The Dropped Ice Axe
By Allison Snyder
“Swing, kick, kick, stand up, hips in.” Jonathan smiled. “That’s all there is to it!”
But I wasn’t so sure about that. I’d spent most of my thirty-four years moving parallel, not perpendicular, to the earth’s surface. And I was starting to doubt the wisdom of accepting an invitation to climb an icy gully on New Hampshire’s Mount Washington.
To say my experience was limited would be an understatement.
I’d never swung an axe into ice, and the only crampons I’d worn were not the type with front points that allow for vertical ascension. When my friend, Marcus, invited me to join him and Jonathan on a multi-pitch climb, I reasoned that I was athletic so I could figure it out. Plus, taking chances was just the sort of thing I intended to do in the coming year—five days earlier, I’d quit a decade-long pursuit of law firm partnership to do just that.
But as I watched Jonathan, one question turned in my head: Can I do this?
After years on a road lined with familiar, I feared I’d lack the buoyancy to risk, to chance failure.
Jonathan stepped to the side. “You try.”
I envisioned a wall of ice and followed his instructions.
“You got it!” He clapped.
But I wasn’t so sure.
That night, in the cocoon of my sleeping bag, I replayed the rehearsal session. I tried to imagine moving up a sheet of ice. But all I saw was a mound of crampons, axes, and helmets that’d been crashed to shore by the waves of unfamiliar.
What was I doing?
My Manhattan apartment was nearly disassembled. My notice had been delivered. The car that I planned to live in while exploring the American West had been purchased. The dominos were tumbling. But I still wasn’t sure if I could do it. And now, I was on a mountain known for erratic weather and record-setting winds to test my buoyancy.
Who did I think I was? I slumped to my side.
What if I failed? I rolled to my back.
By the time I had quieted the fears, it was time to rise and face them.
The temperatures hovered just above zero, snow flurried, and true to its reputation, bitter wind bit my skin. I focused on the new, on the possibilities as we hiked to the gully.
“It’s go time.” Jonathan dropped his pack on a sloping ledge and gazed up.
As I followed his gaze, all efforts to muffle my fears crumbled. I pulled on my harness, strapped into crampons, and fastened my helmet. Then, I leaned down to pull a snack from my pack and the goggles that I’d failed to secure to my helmet skidded over a sea of white crust. Rookie mistake number one.
“Crap.” I looked at the abyss.
“Do you have other eye protection?”
As Jonathan tied rope into his harness, several other parties arrived. Ease shifted to rush.
“Allison, remember—swing, kick, kick, stand up, hips in and repeat!” Jonathan turned to the wall and did just that. It looked easy.
But his ease misled. When it was my turn to swing, my axe didn’t sink on the first, second, or third try. When it took, I moved my feet up the wall, pushed into a stand, sucked in my hips, and swung again.
It wasn’t pretty, but I reached the first ice screw. My legs trembled as I twisted it loose. When it emerged, needing a free hand, I slid the screw in my mouth just long enough to remember that it, like the ice, was frozen. Rookie mistake number two.
On I went.
My sunglasses fogged with each breath. Now many breaths in, my vision blurred. When I reached the second screw, I looked up to a steepening wall of ice.
Marcus, who was climbing on a parallel rope several paces ahead of me, looked down. “You okay?”
“Great.” I lied. I was terrified, absolutely terrified.
As the wind and snow numbed my cheeks, I swung again. Swing, swing, swing, swing, kick, kick, kick, kick, stand up, tremble, wipe glasses, tremble more, suck in hips, slip, panic, kick, kick, slip, kick, panic, breathe, wipe glasses. Swing, swing, swing, swing. The axe didn’t catch.
“Still okay?” Marcus howled.
“I don’t know.” I lied again. I knew I wasn’t okay.
He paused so I could catch up. I never did. I took one more swing and whoosh, the axe flew through the air. Luck landed it more than ten feet from the climbers in waiting. Rookie mistake number three.
With one ice tool I saw no way to make it any higher than where I dangled. I looked up at Marcus. “I can’t do this.”
“Move to a good stance. We’ll come back for you.”
A good stance? I hadn’t found a good stance since leaving the sloping ledge.
“Okay.” I moved to the side, kicked my feet in, and stood trembling in fear, cold, and embarrassment. Not only had I failed, I had failed before an audience of climbers in grand style.
We descended and I apologized to everyone at the base. They accepted the apology or brushed it off as unnecessary. But I couldn’t forgive. My fingertips stung from exposure to cold and my stomach stung from exposure to failure.
Failure was uncomfortable.
I’d shied away from it for over a decade.
I’d followed a path shrouded in success. But to follow it, I’d hid a part of myself. I muffled the creative, the imaginative, and the simple. Hid the girl who spent her days writing, directing and starring in plays. Hid the teenager who found freedom on dirt trails. And hid the woman who couldn’t understand why, after years of following all the rules, she was so unhappy.
As I turned the dropped axe in my head that evening Jonathan asked, “Wanna just hike to the top tomorrow?”
“Sounds good.” I lied. Good would’ve been hiking to a pub where I could pretend none of the day’s failure had happened.
But maybe a trip to the summit would have a similar effect.
At the summit, the wind swept us to the ground as the snow blinded our view. The feat distracted for a moment, but as we descended, the dropped axe gripped my mind. I pushed the heels of my crampons into the snow and wondered: How many failures would it take to become comfortable with failure?
“Why’d you quit?” Jonathan interrupted my internal interrogation.
I looked up. “There’s gotta be more out there than shuffling between an apartment, the gym, and an office with a view. I just don’t know what yet.”
“You’re so right.” Whereas I’d answered with a tentative hopefulness, his words brimmed with confidence. “I’m trying to work six months, and explore six months. Did I tell you about the expedition I’m dying to put together? It’d be epic.” His stride quickened as he jolted forward with the gusto of man who intended to reach trail’s end thoroughly wasted.
I followed his lead and shared my still forming dreams.
Dream by dream, enthusiasm for the possibilities of life at full throttle bubbled to the surface. Possibilities that wouldn’t be realized without chance, risk, and failure.
At the trailhead, as snow drifted through the evening sky, the possibilities I’d brewed with Jonathan nudged me forward.
Maybe we never get comfortable risking failure. Maybe we just wise to the truism that failure is inevitable. I could either fail once by never trying. Or, I could try many times, risk many failures.
As we approached the car, Jonathan and Marcus joked, “Next time, try not to drop the axe.”
I smiled. And the next winter, I heeded their advice.
AUTHOR: Allison Snyder
In 2016, Allison traded Prada heels, a Manhattan high-rise, and a decade-long pursuit of law firm partnership for running shoes, a used car, and an adventure in the American West. During her travels, she fell in love with Colorado's San Juan Mountains, where she now writes, runs and explores.