The Only 3 Excuses: 3 days on Canadian ice

I originally posted this piece in my blog; it seemed a better fit considering the teaching/life lesson format. However, since it was a trip to another country (albeit only three days in our neighboring country of Canada), I thought I should copy it under “Trips and Adventures” for the sake of continuity. Enjoy!

Placing psychological pro in bad ice on the Reflection Wall in Nipigon, Canada.

Placing psychological pro in bad ice on the Reflection Wall.

I was busy planning an alpine climbing trip with Nate and halfway through my second pint of Surly when my phone rang. I glanced down at the screen to see who was calling at 2030 on a Wednesday, and the name Adam Dailey was blinking on the screen. Adam is the strongest mixed and drytool climber in the entire Midwest, and he wasn’t the kind of guy to call just to say hello and shoot the breeze.

“Hey, what’s going on?” I answered as I mouthed the word “Adam” to Nate.

“What are you doing tomorrow?” Adam asked. No small talk, just straight to the point.

“Umm, well I just got back from two and a half weeks in Switzerland so I’ll be at work trying to catch up. Why?”

Adam laughed. “Dude, that’s a horrible idea. Nope, you are going to pack your shit and drive up to Duluth tomorrow by noon. Jon and I are picking up Whit Magro at the airport in Thunder Bay, and we’re headed up to Canada for the Nipigon Ice Fest. We need a fourth climber, someone strong.”

Adam, Jon, and Whit approaching the routes on the first day in Nipigon.

Jon, Whit, Adam, and James approaching the routes on our first day in Nipigon.

I hesitated. I had only been back at my job for three days, and I had a lot of work to take care of from the preceding two weeks. On the other hand, it was a chance to climb and hang out with a world class climber; Whit Magro had climbed and established hard ice, rock, and alpine routes all over the world, and I knew him from my time in Bozeman to be a genuinely nice guy who always had a lot of stoke and power.

“I’m sorry, bro, but I just can’t. I don’t know if I would have a job on Monday if I took off again.”

He laughed again. “Perfect! If you get fired, you can move up to Duluth. I could use another good climbing partner up here. Just think about it and call me back in an hour, ok?”

I hung up the phone and filled Nate in on the situation, mentally scrambling for a way to make it all work. I ran through a dozen possible scenarios in my head; all of them either concluded with me being unemployed on Monday or missing an incredible weekend of climbing in Canada. I was about to send a text to Adam declining the offer,  when my mind suddenly flashed back to a moment in Kandersteg a week earlier. While sipping our daily espresso, Magdalena told me that her entire life philosophy could be summarized in a single, ancient Tibetan maxim:

Better to live one day as a tiger than a thousand years as a sheep.”

I picked up the phone to call Adam back – potential consequences be damned, I was going to live as a tiger this weekend. The phone rang twice before he picked up.

“Yeah?”

“Fuck it, bro. I’m in.”

Ready to warm up on the route "Ten Percent Real" (WI5) for my first climb in Nipigon.

Ready to warm up on the route “Ten Percent Real” (WI5) for my first climb in Nipigon.

Ten Percent Real felt 100% real - 55 meters of sustained vertical ice, and a thin, steep finish.

Ten Percent Real felt 100% real – 55 meters of sustained vertical ice with a thin, steep finish.

Despite my close proximity to our neighboring country, I had never actually crossed the border into Canada to climb. This glaring omission on my climbing resume, I quickly discovered, had been a huge oversight. Nipigon may not have the vertical relief or huge routes found on the Stanley Headwall in British Columbia, but the routes there are fantastic and absolutely worth the pilgrimage. Wall after wall of steep ice and mixed pitches lined the winding roads like a scene out of alpine hardman’s dream. Orient Bay climbing is no picnic; normal winter temperatures require double boots and a double portion of desire. The approaches range from roadside strolls to multi-hour ski tours, and hundreds of hard lines stand waiting for a first ascent from someone with the vision and guts to search them out and put them up.

Following Jon's lead up a fun WI4.

Following Jon’s lead up a fun WI4.

At the top of the route with most of Peter and half of Jon.

At the top of the route with most of Peter and half of Jon.

Adam, Jon, Whit, and I shared a large, comfortable room at the Beaver Motel in Nipigon. After a full day of climbing and socializing on Friday, we set off Saturday morning to teach the advanced ice clinic to a large group of stoked climbers. We quickly set up top rope anchors on three classic routes so the clinic participants could take several laps on each and work on technique. As I belayed, I listened carefully to the instruction that Whit, Jon, and Adam were giving to the climbers, trying to glean some new knowledge that could give me an edge in the mountains. We had a ridiculous amount of fun, but I didn’t really learn anything new (other than the fact that leashes on modern tools are sadly still around in some remote corners of the world).

Whit racing up a stellar WI5 pitch to set up a top rope for the clinic.

Whit Magro racing up a stellar WI5 pitch to set up a top rope for the clinic.

Helping Whit, Jon, and Adam teach the advanced ice/mixed climbing clinic on Saturday. Ted G is the climber on the rock line; I'm not sure I've ever seen someone try so hard on a pitch. There was no quit in that guy.

Helping Whit, Jon, and Adam teach the advanced ice/mixed climbing clinic on Saturday. Ted G is the climber on the rock line; I’m not sure I’ve ever seen someone try so hard on a pitch. There was no quit in that guy.

That night, Whit presented an inspirational slideshow filled with pictures, videos, and stories that made me long to get back home and start training and planning for my next big adventure in the mountains. I fell asleep that night excited out of my mind for the future and the course I was on, but slightly disappointed at the same time. I had come on this trip fully expecting to learn something life-changing; after all, I was with some of the strongest, best climbers I had ever met. The trip had been incredible, but it was the last night in Canada and I hadn’t yet experienced the “aha” moment I was expecting.

A scary lead on the Reflection Wall, WI5. It was steep and the whole way, and the ice was hollow, sun-leeched crap.

A scary lead on the Reflection Wall, WI5. It was steep the whole way, and the ice was hollow, sun-leeched crap.

Jon and I finished up the trip with a fun, wet  two-pitch WI3 route.

Jon and I finished up the trip with a fun, wet, two-pitch WI3 route.

On Sunday – the final day of the ice season for me – we split up into pairs. Jon and I went wall to wall with the goal of getting in as many good pitches of ice as possible, and Adam and Whit went to attempt Road To Nowhere, the hardest mixed route in the area at M10. Jon and I managed to get in four good pitches of ice in three different sectors before my fractured left hand was in too much pain to whack against the ice again. We walked back to the car to wait for Adam and Whit, Jon munching on a sandwich and me crunching on pain pills as we listened to Blue October and napped.

Whit strolled up a few minutes ahead of Adam, smiling and shaking his head as we asked him if he sent the route.

“No,” he said, “but it’s an awesome route and I’ll be back to finish it.”

Just then Adam walked up. He had completed the first ascent of the route in 2013, so I expected that he would have sent it today without any problem.

Adam on Road To Nowhere in 2013.

Adam on Road To Nowhere in 2013.

“You send?” I questioned as he walked up the final hill to the car.

“Nope,” he answered. “Fell at the lip.”

“Damn,” I said. “Too windy? Too cold?”

He stopped untying his boot and studied me for a second before he replied.

“Three excuses.”

“Three excuses? What does that mean?” I asked, confused.

“Scott Backes taught me a long time ago that there are only three excuses that are ever acceptable when it comes to climbing.” He paused to yank at the knot on his boot, and then continued. “Excuse number one, I wasn’t strong enough. Number two is that I wasn’t brave enough, and acceptable excuse number three is that I wasn’t good enough.” He paused one more time. “And that, Jimmy, is all. Everything else is bullshit.”

I finished packing the gear into the car in silence. There were so many thoughts swirling through my head that I didn’t trust myself to speak. I had gotten what I came for, and I wanted to process it before I lost the moment of stunning clarity that had just overcome me. What Adam had said was true, and the acceptance of that truth was the door guarding the next level of personal and psychological evolution. I won’t write exactly what those words mean to me; I can’t fully explain it with words, and I wouldn’t if I could. Maybe your eyes will glaze over these last paragraphs and this post will just be entertainment, ice climbing porn, nice pictures of people doing crazy things in colorful clothing. But maybe there’s someone out there like me who is ready to receive and live those words. Someone who needs those words. I hope so.

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