My right leg was shaking uncontrollably. It was a rather violent shake.  I am not sure if it was the fatigue (my goddamn tool was stuck in the ice; I had been trying to get it unstuck for a while now), my ACL injury that still isn’t quite back to 100%, or the petrifying fear I was experiencing.

“Don’t fall.” kept going through my head. Every ice climber knows that. Even a noob like me. It was my first time leading. My feet were maybe 5 feet off the ground. Chances are a fall wouldn’t be the end of the world. But fuck, if I fall in the first 5 feet of my first lead, then maybe I should just throw in the towel and give up on my dreams being a “real” ice climber. Also, I had sharp pointy things stuck on my hands and feet that would be unpredicable and dangerous in a fall. 

Thoughts of my journey that lead to this moment went through my head. I remembered years ago hearing the first rumors of this sport called “ice climbing”. 5 years ago, I encountered a guy who said he did this sport. He had quit due to a shoulder injury though. He couldn’t teach me. But, I had met my first real-life ice cilmber. I spent a lot of time looking for someone, anyone, that would show me this “ice climbing.” People seemed to have just gone out and bought gear and magically started ice climbing. I was mystified. 

Finally, I found someone willing to take me out and teach me. He told me about the Mountaineering Club’s “Ice Fest”. I signed up asap. I finally learned something about ice climbing. I wasn’t a “natural”. I fell once we got on the steeper toprope at Ice Fest. My footwork was atrocious. My tools popped out of the ice because I held them at a terrible angle. I actually fell so hard that my belayer let me hit the ground that first year at Ice Fest. After Ice Fest, we went climbing a few times. He would lead, I would follow and clean the route. I fell. A lot. But it was ok because I wasn’t leading. Life caused me to lost my ice climbing mentor.

I went to Ice Fest a few more years. I got better. I progressed to mock leading. I fell less, if at all. I could judge routes better. I slowly accumulated gear. Finding a new ice climbing mentor has been difficult. Fuck it, I am ready, I will lead it.

But, there I was, my leg shaking uncontrollably, trying to place an ice screw only two feet above my last so I could just clip in and rest and get my head about me. Years of accumulating knowledge to just get to this point, and hear I was about to blow it. I was feeling like I had horribly misjudged the situation. I was not ready. Not even close. Fuck ice climbing, i'll just stick to skiing where I belong. I struggled to get a screw in. My stuck tool was in the prime screw placement location. I finally got the screw in, pulled the quick draw, and struggled to clip the rope in.

“TAKE!” I yelled at my belayer, “I need a fucking break.” I gently weighted the rope.  My leg slowly stopped shaking. I took a good look at my stuck tool. Well, I can’t go down without at least getting that out. No going back now.

I swung with my free tool and sunk it. I kicked my feet back in and braced myself. With the two pieces of protection right below me, I felt more comfortable to yank on the stuck tool. A few minutes later, it was free and I was going up. The fear didn’t leave but now it was a challenge, not a road block. Breathe, swing, stick, climb, move up. Place pro. Don’t drop the pro. Repeat. Don’t fall. Don’t fall. Don’t fall…..

I guess I repeated enough: I made it to the first bolted anchor on the side of the route. I clipped in and went off belay. I backed up the bolted anchor with a V thread and set up a top rope. I say that like it was no big deal. It probably took me 20 minutes. My 22 cm ice screw froze. I couldn’t blow the snow out. Probably because it took me half a dozen tries to sink the V thread. For all my practicing on the ground, getting it right when it mattered was no simple task. My belayer was freezing.

Finally, I called that I was ready to come down and clean my route. I slowly came down, pulling the ice screws as I went. I reached the ground safely. I didn’t fall. I didn’t bail and lose any gear. Nothing terrible happened. All the years that lead up to this lead were for something after all. 

Maybe someday, I will be a real ice climber. For today, my mission was accomplished: I tamed my fear, tried something new, and most importantly, didn't fall.  

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