By Dan Mitchell
Growing up in New Hartford, New York put me at the southern entrance to the Adirondack State Park. Calling it that, a state park, sounds ridiculously uncharitable in light of the astonishing beauty of the mountains and forests within its’ dynamic space. That said, I rarely went there. There was the occasional trip to Old Forge, or the keg parties at a friend’s cabin, but that was the extent of my interest at the time.
On January 22nd of 2020 my interest in the Adirondack State Park was permanently changed, due to the extraordinary support of the Higher Ground military veteran organization, aided by the expert guidance of Paradox Sports. On January 22nd I entered the world of ice-climbing.
The ice axe bit into the wall with a full-throated “thunk”. My recollection of that first swing into the ice is what I imagine a powerful electric shock would feel like, but without the pain. There was nothing painful or even uncomfortable about that first swing. At the risk of sounding overly saccharine, it was love at first “thunk”.
The temperature that day was very mild, somewhere in the low 30’s, and there was little to no wind. My fellow participants and I weaved our way up the hill to the base of the ice-wall where we were provided thorough safety instructions that were to be repeated many times during that first day, and throughout the entire five-day program. Friends told me before I left for the trip that ice climbing is very dangerous. They made this observation without ever having ice climbed themselves, and without the benefit of knowing how deeply immersed in safety the climbing community is.
The ice has character; it has personality. The colors range from captivating translucence, to brown and yellow streamed sediment layers, to blue and green sheets laying like thick blankets along the wall. I was to learn that each of these colors gives rise to a character of the ice that is either welcoming to the climber, or says to appreciate the view and move on.
We walked around the base of the wall like big penguins with our crampons strapped to our boots, as this was the first time that many of us had the use of such equipment. It reminded me of walking on a hot sandy beach with that hip-hitch, bounce style, side-to-side roll. It took some getting used to.
“ICE!” is the command used by the climber and/or groundcrew in the event that ice, or anything else, falls from the wall. For example, if someone dropped an axe from their hand the safety command wouldn’t be “ICE AXE!” it would simply be “ICE!”. One of the reasons for this is that things fall fast. 32 ft/sec² is the acceleration of the earth’s gravity if taken in a void. There are of course lots of things that can slow or arrest that acceleration, like the introduction of air friction, strong wind currents, or the safety rope of a trusted belayer. While it’s most often small chunks of ice coming off the wall, the groundcrew must respond very quickly to protect themselves. Trying to describe exactly what’s coming off the wall before it hits the ground would be like trying to read the road signs in a tornado. It can’t be done, and people could end up getting hurt because of complicating a simple issue.
As mentioned earlier, safety is the number one priority in climbing. Because of staying focused on safety with everyone paying attention to their job on the climb, we get to have some truly remarkable and transformative experiences. Getting to the top of a difficult ice-wall is exhilarating beyond description, and I was fortunate enough to experience that repeatedly. But there’s another side to this. There is the experience of falling, and to me falling was the most profound element of the entire climb.
My hand could feel the axe ripping out of the wall just as I neared the very top. This was my anchor point, and when that axe left the wall so did my feet and the rest of me. I had just navigated what to me was a tricky stage, and this came at the end of a climb which had my arms really smoked. Having finished the toughest part, I was going to stand up on the ledge and take a look around at the beautiful snow-covered mountains before yelling down “TAKE!” to my belayer, who would then carefully lower me back to the ground. In that moment I became careless of where I placed my axe to balance me and being careless while climbing has consequences.
When I felt my body pitch away from the ice, in that very millisecond, everything in the world became perfectly correct. I felt that I was in exactly the right place at the right time, and that the core of reality came into clear view. I am not suicidal, and I am not into adrenaline rushes. In fact, I don’t remember feeling the slightest tinge of adrenaline. Quite the opposite, I felt the most relaxed that I can ever remember feeling. Later I learned that the man backing up my belayer commented on how strangely calm I looked when I fell. This is the unpacking part.
As I became suddenly aware that I was completely out of control and at the total mercy of gravity, I knew that I was safe. I knew from the moment that I got on that wall that my belayer had my back 100% locked, and I didn’t question that in my mind for a moment. Because of the high quality of instruction and the honest connection between all of us in the group, I trusted him completely. When I fell, I was able to experience the truly transformative emotion of recognizing that my whole life is like that. I knew right then that I am completely safe and cared for regardless of how much control I think I do or do not have.
This is not intended to be a religious or spiritual essay, simply a personal observation of the miracles that happen while climbing. Why do people climb mountains? Because it sets them free.
Higher Ground and Paradox Sports regularly provide opportunities for veterans and their families to grow and come together in powerful, positive ways. I got out of the military in 1993, and it took me 27 years to finally explore the programs that are available. I hope that none of my fellow veterans wait this long. What I was able to experience required community, and without the compassionate and professional support of these organizations, none of this would have happened. Miracles are available for the taking, but we have to take the initiative to reach out and find them.
You’ll be forever grateful that you did.