As my entire body slammed against the ice after slipping for what seemed like the hundredth comical time, my knees were completely black and blue. Fingers locking from never having used ice axes before. Calves burning from never having used crampons before. I had torn my pants and had several bleeding gashes from kicking my own leg with the other’s crampon – something I had been warned about but was unable to avoid, close to a dozen painful, ego-crushing falls later. Everything else was an equal mix of cold (from the ice) and hot (from the severe beating I was reluctantly receiving at the hands of the mountain).
It was the first time I had tried ice-climbing. Lucky enough to have made friends with one of the most accomplished alpinists I had ever met, I had felt brave enough to try something that was one of the most terrifying aspects of the trekking and climbing world to me. And through that I was quickly discovering that there is a very special bond in having a friend: the rope he holds becomes your only safety and security – effectively your entire world for those couple of hours.
The ice started to crumble in the hole that I had broken with my right axe (my bad side after I hurt my shoulder in an accident years ago) and I began to slip from my precarious perch. Irrational fear had now come to join the fatigue and was beginning to take hold
We were climbing a frozen waterfall in the Parco Nazionale Del Gran Paradiso which is a large area of alpine environment in Italy. It had begun its life as a royal hunting reserve for the protection of the Ibex in 1856. Part of this area was then granted to the state in the early 1900s to create this marvelous national park. It is now 173,000 acres of protected territory where the landscape varies greatly from prairies, rocky cliffs, woods and forests. It supports and protects various fauna including the Alpine Ibex, marmots, foxes, hares, chamois and martins to name a few. The flora is also apparently very diverse but in the dead of winter there are mostly snow, leafless trees and rocks to be observed. There were also no animals in sight but us two mammals, clinging precariously to the icy cliff.
The waterfall had been breathtaking at the bottom. And it had been amazingly fun to scramble up. But now, almost to the top of the 200-meter climb, my shoulders were urgently letting me know that they were about to go on strike. And I was finding it breathtaking near the top too – however this time not for the beauty but for the immense pressure it was delivering to a first-time ice-climber.
Christian, my French guide, had only shown himself to be a sympathetic, kind and patient friend over the entire time that I had known him. He was now slowly revealing his tough professional side. And it was a very hard, exacting and uncompromising face of this almost 6-foot mountain of a man. Clinging with my last reserve of energy and pride to that final vertical stretch I had lost sight of my friend, both literally and figuratively. He had climbed over the top more than 15 minutes ago and was shouting at me to “allez, allez” (come, come). It is extremely embarrassing having someone in their late-fifties hurl abuse with abandon at your stamina and grit over an almost four-hour period.
I heard myself almost whisper back in a tiny voice I am painfully familiar with. It is my scared, tired and frustrated tone: “Christian… I’m slipping” I heard myself whimper. “Trust the crampons. Trust the axes. Trust yourself. Keep going” he boomed back from somewhere over the top, “and keep your heels down”. My left one had perpetually been too high and he had repeatedly told me to keep it in check. But as the fatigue and cold were setting in, I was desperately scampering up the side with little thought for how my left heel was behaving. The final few feet above me seemed to stretch out further than the metric system could account for at the moment.
“I’m tired and hurt” I whimpered back at him again.
The ice started to crumble in the hole that I had broken with my right axe (my bad side after I hurt my shoulder in an accident years ago) and I began to slip from my precarious perch. Irrational fear had now come to join the fatigue and was beginning to take hold. I was on belay with one of the very best guiding and guarding me with almost no slack in the rope at all but it was hard to trust that – or myself. There seemed to be no going back and the only way off this frozen waterfall was to go up. I clung shaking and shivering to my icy roost and waited for him to say something.
He was silent for what seemed like an eternity. I slipped a little further every second. I was freezing and felt defeated. Then in the cold and fading daylight I heard his voice come back. It didn’t have the comfort or sympathy I had expected from my friend, the gentle giant, but it had a hard lesson to convey which I will cherish forever.
“This is when you really start to learn. When you are tired and hurt. When you can’t just use your youth or strength to get to where you want. That is when you must use your wits, your technique and your skill to get there”. As the words settled on me I began to quiet my aching shoulder, bruised knees and scratched legs in order to make it over the edge to him.
Then he spoke again. Softer. Kinder. Much more reassuring this time.
“Also in life. Always remember – when you are hurt and tired is when you really learn”.
That was all I needed to climb over the edge in minutes and be greeted with one of the warmest smiles I have ever gotten. I had finally found my way as well as my friend again.