Uncaging the Tiger

Today’s post is something special. I’ve never posted anything that I didn’t personally write; I have a very specific vision and desire for the voice and direction of my blog, and I’m an incurable control freak. That said, Magdalena’s story is one that needs to be told. It’s a story of self-discovery that I hope everyone is fortunate enough to experience personally. English is her second language as she’s native Polish, but you’d never guess it when reading her writing. Enjoy!

Magdalena at the top of the  stellar fourth pitch of Namenloss.

Magdalena at the top of the stellar fourth pitch of Namenlos.

“Hey Turbo, why don’t you lead that next pitch? I think you should because you have bigger balls than the three of us combined!”

The shout came from the curly-haired American that I had met only twenty-four hours before. I was just about to finish following my partner on the second pitch of Rattenpissoir on our first day of our ice climbing trip to Kandersteg. Following with a top rope again, as it almost always used to be. Too many excuses, too little courage, or whatever else it was that stopped me from believing I actually could be more than just a self-propelled belay device when ice climbing. A simple question from a guy I barely knew changed it all. 

I knew I was not going to find any excuse for backing off this time. Tempting as it was, the thought of rappelling down and getting a glass of hot wine in the fancy Randez-Vous restaurant, as my partner suggested, had just lost meaning. I wanted to lead for the first time in my ice climbing career. I actually wanted to lead a pitch, and it felt like the only right thing to do.

Magdalena with a smooth lead on the steep first pitch of Namenlos.

Me leading the steep first pitch of Namenlos in Kandersteg.

“Yeah, why not..?” I murmured, seeing from the corner of my eye the most startled look on my partner’s face. He wasn’t used to me taking charge.

I was not scared. Not for a second. All of a sudden I knew I was able to climb it without a problem. For the last several years, I had been climbing on many grade six ice pitches – following of course, but still doing pretty fine (except for the first trip to Kandersteg five years before, when I had been taken on a grade six route on my first ever day of ice climbing. I’m pretty sure the cute little Kandersteg valley has never heard so much Polish cursing as they did on that memorable day). 

Still, I had never dared to lead more than perhaps three easy pitches during all those years of ice climbing. Leading ice routes used to scare the shit out of me, for no good reason. I guess it was always easier to be scared and give up than try and succeed. Or fail. This time was different though. This time changed everything.

The third pitch on Rattenpissoir is easy; most parties climb only the first two because the upper part is full of snow-covered ledges. It wasn’t hard, but it was enough to remind me of a Tibetan maxim that I chose to be my one and only life philosophy a long time ago.

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

Most of us live as sheep these days. We eat, drink, sleep, and follow our shepherd, whoever or whatever the hell he is. I chose this maxim to be mine because I wanted to be wild and free like a tiger instead of going through life on autopilot. I chose to follow these words, and then I forgot about them. Pathetic and ridiculous, but it actually happened. Why? Because it was easier to be just growing wool like a sheep than being fierce and self-sufficient like a tiger. Now, however, I was slowly gaining courage and uncaging the tiger that had been slumbering inside me for too damn long. 

Was it that simple? I guess so, because all that happened after that first fully-aware lead only proved it. I became a real climbing partner, willing and even demanding to always lead the first pitch on each route. This led me to sending the hardest pitch I had ever done before – the first grade six pitch on Rubezahl. I couldn’t describe how special and magical this moment was and how much it meant to me, even if I tried for a hundred years. There are times in your life when you feel truly alive without even trying, and that was one of them.

Turbo living up to her nickname on Rubezahl, WI6. Her lead on the first crux pitch was her hardest to date.

Following the second pitch of Rubezahl, WI6. My lead on the crux first pitch was my hardest to date and one of the proudest moments of my life.

My tiger is awake now, and I am well aware of the fact that life begins at the end of your comfort zone. You just have to get your ass off your comfy chair, deal with the consequences and move on. Stop simply existing and start living. Even if – as the proverb says – that life lasts for just one day.


image2 (2)Magdalena (aka Turbo) is a Polish rock and ice climber trying to make her dreams of great alpine adventures come true. She currently lives in Krakow, Poland where polluted air, endless winters, slippery rocks, an absolute lack of ice climbs, and murderously potent vodka make for quite an interesting existence. When she’s not working as a marketing manager in an IT corporation, she devotes her time to training, climbing, hiking, and trying to live her life full speed. She’s proud to have the maturity level of a fourteen year old boy and hopes to never grow up.

The Only 3 Excuses

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.


“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.

A Glimpse Behind the Kandersteg Curtain


The trip report from my recent adventures in Europe has been posted, and I think the pictures and anecdotes will provide an entertaining read. However, writing a summary of those two weeks was hard. Choosing what to mention and what to exclude proved tortuous. After a lot of deliberation, I decided to focus on the highlights and happy parts that won’t hurt or anger anyone.

That being said, in the interest of personal integrity, I’m going to include this paragraph that I wrote last night while halfway through a bottle of wine from Kandersteg. It will raise questions that most of you will never know the answers to. If we are good enough friends, you’ll hear the whole story sooner or later.

“It sucks really – having such a life-changing trip and having to post such an edited, watered-down version on the blog to protect people. I learned so much, felt so much, fell in love, nearly died, and lost a wonderful relationship during and because of those two weeks. Part of me wants to post it all or none at all. All of it perhaps…and yet I can’t. Or shouldn’t. I may be frightfully good at using the knife, but I guess I’m just not enough of an asshole for that.”


Smashin’ And Crashin’ My Way Through Resolution #1

Working through the lower sequence on Reefer Madness, M8.

Working through the lower sequence on Reefer Madness, M8.

I wrote at the beginning of the year that I have three goals to accomplish in 2015, and that I would post updates whenever I had checked one off the list. Well, the pencil came out and the box has been checked, because I climbed my first WI6 route on lead this weekend! For those who don’t know what that means, a WI6 route has vertical and overhanging ice, hard to find and/or bad protection in case of a fall, and limited or no opportunities for resting.

Warming up on Thin And Bear It, an easy M6.

Warming up on Thin And Bear It, an easy M6.

Nate and I headed up to Duluth early on Saturday morning with the intent to climb at Casket Quarry both days. After warming up on a short, moderate M6 called Thin And Bear It, we headed over to climb Martini Madness. Martini is M6 or M7 depending on ice conditions, and on Saturday it was definitely M7. A huge chunk of the hanging dagger had broken off, leaving a fairly sizable ice roof to climb and the promise of a painful ledge dive if the leader fell while make the move onto the upper ice flow.

We both cruised Martini, and I was feeling strong and smooth after leading the route. As Nate flaked the rope, I studied our next challenge: the intimidating ice line called The Chimney. In good ice conditions, the pitch is a fun WI5/M5 that takes enough good ice screws to prevent a dangerous fall. These conditions, however, were anything but good. The vertical ice leading up to the huge ice roof was sun-leeched and hollow. Picks and crampon points had to be placed and weighted delicately, since much of the ice was just a skin with an inch or two of space between it and the rock wall.

I managed to place one ten centimeter screw about ten feet up and a thirteen centimeter screw about eight feet higher. Neither piece would have held a fall, but it was comforting to look down and see my rope clipped to something.

The ice line on the far left is The Chimney in WI6 conditions. A friend of mine can be seen climbing on Martini Madness, M7.

The ice line on the far left is The Chimney in WI6 conditions. A friend of mine can be seen climbing on Martini Madness, M7.

I gently hooked and tapped my way up below the ice roof and clipped the bolt in the rock wall to the left – the one thing that would stop me from falling to the ground if I whipped on the next few moves. Even so, I realized, it would be a painful fall, as the location of the bolt in relation to the overhang meant that I would swing back into the ice with a frightening amount of momentum. I wavered mentally for a minute, unsure of my ability to pull the crux without falling. I reached down to my harness and fingered a single carabiner…it would be simple to clip the rope to the bolt and have Nate lower me under the pretense of not wanting to risk an injury two weeks before my climbing trip to Switzerland. Suddenly, a familiar voice from below broke into my internal debate.

“Get your ass up there, Jimmy, we don’t have all fucking day!”

I looked down to see a cluster of people watching me from the ground. The source of the stoke was local pro climber Adam Dailey. Another Duluth badass, Rick Kollath, chimed in as well.

“Yeah, everyone is waiting on you, stop messing around and climb that thing!”

I smiled and shook my head. Ego and peer pressure is a dumb reason to climb, but there was no way I was backing off with some of my climbing heroes watching. I took a deep breath, leaned out as far as I could on my left ice tool, and carefully tapped the tip of my right tool into the soft ice a few inches above the lip of the roof. I tugged it gently, testing it as best I could before I committed my full body weight to it. The placement seemed solid, so I unhooked my left tool and slotted it into a hole in the ice a few inches above my right pick. Both tools felt secure, so it was now or never.

I took a deep breath and cut both of my feet loose from the ice below the roof, swinging the right leg out and up onto a hanging icicle about ten inches in diameter. The crampon point came to rest on a tiny ledge, and I slowly stood up so I could unweight the tools and move them higher. Suddenly, the entire icicle snapped off just above my foot and I fell back onto my ice tools.

“Fuck fuck fuck!” I screamed as I loaded my tools. I was sure that one or both of them was going blow, sending me for a long, painful ride down. Both placements held though, and I let out the breath I had been holding in one forceful gasp as more cheers came from below.

“Wooooohooooo! Ride that shit, bro! Get back up there! You got this!”

Looking for a good stick after pulling the ice roof.

Looking for a good stick after pulling the ice roof.

I took another deep breath and swung my legs up and to the right again until my torso was almost horizontal. With my right crampon planted in good ice, I pulled my right tool out and swung it into the ice as high above me as I could. The first swing went deep, and I pulled up on the handle until I could get my left foot planted. With both feet now secure and the pressure off my arms, I quickly climbed the last few moves to the anchors and clipped the rope into the bolts with a pair of quickdraws.

Topping out on The Chimney in Casket Quarry.

Topping out on The Chimney in Casket Quarry.

“Bring me down, brother!” I yelled to Nate.

With my feet firmly planted on the ground, I looked back up at the route and promised myself that I wouldn’t hop on anything that hard or sketchy for a long time…or at least until next week. With that thought in mind, we spent Sunday working on mixed and drytool lines that, although difficult, were equipped with bolts. It’s still possible to take a pretty good fall, but the bolts reduce the chance of serious injury.

Topping out on Off Road, M7. Bad ice but a beautiful new mixed line at Casket Quarry.

Tiptoeing through sketchy ice on Off Road, M7.

One 2015 resolution accomplished, and two more to go.

Horizontal scribbling about vertical scratching

I didn’t think a thirty-six hour escapade deserves a place under the “Trips/Adventures” menu, but I wanted to bang out a quick blurb about what turned out to be an awesome weekend of first experiences and new accomplishments.

Nate and I left New Brighton early on Saturday morning for Casket Quarry in Duluth. Casket is unique; unlike the ice climbing quarry in Sandstone where there are plenty of moderate pure ice and mixed lines, Casket has been developed almost exclusively for hard, ground-up mixed climbing. If you can’t pull at least M6, you won’t have much fun there. This is really the first season I have started scratching around on steep rock routes with ice tools and crampons, other than the occasional easy mixed climbing moves on alpine routes. To be honest, I always viewed modern bolted mixed routes as contrived and a good way to burn through expensive picks and crampon front points. Now that I’ve gotten in the game though, I’m addicted. Hard mixed climbing takes an incredible amount of physical and mental strength, and I have already seen my endurance and technique on pure ice routes improve because of it.

We had the privilege to climb with an incredible crew on Saturday – many of these guys are legends and pioneers of the Minnesota climbing scene, and they climb HARD. It was a super productive day, as I led my first two M7 routes and didn’t take a fall on either. One of my three resolutions for the year is to lead M9, so that only leaves two grades to go…and next weekend the goal is to lead Reefer Madness, M8.  Nate and I were so fixated on the climbing that we neglected to take a single picture that day, so I’ll include a link here to the Mountain Project guide for Casket Quarry.

After a beer and a mind-blowing wild rice burger at Fitger’s Brewhouse in Duluth, Nate and I pointed the Corolla south towards Sandstone, arriving at the quarry at about 2000. We set up camp in the dark, made some hot cocoa with peppermint schnapps, and passed out in the tent to rest up for another day on the ice.

Not a bad view from the tent.

Not a bad view from the tent.

We woke up the next morning ready to hit it hard. Amidst a growing sea of brightly colored topropes, we ticked one steep ice route after another. I led up each WI4 and WI5 route we could find, placing three or four ice screws on each to protect against a fall. At the top of each route, I slung a tree or clipped an anchor bolt and set up a belay to bring Nate up as he unclipped and removed the screws. When we were both safely at the top, we untied from the rope and let it fall back down to the base, and then rappelled down on a fixed line, grabbed our rope, and started on a new line of ice. We started to get pretty tired after a few hours of that cycle, so it was a welcome reprieve when my girlfriend Liz showed up for her first ever ice climbing experience!


Liz only started climbing when she met me last summer, but she already regularly knocks out 5.9’s and the occasional 5.10 both in the gym and outdoors. I suppose a high degree of fitness from being a disciplined distance runner and a regular at the gym didn’t exactly hinder her progress in a harness. That being said, she’s not a huge fan of being cold, and ice climbing is a totally different animal, so I wasn’t sure how she would do or whether or not she’d like it. No big surprise – she tied in on a steep route and smoked right to the top. Even her heavy, clunky ski boots didn’t seem to hold her back, and she enjoyed it enough that I think we’ll be looking for some real ice climbing boots for her.


A couple beers and an episode of the Mighty Boosh closed out the weekend, and now it’s back to the daily grind for five days. If only it were five days of play and two days of work…