Alone at home in Alaska, in the wake of Tor Edvin and Nic’s departures, I decided to reunite with some old friends. I called up Killian Sump, adventurer and past coworker at Kenai Fjords Glacier Lodge. Since there wasn’t enough snow for satisfying backcountry skiing, he had a better suggestion – why not go ice climbing? I had never been, but was stoked to give it a try. Up-close and personal contact with beautiful, sculptural, frozen waterfalls of varying colors and shapes? Sign me up!
We left town before dawn, outfitted with a whole bunch of dangerous-looking equipment that I had never before used, but frequently observed. After getting the car stuck in a ditch and soliciting some friends with a truck to rescue us, we finally parked at the Thunderbird Falls trailhead, descending down the trail into one of the most idyllic winter forests I have ever seen. Snow hung thick from giant trees, notably larger than those one typically encounters in Alaska. I was in awe.
The river running in the canyon below, usually frozen into a pathway, was mostly open water, but we decided to give it a shot anyway. After carefully making our way down the steep canyon wall, we found ourselves in a magical, quiet world of total stillness and the gentle sound of flowing water: Eklutna Canyon. Footprints led gingerly along the riverbank, crossing in selective areas where thick river ice still formed bridges over the water. It had been somewhat warm in Anchorage, but as we made our way down the canyon, we embarked into deeper and deeper cold.
We came to the first waterfalls, towering sculptures of green, blue, yellow; crystalline formations like glass that spilled from the rock face and down into the snow. It seemed like something from another world. Here and there we encountered other climbers, quiet and assessing, or slowly, gently ascending the ice faces. I was struck by how calm and meditative it seemed, like the only way to achieve such a thing was to work in cautious and respectful harmony with the ice itself.
We continued onward. A silvery layer of frost covered the stone walls of the canyon, glinting green-blue in the winter light.
At last, we reached our destination! Ripple, it was called. A group of climbers was already working their way up, so we hiked around for a bit, checking out some other waterfalls, trying to keep moving to stay warm.
When it came our turn, Killian climbed the lower wall first, setting protection into the ice with screws. At the top, out of my sight, he set up an anchor, so that on my first climb I could have the assurance of being top-roped. I put on the most vicious-looking crampons I had ever seen, and with Killian’s guidance, gave it a try.
Climbing ice was unlike anything I had done before. It was slow and methodic, and not as physically challenging as rock climbing, but it took focus, calmness, and perseverance. Pressed up against that wall of ice, with a tool in each hand, I would kick my toes into the ice, then one tool, then the other, slowly walking – sort of in midair, but attached to the ice – up the waterfall. It was slow-going, at first. I had difficulties getting the tools to dig deep enough into the ice, and my fingers, now in thinner gloves, were freezing.
Eventually, I asked Killian to lower me down. The cold in my hand was the kind of cold that makes you afraid. I removed the gloves and plunged my hands under my jacket, warming them on my bare skin. As blood flowed back into my fingers, my arms were flooded with extreme pain, like shards of glass being forced through my bloodstream, white-hot. Waves of nausea racked my body. What’s happening to me? I wondered, describing the feeling to Killian and the rest of the ice climbers hanging around.
“Oh, yeah, that,” Killian nodded understandingly. “That’s something we call the ‘screaming barfies.’ It’s normal. Sometimes it happens to people mid-climb, it can be so bad they throw up right there or pass out and fall off the wall.”
I stared in disbelief, but the other climbers agreed. The screaming barfies were clearly real, and I was getting my first taste of it. I stared at my fragile-looking hands. Sorry, I thought. After recovering for a bit and belaying Killian, I put on my warmest mittens, borrowed a fellow climber’s better ice tools, and ascended the waterfall without a problem. Warm enough clothes, clearly, were key.
As it goes with winter in the North, the sky began to darken by early afternoon, and we decided to make our way out of there before nightfall. Killian climbed back up, removed the anchor, and rappelled down from a nearby tree.
I waited below, listening to the chatter of the ice climbers, contemplating life. If I had stayed in Alaska, if I had never gone to art school, this would have been my life. I would be an expert at this sort of thing. Maybe I still will be, one day – life has a way of taking you where you’re supposed to go. I couldn’t shake the feeling, though, of brushing up against some parallel life I might have lived, a glimpse into another possible trajectory. The feeling was distinctly surreal.
Darkness fell on Eklutna Canyon, and we departed, mission accomplished.