Ice in the veins 

A husband's passion for climbing leaves wife grasping for peace

As the light begins to tilt toward shorter nights, colder days and the inevitable bundling up and pulling close that is winter, Seth's attention turns to the thin slip of canyon behind our house in Arlee, Montana. I find him staring at it, arms crossed, from our backyard.

As usual, I once again fall for his invitation to go for a hike past the rock walls there. We walk—each of us carrying one of our young daughters—and I notice the ponderosas that I can't wrap my arms around, how they smell like vanilla and how beautiful Eliza, our three-year-old, looks with the forest framing her sweet face.

Seth, on the other hand, is on a scouting mission. When we stop he pulls out his camera. I wait in the same boulder field where I wait every year while he takes pictures of the forming ice.

click to enlarge ROBIN CARLETON

I should know better by now. This hike is becoming a fall ritual. And over the next few weeks Seth will watch the hills intently as drips of mountain water turn to ribbons of ice and ribbons turn to blue and green columns into which he wants nothing more than to sink his ice tools.

From our first date (some might call it a tryout) at Smith Rock in Oregon I knew life with Seth meant life with climbing. I've always known he wouldn't be the person I love without it. We vowed on our wedding day to encourage each other to seek adventure and, knowing this included a clanking climbing rack and 14 ropes hanging in our laundry room for the rest of eternity, I meant it.

I've only recently started to change my mind.

For the past two years Seth has wanted nothing material for Christmas, only a promise of a trip to Cody, Wyoming in February to go ice climbing. He'd rather sleep in single-degree temperatures in the middle of nowhere than find a nice new anything under the tree. I picture him shivering, leaning on his truck at the end of an amazing climbing day, eating something out of a can, as happy as a puppy with a new leather shoe. I love this image of him.

But last February when he went to Cody I couldn't shake the worry that had crept into my bones. With seven-month-old Lucille on my hip I was walking around our farmhouse picking up toys when I realized I was making plans.

If something happens to him I'll sell the house, move to Missoula. We'd have enough money for a little while. Maybe I'll have a parent come help. The picture by my bed would be good for a memorial.

This last thought stopped me cold. And I thought for the first time, what is he doing out there?

A friend called last summer to say a friend of a friend died in a motorcycle accident. I'd never met the man who died, but I walked around for a few days pretty pissed off at him. I wondered if he'd thought of his wife and four-year-old boy before a drunken driver took a left turn into him. After the late night call, did his wife watch their boy sleep for a few more hours, knowing that when she woke him to tell him his dad was gone, nothing would ever be the same?

I realized I was being judgmental and, possibly, entirely unfair, but I couldn't help wondering: Was that motorcycle ride worth it? The man didn't set out to die. He wore his helmet. And still ... how do we find balance on the knife-edge of risk?

We love, we get married, we have children, we grow in other ways, and our mortality and that of our loved ones is all around us. One day, the stakes are higher, the potential loss greater. Things in this life will change you wholly and fundamentally, and you may not even know it's happened until you find yourself thinking about what life would be like if your husband never came home.

I never thought anyone could accuse me of trying to keep Seth from pursuing his dreams. But here I am, asking for measures of restraint. And this, I'm learning, is a slippery slope. Is sport climbing somehow safer than mountaineering? Does ice climbing 20 minutes from home rather than two states away give me peace of mind? Not exactly.

Seth is a methodical, safe climber. He leans toward caution, even more so now that he has children. But accidents happen. Ice breaks. Avalanches slide. What I want is the promise that nothing bad will ever happen to him. I want certainty. And yet I know it doesn't exist.

Seth came back from Cody last winter giddy and renewed. He also offered to stop climbing. I told him no. So here we are. We've drawn no lines in the sand, made no hard and fast rules. We've agreed to take it one climbing trip at a time. I guess this is what compromise looks like, what a marriage looks like.

But no matter what balance we reach, if something happened to Seth on an ice field somewhere there would be nothing to quell the grief. When weighing whether he comes home or not, peace of mind is not possible.

Jennifer Savage is a freelance writer based in Arlee.

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