Recovering from an injury can take weeks or months. But even after the bruises disappear, the bones mend, and the cast is off, scars can linger. Not visible scars, but those mental ones that make you question whether you’re truly healed. Like a big question mark in your head that asks: “Is it safe to test that joint, that muscle, that bone?”
That’s how I’ve felt the past couple of months. Since breaking my arm in a hiking accident last fall, I’ve been spending a lot more time at home and less time on the trail. It’s not a matter of physical fitness. I’ve been lifting weights since the cast came off in November, and even worked up the courage to start doing pushups again. I’ve been out hiking, too, and am finally convinced I can navigate a trail without falling on my arm. That might sound ridiculous, but the fear of re-injuring myself has really messed with my head.
So when my friend Eric emailed me last week to see if I’d like to go ice climbing with him and a few of his friends, I had to give the idea some serious thought. I hadn’t climbed anything since my accident – not a crag or a mountain, and certainly not a frozen waterfall. That question mark quickly reared its ugly head and asked, “Is it safe to test that joint, that muscle, that bone? Especially hanging off a wall of ice by the pointy ends of a couple pairs of ice tools and crampons?” Maybe, maybe not. But there was just one way to find out. So despite my trepidation, I dug out my winter climbing gear, sharpened my crampons, and packed up my helmet, harness, belay device, personal anchor system, ice tools, eye protection, and a flask of hot cocoa. And at 6 am, I showed up to climb.
I first learned how to ice climb in 2006 with the Colorado Mountain Club. Eric had been one of my instructors. Since that first trip to Silver Cascade in North Cheyenne Cañon, I’d climbed a few other places around the state – Ouray and Lincoln Falls – but I was far from expert. I wasn’t even a lead climber, which meant I’d be relying on someone else to set up the anchors and ropes.
With North Cheyenne Canyon Road closed, we had to take Gold Camp Road to meet up with the other climbers. Per COVID protocol, everyone drove separately and arrived masked up, which was not only safer but warmer too, given the temperature – a brisk 17 degrees at the Powell Trailhead. Eric’s friends, it turned out, were all Colorado Mountain Club (CMC) hike leaders, ice and rock climbing instructors, and backcountry ski and mountaineering instructors. Needless to say, I didn’t have to worry about how we were going to get the ropes to the top of the ice wall. Between Eric and his friends Scott, Tony, Matt, and Mike, they had it covered. All I had to do was hike roughly a mile down the road and up the trail to Silver Cascade Falls. And climb.
Being with a group of capable climbers for my first outing did a lot to put my mind at ease. Roped up, on belay, and clutching my ice tools firmly in my gloved hands, I sunk the right tool cleanly into the ice. No pain – great. My left swing didn’t go as well. Ironically, that’s my “good arm,” but apparently, it’s not as coordinated as my “bad arm” because the pick glanced off the surface and skittered sideways. I tried again and this time, the left pick landed. Then I kicked my feet, sticking the crampons firmly into the ice, and slowly made my way up the wall: swing, swing, kick, kick, swing, swing, kick, kick. I didn’t make it to the top of the climb – not because of my arm, but because my calves were screaming. Climbing has a way of reminding you of all the muscles in your body that don’t get used enough. I asked Matt to lower me to the ground so I could rest a bit before the next climb.
I got in a couple more climbs that day, and though I didn’t make it to the tippy top of any of them, getting back out there and into the swing of things made the whole trip worth it. I’m hoping to get out again this season, but in the meantime, I’ll be working on my calf raises, seated calf raises, and anything else I can do to get those lazy soleus and gastrocnemius muscles in shape.
With the warm weather of springtime, the ice is melting fast, but you can still get in some ice climbing around Colorado’s Pikes Peak region. If you’re new to the sport, hire a local service like Front Range Climbing to take you out. They’ll provide all the gear and a guide to set up the ropes, give you some initial training, and keep you safe. Or consider a Colorado Mountain Club membership, which gives you access to affordable courses including ice climbing, and instructor-led trips to climbing destinations around the state. If you have the skills but are missing the gear, check out Mountain Chalet for ice tool, crampon, and boot rentals.
Of course, you may have some mental scars and a big question mark asking, “Can I do this?” If that’s all that’s holding you back, think of me, my weak calves, and my broken arm. You may not get to the tippy top, but just getting back into the swing of things is worth the trip.
This blog first appeared as a column in the March 9, 2021 Gazette Woodmen Edition.