We left just in time, or so I thought. With bitter cold temperatures descending upon Minocqua, our group took off early in the morning for the relative warmth of Munising, in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. As we drove north, the mercury rose from below zero to around ten degrees Fahrenheit. Unfortunately for us, the UP had gotten above freezing the previous day, causing icy driving conditions. We had planned to reach a Marquette sporting goods store to rent ice-climbing boots when they opened at 11:00 a.m., but the slippery roads delayed us until noon. We also overlooked the fact that most of the UP is on eastern time, so it really was 1:00 p.m. We actually left far too late.
The weather turned worse as we made way across the south shore of Lake Superior. The wind picked up, encapsulating us in blowing snow. Between whiteouts, we could see the lake's waves violently crashing on the shore and spraying water high in the air. We finally reached the small town of Munising, on the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, late in the afternoon. The temperature had dropped to five degrees and was continuing to fall, with wind gusts strong enough to send our cars sliding across the road.
Our plan for the next few days was to go ice climbing. Munising is one of the best locations for ice climbing in the Midwest, with dozens of frozen waterfalls to scale. I had been looking forward to coming here, but given the arctic conditions, I wondered if staying at home would have been a better option.
We parked next to the lake and spent half an hour adding layer upon layer to cope with the wind and snow. All bundled up, we trekked along the road and up a hill to a long and tall sheet of ice called The Curtains. Seeing the blueish-green ice made me forget how cold it was. I was ready to climb.
Unfortunately, the sun was gone and the sky was already turning deep blue – no climbing today. There was still enough light left for Gokul and me to set up an anchor above one of the thirty-foot flows and rappel down. At least we were all set for the next morning. We got back to the car as the long winter night descended upon us.
When we stepped outside the next morning, we were relieved that the wind and blowing snow were gone; there was not a cloud in the sky. The temperature was still near zero, but with enough layers it would be manageable. We started climbing early on the anchor we had already set. The only other climbers at The Curtains were Joe and Claire from Milwaukee. They graciously let us use their rope and before long, Gokul had third anchor in place. Three ropes for seven people gave us plenty of ice to climb. We each got in a few laps, kicking away the brittle ice with our crampons and picking it with our axes. I sweated from the physical exertion.
When I wasn't climbing, I was taking pictures of the multi-colored ice that had formed into caves behind The Curtains. Eventually my camera froze and started producing photos that looked like a plaque was taking over the planet. Not exactly what I was going for, but still pretty cool. At the end of the day, we retreated to the warmth of a hotel and cooked ourselves in a sauna.
For our final day, we decided to climb The Dryer Hose, a classic sixty-foot ice column. The strong arctic wind returned and dropped the windchill to negative twenty (-29 Celsius). Standing on the ground, I took a couple of swings at the brittle ice and my axes bounced off like rubber mallets. It took several more tries to get them to stick, allowing me to take my first vertical step. This was going to be a long climb, which made me think of a pitfall of ice climbing I hoped to avoid.
Ice climbers hold their axes above their head like a preying mantis. This causes blood to flow out of their hands. Squeezing too tightly further constricts blood flow and cold temperatures cause numbness. When climbers finish their route, they lower their hands and relax their grip, which immediately deluges their blood vessels. This thawing is extremely painful and the quick removal of blood from the rest of the body causes nausea, hence the term screaming barfies. It's not uncommon for an ice climber to stand hunched over, shouting, vomiting, and convulsing, hands on fire.
About halfway up The Dryer Hose, with my forearms burning and my hands numbing, I gave in and leaned back for a break. I lowered my axes and shook out my arms, restoring blood flow before the dreaded screaming barfies could manifest. With renewed vigor, I climbed the rest of the way to the top. Exposed to the wind, I walked in circles to keep warm until it was time to take down the anchor. Katie, Gokul, and I each climbed The Dryer Hose once before calling it a day.
We had a long drive back to Madison, so we left Munising shortly after 1:00 p.m., the sun barely making its presence known through the forest's birch trees. On the drive back to the gear shop in Marquette, we noticed that the violent lake shore we had seen forty-eight hours prior had frozen over, and several brave ice fishermen had already set up their shanties. It wouldn't be long before nearby Grand Island would become accessible by foot, opening up dozens more climbs. Given how cold it has been so far this winter, there should be climbable ice in Munising for at least three more months. I hope to get back at least once more before it all melts.