Amid a life of sharp transitions, an Iraq War vet finds tranquility in the swing of an ice tool
Text by Jake Abrahamson | Photography by Thomas Lee
Much like soldiers, climbers rely on each other for success and safety.
At first, it's easy for him. The ice is beautiful—deep blue and denuded from the season's climbers. His technique is bad—instead of hooking his spikes in crevices and pockets that already exist, he swings like a miner, creating his own holes—but he's athletic enough to compensate, muscling upward steadily. Kick, kick, swing, swing. Kick, kick, swing, swing.
When Mullins is 30 feet up the wall, Magro yells, "You don't need to kick so hard! You just need to rest your toes and your axes in the pockets!"
"Ice!" is Mullins's response. Huge shards rain down onto people's shoulders.
He continues up the column—kick, kick, swing, swing. Kick, kick, swing, swing—but soon he tires, and he responds by kicking harder. He kicks so hard that the ice he wants to stand on simply cracks off the wall. He tries to rest, crouching on his toes and curling up like a quarter note, right arm strained vertically above his balled body.
"Stand up!" Magro yells.
"Stand! Up! Use your legs to support your body!"
"I can't!" Earlier, Magro had described a certain triangle form, legs wide and extended with one anchored tool overhead, the other free to search for a hold. That's how Mullins is supposed to look now, but his awkward pose won't allow it, and his arms begin to burn. At home, he likes to play around in a rock gym, which gives him strength in the knuckles and fingertips. But he hasn't worked up the right muscles to hold his body weight from an ice tool.
"Drop your heels and stand up!"
"My forearms are really tired!"
"Can you stand on your legs?"
"OK. I'm gonna try!" With that, he unsticks the tool and swings hard. But it jiggles out of control. Like machines running out of electricity, his hands power down and then off. "Dropped my ax!" he yells. Both tools soar to the ground.
A participant descends after topping out on his final climb of the trip.
He is lowered and immediately says, "That was hard. Anyone need a belay?" As he unknots his rope, his smile turns into a pained expression, and he begins to gently move his fingers. He has succumbed to that torturous rewarming of the extremities that climbers call "the screaming barfies."
For the rest of the day, the 12 vets rotate on and off the ice, swapping partners, trying climbs of different grades, getting the screaming barfies. Nick—who lost much of his left hand in a stove explosion after leaving the military—tests a leash he devised to leverage his grip. A few Air Force guys cook coffee on a stove, and one of the guides shows some hungry climbers how to make a snack from a tortilla, peanut butter, and granola bar crumbs. Mullins works on his climbing technique and a few hours later can be heard saying, "Man, I got to figure out how I can do this two or three times a year!"
"It's good to have some time to reflect," Mullins says. "Not just on the war, but on my life as a whole. I've lived such a weird life. I often feel like I've lived several lives in one."
Mullins has always been in transition, jerking between realms most people consider distinct. At 11, he was recruited from his elementary school in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood in Brooklyn to attend a ballet magnet school in Manhattan. Every day he rode the A train from Bed-Stuy to Chelsea and back. His stepfather hated him because he was another man's child, and by 16 he had run away from home but was still going to the ballet academy and paying rent in a friend's apartment by selling pot at night.
After high school, Mullins was admitted to New York University's prestigious Tisch School of the Arts program for modern dance, but he couldn't afford the tuition, so he started modeling. He was sent to trade shows in Las Vegas, where he skateboarded around a convention center while buyers appraised whatever clothes he was wearing. In 2000 he joined the National Guard, hoping he could finally go to school once he finished his service. Then September 11, 2001, came along. Mullins was training at Fort Knox, Kentucky, when they marched his company into a large room where a TV showed images of the towers collapsing over and over. The sound was off, the room full of whispers that said, "We are going to war."
Several months later, he was spending his days guarding Penn Station with an automatic rifle, teaching dance classes on the side. During one class, he got a call from his commander. As second-graders pirouetted past him, he learned that his troop was being deployed in a month.
He rode into Iraq from Kuwait in a floorless Humvee. As part of the search for weapons of mass destruction, he invaded hundreds of Baghdad homes. He assaulted the inhabitants, pointed guns at them, detained them. Everything happened in the middle of the night. It felt like kidnapping. Once, he was reprimanded for not shooting a man holding a dark, half-concealed object, which turned out to be a broom. Amid the violence, there were also moments of joy. He taught a bunch of soldiers to dance. He remembers the pleasant flakiness of a homemade baklava that a woman offered him while he stood guard outside a house. On a sunny day on the outskirts of Baghdad, he ate the best piece of fruit of his life—a paper-skinned pocket of sugary mush that a commander told him to bite into while they hid amid trees from sniper fire. He still isn't sure whether it was a fig or a date.
"I did horrible things to people," he says. "I assaulted their human dignity."
The vets standing with him now, along the bottom of this ice cliff, understand that the war was the world at an angle, heat-blurred and shifted, a thing that sent you ricocheting between extreme fear and extreme joy and forced you to choose on a daily basis between yourself and another human. Then you come home, and your daily decisions are what to buy and wear and eat.
Mullins looks up to the very top of the frozen waterfall, a peaceful, airy spot above the trees. He gingerly hooks one ice tool into a preexisting hole, then the other, and hoists himself upward.
Jake Abrahamson is an assistant editor at Sierra.
This article was partially funded by Sierra Club Outdoors.
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