January 16, 2015
By Sarah Cousins Hoopes
A brief history: Back in 2012 (my 2nd year in Ouray) I attended a beginners clinic as part of the Ouray Ice Festival. My instructor was really great and helpful, but as soon as I got up on the wall, one of the assistants decided he really, really, wanted my ice pick planted in his forehead. He was hovering and demanding and criticizing because I wasn’t doing it his way. Since experiencing the Ouray jail first hand, or being hauled off in handcuffs was not on my list of goals for that day, I dropped off the wall, and that was my experience with ice climbing.
Then, last year, 2014, I met Sondra Ripperger, a new guide with the IMG Veterans program. I immediately enjoyed her company and during the week I saw she interacted with the clients in a fun and easy going manner. Later in the year, I contacted her, and we worked it out with IMG so I could get a private instruction day with her on Monday of the IMG Veterans program.
Aside – please do not misunderstand. I love all the guides of the IMG Veterans program, they are very skilled, pleasant, fun, and strong instructors. Sondra is someone I personally felt I could comfortably learn something new, since we have so many shared interests and hobbies, with whom I could focus on the experience itself and not her perception of me. I mostly learn by watching and doing, and when I’m uncomfortable, I shut down (and maybe try again when I’m in a more comfortable situation). I know myself, and myself could work with Sondra for a first experience with learning a completely new technical skill.
I was right. She was amazing. Her first rule is “having fun”; everything else is secondary. We talked about many varied subjects on our way out to South Park that morning and throughout the day. We discussed making lotions, limoncello, vanilla, singing, instruments, Cuisinarts, and kitchen gadgets, how to properly set up an anchor, which knots are best for different tasks, lots of tricks to make climbing easier, and so much more.
Once down in the gully at the South Park section of the Ouray Ice Park, she taught me to climb with my feet. I was amazed how far I could go without the tools I see everyone using. My gloves got wet, my hands got cold, but with her encouragement and gentle guidance I got up 2/3rds of the wall just with hands and feet! And in the process I began to see why people do this over and over again, and why my husband and his friends return year after year.
Then she taught me about the ice axe and the A (tripod/triangle) position, and sent me up with just one axe. I quickly discovered that it’s almost easier to climb without tools, because with the axe in hand I was more focused on it than my feet (as she had wisely warned me would happen).
After lunch (when the distractions were over) she sent me up the wall with the skills I had learned in the morning. It was an eventful climb; I made all the normal mistakes, and my muscles were tired and in pain, and yada yada yada, I made it to the cave. Sondra gently encouraged me to take breaks, inspired me to find ways to solve various problems, and before I knew it, I was at the top of the climb, even though that hadn’t been my goal. With her help, I went farther than I had hoped!
The next day I was exhausted, and in pain, and stiff, but the memory of my day with Sondra is a great one. I will never be as dedicated as the IMG Veterans; I still have a lot of snow bunny activities to do, but I do plan to get at least one day each year if she is available.
Sondra is an amazingly gifted instructor and fascinating person, all around. From what I hear the other clients say, she is great with all levels of ability, and I definitely recommend her skills to anyone who is interested in trying their hand at this sport.