As an experienced ice-climber, Beth Goralski knew the toll climbing could take your body. But pushing herself to the limits was the only way she knew how to be the best.
It wasn’t until she suffered a season-ending injury that she realised that actually, her drive to succeed had taken the joy out of the sport. We spoke to Beth about her story ‘Cracking the Ice’ and how her injury helped her reignite her passion for ice climbing.
Ice climbing is a fairly niche sport to get into. Did you start with ice climbing straight away?
I actually started rock climbing first, whilst I was at university. A girlfriend of mine kept trying to get me to go to the new climbing gym on the university campus and when I finally 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.
How and why, did you then make the transition to ice-climbing?
I started ice climbing after attending an Ice Climbing Outdoor Education class offered by my university. I’d seen magazines with incredible photos of mountains and smiling people standing on their summits with ice tools in hand and I wanted to experience that. I still very much enjoy rock climbing but I’ve found I have a talent for ice and mixed climbing, so I’ve focused more energy there. It’s great to be able to climb all year round rather than just being a fair-weather climber.
What’s different in ice climbing compared to rock climbing, apart from the obvious?
One thing that is decidedly different in ice climbing compared to rock climbing is the tools. In ice climbing you use an ice tool with a relatively large handle which is made for gripping. In rock climbing on the other hand, often the teeniest, tiniest of handholds are used to facilitate upward progress. The tip of the ice pick on the tool can rest on some very tiny holds but the sensation is totally different because of the large handle.
What kind of training do you undertake for ice climbing? Do you have a rigorous athletic regime?
My partner and I have turned our entire two car garage into a climbing gym. We have three wooden walls at different angles that he built to allow us to train all year-round at our convenience. We have every type of training apparatus you could imagine for climbing. I try to train two times a week in our garage for 2-3 hours at a time. On the weekends, I climb outside all day. I find that seems to be a good combination of activity and rest.
Can you tell us how you to prepare for a climb and the process you go through to complete the climb?
I try to visualize myself on the climb. I tell myself to remember to breathe and not to get too anxious. Before any sports competition, I’ve felt nervous energy. I try to contain that and channel it for good use.
What motivates you to keep going out there and keep climbing? What would you say your favourite climbs are?
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.
What would you say is your best achievement to date? What did it feel like when you were climbing it?
I’ve climbed several hard-mixed routes that were bolted but I think my proudest moments are the mixed climbs I’ve done that were led all on traditional gear. 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 at my best physically, but mentally as well. 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.
Have you ever had any worrying experiences, where you thought something was going to go really wrong whilst out climbing?
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’ve often thought about how if something did happen, a rescue was likely impossible, or it would take a really long time.
You recently sustained a torn left hip labrum which ended your ice climbing season. What impact has this injury had on you?
Yes , I actually tore my hip running as I was resting a shoulder injury at the time and couldn’t climb. I was pushing myself hard and my body was trying to tell me to slow down – but I didn’t listen. As a result of my injuries I have had to severely cut back on my activities. However, it is through doing easier climbs that I have been able to rediscover my original love for the sport. Before I was pushing myself so hard all the time that I wasn’t really enjoying the climbs – I was just pushing myself to succeed. Since my injuries have forced me to slow down, I’ve realised the importance of rest and I’m not so obsessed with pushing myself to the limits all the time.
It seems then that your season ending injury has had a positive impact on you. Do you think that can often be the way with high achieving athletes? Or do you think that more-so applies to you and your situation?
In a way, I’m more motivated than ever to climb. In retrospect, maybe I was starting to get a little burnt out. I am always pushing, trying to do more, better. That constant pushing is what led to my tendonitis and hip injury. It takes a toll mentally to always be “on”. I can get a bit obsessed about my goals and dreams. That obsession and compulsion has allowed me to attain a high level of achievement. I’ve loved a sport to death. It’s a side effect of being an over-achiever and this injury forced me to take a step back and I’m grateful for the insight.
From your experience and your response to your accident, you clearly have a positive mental attitude. How big a part do you think that attitude has played in your career, and in your recovery from injury?
Acceptance is the answer. Just because I’ve accepted something, that doesn’t mean I have to like it. I think acceptance of our situation is more than half the battle. 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. Accepting life on life’s terms gets me to a realistic starting point. My partner reminds me that as long as climbing is fun, I’ll have a long climbing career.
What advice would you give any new climbers, just starting out?
Have fun! Don’t compare yourself to someone else. Find someone who can act as a mentor. Climbing is inherently dangerous and it’s best to go with someone who knows what they are doing. Learning something new can be frustrating if you compare yourself to those who have been doing it for a long time.
To find out more about Beth’s story click here.
Photographs by Scott Cramer.