The Freedom in Constraint: Ice climbing in the French Alps

The Freedom in Constraint: Ice climbing in the French Alps

There was a moment in history, somewhere between 15000 and 12000 BC, when a certain group of humans stopped their hunting and gathering and began to cultivate crops. The systematic production of food provided a foundation not only for population sizes to rapidly increase, but also for certain individuals within the community to be freed from the grind of manual labor. This release afforded the time and opportunity for them to turn their attentions to study, which resulted in a significant development in knowledge and expertise. It is presumed that efforts were initially centred on the refinement of agricultural techniques, which permitted even greater freedom from manual endeavour and ultimately more diverse and specific areas of interest which served the needs of the developing society. Individuals could become expert in a variety of different subjects. Today, in the developed world, most of us enjoy incredible freedom from hard labor. This creates an environment of potentially limitless choice. However, in the absence of any specific, significant expertise which by its nature continuously confines and restrains, real freedom remains illusory. And so, with necessity being the mother of prehension, I find myself packing for my latest trip; ice climbing in the French Alps, in Briançon.

It’s been a while since I packed light. My inability to narrow my interests has seen my creative tendrils feel out multiple, simultaneous paths, and in doing so, they’ve managed to get all kinds of gear stuck to them. I’m sometimes envious of the iPhone generation with their ability to produce all their beautiful work on a shiny tile that can fit in a pocket. That’s not me. I have a large DSLR, Steadicam, tripod, quadcopter and a plethora of peripherals. Then there’s the ice gear and clothing and just to mix things up, I’ve decided to bring along my snowboard stuff, in case conditions dictate that to be the activity of choice. I feel like an 18th Century explorer heaving his cart of curios scientific through the jungles of South America whilst being laughed at by a man whose only call to the material world is his loincloth. And what use if it all stays in the bag? Once I’ve lugged it all there I’m committed to using it. It may seem obvious that to do something well you must focus all your attention on it. My attentions are always multiple. It may be rare that I do things as well as I could.

I do, however, enjoy the concept of being free to choose. Should the cosmos conspire to close a door, another may be opened. We arrive in Briançon to find conditions worryingly warm, but we meet up with some experienced ice-climbing friends who point us in the right direction for a safe climb and we end up having a great day. Afterwards, however: Snow, a lot of snow! The roads to the falls now shut, access impossible. In desperation, we strap on our snowboards and head up a nearby mountain. No time spent sitting in the hostel waiting for things to turn around like on many previous climbing trips. The fun continues, even if inspired by a different set of circumstances.

Being new to a potentially dangerous sport can have two interesting and contrasting effects: The apparent bravery of the beginner who excels because of the unfamiliarity of the consequences of getting it wrong, and the fear that precedes stepping into the unknown. I certainly experienced both the next day on the ice. It was the first time my girlfriend Leona and I had been to a venue on our own. We sweat in the direct sun and as we approach, beads of doubt begin to coalesce in our minds. The first route attempted turns out to be on the most solid section of ice. Thick and blue with no sign of instability. Leona leads admirably. I fly the drone as best as I can, all the while attending to my belaying duties. The second route, a water ice 5, ascends a rather wet looking column. The ice further up is a little grey and the top requires a certain amount of dry tooling to reach the belay. We umm and ahh trying to assess the risks, the oppressive freedom of the choice inspiring swift resolution. I throw caution to the wind and decide to go for it. I am immediately liberated by being restricted to a course of action and reaction, by the setting of a boundary within which to play.

Articles I have read about ice climbing suggest that it is unwise to fall at any time. A lead fall on an ice climb has far more risk than for example, an average sport climb. It is not uncommon to become inverted when crampons bite into the ice as you fall, breaking ankles, nor is stabbing yourself with something sharp. I had previously taken a significant fall on my very first lead and escaped with nothing more than a sore ankle. Even so, I judged it better not to do it again. As it transpired, I had not properly addressed the issue of how to avoid it. I ascended the column without incident, confidently placing relatively few screws. At the top of the column I began to traverse, seeking thicker ice. Bridging out, some meters from my last piece of protection I laid back on my axe and began to grind in an ice screw. After a number of rotations the ice that is normally displaced through the hollow core of the screw ceased. An air bubble! The protection could not be trusted and it would have to be removed and placed elsewhere. As I began to repeat the process in another location, I suddenly found myself airborne.

I have come to know and even relish the feeling of free fall, the freedom of weightlessness within the constraints of gravity. High diving and trampolining have conditioned me to this sensation. I can clearly remember a moment of absolute relaxation as I fell. Leona had not been expecting it and had supplied me with enough slack to accommodate my rat-up-a-drainpipe style. She reacted and attempted to slow my descent, but it was evident that this would not be able to prevent the 8m ground fall. Fortunately the large amount of fresh snow that had been deposited at the base of the climb provided a suitable alternative. I greeted Leona’s calls of concern with a smile, dug myself out of the snow, checked for any protruding metal and brushed myself down. I looked up to make out my single dangling axe marking the highpoint. A close shave, but I still had work to do; the gear would need to be retrieved and the route completed. I did so with an undeserved feeling of confidence and lightness.

"Freedom" can be defined as the potential to make choices. It is generally seen as positive and is drilled into us from an early age. Do well at school to keep your options open and you can do whatever you want. WHATEVER you want! But the act of choosing is always necessarily preceded by indecision. This period of indecision, where freedom is perhaps most apparent, is often anxiety inducing. To keep one’s options open can often feel oppressive; the ability to go anywhere can often result in stagnation. The concept of freedom, positively perceived, can be observed more in the moment of its negation. Saying no as an affirmation of one’s own goals and aspirations, setting boundaries within which to create. The tighter the boundaries and the greater the restriction, the more creativity is inspired. Alfred Hitchcock once said, "… when you look forward, and the road is clear ahead, and now you’re going to create something, I think that’s as happy as I’d ever want to be". In a world where so much has become accessible, where our basic needs are so readily covered, it is easy to find yourself shackled by an imagined potential. Perhaps the happiest amongst us are those whose boundaries are clearly defined but who play infinitely within them.

Photographer, climber, based in London. day job being aliens + dinosaurs in motion pictures.