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The anatomy of an ice climbing accident.

Pride and Premonition

by James Mallory

Pride and premonition. The brilliant mix of emotions that asks you to do something utterly foolish in the face of gnawing doubt. After all, you think to yourself, if you don’t go through with this, you’ll never know what great danger you avoided. The logic is admittedly dim, but ice climbing is rarely undertaken for sensible reasons. If it were, we would never leave the car. On this particular morning, I shouldn’t have even left my house.

Any doubts or fears quickly fell quiet under the sound of clanging steel and crunching snow. We planned to spend the day at Mission Falls, a local ice climbing area an hour north of Missoula. The falls aren’t much to look at in the summer, but after a few deep December freezes, things change dramatically. Within weeks the slimy trickle of water transforms into a wild cascade of ice. This bulging tumble of frozen water is often much larger than its warm-weather counterpart, primarily because most of the water never reaches the ground. If the conditions are right, the water remains liquid at the top, pours over the frozen waterfall and picks a spot somewhere farther down to solidify. Of course, this assumes ideal conditions. There are innumerable ways for this process to go wrong.

You can tell a lot about a waterfall from a fair distance away, often catching glimpses on the approach hike. Bright white indicates aerated or brittle ice, while deep blue is slightly above freezing and usually ideal. As we cut a path through the calf-deep snow, our target waterfall seemed fully formed, but the ice looked sketchy. None of this really mattered, though; we’d come here to climb, not traipse through the woods on a day hike.

Ice climbing, if nothing else, is an excuse to buy some really terrifying looking pieces of metal. The bizarre ice tools with serrated edges and razor-sharp steel spikes reaching out from my boots look like props in a B-list horror movie. Of course, we are climbing ice, which tends to be slippery, so carrying sharp, pointy weapons is a bit of a necessity.

Ascending a waterfall is relatively straightforward: Take the long pieces of steel protruding from each limb and slam them into the ice. Repeat the process until you are at the top, along the way attaching long, hollow screws into the ice to hold you if something goes wrong and you fall. Simple.

Of course it really wouldn’t be much of a thrill if there weren’t a few complications. The first, and by far the foremost, is the ice itself. Most people, when picturing ice climbing for the first time, imagine an enormous vertical ice cube glued to a cliff; thick and solid, fresh from the freezer. That’s picturesque, but entirely wrong. Waterfall ice rarely resembles the cubes tumbling around in your gin and tonic. Often, it more closely resembles the gaudy chandelier hanging from your grandmother’s ceiling. Hidden pockets of air form bizarre stalactites, and erratic winds create wild ribs and fins. Add to this a couple freeze/thaw cycles and it becomes quite exciting.

Well, thrilling for some people, at least. Entering the dubious world of ice climbing requires two key mental adaptations: poor memory and a well-developed ego. The former is critical if you plan on ice climbing more than once. No sane person would subject themselves repeatedly to such pain and suffering. But a good climber has the unique ability to quickly suppress the negative memories, recalling only the brief episodes of pure elation. An ego is important for obvious reasons. A need to conquer, take charge, and so on. It is this latter point that troubles me today.

There is an unwritten rule among ice climbers: Whoever reaches the base of the waterfall first, climbs first. This rule stands irrespective of all other factors, including the acidic fear in your gut. I, of course, was standing at the base of this particular climb first. Lovely.

After unpacking our gear, I suited up and slammed a few test swings into the base of the route. The experiment confirmed my fears. The ice was pathetic; hollow, weak and heavily lacerated with rotten ice. Each placement of the pick would require numerous swings to bash away the mess. I felt my heart rate spike. A quick glance up revealed 100 feet of crumbling fury.

Because your life hangs quite literally by an inch of thin steel, it is absolutely critical to make sure each placement is solid. Fortunately the ice gives you a few clues when it is accepting your advances favorably, usually by rewarding your swing with a low-pitched “thwong” and a slight vibration. Anything else and you are playing a very risky game.

On days like this, often the only ice with any chance of holding your weight is entombed below layers of choss, the brittle, aerated material that accumulates on the surface. Much of your time is spent clearing away the rotten ice, an exhausting process for both hands because all your weight is hanging from your other arm. Often just when your hanging arm begins to cramp, acceptable ice is found and you’re able to continue on.

Complicating the matter further is an annoying quirk of physiology dubbed the screaming barfies. Though you’re unlikely to find this term in the pages of a medical reference dictionary, it is an unfortunate reality for those who lack the common sense to stay home and watch football. From a physiological standpoint, it has something to do with your chilled body attempting to push blood as thick as diesel through your capillaries.

It starts after an initial period of sustained exposure to cold; often with impeccable timing, halfway up a waterfall at the crux of the route. At this point your capillaries, recognizing the ridiculous temperatures, decide the hands are a lost cause and close the spigot. Without an infusion of warm blood, your hands chill further, turning wooden and white. Finally your brain gets the memo that the hands are not okay to sacrifice and decides to reinject fresh blood to the extremities. While a nice gesture, this is excruciatingly painful, the kind of nauseating pain only possible with a missed swing of a hammer in January. Fortunately, it passes.

While ice climbing can be brutal, it is not entirely suicidal. There are means of protecting yourself. Much like rock climbing, throughout the route you periodically stop and place pieces of protection that will theoretically catch you if you fall. Rock climbing almost always affords solid protection; a well placed cam or nut can hold many times your body weight. Ice climbing relies on a different technique, far more dependent on the quality of the ice. Every 10, 20 or 30 feet you place a long, hollow chromoly steel screw into the ice. In solid blue ice, screws have been tested to thousands of pounds, more than enough to hold a fall.

But as I mentioned earlier, the ice you’re climbing is often in less than perfect condition. This leaves you with three choices: 1) Go home; 2) Go for it, but take the time to find quality ice at the risk of blowing all your energy before reaching the top; or 3) my personal favorite, go for the top quickly, placing screws for psychological purposes only, knowing that if you fall they will fail.

Drawing on the thin logic that got me here in the first place, I chose the latter. Seventy-five feet off the ground, my calves began to shake from the constant contraction and my forearms started drowning in their own lactic acid. I could have downclimbed, but it was 75 feet to the floor and only 30 to the top. Judging by the swelling of my forearms, I calculated that I had about four to five minutes before they’d be done and I’d just let go. There wasn’t enough time to retreat. I had to go for the top.

At this point, breathing is everything. Slow and purposeful, in and out through pursed lips, breathing is your last defense against panic. The brain screams, asking for other options, looking for a way out. Incapable of understanding how you could find yourself in a place with such poor choices, the mind becomes a hindrance. I turned it off.

Listen to the breaths. Pick the singular task that promises the best chance of survival and bury everything else. Right now, that task is to reach the top-25, maybe 30 feet up.

Thunk … thunk. The ice tools were sticking, but each swing now carried a little less force, a little more wobble. Instead of one of two swings, it now took three, four, or five hits before the tool held. When the swings finally did land, the placements were marginal. But by now, my brain was so drunk on endorphins and stale adrenaline, I trusted them anyway. The 85-foot mark came and went. One last screw before gunning for the top.

Placing a screw presents several challenges. It forces you to hang from one hand for several minutes while the other hand sinks the screw, leaving both arms dangerously flamed. During this time you are especially vulnerable. In addition to being at the highest point above your last placement, you’ve got everything riding on one tool placement. If it goes – game over.

When the tool finally ripped out of the ice, my first emotion wasn’t fear but relief. The agonizing effort of trying to reach the top was over. It was out of my hands now, quite literally. All I had to do was lean back and wait for the rope to grab. Unconsciously, thoughts of self-preservation kicked in, reminding me to keep my arms outstretched to avoid impalements. Spoils of limp rope floated around like a drunken umbilical cord.

Time didn’t slow down. My life didn’t flash before my eyes. Or if it did, the scenes were so unremarkable that I found it more interesting to stare at the twirling rope. Pride, undoubtedly, was involved. Even in the face of terrible odds, I simply assumed everything would be just fine. I’m not sure what it would require to overcome this inflated sense of self-preservation. Even falling from a burning plane at 20,000 feet, I would hold out hope of hitting the wooded hillside just right and miraculously surviving.

Regardless, I expected that at any moment the rope would snap tight and bring me to a pleasant stop. As my confused brain finally realized this was unlikely, I’d already hit the ground.

Silence. I wiggled my toes. They still moved. Wiggled my fingers. Yes, movement there as well. Several long seconds of euphoria and thankfulness passed, then it hit. Pain. Searing, throbbing pain. I looked down at my ankle and noticed my foot was now jutting inward at a 90-degree angle, ala Kathy Bates and a sledgehammer.

I let out a string of expletives, but  quickly stopped as it seemed a bit silly to get mad at a dislocated ankle when I should have been dead. At the base of nearly every ice climb, you have one of two surfaces: rock hard ice, or rocks themselves. The same water that forms the waterfall continues to flow and pool at the base of the climb, creating a surface as hard as concrete.

But today, for reasons I will not soon understand, the ground was covered in several feet of angelic powder.  As if sensing the impending disaster, the night before a heavy storm had dropped two feet of fresh snow, perfectly covering the bulletproof ground in a mat of feathery down.

I hesitate to admit the emotions that followed, as they do not fit within the boundaries of acceptable Christian responses. Thankfulness would make sense. Or perhaps a brief glimpse into the depths of God’s grace.  Even a panicky fear or the dread of post-traumatic stress could qualify as legitimate.  But I felt very little of those, and certainly none that lasted beyond the first few euphoric moments.

No, lying there on the snow, and even more so in the weeks to come, I felt a simple expectation. An expectation that at some level it was never really possible for my life to end that day.  That no matter from what height I fell, or how unlikely the odds of survival, death was an option set outside the realm of possibility. I wasn’t surprised God had spared me; I thought it was His only sensible choice.  It wasn’t until years later that the great irony of this response bubbled to the surface. The very pride that convinced me to climb the route was, just moments later, the same pride that expected God would save me.

In its own right, this certainly lays a dangerous precedent.  If I were wrong with my conception of God’s unwavering protection, the odds would soon catch up with me.  And the angels, I imagine, would quickly tire of intervening in further accidents and misjudgments.  Yet perhaps worse, far worse, was the reflection of this attitude found in my understanding of salvation.

At some deep and profound level, I simply believed I deserved it. Yes, I am a sinner and in many moments I see the utter blackness of my heart. But in the quiet and mundane spaces that fill most of life I looked to salvation as a foregone conclusion. Not out of some reward for an exemplary life; that would simply be religion.  No, it is perhaps the only belief more prideful than religion, the belief that I must go to heaven because God simply wouldn’t enjoy himself without me.

Even writing those words on the page seems obscene. Yet I think many of us go through our lives with the same quiet assumption that God is so enamored with the people He created that He cannot help but save us.

In the years that followed I ice climbed much less. The exact reason why was never completely clear to me. I didn’t feel any less adventurous or fearless. Yet beneath it all there was an unmistakable change, a sense of mortality and frailty that kept me from the harder and more dangerous routes. I moved from seeing life as something merely deserved, to instead, as a gift graciously received.

Though the process is incomplete, with time the spiritual changes came as well. Not from any tragic accident, but rather through the slow and unrelenting accumulation of sins and mistakes. Stacked upon each other, they eventually formed an inescapable indictment, asking a simple question. A question far beyond whether I deserved God’s rescue from the fall. No, this pushed aside that contemplation as quaint and philosophical.

Do you deserve heaven? The question was as jarring as the fall from the waterfall. The answer, of course, was no. I didn’t deserve heaven any more than I deserved to survive the fall. It is this single thought, this solitary awful realization, that has brought me closer to God than anything else in life. More than any brilliant song of worship or generous act of service, this trembling humility has come to define the lines of my faith.

I’ve heard pastors say that the biblical command to fear God is more akin to awe.  That may be true, but I wonder how much we miss when we rush past the terrible and dreadful aspects of our Father. The God of justice and wrath and conviction.  Yet without this, I wonder how the grace of God is of much worth.  It is no different than hanging from a single blade of steel on a waterfall of ice.  The more sincerely you believe death is imminent, the more overjoyed you are when deliverance arrives.

Comments

Comment from Colleen
Time August 13, 2008 at 7:58 am

You are and idiot. I can’t believe that you ever did that. (But secretly I’m admiring you, because I never would.) Very well written. You painted a vivid description with words. Felt like I was right there!

Comment from Melissa
Time October 26, 2008 at 10:35 pm

Are the photos from the infamous climb?

Comment from jrmallory
Time October 26, 2008 at 11:17 pm

nope, unfortunately no photos were taken of the climb. These photos are from a much more successful climb we did a few weeks prior to the accident. It’s just outside of Banff above the ski area.

Comment from Blane
Time November 24, 2008 at 5:31 pm

Hey it’s amazing what you’ll read when you’re bored at work. HAHA. It was actually really well written and very interesting. I am looking forward to reading more of your stuff.

Comment from sharon
Time January 12, 2009 at 12:58 am

You are an incredible writer and a crazy outdoorsman. remind me to never take you on any of my trips. 😉
are “screaming barfies” an original j.mallory term? you’re right i’ve never heard it in my 7 years of nursing schooling…

Comment from Michael
Time January 12, 2009 at 9:18 pm

[quote]Well, thrilling for some people at least. Entering the dubious world of ice climbing requires two key mental adaptations: Poor memory and a well developed ego. The former is critical if you plan on ice climbing more than once. [/quote]

This pretty much confirms all of my assumptions about ice climbing. Outstanding piece! I really liked the way you transitioned to the fall by talking about how you were most vulnerable while hanging on one piece.

Comment from melissa
Time December 6, 2009 at 2:03 pm

Seriously? Did your pieces pull? Just came across your blog and subscribed.

Comment from jrmallory
Time December 8, 2009 at 11:42 am

Melissa,

Yeah they pulled out with horrifying ease. The ice was so rotten, my belayer barely noticed the rope going tight during the fall. Crazy. It’s amazing because sometimes the ice feels like it could hold a semi truck, and others, like this day, it couldn’t hold a couple hundred pounds.

Comment from Lisa Dale
Time March 20, 2010 at 8:37 pm

wow. i hadn’t heard this story. praise God that He saved you in more ways than one.
(and that you were able to teach me how to ice climb too).

Comment from Anonymous
Time March 23, 2011 at 12:18 pm

Good trip report. Thanks for posting this.

“The ice tools were sticking, but each swing now carried a little less force, a little more wobble. Instead of one of two swings, it now took three, four, or five hits before the tool held. When the swings finally did land, the placements were marginal.”

“Placing a screw presents several challenges. It forces you to hang from one hand for several minutes while the other hand sinks the screw, leaving both arms dangerously flamed. During this time you are especially vulnerable. In addition to being at the highest point above your last placement, you’ve got everything riding on one tool placement. If it goes – game over.”

There is no rely on just one tool. Make sure that BOTH tools are BOMBER placements and then CLIP THE FREE TOOL before putting in the screw. Also, if both of your tools have hammers (recommended) you can use one (the one in the hand you will use to place the screw) to hammer in the tool you will continue to hold to make sure it is extra, extra secure. Do this before placing your second tool and clipping it as described above.

Be safe and stay alive.

Comment from Chris
Time March 23, 2011 at 12:19 pm

Good trip report. Thanks for posting this.

“The ice tools were sticking, but each swing now carried a little less force, a little more wobble. Instead of one of two swings, it now took three, four, or five hits before the tool held. When the swings finally did land, the placements were marginal.”

“Placing a screw presents several challenges. It forces you to hang from one hand for several minutes while the other hand sinks the screw, leaving both arms dangerously flamed. During this time you are especially vulnerable. In addition to being at the highest point above your last placement, you’ve got everything riding on one tool placement. If it goes – game over.”

There is no rely on just one tool. Make sure that BOTH tools are BOMBER placements and then CLIP THE FREE TOOL before putting in the screw. Also, if both of your tools have hammers (recommended) you can use one (the one in the hand you will use to place the screw) to hammer in the tool you will continue to hold to make sure it is extra, extra secure. Do this before placing your second tool and clipping it as described above.

Be safe and stay alive.

Comment from Chris
Time March 23, 2011 at 12:20 pm

Sorry, “There is no rely on just one tool” should instead read, “There is no need to rely on just one tool.”

Comment from jrmallory
Time February 7, 2014 at 8:32 pm

Great advice Chris. Unfortunately it is about 10 years too late… Then again, my youthful bravo probably would have scoffed at such measures.

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