Why a Veteran Climber Gets Close to the Edge

by Don Mellor | April 2022, Recreation

The author on Upper Wolfjaws’ Khyber Slide. Photograph by Kevin MacKenzie

his scene plays out every December. I’m standing out on a newly frozen lake. The ice is glass, so thin that I can’t see any bubbles or cracks. It’s as if I’m standing in air. The water is clear, and I can see the rippled mud and the whitened sticks many feet below. My climbing partner is still on shore, skeptical that the ice can actually hold our weight. But I love the sensation, as I did when I was a child, playing early-morning hockey on a shallow swamp. We’d play on ice so delicate that it would bend under our moving weight, and once in a while even collapse when we’d either worn it out or had a pile-up at the goal. But as I said, the water was shallow, two feet at the most, and so there was no real danger. Since then I’ve let myself think that I am the world’s best thin-ice lake-crosser.

I take the climbing rope from over my shoulder, uncoil it and toss an end to my dubious friend. He ties in, so if one of us goes in, the other can pull him out. We unclick the waist buckles of our packs, and we carry an ice tool in each hand, sliding one foot then the other across the lake to the opposite side, where we’ve chosen to climb. In last year’s edition of this scene, my partner was actually too scared to move his feet, so he stood upright while I pulled him across. I love this part of the day.

I don’t want this story to be about risk. That one’s been done many times. I want instead to explain the pleasure of standing where you’re not supposed to stand, seeing the lake bottom so clearly below, being just inches from the water. We need that membrane between us and the world. We want to look at the bear in the woods, but we don’t want to pet it. During a storm, it’s so much better being in a tent than out getting wet or home staying dry in our living room. The sheer nylon between inside and out gets us close, but not into, the tempest. It’s pounding out there, but our little colored space is warm, well-lit and dry. It’s like putting your face against the glass of a shark tank at SeaWorld.

I was down there in Orlando several years ago to speak at the national convention of life insurance underwriters. My task was to explain and quantify the actuarial mortality of mountain climbing. I dumped a ton of information on them, but I think I left them with more questions than answers as I laid out the wide spectrum of activities that go under the umbrella of “mountain climbing.” You mean hiking, as in Mount Marcy? Rock climbing, as in the local gym? Bouldering? Ice-climbing? Everest?

Also interesting were the conversations I had with incredulous flatlanders trying to grasp why anyone would do something like this in the first place. Historically, they had been listing climbing with bungee jumping and wing-suiting. There has not been much affection between the climbing community and the life-insurance industry.

“You must have a death wish!” they assumed. No, I hate risk. It makes me queasy. When I have taken a risk, I feel more guilt than pride. Climbing, to me, isn’t like going over Niagara Falls in a barrel. It’s not about losing control. It’s about having control, cherishing it and zealously maintaining it. Therein lies something of a paradox. I’m not a risk taker. I don’t speed. I ski the bunny slopes. But I love standing on thin ice.

Maybe the most stunning climbing movie of all time is Free Solo. Alex Honnold prepares for and finally climbs Yosemite’s El Capitan without a safety rope. You know all the while that he ends up living. But still, you are squeezing the sides of your chair as he catches a tiny granite edge with the end of his thumb and gently transfers the weight to his first two fingers. His feet are pasted to nothing. There’s no reversing the move. Below is more than 2,000 feet of air to the pine forest below. Even the cameramen turn away.

In 1976, I was there, not with my thumb catching a granite edge, but standing in nylon slings clipped to a hammered piton. That same route (or most of it—Honnold used a variation) took us six days. We spent some nights lying on narrow ledges, some hanging in thin net hammocks, the five-dollar kind you could find at the hardware store. Once, we accidentally dropped a gallon of water, and it fell and fell, never touching the rock, finally going noiselessly out of sight.

Looking through a mesh hammock at the green carpet below is just like standing on thin ice looking at the lake bottom. It isn’t that the enemy—the ground or the frigid lake water—is so present. It’s that there’s a membrane separating us, giving us the illusion of danger.

The climax for us on El Cap was the roof pitch. Honnold’s route traversed left here, but the standard line pitoned its way out a 20-foot overhang, 2,500 feet up, and onto the overhanging 500-foot finish wall. The three of us rotated roles, and on this one I drew the free-rope straw. This meant that, instead of staying on the rock, I would ride the free rope up to the next belay. I lowered out, and out, until I was in a plumb line below my partner’s anchor, where I could “jumar” up the rope to join him. But I stopped. I just had to hang there for a bit and take it all in, spinning slowly over the void. It seemed that all below could hear my heart pounding. Yosemite Valley, the meandering Merced River, the tiny roads and little toy cars—a world of life and green and safety stretched out below me. And then I looked at my rope, a skinny nine-millimeter rope I’d bought used for 15 bucks. Life is simple when there’s just a half-inch of nylon between one’s present and one’s eternity.

That nine-millimeter rope won’t break. It can’t. And my partner’s anchor won’t fail. He’s too good. His anchor system has too many redundancies. There isn’t a lot of real danger. We have control over just about every variable. It’s the illusion of danger, its proximity, that makes it so good.

Did I enjoy the climb itself, or was it simply that I had done it and it was over? Even yesterday, on a hard mixed lead of early-season rock and ice, no single move was as pleasant as clipping in and exhaling at the belay. Finally on top of El Cap, I must have cried. I can’t remember. I know my friends were itching for some beers, but I just sat and gazed at the first full horizon I had seen in a week.

Recently, after yet another tricky defiance of unfrozen lake water, I was chatting with Kevin MacKenzie as I paid out rope to Ben VanderStouw leading the first ice pitch of Chouinard’s Gully at Chapel Pond. It was still November, and I doubt anyone had climbed it yet this season. In fact, I’d turned back just a few days earlier, deeming it foolish to try.

“I love this season,” I told Kevin. “I absolutely love these sketchy conditions. Yet later in the winter you’ll have to pay me to do it.” Literally. I work as an ice- and rock-guide and the routes that are so thrilling in November, when the approaches are hard and the ice is thin and safe protection nonexistent, become work routes when ice is thick and safe, when they are in “good” condition. I have no interest in roping up for Chouinard’s Gully mid-season.

Kevin is the legendary MudRat. He became a good technical climber by pushing his fingers against the thin, pliable film separating security from danger, instead of leaping from the climbing gym to the rock wall, as do most of today’s climbers. Kevin eased his way in, incrementally, putting his hand near the stove to see how it felt.

Without the benefit of instruction, Kevin began his climbing days by hiking steeper and steeper slides, mainly because they terrified him, he told me. But he’d admit today that he never really knew how close that stove was, how thin the metaphorical lake ice, between him and death. Now, as I write, he’s out on Gothics North Face. With a sore hip and this article to write, I turned down his invitation to join him. He’ll be fine. But there’s a growing number of other climbers, naïve climbers, who think that this kind of mountaineering is cool. It’s easy, they say. Low-angled, nothing too technical. After all, it’s not El Cap, they think. But the ice, figurative and metaphorical, is thin indeed. Trip, stumble, snag your pants with the point of your crampon and you are off. The velocity of a falling climber is not dependent on the difficulty of the climb.

Around four in the morning, mid-December 2012, my phone rang. Department of Environmental Conservation dispatch was calling in rescuers to a reported accident on a High Peaks slide. Real winter hadn’t yet set in, and there wasn’t much snow. The slides hadn’t been covered up yet. Most were just glazed rock and little rivulets of ice. Low-angled. Easy.

It turned out to be one of the most grueling rescues rangers can remember. The initial call had come in late the day before. That night a forest ranger and local physician’s assistant hiked in to the injured climber, where they assessed things to be much worse than they had expected. Not only was the man gravely injured, but the approach was horrible and dangerous. They needed help and more specialized equipment if they were to save his life. We started our hike in the dark, and after a few steep trail miles, followed by a wicked bushwhack to the base of the slide, we could still barely hear the shouts from a thousand feet above.

A couple of years later I received a thank-you note from the fallen climber. He said that he had rehabbed pretty well, and that he had very little recollection of the event. He knows he was starting to feel kind of sketchy as the ice steepened. He thinks his more experienced partner was about to offer him a rope.

Lucky for him he doesn’t recollect a 200-foot, bone-smashing fall into the rock-covered ledge. Or being strapped into a litter for more than 20 hours, being dragged and lowered and bumped over ledges and through tight woods, all the while screaming, “Who are you people? Why are you doing this to me?” He doesn’t remember the smell or the purple coagulation that pooled into his eye sockets, closing down his vision.

Whether or not I’m involved with a rescue, I occasionally get calls from the media wanting my take on a climbing accident. I don’t give them much. I’ve moved beyond judging whether a climber has made a good or a foolhardy decision. It’s not that I condone reckless behavior. I just don’t presume to know how thin was the glass between him and boulders. How much time he had spent playing on, and coming to understand, thin ice.

Some people shake their heads in disapproval when they see me shuffling across Cascade Lake, as I did a couple of weeks ago. (One time a state trooper came charging down the bank to order me off the ice.) “Look at that idiot out there,” motorists must say to each other.

Some of those same people have been up the Lake Placid ski jump. You step into the elevator and realize it’s a glass shaft, 200 feet high. Your stomach flips as the car rises and, as you peer through the thin glass wall, the landscape spreads out below. Then you get out and walk to the viewers’ railing, where a couple of jumpers are lining up and last-checking their gear.

And you think, These guys must be nuts. 

Don Mellor is a climbing guide and author of six books, including American Rock and Climbing in the Adirondacks. Learn more at donmellorguiding.com.

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