Nonfiction

Scratching the Surface

The slamming of the SUV’s back door obliterated the quiet of the White Mountains in northern New Hampshire. More than sixteen inches of new snow blanketed paper birch, blue spruce, balsam fir and American beech and weeds and sugar maples. The notion of breaking trail after the first blizzard of the year filled me with a mixed sense of purpose and awe. But Ben—my climbing partner and boyfriend of less than one month—would be neither appeased nor relaxed until we reached the ice. In his eyes, the day didn’t start until we were climbing. He trudged through the snow with purpose. I walked in Ben’s footsteps, lengthening my stride so I could use his tracks. I loved to be immersed in the untouched snow that surrounded me, flawless and smooth as glass. The trees that lined the trail gave way to a clearing—about half the size of a basketball court—dotted with shrubs and hundreds of snowshoe hare tracks. Intrigued, I stopped to look at them. Ben wasn’t interested.

I feigned the need for a water break. He sighed impatiently. I peered at the tracks, trying to figure out which direction the hares had been running in and how many of them there’d been.

*

I was less than a month into my job as a winter guide. My first serious relationship had just ended and Ben was the quick fix in my subconscious quest to not sit still or give myself too much time to think. We were dating by the end of the first week of work. I’d instantly become “That Girl” who did whatever her boyfriend wanted. This Girl had never been That Girl before.

Ben’s tan skin and short curly hair made him so good-looking he was cliché. Those brown-eyes and dimples momentarily mesmerized both men and women long enough to give him the power to manipulate most any situation. He was well versed in expiration dating: start a seasonal job. Find someone tolerable. Date until the field stint ended. Move someplace else. Repeat. This lifestyle enabled one to not be alone but to not be committed to anyone or anything, either.

*

Less than an hour after leaving his truck, Ben and I arrived at the ice. The moment left me breathless. I’d never been next to vertical ice. I wondered about the moment the waterfall froze, if there was a crack or a hush in the seconds before it had gone from liquid to solid. But Ben was interested in neither watching nor philosophizing about the ice. He just wanted to climb it.

We put on our respective climbing harnesses and helmets. Ben strapped the rope on his back and climbed up and around a steep hill to the top of the waterfall. Once he had secured the rope was in place on the top of the ice, Ben returned to the base of it. We tied in and exchanged the conventional safety commands.

Ben swung his ice tool and kicked his feet. Slivers of ice spewed from the tip of his axe as it took hold. A thin plate of ice came sliding down from about twenty feet above his head.

“Ice!” I yelled. It was the Pavlov’s Bell of ice climbing: I saw the plummeting chunk and hollered–sure it wasn’t a good idea to scale something that crumbled.

“See. I told you that would happen. No problem. It’s just because of the friction. This ice isn’t going anywhere.” I wanted to remind Ben that being an ice luge aficionado in his life as a frat boy didn’t make him an expert on the physics of vertical ice for climbing. But That Girl was the dominant personality in the relationship with Ben, and That Girl didn’t want to cause any problems.

“Arrrguowweeeee!” The grunt from the top of the ice a few seconds later sounded manly, then rapidly changed pitch to that of a soprano opera singer.

“Are you okay?” I yelled up to him.

“No, I’m not okay!” Ben hollered back, turning his head to the right. Blood raced down the rock.

“What happened?” I asked as a reflex. My brain was still registering that there was a problem.

“It doesn’t matter what happened. Just get me down from here.” He had a point.

“Ok. Ready?”

“Yeah, I’m ready.” I looked around. Several groups of climbers were at the ice now. But nobody seemed to be aware of our minor emergency.

“Lowering.” Adhering to the protocols kept me focused and calm.

“Yeah, yeah.” More manly grunting.

Ben touched his head then shook his hand. The blood splattered like he was flicking out a paintbrush. I focused on getting him to solid ground.

“All right. I’m down. Take me off belay.”

“Off belay.” I said, letting my end of the rope smack against the ice. “Do you remember everything that happened?” I asked him. I inspected the gash between his eyes.

“Yes, I remember everything. It hurt like hell!” I ruled out memory loss and change in personality—both signs of a concussion. I had wilderness first aid training so knew how to patch him up until he could seek real medical attention. As head injuries went, Ben’s was a minor one. It was almost two inches long and deep, but the ice axe hadn’t broken through any bones. Most importantly, it missed all the vessels around his eyes. I cleaned off his face and covered the wound with a butterfly bandage that would hold the skin in place until we could break down our rope, hike out to the trailhead and drive Ben to the hospital.

As I was re-packing the first aid kit, another climber walked up to us. He looked like he’d just stepped off the cover of a glossy magazine. All of his gear—crampons and ice axe and snow pants and jacket and gloves and boots—was top of the line. He probably wore Patagonia boxer shorts. His features were startlingly perfect. His smile revealed perfect teeth. His demeanor revealed that he—like Ben—knew having strikingly good looks made life easier.

“Hey, man. Everything okay over here?”

“Oh, yeah. I’m fine.” Ben stood up taller. “My axe just popped off the ice and hit me.”

“It happens, man. I split my lip right in half once.” He tugged on it just in case we needed a parts of the body reminder. This Girl considered maybe that face was so perfect because it had undergone multiple plastic surgeries. “You’ll be amazed at how quickly those things heal, though. Hey, while she finishes cleaning you up, do you mind if I climb your rope?” None of us mentioned that I was already done cleaning Ben’s wound. “This is the best route, man. I’d just love to run up it once.” He asked Ben, as if I didn’t exist, and as if asking a stranger to borrow their rope wasn’t a faux pas in the climbing world.

“Yeah, sure man. She’ll belay you.” Apparently I wasn’t worthy of acknowledgement by Ben, either.

What the hell was That Girl thinking?

“No, that’s ok. My girlfriend doesn’t mind doing it,” the wannabe model said. He gestured and a pretty girl—thin and with long brown hair that flowed underneath her wool hat—approached. This Girl wanted to ask her if she knew she, too, was dating the wrong guy. But instead, That Girl smiled sheepishly.

The rope poacher kicked and picked his way up the ice like it was a perfected art form. Ben tried to keep his awe and envy in check, but the way he kept adjusting his gear and fixing his hat assured me he was intimidated. Regardless, Ben tried to keep up the small talk, maybe in the hopes of finding a new climbing partner. I should be so lucky.

Once Joe Cool had gotten what he’d wanted, he showed no intention to keep up the pleasantries. I was thrilled that Ben could finally be on the receiving end of a condescending attitude. I wondered if it could occur to him that he made people feel just as minimized on a regular basis. This Girl cheered at his discomfort. But That Girl felt embarrassed for him.

Every route was taken. The exchanging of commands, laughter, words of encouragement, and clinking and thudding of gear broke the peace and silence I’d been enjoying. With so many people hacking into it the thick chunks dislodged and slid down the ice formation every couple of minutes. They’d smash against the ground with a loud crack that could be taken as a warning.

“Okay. Are you ready to tie in?” Ben said to me once we were alone with our rope again.

“What are you talking about? We have to get out of here. You need stitches.” From the moment I saw the rivulets of blood, I’d decided this would not be the day I scaled vertical ice.

“Why? I’m fine. My head is going to be the same whether I get it stitched two hours from now, or five hours from now. So tie in!”

I knew Ben wasn’t concerned with my getting the opportunity to climb. He was concerned only about being the kind of person who stayed in the woods a few more hours then went to his favorite Chinese restaurant before seeking medical attention to stop the bleeding in his head. He didn’t care if these actions bothered me.

This Girl was getting increasingly pissed off but That Girl didn’t want to be difficult.

I was healthy, in great shape, had access to the necessary gear, and was naive enough to trust my life in the hands of an arrogant frat boy with a hole in his head. I’d kicked my way about ten feet when a chunk of ice slammed into my helmet. Ben saw it dislodge but didn’t bother to give me a warning. He said something that was supposed to be funny about me being a real ice climber now.

Finally, finally That Girl erupted like a goddamned volcano. It wasn’t pretty. It was exquisite.

“Look!” I yelled. “I’m up here. Ten feet. Off the ground. My feet and both axes are in the ice. I have ice climbed. Let. Me. Down. Now.”

The other climbers were pre-occupied and hardly noticed us. Anyone who looked our way when we packed our gear was probably trying to figure out how to claim our spot on the “best route” before another team did. Maybe some of the women did take note of me, envied me for having such a good looking climbing partner, or wondered if I knew I was dating the wrong guy. But That Girl only became more stressed by her decision. She was convinced that everyone was staring at her, watching her make an ass of herself.

The hike out was a brisk and silent one. The tension blanketed us like a mother cradling her sleeping babe. This Girl didn’t want to be in this relationship but saw no way out. I’d made my bad decision. What option did I have other than waiting the relationship, the job appointment, and That Girl out? June was only six months away. How bad could it be? I could have broken up with Ben and had a house to live in but no room. But That Girl couldn’t see any options.

Ben and I entered the clearing and saw that most of the snowshoe hare tracks had been destroyed. I stopped for another water break. Ben kept walking. Was it me or did he pick up his pace and lengthen his stride? I should have cared more than I did. That Girl had a long trail to hike, but she was starting to forge her own path again.

Jenna R. London received her MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts. When she is not writing or being a mom, she is in the woods with her dogs or attempting to dethrone her husband’s status as air hockey champion. Her work has been published at Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies as well as in E the Environmental Magazine, AMC Outdoors and Berkshire Living and others under her pre-marital family name Kochmer. She lives in upstate New York

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