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The Ice Axe Cometh

Purchasing an ice axe has made me realize that the next trip is not going to be like any of the previous trips. I bought it "for snow climbing"—which sounds nice, but when you have to carry a mountaineering axe, it means you're going to be on snow, ice and rock. Mixed terrain. Steep, mixed terrain. In this case, my buddy NW and I will be climbing Mt. Whitney—the highest peak in the lower-48, at about 14,505 ft.—in late winter. Although I committed to this endeavor a few months ago, and it is still a few months away, my attention is just now attuned to what we will be doing, what it will lead to, and what it all means.

Our ascent—or attempt to ascend, rather—will be a turning point in a pursuit that has been going on for almost two decades. It began when we were kids using clothesline chord to rappel waterfalls. It continued in college when we acquired proper rock climbing skills, and for the last several years while our technical proficiency...and gear...mounted. It moved in a new direction this past summer when we summitted Mt. Kilimanjaro. And now we will be tackling a full-blown mountaineering route. The progression is significant not on the physical level, but on the philosophical. Whereas once daylight and daring made up the boundaries of our adventures, we will now be contending with avalanches, crevasses and many other concealed obstacles. The ice axe will enable this transition.

In its most basic function, an ice axe is used as a walking stick, held in the uphill hand. It can also be used as an anchor with a rope tied around the shaft—either to aid a following climber, when buried pick-end down, or as a stomp belay, when buried vertically. The axe head can be used to cut footsteps or scoop seats in a hillside, saving energy and time. And when not climbing but falling, an ice axe allows for self-arrest. Without one, you will not get far on a mountain. With one, you can walk among giants.

And so now I see that while we began climbing to make us feel like adults, with all the responsibility and contrivances that accompany perceived dangers, we have reached a point where we climb now to feel like kids again—possessing all the fear and wonder that comes with the unknown. Thanks to the simplicity of the ice axe, the next trip won't be a trip. It will be an adventure.

Reader Comments (1)

I love this post. I love it because it embodies the quest for the ascend. It reminds me of our constant quest upward, our desire and almost necessity to keep on reaching higher with tools, like the ice axe, or without any tools as our desire to always strive for higher and more complex grounds is almost beyond our control.
The prose you speaks to my own quest, my own insatiable desire to keep on reaching higher, keep on demanding more and constantly dream of what is beyond what I already know.
I might need an ice axe.

January 7, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterEJ

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