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 Evolution

The landscape was desolate, a steaming wasteland of muddy pools and stinking slime that stretched as far as the eye could see. The monotonous scene continued seemingly indefinitely, save for one curious exception. In the very middle of the deepest part of the swamp rose a small island of sharp, crumbly volcanic rock, empty but for a single fixture. A tall, slender mirror stood in the center of the tiny oasis, brightly illuminated by some unseen light source. Angels and demons alike stood concealed in the shadows, their motionless eyes looking on with intense curiosity at the unoccupied stage in front of them.

The stillness was broken suddenly by a commotion from the fetid pool nearest the island. Large bubbles boiled up at the surface, as if some undersea vent was releasing poisonous fumes into the noxious atmosphere. A shape began to rise from the mud; it rather looked like it could have been a man once, and yet a second glance was sufficient to cast serious doubt on this initial impression. The thing had legs and arms and a head, but it was there that the resemblance to humanity stopped. Gargantuan was an inadequate description; huge, greasy blobs of oozing flesh protruded in every possible direction, and great patches of long, oily hair hung from the mass at irregular intervals. A dark cloud seemed to surround it, and the thing’s foul odor made even the vilest of the demons recoil in disgust.

Inch by agonizing inch, the shape dragged itself out of the muck and onto the fragile black rock of the tiny island. The sharp edges of the stone cut into the outer layers of flesh, releasing a fresh fountain of pus and blood. Apparently undeterred by the injuries, the thing continued its progress, snail-like, towards the mirror at the center of the rock. Once there, it paused for a long moment on its knees, studying the grotesque reflection through yellowed, bulbous eyes. One fleshy, bleeding hand rose then, ragged with bloody strips of flesh torn by the struggle with the rock. A glittering edge caught the light from the mirror; the hand held a knife aloft, the blade suspended for an endless second.

Then hand and blade descended, and the shape began to cut away at itself. A wailing, soul-wrenching scream of pain rose from the thing, and yet it continued to slice and tear at its body. Great steaming chunks of bloodied flesh fell at the shape’s feet as it quivered in agony, but still the cutting continued. The knife seemed to be alive, animated, and hungrier with each vicious laceration. There appeared to be no elegance or specific intent driving the mutilation, and yet a curious thing happened as the minutes dragged into hours. A recognizable form began to emerge from the carnage, reminiscent to the ancient eyes in the shadows of the way David was birthed from a block of marble under the skilled hands of Michelangelo. A human form…not perfect, nor beautiful, but undoubtedly the shape of a man.


The intended message behind the story?

The human organism, as both an animal and a spirit, is perpetually in a state of either evolution or degeneration. Equilibrium is a myth; there is no actual physical manifestation of the concept of balance in life. There is only the choice between the slothful, corpulent, groveling crawl towards the death of dreams and ambition, or the willing submission to the knife that cuts away all that is weak and pathetic in humanity and leaves a person free from that which would hold them back from achievement. The choice cannot not made for life and forgotten – no autopilot exists for the soul of man. This decision between the perceived comfort of cowardice and the self-induced pain of discipline is presented minute by minute, case by case. The balance recording the weights of each choice is more visible to the rest of humanity than you might think, but there is one who will curse you louder than the rest should you make a habit of picking foolishly.

The choice is yours, as are the consequences.

A good thing

This is one of a few selected “backdated posts” I’m going to post at the beginning of this blog…other than the correction of a few grammatical and spelling errors, I am posting them in their original format even though it’s very tempting to re-write or omit portions of them. I was deeply depressed when I wrote some of them, extremely angry during others, and slightly drunk while penning several of them. Enjoy.

April 29, 2014

“We are using physical effort as a means of self-discovery.” I think those words by Mark Twight (summing up the philosophy of Gym Jones) describe about 50% of my reason for climbing…the personal evolution and development that come through putting one’s self through the physical, mental, and emotional crucibles that are found in the complete package of alpinism. That’s why my psyche immediately bristled when I read on [a respected climber’s] blog that “the whole point of climbing is to stand on top of the mountain.” Really? The hell it is…

The value in these mad, meaningless heaps of rock, snow, and ice is not found in their physical apex – reaching the summit is merely an indication that the really valuable part of the climb is over. Exception to this rule in two radically different cases:

1) When the descent is an unknown, and will be an equal or greater challenge than the climb itself.

2) That the climber made reaching the summit the principle goal of the climb and therefore took the easiest route there, requiring little or none of the transformative experience for which I go to the mountains.

No, the value of these great massifs is found in the process, in the struggle…and in how it changes a man willing to undertake the fight. This is why the common alpinist (if there is such a thing) is no better or worse than any other athlete who continually crucifies themselves with and upon their torture device of choice in the pursuit of personal and spiritual development. We are all of us pitiful beings, so weak and frail in the face of such huge, uncaring masses of stone and ice…and yet in some small way we are beautiful to dash our tiny selves against such obstacles in so futile but noble a pursuit.

Does climbing make me better? Maybe not directly. But it changes me, makes me different. It helps me fight stagnation and sameness, and this cannot be considered anything but a good thing.