Risk Takers and Ice Breakers
A closer look into the climbing community at Dartmouth and what motivates them despite the time-consuming and dangerous nature of the sport.
This article is featured in the 2023 Winter Carnival special issue.
I’m trekking up a hillside just after midnight in Chefchaouen, Morocco. The path my friends and I are on is dimly lit by flickering lights, but ten feet in front of us they end — meaning the rest of our journey will be near dark. On either side of us, we can hear dogs barking and howling.
As we approach the end of the path, the four of us hear rustling in the bushes beside us and stop dead in our tracks, thinking it’s one of the feral dogs. Someone grabs a rock; we all tense up. And then, almost comically, a pack of small brown puppies leaps out of the bushes onto our path, and we break out into laughter.
So why am I telling you this story? Because while I was thinking about all the ways our journey could end badly, two of my friends were cracking jokes — not even a little bit scared. In fact, they were the ones who convinced us all to climb up the hill in the first place. Knowing them, this does not come as a surprise; they are no strangers to putting themselves in risky situations, as they are both rock climbers.
One of my deepest (and now least well-kept) secrets is that I’m a total scaredy cat. As someone who is embarrassingly cautious, I’ve become fascinated with the niche part of Dartmouth that goes ice climbing and spends their weekends mountaineering — and what motivates them.
Among other reasons, Kat Plaza ’25 got into climbing because of how rewarding it was to see herself constantly improve.
“You can see progress so concretely,” Plaza said. “The feeling of physically getting to the top of something gave me a sense of accomplishment I hadn’t experienced in a long time.”
Growing up, Plaza said she did everything — from Model United Nations to varsity softball — but she didn’t begin climbing until a year and a half ago, when she came across an ad for her local climbing gym during her COVID gap year. Carter Ley ’25, however, started climbing at a young age, when he used to scramble on the boulders — which, he assured me, are “actually bigger than you’d think” — in Central Park.
“No one really climbs in New York, so my parents were worried, and they made me take lessons at a gym,” Ley said. From there, Ley began climbing competitively, and later gravitated to sport climbing — where climbers attach themselves to permanent anchors in the rock — and deep-water soloing — in which people climb on cliffs with a deep body of water below, protecting them from falls .
While Plaza and Ley both had unconventional introductions to the sport, Talis Colberg ’25 grew up in an environment made for climbing — Anchorage, Alaska. As a kid, Colberg spent a lot of time outdoors skiing and hiking, but he first became attracted to the idea of climbing after reading Jon Krakauer’s “Into Thin Air” — not the typical response most people would have to a book about people dying on Everest.
“Some morbid part of my eighth-grade mind thought that it sounded so cool to be up there freezing my ass off in a crazy storm in some crazy place,” Colberg said.
By the time he graduated high school, Colberg was doing “more adventurous things” than just simply bouldering at the gym. One of these was ice climbing, in which climbers ascend frozen waterfalls and cliffs covered in ice from frozen water flow.
“Ice climbing has a lot of appeal that rock climbing doesn’t have,” Colberg said. “Mountain climbing in the snow and ice climbing to me were always the closest thing that you could have to some type of fairytale adventure.”
Ley explained that he began ice climbing to get better at doing longer alpine routes, rather than outright interest.
“It started as something to do in the winter – if you want to get good at climbing long routes in the mountains, you have to be good at rock climbing and ice climbing,” Ley said. “But then [ice climbing] became this thing I really enjoyed.”
But whether it’s ice climbing or rock climbing, the most challenging part of the sport is not physical or mental, but rather another factor entirely: scheduling.
“The hardest thing is finding the time,” Ley said. “Last year, I would go climbing four days a week, and now I’ve gone maybe twice this term.”
It’s hard for any student to fit in any extracurricular activity — let alone one that can fill up an entire day — on top of hours of independent training. Plaza echoed Ley’s statement, but also discussed how she makes it work.
“I just make it a priority and schedule it in, so I don’t really have a choice,” Plaza said. “And when your friends climb it becomes something that everyone does when they have a half or full day off, which is fun.”
This came up time and time again — the sense of community and closeness that climbing brings to those who participate in it.
“There’s a literary romanticism to basically tying yourself to somebody else, and then going to climb some mountain that scares the shit out of both of you,” Colberg said. “You don’t get that level of connectedness in other activities.”
“When you’re pushing yourself, and other people are also pushing themselves at the same thing, it brings you closer,” Plaza said. “I also think that anything that is physically hard and potentially [risky] also bonds people.”
Danger is not only a possibility in climbing, but a reality. Last summer while climbing Mount Moran in Wyoming, Ley was struck by a falling boulder that tore a tendon in his quadricep, and he had to be medically evacuated.
“[The accident] is one reason why I haven’t climbed as much this year, and I haven’t done an alpine route since,” he said.
And Ley is not alone in this dangerous reality.
“I’ve got friends that have gotten hit by rocks or have fallen hundreds of feet,” Colberg said. “I’ve met people on climbs who have died the next day.”
However, this ever-present peril does not drive climbers away from the sport; in fact, it pulls them closer to it.
“Climbing can evoke such a [primal] fear in you that makes you feel silly for getting scared over a midterm or an internship,” Ley said. “For a majority of my life, climbing has provided me with something bigger — a big goal outside of school, or work or social life.”
Colberg echoed this sentiment. “When you climb something that scares you and you get down to the bottom…the lesser problems in my life are put into perspective and seem very small compared to what I just did,’” he said.
These days, I think a lot about that hill in Chefchaouen – it makes me understand the climbers more. When we reached the top of the hill, it was beautiful; not necessarily because the scene was picturesque, but because I made a somewhat treacherous journey with people I love, and we are all the more bonded for it. Sometimes when things are scary, they are also beautiful because of that risk — the risk that puts it all into perspective, that makes you feel alive and grateful for the life you’re living.