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Of Thin Ice

[This story originally appeared in Alpinist 77, which is now available on newsstands and in our online store. Only a small fraction of our many long-form stories from the print edition are ever uploaded to Be sure to pick up Alpinist 77 for all the goodness!–Ed.]

Katie Ives, on the North Face (the common name for the northwest face) of Gothics, Adirondacks. [Photo] Kevin B. MacKenzie

Katie Ives, on the North Face (the common name for the northwest face) of Gothics, Adirondacks. [Photo] Kevin B. MacKenzie

Adirondack Gothic

By December 5, 2021, signs of early winter appear and fade like fata morganas–mirages of some higher mountainous coast rippling above low Northeast ranges. Hoarfrost blooms and vanishes along the summits. Storms blend rain, sleet and snow, strewing farmers’ fields with quickly melting crystals. When I drive from the Green Mountains to the Adirondacks, black ice glistens along paved roads like pools of water. Cars spin into ditches. I stop for the night at a motel in a dark wood, its small lamplit windows enfolded by tree shadows and snow-dust.

The next morning, local climber Kevin MacKenzie and I trudge past deciduous trees, still autumn-brown with dead, unfallen leaves, and then through quiet corridors of bowed evergreens. Beyond a snow-filled river, we peer at the 1,200-foot North Face of Gothics: only a few faintly golden hues hint at ice. Perhaps enough to climb. Gradually, we follow miniature things skyward: clumps of frozen moss and tufted grass, glimmers of grey verglas, patches of amber ice, crusts of pearly neve. There is always enough, when we look for it. I run an axe point through loose powder until it catches on something invisible: a feldspar crystal, maybe, or an anorthosite edge. Often, I don’t see what I’m placing my trust in. I only know how it holds me, how little it takes to hold the weight of a human body on a vast rock slab.

The summit ridge billows in cumulus forms of rime and snow, drifts so deep I sink to my eyes before we switch from crampons to snowshoes. Rain is forecast for the evening, though it’s impossible even to imagine. The air is so cold, so clear and still. While we were climbing, clouds began to rise above the lake and pour between the hills in long, white plumes–only to hover motionless, now, paused in the very instant of crossing from one side to the other.

Since dawn, there’s been no murmur of wind. By the time we descend, we enter another kind of silence: the quiet of falling snow, the glitter of crystals as they float, soundless, through the blue dusk. A day later, when I’m home, the wind returns, and the rainstorm finally sweeps the ranges. Soon, the summits are bare again, and the ice-world we traversed is gone.

The Crystal Forest

To roam the Northeast hills between late autumn and early winter is to be entranced by metamorphosis: a bead of newly formed ice, a clatter of wet stones, a trickle of water behind icicles. Here, seasons unspool from any predictable trajectory. You might climb up shimmers of ice that spread like frost on a morning garden, only to descend, mere hours later, into a murk of misting rain, muddy earth and orange leaves. At sunset, alpenglow turns summit rime to iridescent violet, rose and gold. Even the valleys light up, and the drab hues of barren oaks, maples and birches give way to glowing burgundy and orange, as if the peak foliage, vanished weeks prior, has come back as colored light.

I’m drawn to twilight spaces between day and night, waking and dreaming, one season and another. Growing up in eastern Massachusetts, I learned the peculiarities of nights too cold for rain, too warm for snow, when ice storms coated everything with crystal strata as brittle and transparent as glass. Tree limbs, transformed into fragile sculptures, fell across power lines. Ice-sheathed wires snapped, extinguishing electric lights for miles. In the mornings, unwilling to heed my mother’s warnings, I wandered deep into the forests, knowing that, when the wind blew, large branches might break off and fly through the air. Shards of silver twigs fell in chimes of strange music. It was like an enchanted wood in a fairy-tale, improbably beautiful, possibly deadly.

The nineteenth-century philosopher Henry David Thoreau, whose Walden Pond cabin was near our house, devoted many pages of his journals to the aftermath of heavy frosts and ice storms, immersing himself in what he called “crystalline botany.” He admired how the diamond-bright blades of frozen grass acted as prisms, reflecting “all the hues of the rainbow,” when the sun’s rays passed through them. He noted how a “dense ice-foliage” burgeoned across windows and fences, woods and meadows. And then, with increasing excitement, he observed similar leaf-like forms elsewhere, in the plumage of birds, the braiding of rivers, the meandering of thoughts–shapes that a modern reader might compare to fractals. He began to believe that the “ghost leaves” of winter hinted at some underlying pattern of existence, manifesting and disappearing again and again. Even quartz crystals on granite resembled “the “frost-work of a longer night…but to some eye unprejudiced by the short term of human life, melting as fast as the former.”

More than a century later, in the 1966 apocalyptic novel, The Crystal World, J.G. Ballard imagined a crystallization of the entire earth after collisions between what he called “time and anti-time,” similar in concept to matter and anti-matter. Chronology gives way to infinite replicas of static images, refracting light like prisms. Skyscrapers proliferate into countless, self-reflecting stained-glass spires. Forests remain forever like the aftermaths of ice storms: leaves and branches encased in diaphanous, frost-like layers of shifting colors. Animals and humans transform into sparkling, gem-like forms. Despite the dangers, characters become captivated by this reenchantment of the familiar world. “I accepted all these wonders as part of the natural order of things,” marvels the protagonist Dr. Edward Sanders, as if echoing Thoreau, “part of the inward pattern of the universe.” Sanders begins to think that the crystallized forests might even evoke memory traces of “some ancestral paradise.” The annihilation of time, to him, seems to stop the relentless progression toward death. “But there is no human life in the city of jewels,” counters literature professor Elana Gomel, in her analysis of the novel. “Like Snow White in her glass coffin, the crystallized humans are neither dead nor alive. Suspended in timeless animation, they have become not angels but objects, beautiful and lifeless things.”

On late October days, above the alpine tundra zone of Northeast peaks, I’ve seen deep-green moss and delicate alpine plants glow emerald, burgundy and gold beneath a spume of translucent ice–safely beyond the reach of my sharp axe and crampon points–like miniature worlds of living things preserved in giant drops of amber or globes of glass. Illusions of eternity that will vanish and reform with each melt and freeze. When the air chills, I, too, watch myself turn, temporarily, to crystal. Rime slowly forms along the loose strands of my hair, in thicker and thicker flowers of white and silver, encrusting my lashes until I have to rub my eyes or blink hard to keep my vision clear. At times, I imagine a strange beauty like a silver land ahead; I find an indescribable solace in something unimaginable that feels, almost, like wonder and like love.

On Thin Ice

On an early winter evening, when the ice is still thin, I notice, more, how much each small presence and absence matters. A tiny oval gap between half-congealed icicles just large enough to hook an axe point, a crystal lattice just strong enough to bear the force of my pull–such details appear both marvelous and necessary. None of them exists for my sake, and yet, pieced together, their fragments create an upward path. In the classic book Flow, psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi described how a climber becomes so attuned to the slightest nuances of a cliff that she experiences a “sense of kinship” between her body and everything she touches, feels and sees. All sense of self-consciousness dissolves; all that seems to exist is a luminous orb of space and time around her, like the beam of a headlamp in the dark.

Kevin Tatsugawa, a mountaineer and a professor of adventure education, recalls the invented word ambedo, from John Koenig’s Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows: “a kind of melancholic trance in which you become completely absorbed in vivid sensory details–raindrops skittering down a window, tall trees leaning in the wind…” While finding a route up thin ice, Tatsugawa says, he feels something like that–though he adds, “I can never predict when nor engineer an experience that will guarantee it. Kind of like flow or awe. I become very focused on the ice and the climbing–not on myself, the cold, the consequences of a fall.”

There’s another part to Koenig’s definition of ambedo, the idea that the sensation “leads to a dawning awareness of the fragility of life.” Although such moments appear beyond time, the escape is only an illusion, the intensity itself becomes a reminder of the sharp precariousness of existence. Csikszentmihalyi died of cardiac arrest in late autumn of this year, October 20, 2021, at age eighty-seven. We are all existing on thin ice, not only in the mountains. Each loss evokes the often-invisible voids beneath our feet. Each threshold moment can seem to open a multitude of branching, alternative timelines, like the patterns of frost on a window, curling into infinite fractal forms, tracing phantom narratives of falls untaken, ice unbroken, illnesses uncaught, decisions unmade.

In his journals, Thoreau tracked the changing seasons with meticulous notes, seeking to understand nature’s own chronologies. On March 11, 1856, the same frigid day that he measured the snow and ice of Walden as “a curtain twenty-eight inches thick,” he mused, “I may dream of no heaven but that which lies about me.” The next day, he fantasized, “If the present cold should continue uninterrupted a thousand years would not the pond become solid?” More than a century and a half later, biologist Richard B. Primack compared Thoreau’s records with his own, noting the “exquisite sensitivity” of local bodies of water to the rising temperatures since the philosopher’s lifetime. “Just like the melting of ice sheets and glaciers in polar regions, we are now experiencing the disappearance of ice on a smaller scale at Walden,” Primack concluded in his 2014 book, Walden Warming.

At times on my vertical wanderings, I feel like the fairy-tale character in the Snow Queen’s frozen palace, still trying to piece together the words Eternity out of glass-like shards, still trying to find some underlying pattern of meaning. As the seasons of cold shrink, only old stories, hints and clues remain. Only the magic of imagination, memory and desire, fleeting and silver, like thin tendrils of ice binding together stone and earth, crystals and moss, movement and thought. The ephemeral veins of ghost leaves.

[This story originally appeared in Alpinist 77, which is now available on newsstands and in our online store. Only a small fraction of our many long-form stories from the print edition are ever uploaded to Be sure to pick up Alpinist 77 for all the goodness!–Ed.]