Bold Betties on Ice by Bernadette Murphy
Today is my first full-day intermediate ice-climbing clinic and I’m terrified. So rather than strapping on my crampons, cinching tight my climbing harness, and striding confidently over to where we’re supposed to meet our guide, I hang out at the fire pit and try to warm both my hands and my spirits, willing time to stop so that I will never have to actually do this class.
That’s when I meet a pod of Bold Betties.
One of them was in my clinic yesterday, a two-hour novice all-women’s class taught by a group called “Chicks with Picks.” I’m a chick, all right, but more of the “chicken,” variety. I try not to let on though, in this world of high-achieving adventurers. I don’t want to let down my cover.
We’re in Southwest Colorado at the fabled Ouray Ice Park, taking part in the annual Ice Climbing Festival. As someone who is terrified of heights, this may seem a foolhardy choice. But that’s precisely why I’m here.
Heights, loud noises, crowds, traffic, and earthquakes make me woozy. I fret about aging, career impasses, my young adult children, global warming, my 401K, and the possibility of dementia. What makes me clammy with terror is never-ending -- and ever growing.
For most of my life, fear has ruled me. When I listen, fear multiplies like germs in a petri dish, permeating into a full-scale retreat from life. What will happen if I lose my job? How will I manage as a single woman now that my 25-year marriage has ended? I know I have to fight back. So I try to cajole myself into taking contrary action.
Like climbing sheets of ice.
The woman from yesterday’s class introduces me to four other Bold Betties gathered around the fire pit. It turns out a few of them will be in the clinic I’m waiting for. The sky is threatening snow as we swap names and brief biographies. I’ve never heard of the Bold Betties, but they explain the group and I instantly feel at home. Talking with these women, I learn I’m not such an oddball. Everyone is struggling with her own fears. Better yet, they’re smart and fit and not at all intimidating. I feel at home, better for having met them, like I’m not alone in this venture.
When it’s time to hike into the ice-coated gorge where we’re going to climb, my steps are wobbly, partly because of the mountaineering boots, but more so, from terror. I’m offered a rope as we descend the yawning cavern. Sweat drenches my woolen undershirt. The inch-long barbed crampons make balancing on the ice and rocks precarious. I hold on with knotted fingers, avoid glancing at the jagged rock and ice below.
I’ve been taught that we should avoid risk as we age. After all, in our 40’s it takes longer to heal a damaged knee learning to snowboard than in our 20’s. Pursuing a new academic direction later in life, in order to change careers or for the simple joy of learning, squanders time and resources. If we’re too ambitious with investments, we might not be able to recoup the loss before retirement. And those who leave long-term marriages in the hopes of living a more authentic experience, as I have recently done, are simply crazy - there’s too much to lose.
I believed all these directives until a few years ago when I found myself at a crossroads. My last remaining parent was dying, my kids were leaving home, and that long-term marriage was ending. When I looked into the mirror, I no longer saw the young woman I’d once been. Though she wasn’t exactly fearless, she had been full of optimism and courage in the face of the unknown - qualities I had lost.
I wanted her back but I didn’t know how.
Then, on a fluke, I took a motorcycle safety class as research for a book I was writing and surprised myself with the intensity of feeling that rose. Sitting astride that brawny machine brought into question everything I thought I knew about who I was and the options I faced. I was shocked and then awed to face down uncertainty on an iron beast that outweighed me four to one.
Two months later, the day after my father died, I walked into my local Harley dealer and bought a matte black motorcycle, and thus began the process of demolishing that ‘safe and predictable’ life through a series of choices that made most of my friends scratch their heads. I left that marriage, learned to rock climb and ski, rode my motorcycle across the country and back, moved to French Polynesia, took up SCUBA diving, and began to date – all in progressing middle age. I had a big, messy midlife crisis, visible to all around me and loud, too, thanks to motorcycle pipes. I became the cautionary tale of suburbia.
But I felt more alive than I had in years.
Throughout my life, friends have been quick to caution me about all the ways risk could hurt and nullify what I’d worked so hard to gain. But no one told me about the slow death that ensues if you don’t put your genuine, tender-at-the-bone self on the line.
That’s what I’m after today and am so glad to have found these sister climbers who see things the way I do.
With our guide’s direction, we start belaying each other and scaling the 80-foot tall slabs of ice. I get to know Rebecca, a medical doctor whose specialty has to do with neurology and the rehabilitation of patients after brain injuries. The book I’ve just written includes a lot on the neuroscience of risk, so we talk about that. She has much more determination to go to the top than I do, and I watch in amazement as she keeps climbing and climbing and climbing. She’s unstoppable. While I belay her, I think about how her life is in my hands: all that schooling, all that studying and investment in her mind. One mistake on my part and she could be seriously injured, one of the patients she’s been trained to treat. And yet, she trusts me, a person she only just met. I take the responsibility for her life very seriously. I shout encouragement and point out moves that might make her ascent easier. When it’s my turn, she does the same for me. Next to us, three other Bold Betties are doing similarly, taking turns climbing and protecting each other. We sound like a cheerleading squad, every so often, they way we boost and reassure each other.
Soon, the snow starts falling. At first lightly, and then a steady dump. Our hoods turn white, our shoulders powdered. Part of me wants to bolt. What if we get stuck down here in the chasm? I’m from Los Angeles and snow is foreign. What if it’s too hard to climb out? But the Bold Betties stay calm. They’re Denver women and not put off by a little blizzard. We keep climbing. Though it’s clear who are the strongest climbers of our bunch -- hint: not me! -- there’s no hierarchy or competition between us. We cheer just as much for those who make it barely a quarter of the way up the wall as we do for Rebecca when she tops out.
This is what I’ve come for. To test my limits. To feel part of a community. To be brave and somewhat safe at the same time. Thank you, Bold Betties, for showing me how.
Bernadette Murphy is the author of, Harley and Me: Embracing Risk on the Road to a More Authentic Life (Counterpoint Press, 2016). She has published three previous books of narrative nonfiction including the bestselling Zen and the Art of Knitting, is an Associate Professor in the Creative Writing Department of Antioch University Los Angeles, and a former weekly book critic for the Los Angeles Times. Her website is Bernadette-Murphy.com.