BREATHING THE COLD
A SPECIAL MATERIAL
Simon Messner scrapes some ice from his beard with satisfaction. Climbing val di Travenanzes is a long walk, and almost entirely in the shade if you leave early. When you go in search of an ice waterfall, you suddenly find one unexpectedly, right in front of your nose.
Ice is a special material. It seems to be motionless, as if it were petrified, but in fact ice never has the same shape. It shifts, changes in density and appearance day after day. From one year to the next, no waterfall ever remains exactly the same. An increase of just a few degrees in temperature can render even the most imposing waterfall impracticable or even obliterated. This is because ice has the same transient beauty as flowers.
AN INEVITABLE ENCOUNTER
Simon begins to get the gear ready. He meticulously checks the ice screws before racking them from his harness. With one eye closed, he checks the blades on his tools, to be sure they are straight. Although climbing ice is certainly very tiring, modern equipment has definitely made it simpler.
Climbing ice was something natural for Simon Messner. When you like climbing and you spend a great deal of your time in the mountains, at a certain point an encounter with ice is inevitable. So either you turn around and go back, bearing in mind the season, the altitude and the exposure as an insurmountable limit, or you face this material with curiosity and a hunger to explore. In this way, by leaving the warm coziness of your comfort zone, you find out that you can usually pass where there is ice, and you can also have a lot of fun.
STEEL IN THE WATER
After taking a last glance at the enormous and inviting flow of ice awaiting him, Simon takes off. His head and arms must lock into a constant rhythm: crampon, crampon, ice axe, ice axe. It is by internalizing and repeating while keeping the mind calm that you get to the point where placing a solid anchorage becomes definitive. Breathing, shaking your forearms and brain a bit, and repeat. It always seems odd to remember that your progress completely depends on a few centimetres of hard steel planted into nothing other than solidified water.
Climbing ice teaches us many things. For example, we learn that what we consider a limit is instead a possibility. That facing a little cold and fatigue opens the doors to worlds of rare beauty, hidden from most and yet available to everybody. And also that the winters are no longer the same as those of ten or twenty years ago. Year after year, the altitude where solid and inviting ice is found rises unrelentingly.
There is one more reason for dedicating time to exploring these landscapes and to the techniques necessary to open them up. Or better still, there are two reasons: first, because the impact of human activities on the global climate risks forever obliterating that chilly and transient beauty that should be caught before it disappears forever. And second, because beauty is something to which every human being is sensitive. Because experiencing beauty and imagining its loss is a powerful driver for change, directing our steps in a more respectful and responsible manner, having another concrete reason to reduce our negative impact on the climate. Before it’s too late.
THE FIRST STEP
The first step is always the hardest. Especially if it is the first step taken toward an ice waterfall. You know how it is from the beginning. When you go ice climbing, it is always going to be a difficult day. One of those days that stays long in the memory. Naturally, it is cold. There is a stinging, acute and dry chilliness that you find only underneath those walls that the sun never reaches. However, there are also the approaches that are often eternally long and where snow often goes above your knees. When you go ice climbing, you know what is waiting for you: short days and intensive fatigue. But it’s worth it.