Every time I tell someone this story, it does more harm than good. Usually the circumstances inspire it to bubble to the surface, are walking along the edge of a cliff, or hiking on polished rocks, or climbing a ladder that’s maybe not as stable as it should be. Once this story lodges itself in my brain, it gives me vertigo. And the trail all-of-a-sudden seems so much higher & slipperier than it is.
I fell into a very cool winter job that season.
I mean cool literally – I was building an ice castle.
They were looking for hardy people willing to work outside all winter in Winnipeg, & reached out to seasonal workers in Churchill. An advantage of working in the sub-arctic in the fall means that we get ahead of acclimatizing for winter. By the time the snow falls in Winnipeg, we’ve already had -20C for a month or so.
Ice Castles (©) were branching out & looking for more cold-weather cities to build in. Some castles had to be built 20 miles out of town to find the best conditions; in Winnipeg, the Forks is a perfect fit. It’s right downtown, has ample parking & (for the finer details of building the castle) is a large, flat surface close to a water source (for drainage).
We spent the better part of a month growing this castle out of icicles & sprinklers.
Once the walls were above our heads, we had to build stairs to get into the walls, then build the walls taller.
Eventually our jobs turned to building the ice slide, putting features into the walls, like light displays & artwork, & finally maintenance.
Maintenance is constant. When we arrive in the morning, the water has often had a mind of its own & spilled out the sides of the walls.
Eventually, all the stand-alone towers should connect with the outside walls of the castle through arches. The arches are surprisingly sturdy once they freeze. When ice freezes to itself (rather than to a rock face, or hanging off a roof), it is very strong.
But sometimes the sprinklers freeze altogether, & the arches remain unfinished.
On this particular day, I was the only one working maintenance. My counterpart worked opposite days to me, so there was always at least one person working off-the-ground in the ice towers.
I loved it. I loved getting into the warming shack in the morning & strapping on my gaiters & crampons. I love working outside & being reminded of how beautiful the winter is.
Plus we got to build something magical.
I left the stand-alone tower for last. There was no obvious way up – on a tower this size, we couldn’t have stairs from the ground & risk the public trying to climb it. Normally we would access via the arches from the outer walls, but they were unfinished.
I was nervous about doing it. Usually Chris was the one who tackled these sprinklers – he always found a way to scramble up the side of the tower & before you knew it he’d be beaming from the top. My manager reassured me that I didn’t have to do it if I was uncomfortable, but I also didn’t want it to beat me. I’ve seen Chris do it a bunch of times; my compromise was to use a ladder.
The top of the tower had a short wall around it, so once I got up, it was no problem. The side that I was accessing was completely slick & curved, because of a water leak that formed a waterfall. You could see the sheen from the bottom. Not super inspiring.
I was like a foot off the ground when the guy holding the ladder said “I can’t believe you are doing this.” His voice trembled. You are not allowed to be more nervous about this than me.
I cautiously climbed the ladder one foot at a time, making sure my crampons didn’t catch on the steel.
Once I was at the top, I stared at the ice & took a deep breath. I steadied myself. “I could get up, but I am going to have a hell of a time getting down.” There was nothing to hold onto, but I trusted my crampons. I kicked the spikes into the glassy ice & got a firm grip to haul myself up.
I did it. Ohh my god, I did it.
It took me almost an hour to blast through the ice with hot water & get the drainage working properly so it wouldn’t go back to flooding sections of the castle again. I spent some extra time to make sure the fix would stick so we wouldn’t have to come back up here. Once was enough for all of us.
Suddenly it was the end of the day. I had waited so long to build up my nerve to do this tower last, that I had no idea how long it would take. I could see people lining up at the front gates. The doors would open in 15 minutes!
I finished up & tossed down my gear. The guys on the ground said “Great. Now just climb down.”
No Way. I stared at the top of the ladder at the base of this 6 ft slippery section. I would have to climb backwards towards the ledge of this 25ft drop with nothing to hold onto, or crab-walk forwards towards the ledge & climb down the ladder forwards. Both of these options sound terrible.
My manager is saying “You need to come down.” I can’t bring myself to do it. I trust the crampons but I don’t trust the ice. Not with my life.
If I had more time, I could have mustered up the nerve. But we didn’t have time, so my manager radioed the front-end loader to come & pick me up.
I partly slid, partly climbed into the front of the tractor. It was a smooth ride. He gently lowered me to the ground, where I got a few pats on the back from my co-workers who filmed the whole thing – obviously.
When I climbed out, he said to me “That’s the scariest thing I’ve ever done.”