Ryan Stefiuk, an American Mountain Guides Association-certified rock guide who leads rock and ice climbing trips, is fully aware of the danger, and thrill, of ice climbing. The 33-year-old Northampton, Massachusetts, man has taught backpacking, kayaking, and mountain biking, but about eight years ago decided to focus his career on guiding ice climbing.
“Climbing requires the athleticism that some of these other sports require,” he said of adventure sports, “but it also involves a psychological element – you’re having to do things you don’t think you can do. But you’re able to convince yourself you can do things and be in places where it doesn’t make sense. Problem solving – that becomes physical and psychological. I think to call it a sport is a stretch – you don’t do it against other people. There are never any games, and a lot of the time the consequences, if you made a mistake, are disastrous. You could die.”
A moment where Stefiuk had to face death came three winters ago, when he was ice climbing in the Catskills of New York. He had his foot in a pillar of ice and was swinging an ice ax into it to get a hold. But when he swung his ice ax in, he knocked a 20-foot piece of the pillar to the ground. “If I had been underneath it, that would have been bad,” Stefiuk said.
A few years earlier, Stefiuk had a bad fall – tumbling 35 feet, though he only suffered bruised ribs. Wearing a harness, he was connected by rope to a climbing partner, whose quick action likely saved his life. “That time I was probably in over my head,” Stefiuk said. “There was a belayer who caught the fall, so the rope caught me about five or eight feet off the ground. I only had to be lowered a few feet.” Stefiuk faced a literal reality check. “It’s scary. You think you know when it’s going to happen, but in reality, you don’t.”
Yet it’s precisely the aspect of the unknown that draws him and other climbers to the sport. “Some of the harder stuff is a little like a house of cards,” he said. “Some of the stuff feels like it’s barely there. It’s just neat that you’re having to constantly judge and figure out how you can hit something, because if it breaks, you can’t use it anymore. Sometimes there’s just barely enough ice that if you break the ice, there’s nothing left to climb. The mark of an expert is someone who can judge the rock and ice really well.”