ICS Spouse Survival Guide

by Becky Nelson

The author, right, and her husband Harry Colas.
So your loved one is considering the Mazama Intermediate Climbing School (ICS).
When my husband announced his intentions last year to apply for the ICS I wasn’t surprised—but I was a little worried.

We had made a Faustian bargain the year before: he would agree to move to my favorite city, Portland, if and only if I would sign up for a basic mountaineering course with him, which of course turned out to be the Mazama Basic Climbing Education Program (BCEP). At the age of six, I floated a similar bargain to my parentas: I would agree to move to Arizona if and only if they bought me a hamster. Six weeks later, in Scottsdale, Busy Bob entered our lives. Despite a debilitating fear of heights and a distaste for anything remotely athletic—coordination is not my strong suit—I figured BCEP couldn’t be half as bad as owning a pet hamster so we shook on it, moved to Portland, and six weeks later jumped into BCEP.

And we had a total blast! But while I loved my BCEP experience, ICS felt like another beast altogether: a big, scary, massive time suck of a class colorfully illustrated by intense photos, secondhand tall tales, and snarky warnings (including my favorite, “BCEP is where you find a partner, ICS is where you lose them.”) If I wasn’t ready to take the plunge myself, I was even less enthusiastic about watching my partner do so. Harry, on the other hand, was fearless. So I watched him apply, ace the test, and get accepted with trepidation in my heart (trepidation, of course, requiring very little coordination).

The author, right, and her husband Harry Colas at Smith Rock.
But we made it through the nine months of ICS and I’m happy to report, at least for us, the worry and the warnings did not come to fruition—we are even still married! So if you find yourself weighing whether to wholeheartedly support or wholeheartedly sabotage your loved one’s application, I encourage you to consider the five simple survival tips below. Follow them closely for a happy, productive, and dare I say enjoyable nine months as the spouse of an ICS student.

Survival Tip #1: Learn the Lingo

It can be tough to get your spouse’s attention when he is full-throttle ICS, all the time. If you’re finding that real life pales in comparison to Defeating the Plaquette or Escaping the Belay, learn to compete by becoming fluent in mountaineering jargon. Imagine the excitement involved in Evacuating the Dishwasher, Exterminating the Dandelions, or Expurgating the Bedlinens!

Survival Tip #2: Anticipate Needs

After about 30 minutes with an ICS assistant, your partner’s definition of basic human needs will expand to include not just food, shelter, and water, but also things like a pink tricam and a second ice tool. This is great news for you! Not only will buying your spouse the random $8 carabiner bring profane amounts of irrational delight, but you are set up for the most straightforward holiday shopping season ever (spoiler: you’re going to be buying those yellow La Sportiva boots.)
Also you’re going to need an air freshener for the car. Just trust me on this one. One of those pine tree jobbers will help make your partner (and her new dirty mountain friends) feel right at home.

Survival Tip #3: Practice Patience 

It’s the defining truth of ICS abandonment that your partner will be out of the house a lot. Take advantage of this absence by teaching the dog, cat, or kid—your choice!—where his loyalty should lie. My dog and I had a great nine months hiking, snuggling, eating table scraps, wrestling on the upholstery, pooping on the lawn, burying bones under my husband’s pillow ... you get the idea.
The author, right, and her husband Harry Colas.
I also recommend watching the trashiest options available on your partner’s Netflix account, thereby completely ruining the algorithm for all time.

When you do see your partner, chances are good that you will be climbing. Prepare for a change in your typical climbing day. Pre-ICS may have consisted of a leisurely breakfast burrito, six solid hours of climbing, and a leisurely burger and beer before heading home. Post-ICS, you should come to expect a leisurely breakfast burrito (save half for lunch, the most valuable advice given in ICS), five hours and forty-five minutes of intense discussion about the climbing anchor, fifteen minutes of climbing, a fraught burger and beer over which there is more intense discussion about the climbing anchor, and guess what? More discussion on the drive home. Pack headphones.

Survival Tip #4: Accentuate the Positive

A few ICS hacks I learned this year: 

  • ICS is the perfect time to challenge your partner to a footrace with high stakes. Their confidence is high, their physical fitness incredibly low. For a course about mountaineering, there is very little actual mountaineering (or hiking, or really even walking) being done.
  • ICS is also the perfect time to suggest a visit from your in-laws. Not only will there be no free weekends during which your partner can take you up on this very kind, oh-so-thoughtful, just the sweetest offer, but your guest room will also more closely resemble an REI garage sale staging ground than an actual room that actual people could sleep in.
  • Your spouse’s baseline for “fun” will drop precipitously, and include things like intentionally falling off tall climbing walls, laying maimed on a snowy mountain for hours during first-aid scenarios, and drinking lukewarm Starbucks Vias. Dinner with your friends or seeing the latest Marvel monstrosity will seem positively rapturous by comparison. 

Use these hacks to your advantage.

Survival Tip #5: Don’t Keep Score

It may be framed as a year of sacrifice for the spouse that’s been “left behind,” but there are actually many benefits of ICS that will come to you through the hard work of your partner.
Though he will be eating, sleeping, and breathing ICS, he also will be weirdly paranoid about failing his tests. By quizzing him, you are not only improving your lingo fluency (see survival tip #1), you are also essentially auditing the class for free. When you inevitably apply for ICS, you will be way ahead of the game.

You will inherit, through very little effort on your part, cool new friends who have gone through nine months of serious vetting.

And, most importantly, it is extremely likely that the beneficiary of all this newly minted rescue expertise will be you. After a year of hard work, your spouse will still not be able to pull herself out of a crevasse. But she will be able to pull your lazy bones out of a crevasse, or lower your broken bones down a pitch, or CPR your unresponsive bones back to life, or at the very least prevent the dog from burying any bones under your pillow. She will work hard all year to learn skills that will benefit all of her future climbing partners, including you.

So it turns out that your loved one’s nine months of intense mountaineering training away from home really ends up being a selfless act of love and protection, and there’s no room whatsoever for resentment or regret.

Of course the best way to pay that forward, or perhaps exact your revenge, is to apply for ICS yourself. (Learn more about ICS)

Author Bio: Becky Nelson has been a member of the Mazamas since 2016. In addition to this, her Bulletin debut, she writes several emails a day.

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