By Pedro I Espina
Have you ever seen how water, trapped between rock and
ice, is forced by gravity to dance along an
intricate labyrinth of micro-channels on its way
from the high snowfields to the river below? Every
spring in the highlands, this dance is repeated as
winter withdraws until next year. Occasionally,
water is temporarily detained by the night’s cold,
but in the morning, as the geese fly north, the
sun once again sets it free on its path to the
sea. This is the way in which dragons die.
My youth was full of tales of knights who,
centuries ago, slew dragons in the name of love,
glory, and God. The lonely speckle of the shining
armor moved forward even as fear engulfed him. As
the duel began, a wind of fire submerged our hero
in a kiss of death. Thrusting shield ahead, he
blindly slashed the air in search of the beast,
his panic forgotten in a fight for survival.
In those tales the hero never died. Triumphant, he
rode his horse back to the safety of the castle
where he joined in the company of fellow knights
until death called again. I envisioned them
sitting by a fire, drinking, eating, laughing, and
sharpening their tools prior to dawn’s call to
battle. For those men their purpose was clear,
their brotherhood comforted them, and the world
outside seemed as mysterious and inhospitable as
the dragons themselves.
Adulthood replaced the dragon tales with a 9 to 5
reality that numbed the spirit and dulled the
mind. In the adult world, distinction is found in
a never-ending quest for larger numbers, and honor
is reserved for multimillion-dollar athletes and
minimum wage soldiers. Loyalty is to the god of
Money and brotherhood is a four-letter-word used
to describe radicals on the 11-oclock news.
As I grew older, I was indoctrinated in the
numbers game and dedicated a decade and a half to
the search for elusive distinction in the academic
world. I betrayed many and was betrayed by a few
others. As brother was murdered, a dollar in my
pocket became my friend. Love proved disposable,
and the dream of parenthood was forgotten, as a
dog became my child. When at last, I had
extirpated from my life all who cared for me,
prescriptions consoled me and cynicism became my
In pursuit of another way to spend my disposable
income, I came across a group of men for whom the
rules of adulthood did not apply. The source or
frequency of earnings did not torment them and for
these men, the comfort of a woman was optional.
Numbers were few, but most important, they were
meaningless. Their worth was based on the love
they felt for each other and for the game. In the
place where they gathered, money, titles, and
social status were of no use and as they sat by
the fire, ate, drank, and laughed, time had no
meaning and serenity was ubiquitous.
In the beginning, I was not prepared for life in
the Bivouac. Although I was among the first
outsiders to be granted access, I tried to modify
it to suit my adult values. I found strange that
in this place liquid barley was used as legal
tender and the sanctuary of a cold three-wall
bathroom seemed rudimentary. My numbers did not
matter, for there was always one that could beat
them with little fanfare. I felt insignificant and
in search of shelter, I labeled them as misfits.
Nonetheless, they embraced me as they waited for
the mystery of the brotherhood to cast its spell.
Every fall, as the geese migrated south, I
pilgrimaged north to the land of ice dragons and
the shelter of the Bivouac. Ice climbers, bigger
than life, gave me friendship, advice (or Beta),
and cheered me on my small lizards slays. In time,
I became one among them.
At the Bivouac two rules are enforced – “Keep the
door closed” and “There are no rules.” Social
niceties are simple: bring beers for all when you
get your own, do not impose tobacco products on
others, and fill the wood stove once per visit.
Newcomers are brought one at time, and their
behavior is the responsibility of those who bring
them. The nights are filled with stories, the
aroma of cannabis mixed with poor personal
hygiene, and the sound of ice tools being
sharpened. Women who do not seek to shape the
behavior of this rendezvous bunch are welcomed and
dogs are treated like anyone else.
Every morning, a ritual is repeated; at dawn
alarms go off, the stove is lighted, packs are
stuffed, and the Gore-Tex armor is clothed.
4-wheel drives are loaded and quietly the knights
go in search of ice dragons. During the first few
winters, would-be dragon slayers serve as page
boys (or belayers) and in return they are taught
the craft of ice climbing – the sound of a good
tool placement, the efficient way to place ice
screws, the proper way to sharpen a tool, and how
to avoid swollen knuckles. Because frozen
waterfalls – like dragons – come in all sizes and
with all sorts of temperaments, every occupant of
the Bivouac has a project to fear, from
Chouinard’s to Premature Birth. Poke-O-Moonshine
is the favorite playground and on a good day, most
of the Bivouac’s inhabitants lay siege to its
frozen smears and mixed ground.
One day this past season, as I went to Poke-O in
search of the infamous dragon known as Positive
Thinking, I found few options when various teams
of climbers waited for their turn to test their
steel. While time vanished, Gary and I searched
for alternatives and the improbability of The
Runnel turned into the thing to do. The first few
moves through a dry crack were strenuous, but the
availability of a piton 20-ft up made escaping a
real possibility. At the piton, the water drip
between rock and ice indicated the clear
delamination of the late winter ice. Carefully, I
pressed my crampon front points into the ice sheet
hoping for it to remain integral under my weight.
Inch by inch, I moved up as sweat dripped down my
back. The runnel – no wider than 8 inches anywhere
– was mostly delaminated too. For the first time
in that winter, serious injury was a distinct
possibility and as I moved up, I felt the creature
creeping under my weight.
With the swing of an alpine tool, the dragon
finally awoke. Forty pounds of ice came crashing
onto my face almost knocking me off the climb.
Hanging from one tool, I slowly regained
consciousness as blood poured from my left eye. As
retreating was not practical, my only option was
up. Trying to continue, I scanned for a tool
placement when a golf ball-sized chuck of ice came
crashing into my forehead adding insult to injury.
My friend Ian, realizing the seriousness of my
condition, encouraged me from above; below, Gary
readied himself for a running-downhill belay in
case both, the Runnel and I came crashing down.
Once I regained awareness, I focused more than
ever before. My mind diminished the climb to a
small sphere of influence, which protected me. A
questionably placed nut ran down the rope as I
moved past it. Ian continued the encouragement –
“Why we do this? Because it is fun…” A few feet
higher, a glove flew down and landed on my face.
What else could be sent from above? – I wondered.
When I reached Ian and the safety of the belay
station, I knew that my scholarship had paid off:
in slaying this dragon, I had put to rest many of
my demons. And that night, when the Bivouac door
opened, my brothers cheered for me.
In his book The Little Prince, Antoine de Saint
Exupéry wrote – “Grown-ups never understand
anything by themselves, and it is tiresome for
children to be always and forever explaining
things to them.” If it has been a while since you
grew up and numbers are important to you, I am
sorry to have bored you with this tale of children
trapped in grown men’s bodies. However, for those
of you who quietly still believe, know that there
is a land of ice dragons and a brotherhood of
ice-climbing knights waiting for you in the
Adirondacks’ winter lands.