Cracking the Ice – An interview with ice climber Beth Goralski
A glimpse into the life of a female ice climbing enthusiast who has built a career around her passion. Ice climber Beth Goralski tells her story in this interview aptly named, “Cracking The Ice“.
When it came to ice climbing, Beth wasn’t happy with her performance unless she’d pushed herself to the max. In her eyes, if she wasn’t pushing her body, how was she going to train it to get better? But, whilst this mentality got her to the top of her game, it also caused her to slip up, resulting in a season ending injury. We spoke to Beth to hear more about her story, “Cracking the Ice”, to understand how this injury has changed her mentality for the better.
My climbing career actually started with rock climbing. A girlfriend of mine kept trying to get me to go to the new climbing gym on the university campus and eventually I gave in to her requests. I immediately loved it. It was unlike anything else I had ever tried. It involved strength, athletic ability and mental toughness. It was also exhilarating. But once I tried ice climbing, I knew that was going to be even better.
Nothing else quite excites and terrifies me like ice climbing. I’d be lying if I didn’t say that I was scared sometimes. But that exhilaration is addictive. I constantly surprise myself with what I’m able to accomplish when I let go of fear and trust my body. It’s a mental game as much as it is a physical game. And I found that out to my detriment this season.
I’ve always been competitive, and I’ve always been interested in sports. My parents encouraged me to try all sorts of different sports from ballet, to tennis, to swimming to gymnastics. I’ve long known the power of endorphins and searched out ways to maximise my exposure to them. I revel in the way my body feels after a long, debilitating sports practice and I’ve always had that drive to get better, to improve and to win.
Once I realised I had a talent for ice climbing, it was difficult to stay away from it at first. Whilst rock climbing is more of a gentle caress of a rock face, ice climbing permits a certain amount of aggression and violence to ascend to the heights. But that violence must be done with pinpoint precision and accuracy, considering the fragility of what you’re climbing. When I first started ice climbing, the thought of climbing something so ephemeral terrified and excited me and I wanted to do it constantly. However, as it does so often, life got in the way and I wasn’t able to pursue it as much as I would have liked. It wasn’t until 12 years later when I had a change of job, that I got back into it and remembered how much I loved it.
As I started to get better and better, I started to push myself harder and harder. I’ve done a few routes that were rated R, which means there’s no room for error and that requires that I not only perform physically at my best, mentally I had to also keep it together. There’s a huge mental aspect in climbing that’s not there in other sports I’ve done. Just because one is physically strong doesn’t necessarily mean they will be a good climber. And it’s the mental aspect of climbing that keeps me coming back. I can think of a couple climbs that I did that if I had messed up, I was looking at broken legs and ankles at best and paralysis and death at worst. I always worry that something is going to go wrong. Sometimes my worry is rational, like when assessing poor ice conditions and sometimes my worry is irrational and stems from the reptilian part of my brain that’s all about self-preservation. Sometimes in a particularly scary situation, I think about how I could be at home watching TV and eating chips on my couch. But I wouldn’t get that same satisfaction. I’m just hardwired to try my hardest and constantly push myself that little bit harder.
Recently though, my body has begun to push back. A persistent pain in my elbow, a tightness in my shoulder. A physical therapist diagnosed tendonitis in the elbows and impingement in the shoulder. Last fall, it hurt too much to climb, so I took to trail running to get my kick of endorphins, while I couldn’t get it from the ice.
I’d just begun a run last October, when I felt a pain in my hip. It was bad, so I decided to take a week off to let it heal. But when I tried again, it was even worse. A visit to the hospital confirmed that it was a torn hip labrum – and the end of my climbing season. It was tough to come to terms with. I had to take time off to heal but I was so anxious to get back to climbing.
I took it slow at first; gentle climbs that wouldn’t leave my clearly fragile body in ruins. Rest was just a four-letter word in my twenties but now, it had become my creed. And I realised something. These gentle climbs have been so enjoyable for me. I hadn’t realised it, but I wasn’t enjoying the climbs I was attempting beforehand, the climbs that required so much physical strength and mental fortitude. These climbs were fun. And I realised that I was rediscovering my love for the sport. When I first began ice climbing, I didn’t care about grades, difficulties, or pushing my limits. I cared about having fun, laughing and being with my friends. Being injured has forced me to remember why I was participating in the sport in the first place. Somewhere along the way, my focus had shifted from pure fun and enjoyment to harder, better, stronger. The irony of the situation is that I had to take a step backward in order to go forwards.
Acceptance of the current situation is the answer. I’m injured and I don’t like it. But sulking about how the universe has wronged me isn’t going to make my body heal any faster. I’ve accepted that I’m human with physical limitations.
In a way, I’m more motivated than ever to climb now. Being put in an involuntary time-out reminded me why I love climbing. In retrospect, maybe I was starting to get a little burnt out. I am always pushing, trying to do more, better. It takes a toll mentally to always be “on”. I can get a bit obsessed about my goals and dreams. That obsession and compulsion have allowed me to attain a high level of achievement not only in sports but in my academics and career. I’ve loved a sport to death. Before climbing, I was a competitive swimmer. Now, unless I’m snorkeling with the fish in the tropics, I have no desire to swim. I put so much energy into swimming, I burnt out. It’s a side effect of being an over-achiever and this injury forced me to take a step back. To be honest I’m grateful for the insight.
So now, all I’m hoping for is a speedy recovery. I hope that I come back from this injury stronger not only physically but mentally also. I learned a lot about myself and I’ve had to accept that I’m no longer twenty years old. My brain tells me I’m twenty, but my body says something different. Working out the differences between the two and learning how to care for myself as I age has been interesting as an athlete. I know many people much older than myself who continue to perform at a very high level but they don’t train the exact same way they used to. I feel in many ways, I’m much stronger than I was in my twenties. I have experience which is infinitely more useful than youthful ignorance. And, as my partner said to me, as long as I enjoy climbing, I’ll have a climbing career.
To read more about Beth’s ice climbing experiences, click here.
To read more stories and interviews with other women like Beth, check out our interview section.
Photos by David Clifford, David Roetzel, Scott Cramer and Janette Heung.