Penthouse Retrospective

by Phil Maranda Originally Published: February, 2001

Extreme Ice | 20 Years Ago This Month

On the next day of my ice-climbing adventure, McKay and I arrived around noon at Lake Louise in Jasper National Park. The sky was blanketed with a thin layer of clouds, and the air was quite a bit cooler than on the previous day. After making the 45-minute hike to Louise Falls at the end of the lake, McKay and I attached our crampons and marched up a snow-covered embankment to the base of the light blue wall of ice.

Once again we went through the routine of unpacking our gear and suiting up; then McKay climbed the first pitch in the same proficient manner he had demonstrated at the Weeping Wall, taking the time to ensure each tool was positioned perfectly before moving onward. “If I’m not sure about the placement of my axes or crampons, I’ll keep banging away until. I am,” he shouted down to me as he made the ascent. “That way I will not lose confidence in my next move. You don’t ever want to let the ice beat you.”

On this day we climbed higher, up several pitches, and once again my technique lacked polish. While struggling up the first pitch, my axes and crampons suddenly let go of the ice at the same time, and McKay had to pull hard on the rope to keep me from plummeting to the bottom of the falls.

When we finally made it to the highest point that McKay was willing to take a rookie like me, he anchored me into the ice, then climbed around like a monkey on a thin pillar of hanging icicles, while describing how he was placing his tools and what kinds of things to look for while doing that type of climbing.

When it was at last time to descend, McKay decided that the best way to get me down was to belay me over a cliff located off to one side of Louise Falls. As he tied two ropes to my harness, he mentioned — rather nonchalantly, given the situation, I thought — that it was better to use a pair of ropes, just in case one got severed on the cliff’s sharp rocks. And even though he assured me that the two ropes would hold, all I could think as I worked my way slowly backward toward the edge — and certain doom — was, If the rocks are sharp enough to cut one rope, then what, exactly, Is stopping them from cutting through both?

It was then, as my heart pounded in my chest and my blood was fired with adrenaline that coursed through my veins faster than an avalanche sweeps down the side of a mountain, that McKay tried to set my mind at ease. “Don’t worry, I won’t let you fall,” he said with a grin. “It would be a really long walk for me back to Banff.” He instructed me to place my trust in the equipment, and to lean back when he lowered me over the edge so that I wouldn’t rap my knees — and some other more vital parts of my body — on the rocks.

This was it — time to go. I continued walking backward until I could see no ground beneath me, and then, as instructed, leaned back completely and hung on for dear life while trying in vain not to look down. At long last I could tell people that I was at the end of my rope … and mean it. Being suspended over the sharp rocks 100 feet below was almost more than I could bear, but after smashing my knees on the side of the cliff a few times, I decided it probably would be better if I stopped moving around so much and tried to relax. One way or another, this ride would be over soon enough.

Being lowered over the cliff was one of the most horrifying experiences of the trip. But by the time McKay and I had reached bottom and packed up, my heart had stopped pounding long enough for me to reflect on the climb itself and I felt a certain pride. Not because I had conquered the ice — I wasn’t fool enough to think that was the case — but because I had overcome, if only for a short while, the fears that had haunted me for so long.

If we have not convinced you that Extreme Ice should be a sport much more preferably experienced on a screen fed by some streaming service, these crazy people now have entire web sites devoted to gear, locations, and even training. … Who knows? Maybe these will bring you to your senses. We’d rather try to reinvigorate the cattle drive than do something where freezing is rather the point.

Much Better than Extreme Ice
You may vacation wherever you wish, but let us suggest that extreme ice becomes a lot more pleasant when it ceases being frozen.
Some of us do not need to qualify the dangers of ice by creating an entirely new category of Extreme Ice. But some people are wacky.

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