The Peculiar Legacy of Frozen River

 

     What the hell am I doing here? It’s early morning and I’m groveling on my knees, breaking through the snowy snarl of branches and fallen trees over the frozen cascades between massive granite cliffs deep in the virgin forest of Tatra, far from my comfort zone, far from the warmth of my bed where I should be dreaming now. It’s cold and I’m drenched to the skin after free-soloing the half-frozen icefall for the first time in my life. At this point I realize there’s no way back. We don’t know what’s waiting up there, but once we’ve set out to cross this untamed canyon in the winter, I can only hope it won’t be too heavy upon us…


   The narrows look almost impassable. I gingerly place my crampons and axe into the fragile icefall, step-by-step, slowly climbing up with no belay rope. Cracking sound coming from the ice gives me a fright; it feels quite shaky since I don’t have any clue whether it will hold me or not. I don’t look down.

     But seeing Peter, sinking the iron paws into the ice with an ease of a feline, keeps me going. He moves ahead vigorously, with cheerful grin on his face and that childish spark in his eyes, gobbling up the taste of discovering the unknown like it’s the most delicious cake. He is too curious to turn back, but he doesn’t really know what’s coming… 

     We don’t talk much. We’ve met just few months ago, but as soon as we took the first hike together, it was obvious that he is the right kind of fellow adventurer for me. When I mentioned that it could be interesting to cross this canyon in the winter, he said yes before he even had any idea what it looks like.

     Rumbling water below the ice sheet, gentle snowfall and fresh footprints of the Wolf paint a shade of mystery above the endless valley. On a bank of a river, below hundred icicles hanging down the cliff like the Swords of Damocles, lies a body of wild boar — a textbook work of the Wolf. He chases the prey down to the edge until it falls off. But the prey is not eaten yet…

     Did we disturbed him? Is he hiding somewhere between those old Spruces shrouded in a subtle haze, patiently waiting for us to leave so he can take the reward of his wits? I just hope he doesn’t think we want to eat his lunch…  

     The smell of bloodshed makes me want to move faster, but the narrow in front of us is thick, with one fallen tree above the deep humming water between the steep walls. I wonder how will the wolf get here to have a bite…? Peter carefully balances over the snowy trunk and I follow him, hoping I won’t fall into the cold sapphire river below — our vigilance gets significantly weaker after few hours of climbing and crawling.

     We move towards another, small icefall. It seems fairly easy to cross and Peter, with a good dose of confidence, swiftly walks through it without even using an axe. And then it happens…

   The block of ice collapses. Rumbling sound of frozen mass rushing down the icefall fully demonstrates its power. Luckily, Peter manages to bounce from it and stays on the solid side of the ice above the small lakelet. After three seconds of silence, we look at each other and laugh. He most likely wouldn’t get hurt if he would fall into the cold water; but he very likely could freeze to death until we would find the way out of this forgotten canyon… 

     We are silent again. My hands freeze in wet gloves, my legs are burning and I’m getting seriously tired after six or seven hours in this wild mayhem. But we are still moving forward and I ask myself again — what the hell are you doing here?

     It seems to have no end. After every corner, there’s always another snarl of bushes and fallen trees, or another icefall between the steep rocks. We are bound between the walls of hostile canyon, not knowing what’s ahead and how long it’s gonna take. There is either a way back down through the wilds we’ve passed, or the way somewhere further up to the unknown. And now I’m not even sure which one is better… or worse…

     After the whole day of free-soloing the icefalls and crawling through the wilds of frozen canyon, we’ve finally reached the end of the valley. And it’s getting dark. It wouldn’t be a problem, but we don’t have any headlamps and the way back can take few more hours. Who would have thought that it can take us the whole day, from dusk till dawn, anyway? Once again, I have to admit that my estimation sucks… At least we can climb out of it now, and perhaps safely descend through the trees on modest face of the hill alongside the valley. 

     It’s getting colder as the light vanishes. We break the last chocolate bar in half, put all of our clothes on and we’re off to the forest, heading back down to the river mouth where we started early this morning.

     After two more hours, we’ve made it down. Our handshake at the end of this adventure indicates victory, but to peacefully go home, there’s one more thing still left to be answered…

*    *    *

     What the hell was I really doing here? Was it just the adventure and nothing more than the adventure? Or, is there anything more profound in being bound between the frozen walls in the middle of nowhere for hours, with no end in sight, not knowing where it goes and when will it end?

     I breathe deeply, looking at the river meandering between the walls, making it’s way down the cascades, endlessly flowing like the reflection of eternity. That river flows, perhaps, at its own sweet will and it doesn’t have any doubt — that river hopes for nothing, that river fears nothing, because that river is free. It is sure to get where it’s going and it doesn’t want to go anywhere else. But if its flood were not bound between those two banks, its freedom would be quickly wasted.

     Maybe the river has the answer…