A Frozen Moment

Do you think it’s possible for your whole life to distill down to a single moment?

I was standing on two mostly secure crampons, many feet above my last ice screw in ice that seemed (shrug) good enough. At my right hip, I had two stubby ice screws rendered useless by wet ice that had frozen inside. I looked up to see the remaining 20 or so feet that I still had to climb with a single available screw, not including the two remaining screws for an anchor above. Hmm.

My left tool was securely stuck in the ice overhead. My right tool was at chest height and I was holding fast to the upper grip. I could feel the cool air coming off the ice like a whisper. Periodically, the wind kicked small spindrift off the ledge above.

My perspective suddenly shifted. Instead of focusing on each stick of an ice tool, each kick into the ice, my mind switched to big picture. In this exposed and vulnerable moment, I realized that I was exactly where I wanted to be.

Just moments before, I’d been traversing across thin, hollow ice praying that I wouldn’t kick a crampon through. Upon finding thicker ice, I tried to place a screw in thick ice covered by a layer of slush. The screw wouldn’t go in. I tried a second screw. And this is how I simultaneously clogged and eliminated two screws from my rack. When I realized that I wasn’t going to get a screw where I wanted one, I willed myself to climb higher to find a better placement. This where I found the shrug-worthy ice.

The feeling reminds me of being a springboard diver in high school. I was obsessed with the movement and the challenge of discovering my body’s full capability. My favorite part of diving, however, was the statewide competition at the end of each season. The huge olympic facility would go dead silent. All eyes on the diver. You could hear a pin drop. I remember walking down the board, like I’d done hundreds of times before, loading the board with all of my might and flexing every muscle just so. Toes pointed. Arms fully extended. Knees locked. I tried to achieve simultaneous power and grace. An entire season distilled into 5 airborne seconds, repeated 11 times with each dive. Before my body was fully submerged underwater, I knew whether I’d failed or succeeded to perform. Those loaded 5 seconds represented hours of training, hundreds of dives, weeks of preparation and countless hours of obsessive thought. Back then, this is what I lived for. I won the end-of-season competition my junior year of high school and I remember standing on top of the podium and feeling as hollow as the ice I described previously. I remember thinking about how I should be happy that all of my efforts had paid off, that this was what I wanted. For a multitude of reasons, diving lost its appeal after I achieved my goal. I felt empty.

I have yet to achieve my goals in climbing. As a young climber, I find that each success is a milestone in the process. I do not have an end goal. Instead, I have many.

My big picture moment on the ice reminded me: this is what you want. Every second counts. Every action has consequence. Don’t you dare blow it.

Published by mallorie estenson

Mallorie is an alpine guide, writer and climber based in Seattle, WA.

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