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The first time.
The first time you do something is always special. Special in the way that you’ll always remember it. It might be something mundane or totally out of your world, but in the end, it gets printed deep in your fibers, within the special space for precious stuff. In that special storage area, some of our first-times are fondly remembered, while others are forever linked with overwhelming dread endured on the day they happened. We purposely forget some first-times; others are re-played like a favorite CD. No matter how many times we try to re-create the circumstances of a first-time, it cannot be re-lived. First-times are unique.
Here’s the story of a first-time, not for me, but for three friends of mine, an experience some of us had the chance to live in the past:
The First Time an Axe Struck Ice and Helps Us to Pull Higher
On a Medium Usually Used for Skating On or to Be Thrown in a Cocktail.
This is our day, retold as precisely as I can remember it…
“Is ice climbing safe (… “dangerous” is the word he's avoiding…) at this temperature?” asks Zane. Good question, at 7:46AM, under the rain. Montreal is as grey and ugly as it gets. Is ice climbing safe?
“Of course it’s safe Zane! It’s snowing where we’re going”, do I calmly reply. We’re waiting for my friend Simon, who told us he’s got a surprise... As a rule, climbing and “surprises” do not mix well. We’re not climbing yet, but… Hum. When Simon arrives, he’s accompanied by a beautiful, light green-eyed, very cheerful twenty-something girl- friend of his.
“Still hate surprises, Louis?” Zane calls in the background. Jerk. Doesn’t he realize that this is the kind of surprising event that can wake up my sweet love, asleep in the next room, in a sec'? How can’t he forget/ignore that she’s jealous as a female tiger, and has the hearing of the coyote prowling for fresh meat? Even while deeply asleep! My possessive “Hulkette” is better left undisturbed. I’d rather she doesn’t know we’re about to go ice climbing with Miss Brazil 2009. For my best interest - and his - I strongly advise him to shut up, or I might reconsider the extend of our friendship while I take slack during today’s climb.
I roughly shove everybody out of my 3-room apartment just as the “surprise” starts to tell us of how funny skinny dipping can be… A sport she discovered during her last trip. Who brought that subject up? No-brainers…
The ride goes quickly by and we all find out that Genevieve (Miss Brazil is not her name after all) is not only pretty, but ALSO smart AND sporty, and even that that she’s been approached to play contact football by an American university. She is a nice addition to our group, with her dark, raunchy and direct sense of humor. For sake of a better expression, I’d say she’s a guy in a girl’s body. As we cross Prevost, the rain turns to snow and the temperature drops to a perfect -7 Celsius with no wind. The scenery gets prettier as plains gently roll to become the Laurentian Mountains. Perfect day. Just. Plain. Perfect.
We reach the base of the cliff, after a mere 8-meters approach from the car, during which Genevieve and Simon manage to:
- Drop a crampon in 40 centimeters of fresh powder.
- Argue whose fault it is.
- Throw water bottles at each other.
- Lose one of the bottles for good. Nature. They’re sorry.
- Shove at each other.
- Find the crampon - thanks to Genevieve, who pushed Simon, who fell on the crampon, which punctured his $300.00 brand new ski pants and also, his left rear cheek.
- All that, over 8 meters. Wonder…
Since everybody knows the basic climbing skills, we can directly go to the fun part. After setting up a top rope, we all take turns at climbing, trying the different angles offered by the cliff, from steep to angled slopes. Everybody struggles at first as they try to master the art of good pick placement and to trust their crampons front points. I always thought that these were trickiest skills to grasp for people who start ice climbing. It is, however, soooo entertaining to watch.
After sharing a few good tricks and tips, everybody has definitely improved their technique. I have them place ice screws while on top rope, just so that they know what it feels like. Genevieve discovers that to get better sticks, she needs to block her wrist. Simon has a revelation: he doesn’t need to bash his feet to mush. Placing/hooking them in the hole made by his axes is way more energy-saving.
We stop for a bite, sip water and talk a bit. The conversation turns around past and future trips. Genevieve tries to lure me into going to Chile with her for a 4x4 road adventure, intertwined with surf and climbing in the Tierra del Fuego. (I wisely omit this part of the conversation while relating the day’s events to my girlfriend that night…) We also talk about what can lead a person to go ice climbing, at which point one of my friends says: “Is it because you like to spend money and feel pain?” First time I hear this one… Could that make some sense?
They go back to work as I make my way to the top and set up a new anchor, from which I can take pictures. Being at a distance from Zane, Simon, and Genevieve, I can observe them better. I can see so much more than their plain climbing moves. I notice the brother/sister friendship of Simon and Genevieve as they resume the push and shove match they began after they got out of the car. My friend and colleague Zane’s demeanor, so calm, in control, as he calculates everything and basks in the moment. The peaceful scenery of the trees covered with snow, dampening every noise. The feeling that, I’ve reached the place I feel best. As Zane reaches the ledge where I belayed him up he admires and addresses directly to the sky: “I love this” and turns to me: “Thanks!”
That’s our whole exchange. I take a picture of both of us. He’s out of breath as I lower him down. I have everybody up for a last picture. As they start to pack the gear, I go back up to remove my anchor and rappel down.
Once inside the car the joking continues for a while; then, the three of them drop to the semi-hazy state following a big physical effort. I look at them, and feel happiness. I’ll never have again a first-time at ice climbing, but to have the chance to be with them, as they have theirs, is just the next best thing. I’m glad that I was there to live it with them, to get to re-live my own, albeit just for a bit. Climbing defines a big part of who I am, sharing it with others is a gift I gladly and often give.
Giving back. A big part of what the outdoors mean to me. When I get them, I'll add the pictures.