Just Don’t Fall

Rippleffect’s Toby Arnold empowers people to push past their limits through ice climbing and outdoor adventure. 

By Jenny O’Connell // Photography by Andy Gagne

Toby Arnold tops out on the first climb of the day at the Amphitheater in Grafton Notch State Park, a popular Maine ice climbing destination.

It’s the one sunny day in a week of wintry weather, and I’m standing in Grafton Notch State Park feeding rope into a belay system while Toby Arnold climbs up the face of a frozen waterfall. Arnold swings an axe into the ice above his head and kicks off with his crampons as he ascends. He stops partway up to shake out his arms and wind a titanium screw into the icefall, and I tighten my hold on the rope.

“What happens if you fall right now?” I call up from the ground. I already know the answer. It’s my first time ice climbing, so I’ve made Arnold tell me all the hazards at least twice. If a crampon—spiked metal plates you strap to your feet for traction—catches your leg, it can start a major bleed. The ice tools in your hands could stab one of your vital organs. Be wary of hanging icicles, and move out of the way when your axe sends an ice chunk the size of a dinner plate crashing down.

Arnold grins down at me. “The name of the game in ice climbing is just don’t fall.”

Arnold and writer and first-time ice climber Jenny O’Connell prepare to climb. Reading the ice, assessing hazards, and plotting a route are all keys to a safe ascent.

Contrary to what he’s just said, Arnold—an educator, coach, and lifelong learner—understands that falling is the most important part of growth. He’s built his career around encouraging people to “fall forward”—and learn from it. While it’s dangerous to take a fall on an advanced ice climb, once he’s at the top he’ll set a sturdy top rope anchor for me. Arnold has done everything possible to manage our risk. We have all the proper gear, and he’s fastidious in his instruction. He has been ice climbing for seven years and guiding at Rippleffect, a Portland-based nonprofit that provides outdoor expeditionary learning programs, for ten. What we are doing today encapsulates what Rippleffect is all about: healthy risktaking. Since 2001 the organization has promoted youth development, strong communities, and sustainability through student sea kayaking programs in Casco Bay and wilderness adventures in northern New England. Now, a new program called Rippleffect Guides is helping adults discover the transformative world of outdoor adventure through activities like backcountry travel, sea kayaking, and rock and ice climbing. “When you pass through the fire into the unknown and come out the other side, you see a part of yourself that you otherwise wouldn’t have seen,” Arnold says. “Everybody has a right to do that.”

Arnold focuses on his next move as he lead climbs a 60-foot frozen waterfall; climbing without a top rope is one of the most dangerous parts of ice climbing due to the sharp tools and inherent risks associated with falling.

When Arnold was a sophomore pre-law student, he enrolled in an expeditionary learning course. On the class sailing trip to the Pacific Northwest’s San Juan Islands he was climbing a cliff to an island outhouse when he grabbed a loose root and fell 40 feet. He woke up on the rocks below with a startling realization: “Lying there, all I could think was ‘Oh no, I’m going to have to leave this wilderness expedition,’” Arnold says. “I realized it was the happiest I’d ever been.”

When he arrived home, Arnold quit pre-law, earned his captain’s license, and threw himself into an outdoor leadership career that took him from the Pacific Northwest to the Caribbean, eventually landing him at Rippleffect in 2010, where he now serves as the director of wilderness education. Soon after, Arnold discovered ice climbing. “I’m not an athletic person. I’ve had to work really hard to get good at anything outdoors,” he says. “But you know when you are meant to do something. That first swing of an ice tool, I knew I had found my thing.” Buoyed by the support of the small but passionately devoted Maine ice climbing community, Arnold grew his skills over the next half decade. Last winter, he climbed the world-famous Pomme d’Or in Northern Quebec—a demanding 1,148-foot ice climb—with his mentor, rock and ice guide Kel Rossiter.

Titanium screws, carabiners, ice axes, and a rope and harness are some of the essential gear for ice climbing. 

Today’s climb is considerably smaller. We’re in the Grafton Notch Amphitheater, a rounded rock formation with three icefalls, and our first objective is about 50 feet. The snowy, humped ridge of Old Speck rises in the distance. Seeping cliffs, long cold snaps, easy approaches, and varied difficulty ratings make New England a world-class ice climbing destination. It’s 40 degrees and sunny, with ice conditions hovering between “hero conditions” (soft, porous ice, easy to stick an axe into) and what Arnold calls “snice”—slushy ice, which is less desirable. This first climb is wide and soft with a gentle slope, and Arnold’s practically running up it to set an anchor. At the top of the cliff, he lets out a whoop. “I do love ice climbing more than just about anything in the world!” he shouts, and then he’s over the edge and out of sight.

My climb is slower going as I adjust to my tools, but with Arnold’s patient coaching, my axes find easy divots, and I’m laughing and cracking jokes as ice crust crumbles down over my head. Arnold’s brought middle school kids from ROLE, Rippleffect’s school-based outdoor leadership education program, on this climb. Both of his sons—Harrison, almost eight, and Silas, age five—started ice climbing at age four. “Take it in!” Arnold says when I tag the top. I lean back in my harness and savor the sound of running water underneath the snow, the mountains sloping away into the blue distance.

The second climb is 60 feet of straight vertical: a frozen white cascade tinged with blue. The ice is shaded and hard, and a trickle of water slicks down the left side. As we gaze up at the sheer face in front of us, Arnold grows serious. He’s always asking himself honest questions about his fitness, the conditions, and his mental state. Am I feeling calm? Am I feeling objectively observant? Is my mindfulness on point? When he calculates risk, he thinks about his family. “I climb to come home,” he says.

We are both silent with focus. There’s only the sound of the waterfall under the ice, the metallic clink of Arnold’s gear as he climbs, the wind through the firs, and the thunk of his axe. But when Arnold reaches the top and starts setting up a top rope for me, he bursts into song. I crack a smile. “When you’re doing something as inherently dangerous as ice climbing,” he had said to me on the way in, “what’s the point of doing it if you’re not having a wonderful time? There are a lot of other activities you can do to challenge yourself.”

O’Connell ties a figure-eight knot while Arnold looks on; he is known at Rippleffect and throughout the ice climbing community for his cheerful and supportive guiding style.

Once I’ve lowered him back to the ground, Arnold claps me on the arm reassuringly. “There’s a moment when you reach fifth gear, and you realize you can make it. That’s when you start singing,” he says. I grip my two axes in my gloved hands, take a deep breath, and start to climb.

Halfway up, I’m stuck. There are no good footholds, my forearms are shot, and I’m suddenly remembering my fear of heights. I’ve worked my way over to the left side of the icefall, where a steady stream of water pours down on my face, making it hard to see. Chunks of ice chipped off by my axe crash against my helmet. My left boot is filling with water. I call down to Arnold to take the slack out of the rope, then let go and dangle in my harness.

“I believe!” Arnold shouts up from below. “I do, too,” I hear myself say, though I’m really not sure that’s true. Exhaustion is setting in. My mind circles with panic. I pull off my big, wet gloves.

There’s something about the direct connection between my hands and the ice tools that suddenly changes things. I can feel myself holding on now. Mind over body, I think. My breathing slows. I raise an axe, and with a primordial grunt, I swing it one more time.

It holds.

“Nice stick!” Arnold cheers. I kick my crampon into the ice, and miraculously, that holds too. Teeth gritted, I head for the top.

A certain amount of grit is needed to make it to the top of a 60-foot icefall; O’Connell digs in as Arnold belays from the ground.

Arnold’s voice wafts up from below, more excited than ever, but I can’t hear what he’s saying. I’ve reached fifth gear, and I’m not singing. I’m cursing left and right. When at last I pull myself over the lip of the icefall, gratitude rushes through my body, a sudden warmth. Around me are mountains, and above me is a wide blue sky. Below, holding the other end of the rope, is a man who just helped me push through fire and come out the other side.

Relieved and elated, I sit back and let Arnold belay me to the ground. My left boot squishes with water, my hair clings to my face, my rain jacket is soaked through. “Did you just go swimming?” he jokes.

One of the best parts of ice climbing is the view from the top; Arnold looks out over Grafton Notch after a gratifying climb.

On the hike out, I ask Arnold what he hopes people will take away from expeditions with Rippleffect Guides. He thinks for a minute. “I just believe that, if there’s something you really want to do, you have to throw yourself at it. You won’t believe where you’ll see yourself later. That’s what climbing has been for me,” he says. “I don’t like ice climbing—I love it. I hate it in some ways. It’s scary, and sometimes dangerous, and it makes my heart feel something fundamentally uncomfortable. But don’t shy away from the things you can’t do. Spend more time on them. It might be the thing that changes the flavor of your life.”


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