun to shift my world from bolts to trad.  Taped hands and cracked fingers have relieved my “itch” for climbing the frozen vertical world.  I believe this transition started the minute I swung a tool.  When you realize, that year ‘round, the world is your playground, you realize the vertical world is waiting for you…all year long.

Almine Barton is a licensed acupuncturist and certified personal trainer.  She runs 2 sports medicine clinics in Bend, OR., and Portland, OR.   She works closely with climbers, olympians, and competing “CrossFit” athletes in her practice, and enjoys seeing her patients achieve their fitness and wellness goals.  She and her husband Stanford, a certified “CrossFit” coach, live near “Smith Rock,” and enjoy the immense climbing opportunities that Central OR. has to offer.  She is an avid sport climber, “CrossFitter,” mtn. biker, trail-runner and Adventure Racer.  She has one Malamute named Tallon, who keeps her running trails all winter long.  Learn more about Almine at http://www.bendwellnessdoctor.com and on her blog at www.alminewellness.blogspot.com

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