Vertical Therapy – Pleasure and Pain

Therapy can be good… it allows you to sort shit out, working through demons, fears, and uncertainties. These days I’m often finding myself in therapy – Vertical Therapy.

Like its American Psychiatric Association-approved cousin, vertical therapy is about working through the pain. It’s fighting through the screaming, blinding rage – the terror of failing, of debilitating pain. It’s finding your feet and embracing the cold, all in hopes of finding what is normal and finding pleasure in all of the places and activities you used to.


Everything so far has been as good as it gets. Chris D. and I split leads on Glass Menagerie at Lake Willoughby. Chris took the first pitch, and I took the lead on the second – a 130 foot wall of vertical ice. A fantastic groove between two pillars paved the way to the top. Not even 2 and a half hours of sleep last night could break me from the rhythm of climbing steep ice: swing, look, find your feet, kick and step up… repeat. In 8 years of climbing ice, I’m not sure I’ve ever felt better on a steep pitch. I’ve climbed harder, but I can’t say I’ve ever climbed better.

The Therapists Office? Glass Menagerie is the steep flow up and right of the two climbers.

The Therapists Office? Glass Menagerie is the steep flow up and right of the two climbers.

I’m now 100′ up the first pitch of Crazy Diamond. Soft ice and moderate terrain have me thinking that this whole vertical therapy thing is pretty sweet: swing, look, find your feet, kick CRACK! My crampon dangles from my ankle, the wire bale at the toe snapped in half. Shit just got more serious, but I’m not letting it beat me: breathe, place a screw, find your feet and use some fancy footwork to work your way up over the last bulge, build an anchor, relax, laugh, enjoy the day.

That pointy orange thing works better when firmly attached to one's foot. Here it makes for some expensive and annoying jewelry.

That pointy orange thing works better when firmly attached to one’s foot. Here it makes for some expensive and annoying jewelry.

Chris is now above me as I stand at my belay stance, awkwardly weighting my left foot, mired into the one position in which I can stand without the metal spikes so important to creating a good stance. Once at the top, he ties off one of his own crampons and sends it down to me. He wears the same model boot in the same size… someone/thing is really looking out for me today.


Moving upward, I’m rudely awoken from my reverie. The pure pleasure of moving easily and well is gone – I was mistaken: this morning was no vertical therapy. Therapy is work, it requires pain, agony, defeat. You have to tackle your demons; you have to pay your dues. It can’t come easily.

Chris has led a vertical, candled amalgamation of slushy pillars. I can’t find my feet, I’m just hanging on. Even with a rope above me I’m terrified. My arms burn in a way I’ve forgotten they can. Panic clouds my mind. I can get my dual-points on my right foot to stick, but Chris’s mono-point on my left just wont. I can’t remember the last time I fell on an ice climb… never on lead, and maybe not even on TR. I’m afraid of failure and what it means.

I call for Chris to take, which he tries to do, fighting the iced up ropes. His efforts take up some of the slack, but it’s clear I need to sort this out on my own – there’s no help coming. Breathe, find your feet… This time it works, I find an awkward rest, alternating holding on with my right hand, then my left, then my right… back and forth, forearms screaming, hands rebelling, mind willing them just to hold on a little bit longer…


At the top it’s all smiles. Type One fun this morning on Glass Menagerie. Type Two fun for sure on Crazy D… Pleasure and Pain.

There’s plenty of therapy ahead of me, whatever the setting, or whatever the form. There’s a lot to work out, to figure out, to build on, to remember, and to forget. The thing about therapy though: there’s probably no point if you only go once…


One comment

  1. […] needed to get out those 55 days. For me, every day out was a session in vertical therapy. Throwing myself at the ice, day in and day out, let me work through everything else that I […]

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