Big ice

I was hooking my way up a picked-out and crowded frozen waterfall at Wild Basin on Sunday when the climber next to me yelled:

“Ice ice ice ICE!”

You yell “ice!” a lot when you’re ice climbing. It’s usually a fairly casual warning for the folks around you: I am swinging an ice axe into this frozen cascade and knocking down everything from fine shavings to dinner plates. For your own safety, please take notice and avoid the dinner plates. Thank you.

But when this guy yelled “ice!” it had urgency. It was not the casual yell for quarter-to-golf-ball-sized ice chunks easily deflected by a climbing helmet. This “ice!” had danger behind it.

I looked over to see dinner platter ice coming down from him. It was glancing away from me and my husband, who was belaying me below, and away from the climber’s own belayer. But the dinner platter ice (think of what your grandma serves the Thanksgiving turkey on) was heading for a young woman further west along the bottom of the cliff.

She glanced up and dodged one big chunk. Her head was still ducked when another dinner platter crashed into the side of her helmet.

She stumbled backward and crumpled to the ground.

The other climber and I were stunned. We hung motionless from our ice tools, crampons clinging to the ice in silence, waiting. Everyone on the ground (except our belayers) ran to the girl.

The guy who had knocked the ice down was still a bit above me, so I climbed up next to him to avoid being the next victim, just in case, and waited. I looked at my husband. Is she okay? I mouthed. He shrugged uncertainty. The other climber didn’t say a word. He didn’t have to — I knew we were both wondering whether he’d just caused massive head trauma with the flick of an ice axe.

One of the women on the ground came into sight and gave us a thumbs up and a big smile.

“Can you move her to the side?” the climber yelled down. (Just what we needed was another dinner platter of ice coming down on her again, or on someone else.)

By the time I came back down, the poor girl and her climbing partner were perfectly cheerful. Her friend even took a picture of her holding the offending chunk of ice next to her head as she wore a huge death-cheating smile.

“You know,” said the guy who’d knocked the ice down, “It was much bigger than that, but it broke on your helmet.”

“Really? Sweet!”

And she kept climbing.

Norwegian Kool-Aid

One of the reasons I haven’t written much here this winter is that I’ve taken up two new winter sports.

I’m from Missouri, a land that sees more ice and freezing rain than snow. We stay inside in the winter. The only sliding around on the white stuff we do is on a saucer sled (or in our cars). But even if skiing had been part of my region’s cultural identity, my scrawny, uncoordinated childhood physique wouldn’t have accepted the sport as a viable pastime.

Not that well-meaning family members didn’t try. When I was 11, my mom took me to visit our more sporty relatives in San Jose, who for years had spent winter weekends blasting through bowls at Heavenly. They wanted us to experience the joy of skiing and thus carted us up to Lake Tahoe in winter.

Aunt Ethel took Mom high up the mountain, and Mom, being adventurous (and stuck after taking the lift to a no-woman’s land of steep black-diamond snow), somehow followed Aunt Ethel without killing herself or anyone else. Uncle Bruce, a kindly soul who deserves a sainthood for his patience, took me to the bunny slope.

What happened there was one of those traumatic experiences of total childhood humiliation that we later tell ourselves was good for us. I don’t remember much, but I’m sure it was good for me. There was a lot of coaxing, crying, and falling, then some more crying, more falling, and guilt over hating the sport that was the sole reason for wearing the cute bubblegum pink snowsuit Uncle Bruce had bought me. My young mind raced for a way to make this all better as Uncle Bruce moved me down from the bunny slope, where I was pink Missouri carnage to be avoided by hot-dog toddlers from Cupertino, to a tiny slope off to the side — of the bunny slope — out of view of the rope tow, or, as I like to call it, the undertow of athletic inadequacy.

There were more attempts at pizza, french fries, but all attempts at skiing left me feeling like I’d been food poisoned. Just let me go back to the cabin to read a book, I remember thinking before I blotted the rest of the day from my memory.

Poor Uncle Bruce.

Years later, as an adult, I moved to Colorado (the first time) and tried cross-country skiing a few times. I stayed upright for the most part and didn’t cry. Teenage Boulderites passed me on the nordic trails, and this was more tolerable than toddlers, but I still wasn’t enjoying myself.

Perhaps I just needed a cute pink snowsuit to experience the joy?

In November, I was showshoeing near Fraser, Colorado, on one of the first days of the winter that was cold enough to cause snot to freeze inside my nose. The sun dipped behind a ridge around 2:30 p.m., and we had three miles to hike back to the car. Trudging back down, a skiier, quiet and smooth, slipped past us, effortlessly gliding down the hill to the trailhead.

I hated him instantly. My mouth fell open, I looked at my husband and said:

“I’m learning how to ski this year.”

I wasn’t sure just how I wanted to ski — so many ways! — but the answer fell into my lap when the Colorado Mountain Club’s winter course schedule arrived at our house: backcountry cross-country skiing, or ski touring. We both signed up.

With the childhood ski trauma in mind and my adult cross-country experience a 6-year-old memory, I scrawled across my application, “no skiing experience.” I was placed in a small group with beginner skiers and a nice older woman carrying a backpack twice her size.

“Do you have mittens?” she asked me, surveying my gloves like a school teacher. “Because I have down mitts in my pack.”

Jan said she was 72 and had just had two knee replacements. She must have taken lessons on cheerful patience from Uncle Bruce, and fortunately, I wasn’t the one causing the need for patience this time — our group had a drama queen who cried for help every time she fell, which was often, and yelled at us to slow down between telling us, “oh, I’m a fit lady .” But Jan’s drills were helping me catch on, finally. She had me skiing up and down a trail by the end of the day, which felt like a major coup to the little girl in the pink snowsuit crashing all over the hill below the bunny hill.

At the next lesson, I actually figured out that whole pizza and french fries thing. I was moved into a higher group with Pete, who wore wool knickers and colorful knee socks.

“We’ve got a group of guys, and we need a woman to keep us in line,” Pete said. “You can do that, right?”

I liked Pete instantly.

Pete took us on a trail. He taught us how to cross dips in the trail on our long skis and look out for moose.

“If we see a moose, we’re going to find out just how fast you can ski,” he said.

Pete kept haranguing us to glide, not shuffle, and I started to glide. It was a revelation. I could glide several feet in one kick, and it was a glorious feeling. I remembered something a friend of ours told us:

“Snowshoeing is for people who haven’t discovered skiing yet.”

Joy was bubbling. When we got back to the trailhead, we skied back and forth to stay warm in the high winds that batter the Indian Peaks.

“How long have you been skiing, Pete?” I asked.

“Well, let’s see,” he said. “I’ve been skiing 71 years.”


“Well, my father is Norwegian, and when you’re Norwegian, you learn how to ski when you’re two,” Pete said. “I’m 73 now, so I’ve been skiing for 71 years.”

Though I was a Missourian, not a Norwegian, I was inspired. Pete and Jan took me from zero to skiing in two Saturdays. Now that I suddenly knew how to ski (not well, of course), I didn’t want to forget. A few of us girls at the office started doing Saturday ski tours up the hill at Brainard Lake — we start at a reasonable sleeping-in hour, so we’ve dubbed them the Civilized Ski Tours for Civilized Ladies — and, though I can’t keep up with them, I’m finally experiencing the joy of skiing.

Last weekend, I bought my first pair of skis. The CMC instructors are into these old-school, old-country skis that they sell down at Neptune Mountaineering. Gary Neptune is the ultimate old-school cross-country skier. He came out for our classes decked out in a red parka with fur that made him resemble Santa Claus. He has a store full of the latest and greatest gear, but he carries a rucksack that looks at least 60 years old. A fellow student who asked him about the rucksack said he replied:

“When I find something that works better, I’ll carry it.”

I went into Neptune to rent skis (again) for a Civilized Ladies ski tour, but they were out of my size boots. Nonplussed, I ended up buying a pair of gorgeous, smooth Norwegian touring skis that I’ll have to learn how to wax if I have any hope of traveling uphill in them. It’s all quite new and exciting, and the little girl in the pink snowsuit with pink, tear-streaked cheeks can hardly believe it.

And Uncle Bruce would be proud.