It was mid-January, time for the Hoofer Outing Club's annual cross-country ski trip in northern Wisconsin. The club has been coming to Delta Lodge each winter for the last thirty years. This was my fourth Delta Lodge trip, and as usual, it was a great time.
We skied at After Hours and Valhalla (some also went to Ashwabay or Copper Falls), ate some amazing meals cooked from scratch, played cards, took sauna, and engaged in general merriment. There was far more snow than last year, which made for some exciting navigation of ungroomed trails. At one point we found a bump in the snow that turned out to be a picnic table.
The highlight of the trip for me was the Apostle Islands sea caves. Normally you can only visit these caves from a boat during summer. But for the first time in five years, the caves are accessible in winter, by walking on frozen Lake Superior. I'll make a separate blog post to show off these dazzling formations.
We ended our weekend with a visit to the Delta Diner, which opened early just for us. The food was plentiful and delicious, as usual. What an amazing tradition the Hoofers have!
With winter in full swing, it was time for some more ice-climbing fun, this time a bit closer to home. I went with a few folks from the Hoofers Mountaineering Club to Cox Hollow in Governor Dodge State Park, about an hour from Madison. With the temperature at a mild 28 F (-2 C), hammering the ice with an axe would be like stabbing butter with a hot fork. A few others had the same idea as us, but there was still plenty of ice for us all to play nice and share.
Two separate branches of the waterfall at Cox Hollow were frozen, and we each got several laps on both. The ice was easier than what we had climbed in Munising, so I finally got the confidence to attempt my first lead. Falling while rock climbing is expected from time to time, but on ice, you really don't want to take a lead fall because you're carrying axes and have sharp points strapped onto your boots. For some reason, I like the added danger, though. My first ice lead went smoothly, and now I want to try something a bit more challenging.
This was another fun day on the ice. I hope it's not my last this season. The weather has been too warm over the last five days to sustain good ice for climbing. It's still January, so chances are it will get cold again, but I'm getting a bit concerned. Please Winter, don't go away just yet!
As a zany way to celebrate the new year, Gokul and I set out for a winter ascent of Ship Rock. Several of these castellated sandstone mounds jut from the otherwise flat terrain in central and western Wisconsin. Many are visible from I-94; this one is located off of highway 21, near Coloma.
We climbed Ship Rock once last summer, but with lots of snow on the ground and the temperature at a chilly six degrees Fahrenheit, we didn't know what to expect. Would it be snowy? Icy? Climbing shoes would be out of the question at this temperature; how climbable would it be in boots?
We pulled off of the highway and got our first look. There was a bit of snow on Ship Rock, but otherwise it looked the same as it had last summer: ice-free and covered in graffiti. We got dressed, roped up and started climbing. Even wearing my bulky mountaineering boots and gloves, the first pitch seemed easier than it had last summer. I probably just had the route better memorized this time around. I took off my gloves for the most technical moves and my fingers went numb within seconds of touching the rock.
With both of us standing on a flat spot halfway up, we warmed our hands and adjusted our anchor for the second pitch. I remembered the traverse around the back of the rock being easy, but now it was covered in about six inches of snow. Gokul was unsure of where he could safely step. A fall to the deck at this point would probably mean broken bones. He took it really slow. Once he made it to the top, he set up an anchor and I seconded. I had the advantage of seeing Gokul's footprints in the snow, so I was able to move quicker, only stopping to regain feeling in my fingers.
The summit had a stiff breeze, so we rappelled to the ground without wasting much time. Even though Ship Rock is an easy climb, it's about as close as you can get to an alpine ascent in Wisconsin. And climbing in winter has given Gokul and me some valuable teamwork experience for our future – and far more ambitious – endeavors.
More Ship Rock photos (courtesy of Teresa Miller and Gokul Gopal)
Wisconsin Historical Markers Website, which claims that Ship Rock is the 57,027th highest mountain in the United States. Woo Hoo!
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.
After getting fattened up for Christmas, I took off with some friends on a road trip to northern Wisconsin. Our first stop was Nine Mile County Forest for some cross-country skiing. The park was beautiful, with well-groomed trails and nice weather. It was a great place to shake the rust off on my first day of skiing this season.
Next we headed up to Minocqua, where we stayed at my parents' cabin. We enjoyed many cups of tea, snowshoeing on the lake, and exploring the pristine wilderness. Our next day of skiing was at nearby Winter Park, one of Wisconsin's most popular. There was a huge network of trails, far too many for me to ski in one day. The main part of the park was packed with people enjoying their Saturday, but the trails furthest from the chalet still felt empty.
The only downside was that it was too warm. At just below freezing, the snow was melting and getting stuck to our skis, and we were overheating. Even so, the temperature was forecasted to plummet below zero Fahrenheit the next day. We left early in the morning for warmer weather in the northern reaches of Michigan's Upper Peninsula.