My first-time ice climbing and the struggles with a fear of heights
TRIP OBJECTIVE: Learn to ice climb LOCATION: Ouray Ice Park, Colorado TRIP DATES: Jan 15-19, 2021 CLIMBING DATES: Jan 16 & 17 PHOTOS IN COLLAB WITH: Chris Brinlee Jr
This month, my friend and I drove out to Colorado to try ice climbing for our first time at Ouray Ice Park, which we perceive to be the mecca of ice climbing. We didn’t have a guide, but an experienced friend from Instagram offered to take us and teach us. When an opportunity knocks, you answer. I was so excited to try something new that I didn’t even think about the fact that I’d be high up off the ground and anxiety would settle in…
We arrived in Ouray on Sat 1/16/20 just before noon. Ouray, aka the Switzerland of America, is an adorable small town tucked away in the Rocky Mountains which I’ve always wanted to visit and it’s the perfect mini escape in the winter.
*Chocolate Lovers Tip* stop by the chocolate shop in Ouray for some yummy dark hot cocoa and scrap cookie! I may be biased as a have a huge sweet tooth but it’s the best hot chocolate I’ve had in years.
Day 1: Learning the Beginner Basics of Ice Climbing in Ouray
Ouray Ice Park is only a ten-minute walk from the edge of town where we stayed.
After meeting up with Chris, we walked over to the man-made park and he gave us a quick lesson on the basic techniques of ice climbing including proper posture, how to swing the ice tools, how to kick your feet into the ice with the crampons, how to dress to not be a human popsicle, etc. My key takeaway is to stand in a triangle form and swing directly centered in front of you.
I’m really slow at ice climbing – I’m sure it’s partially because I’m a beginner, and partially because of my fear of heights. After our crash course, we got in two climbs. I didn’t make it up either climbs because I got in my own head – I made it up halfway and decided it was a good time to come down.
Day 2: Getting Over the Mental Hurdle of Heights/ Falling when Ice Climbing
To start, day 2 of ice climbing in Ouray went a lot better – sort of. I mean, I ended strong and that’s what counts, right?
We spent all day at the park and took turns climbing since there were three of us. I did three climbs this day and didn’t fully finish any of them (although I count the last one as the top since I was basically almost there).
Mind over Matter: Ice climbing is physically demanding, but for me, it’s much more mentally challenging. Sometimes I question why I do this to myself- why do I put myself in situations where I am high off the ground and start to panic. It doesn’t even have to be that high… 10-20 feet already makes my heart race. I always come back to this: I want to experience new things, I know it’s all in my head, and don’t look down. I used to be that person that wants to look down regardless, but I’ve learned it’ll just add to my anxiety.
When your technique is right, the body is certainly less tired, but when you’re tired, all technique goes out the door. On every climb, my issue was going up halfway and then being too scared that I was so high up, too scared I would fall, and too scared to let go and take a break when I needed it. It was a constant struggle of I want to keep going, I know I can physically do this, but man, I’m exerting so much energy just hanging out up on the ice waiting to overcome my fears and push through. Is it worth it to keep going? Should I just stop and go down now? Don’t look down. Hang on for dear life. That was the conversation I had with myself every step of every climb. I feel for my belayer – I made Chris and Kinga stand out there for anywhere from 30-50 mins just for me to not make it to the top. A good support system is the single most important thing when doing things out of your element – patience is key, and I am forever grateful to all of my patient adventure partners.
First Ice Climb: The first wall seemed much more vertical on the bottom half to start which is a lot more exhausting. After failing to reach the top of any climb the previous day (which honestly looked so close from the ground, but so high once you’re up there), I was determined this day to make it to the top. In my mind, I was already there – it was going to happen.
…it did not happen.
I started strong from the ground, I felt confident and determined, but that quickly faded. The very vertical wall was a struggle, then the fear and anxiety kicked in, then the soreness from hanging on settled in… and I got off.
Second Ice Climb – the most mentally challenging one: This climb started off great too. I felt confident… but that quickly passed when I reached an obstacle I struggled to overcome – I exerted a lot of energy from the fear of hanging on. I struggled to move from the wall in front of me to the one literally right next to me because as I turned sideways, the entire view down was unavoidable within my peripheral view (the photo doesn’t look as bad as it felt but I also didn’t trust my crampons as I struggle to kick it in the ice, I didn’t trust letting go of the ax in one hand. I trusted my belayer. I trusted I was tied in correctly. I trusted that the rope should catch me if I slip so I’m really not going anywhere. But it was all just the mental hurdle for me to believe that trust and do as I’m guided. I turned around after getting above that section cause I felt defeated. I could see the top… I should have kept going. I was so scared sh*tless out of my mind and frustrated because it seemed so easy yet so mentally difficult… I cried a little during the struggle of it all. I spent 50 mins on this climb (30 mins just to move up 3 ft) and made it just over halfway up before heading down.
Third Ice Climb: My final climb went fairly well. It was slightly less vertical and Kinga belayed me this time (her first time belaying me but I trust her) so Chris could climb up next to me to get some epic shots. I felt more comfortable this time because it was the last climb of the weekend and I was determined to make it up to the top (I stopped maybe 5-10 ft short because the last part sketched me out). It really helped to have someone from my group on the wall so close to me up high. The idea of being alone up there freaks me out… but I know that’s not something I can normally count on.
Overall Thoughts on my First Ice Climbing Experience: I often forget I’m scared of heights until I’m already up. Mind over matter – it’s about an 80% mental challenge / 20% physical challenge for me. It’s true what they say… when you do it right (strike the ice right, correct form, etc), it exerts a lot less energy. When I’m just hanging on, scared out of my mind to move and try the next step, it exerts a lot more energy. Stating the obvious but go with someone experienced that you’re comfortable with, whether it’s a guide or a trusted friend. I don’t let just anyone take me out on a new adventure and although it was my first time meeting Chris, I do my due diligence and trusted I’d be in good hands.
Lessons I learned from ice climbing: I’m not built for the outdoors but I’m not willing to give it up either. Don’t overthink – just keep moving. Fake it till you make it. Mind over matter. Where there’s a will, there’s a way. *insert any other overused motivational quote here*
Have a separate/ warmer set of clothes for when you’re standing around waiting for your turn on the rope – your ice climbing gloves should not be the same as your waiting-around thicker mittens. Also finally had a reason to wear my down skirt 😛
We ended the night at Orvis Hot Spring which was an amazing surprise of the trip. We got to soak in our birthday suits (it’s dark and spacious) and star gaze – not pictured. Definitely recommend doing this if you’re in the area. Then started the next morning at an undisclosed natural hot spring which turned out to be lukewarm at best, before starting our long journey home.
Travel Itinerary/ Logistics (if anyone is curious to make the same trip):
Jan 15/ Fri: Picked up can rental in SoCal – drive 11.5 hr to Grand Junction
Jan 16/ Sat: Drove 2 hr to Ouray and Ice Climb in the afternoon
Jan 17/ Sun: Ice Climbing all day, Orvis Hot Spring in the evening
Jan 18/ Mon: Soaked in an unmarked, wild, natural hot springs in the morn, drove 3:40 hr to Moab, visited a bucket list viewpoint just before sunset
Jan 19/ Tues: Hike Delicate Arch in snowy Moab then drive 10:40 hr home
Photos from Moab:
Gear I used:
- Borrowed Crampons & Ice Axe from Chris
- BD Helmet
- BD Harness
- Yellow Down Jacket
- Dark Purple Stretchdown Jacket