An ice climb called “Broken Hearts” outside Cody, Wyo., would change my perspective on pain during Valentine’s Day 2006, but I didn’t know it yet.
It was still January, and I was in a dark place.
A girl I’d been obsessed with crushed me. Since graduating college the previous summer and moving back to Glenwood Springs, all my thoughts had centered on Anna. That January, the bottom dropped out.
Working the copy desk at the newspaper in a small town was a lonely gig. It’s hard to have a social life when you go to work at 2 p.m. and leave at midnight. For a shy, single guy who didn’t have a TV and lived alone, it had been a long December.
I passed the empty nights after work by making mixed tapes for Anna. I put hours into song selection and sequence. I thought of her blond hair, her white, stretching smile and blue eyes. I remembered the moments we shared at parties and backpack trips.
I hadn’t kissed her yet, but I somehow believed she shared my feelings. She was so nice! We talked on the phone regularly and eventually made plans for her to come visit me.
I planned and re-planned my dinner menu and went grocery shopping. I bought a bottle of nice wine. Then it snowed and snowed. The evening I’d been waiting for passed into darkness and it snowed some more. I called too many times and left too many voicemails. It was late when I finally heard from Anna.
“The roads are bad, I’m going to stay at my friend’s house in Vail,” she told me over the phone.
My chest started to collapse but I understood.
“I’ll try to make it there tomorrow,” she said.
I twiddled my thumbs, the anxiousness and anticipation building like the snow drifts outside. My gut told me she was hiding something. I couldn’t stop imagining her in the arms of another. I was chopping garlic and vegetables for our elegant dinner when the phone rang.
“Derek, I’m sorry, but I’m not going to make it,” she said lightly. Too lightly. “I’m staying in Vail again.”
She had no problem canceling; she didn’t miss me; I didn’t mean anything to her; I knew it all in a breath.
“No! No! No!” I cried, erupting in tears that drained from my eyes like dignity from a soul.
“Derek, I feel like you’ve had feelings for me for a while. You should know I’m seeing someone.”
Her words were like the knife I spiked into the cutting board after I hung up the phone. I pulled the knife out of the wood and stabbed it again, angry with myself for such idiotic delusions, such crazy obsession, for falling in love with an imaginary person. Again and again, I buried the tip of the knife into the board, trying to fill the void in my stupid aching heart.
Nights became extra long. The furnace in my apartment kept dying in the coldest weeks. I wore gloves to hold the books I read and went to bed wearing a hat and sweater. I had nothing better to do, nothing to focus on or look forward to, which is why I said yes when a guy I barely knew asked if I wanted to drive to Cody and climb ice over Valentine’s weekend.
Stabbing ice was just what I needed, though most of the trip was miserable. Conditions hovered between zero and -20 F. The ice was so brittle, my sharpened ice axes might as well have been hammers swinging into plate glass. Everything aligned on Valentine’s Day, though, when we set our sights on a long route called “Broken Hearts.”
The route was a cascade of frozen waterfalls. The ice falls got bigger and bigger as we climbed up a narrow draw in the mountains. As I hiked and climbed, I got into a rhythm. All that mattered was burying my axes into ice that was good enough to hold me: Swing, stick. Swing, stick.
The first waterfall was 5 feet, then 10 feet, then some 20- and 50-footers. At last I stood below a 150-foot monster, a vertical column that loomed over me like the Washington Monument. I’d never climbed any ice that big, but in that moment I had no doubts about it.
I leaned back to scope my line. A stream of freezing drops twinkled from the distant top and plunked into my eyes — all I could do was pull a hood over my head, keep my chin down and go to work.
Thoughts melted into clear winter silence. Life streamed through me like the water trickling inside the chandelier of ice that held me in the sky. Swing, stick. Swing, stick. That’s all there was to it, the same as ever but somehow better than ever.
On top, gulping the freshest air, I turned around and beheld the view of sharp ridgelines and blue, open horizons. My numb fingers burned as warm blood reclaimed frozen capillaries, a condition known as “screaming barfies” and “fire fingers” — so there was pain, but it was dwarfed by everything else. For a moment, there alone in the sun, I even felt a glimmer of love and forgiveness for myself, and I saw so much to look forward to, so much I couldn’t see before.
Pain is growth; even when it hurts so bad you hope it’s the end. It pushes us in new directions. It’s such a part of life it’s essential. But there is an important key if you want to make it to the other side, the brighter side of pain: Love yourself. Forgive yourself. Give yourself a chance.
No matter where you are this Valentine’s Day, no matter your regrets, the future can be anything if you can find a way to see it. It all starts in your heart.
We are all worthy of love as long as we believe it.
— “Open Space” appears on the second and fourth Friday of every month. Derek Franz lives in Carbondale and may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.