Monthly Archives: April 2014

Chasing Winter: The Last, Grand Hurrah

Picture of skiers.

Skiing across Superior.

Spring is in the air in southern Wisconsin. Ice climbing season is over. Or is it?

We heard rumors that there was still climbable ice in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. Wanting to investigate, our group of four left Madison before dawn on a cold and dreary Friday. Drizzle turned to sleet as we headed north. A fifth climber joined us in Appleton, and we continued our journey. When we crossed into the UP, we were driving on icy roads, through a fog of fluffy snow. We had gone back in time, to a land still shrouded in winter.

Picture of Gokul.

Gokul leading the first route of the weekend.

By the time we reached Munising, on Lake Superior's south shore, seven inches of fresh powder blanketed the land. The forecast called for seven more inches in the next twelve hours. A local gas station attendant thought we were crazy for driving north in an April blizzard. (She also said, “We only have two seasons here: shovelin' and swattin'.”) For us, coming to Munising was rational: this was our final chance to climb the best ice the Midwest has seen in decades.

Friday would be a short day of climbing, so we decided to stick with the ice along Superior's shoreline. Rather than hiking along the path, we chose to ski on the lake. We were concerned about the thickness of the lake ice, given that – even in Munising – there had been a few warm days in the last week. We stayed within view of one another as we skied into the wind next to the south shore's icy cliffs. Forty-five minutes into our journey, we spotted a wall of ice that looked climbable.

Gokul quickly led a route and set up an anchor. Meanwhile, Eric and Dunbar scouted “Midnight Rambler,” a column of fat ice nearby that required an approach up a steep hill. The wind soon was gusting at thirty miles per hour, pelting us with blowing snow. Grand Island, just a mile from the mainland, vanished in the storm. While rearranging my gear, the wind ripped a plastic bag from my hand and carried it into oblivion within seconds.

We got in a few climbs, then packed our stuff for the three-mile ski back to the car. Visibility continued to drop, until we were in a near-whiteout. My thirty-pound backpack (loaded with a BOSS sub, three days' food in a single sandwich) made me top-heavy and clumsier than usual; the wind nearly knocked me onto the ice on multiple occasions. We made it to the cars as darkness was setting in, cold and soaking, yet psyched for our big day ahead.

Picture of Katie on skis.

Ready for a long ski.

We got up from our “base camp” at dawn, dry and ready to go. Katie and Teresa had joined us in the middle of the night, declaring that the snow had stopped falling during their drive. The temperature had fallen to twenty degrees, perfect for outdoor winter fun. The previous day's blizzard was a distant memory – the air was calm and there was not a cloud in the sky. Our group of seven ate a large breakfast and packed for the long day ahead.

If the ice on Munising's shoreline is magnificent, then Grand Island's ice is world-class. Though the island is close to the mainland, the lake ice in the narrow channel that separates the two often isn't thick enough to walk on, even in the dead of winter. Because of its inaccessibility, no one in our group had climbed on Grand Island. Until today.

We parked in the lot used for ferry traffic in the summer and stepped onto the lake. All fears of thin ice were abated when we saw fresh snowmobile tracks leading toward the horizon. The ice we wanted to climb was about six miles from the parking lot, so it was going to be a long ski. Figuring this would be a good chance to brush up on my Mandarin (I'm moving to Beijing in July), I took out my MP3 player and started saying phrases such as “How many children do you have?” and “Where is the bathroom?” to the rhythm of my gliding skis.

Within an hour we spotted cliffs of ice, over 100 feet tall. If this had been anywhere else, we would've been happy to spend our day there. But this was Grand Island. We continued.

Picture of Dan.

You see what we found?

After two hours of skiing into the void of the world's largest lake, we stared in awe at what we had found: a quarter-mile stretch of continuous ice-covered cliffs, rising 150 feet above the shore. We had hit the jackpot, yet the formation didn't even have an official name in our guidebook. Even though Grand Island has a lifetime of ice to scale, it remains nearly untouched, year after year.

We changed into our climbing gear and got to work. Dunbar and Eric headed off to set up a route on the tallest cliff. Brett and I created an ice-screw anchor on a shorter line. Gokul, Teresa, and Katie went into multi-pitch mode. Soon we had three amazing routes within a stretch of a couple hundred yards. Our only regret was that we didn't have more ropes – or time – to climb with.

Picture of ice.

Three routes set up.

The temperature rose throughout the day, and by mid-afternoon it was in the forties. The lake became a snowy desert, reflecting the sun into our faces and desiccating our bodies. We shed layers, but with no shade, escape from the omnipresent rays proved impossible. Our skin soon sizzled.

The only other people on the lake were snowmobilers who, like us, were making their last rounds of the year. They tended to stop, snap a few pictures, and take off without talking to us. But while we were packing up, two men, who had been fishing a few miles further out, stopped to say 'hi.' Still curious about the safety of being on a frozen lake in April, I asked one of them how thick the ice was. He pointed to the three-foot-long spiral blade of his auger and said that it barely made it through the ice. Even so, with more warm weather in the forecast, the ice near the shore would soon be dangerously thin.

We said goodbye to the snowmobilers, finished packing, and began our ski back to the mainland. The setting sun illuminated the island's cliffs, enticing us not to leave. Too bad we weren't equipped to stay the night. I listened to another lesson in Mandarin and, exhausted, was barely able to dictate the phrases (one of which was “Please give me water”). We made it back to the cars in total darkness, with no reservations about skiing twelve miles to climb some ice.

Picture of Katie.

Katie climbing the Amphitheater.

With a half-day planned for Sunday, we decided to stick to climbs close to the parking lot. After a short walk we reached the “Amphitheater,” a narrow column surrounded by icy chandeliers. Conditions were rapidly deteriorating – the temperature had remained above freezing the previous night. Water dribbled down the ice and formed streams that trickled toward the lake. Birds of prey circled overhead, making us question why we were still here.

While some in our group debated whether The Amphitheater was still climbable (not only was it melting, but its main column had developed a horizontal crack), I found the “Dryer Hose” and began to set up two top-rope anchors. Katie, Gokul, and I climbed the Dryer Hose last December, in sub-zero conditions. More than three months later, the column was dissolving from the inside out, like a bleeding ulcer. Neither of our chosen climbs had much life left in them. We all took a few laps, carefully avoiding the hole in the Hose and the fissure in the Theater. Even though I got a cold shower while climbing the Amphitheater's column, it was still a fun route – the overhanging ice proved quite the challenge.

As we were getting ready to leave, with no significant injuries from falling ice, Nature threw one last stick at us. A waterlogged birch branch came hurling over the cliff and grazed Dunbar's arm before slamming into the ground, shattering into three pieces. Luckily, everyone walked away uninjured. You're never completely safe when climbing ice, even while standing thirty feet from the wall.

We were giddy during our drive back into spring – we had completed our last, grand hurrah of the best ice climbing season in memory.

More photos from the weekend

Chasing Summer: Down to the Ranch

Picture of Katie.

Katie climbing The Man in Black.

It was time to escape from a merciless Wisconsin winter. Late in March, with temperatures slightly above freezing in Madison, I drove with a group of six to the comparatively tropical climate of northern Arkansas. We had two goals: rock climbing and basking in warm sunshine.

We arrived at Horseshoe Canyon Ranch, famous for its sweeping sandstone escarpments, on a chilly Thursday night. While setting up our tents, we met a climber from Nebraska (yes, they actually exist) who informed us that it was going to rain throughout the night and all of the following day. The sky beyond the hills pulsated with lightning's glow. We were off to a bad start.

The rainstorm came fast and heavy, but by morning, it had stopped. The Nebraskan happily explained that the forecast had been upgraded – dry weather was expected until afternoon. The overcast sky looked ready to open up at any moment, so, despite being sleep-deprived, we got going as quickly as possible.

One huge advantage of climbing at Horseshoe Canyon Ranch is the short approach. The North 40 wall, the crag we intended to climb, was only a ten-minute walk from our campsite, passing through a barren forest. Another thing the ranch has going for it is a high concentration of beginner-friendly bolted routes. Soon, Katie and I had put up three routes and were teaching the beginners how to tie in and belay. Other groups gathered near us and climbed as much as possible while it remained dry. At 3PM our luck ran out and it started to drizzle. The rain continued for the rest of the day, soaking the cliffs and turning the ground to pure mud.

Picture of Ming.

Ming on The Controversy.

The fifty or so climbers at the ranch gathered under a shelter to make dinner. Katie's friend Daniel drove out to meet us late in the night. Since Katie last saw him in Germany four years ago, he had opened a brewery in nearby Fayetteville. He showed up with several growlers, instantly making him the most popular person at the ranch. Daniel explained that winter had been brutal in northern Arkansas – school had been canceled twenty-eight times this year. Kids were already making up for lost time on Saturdays, and they would continue to attend classes well into summer.

Picture of group.

Friday's pre-rain lunch.

On Saturday morning we ate breakfast under a clear sky, with temperatures approaching fifty. Because sunshine was already soaking the cliffs of the North 40, we decided to climb there again for the morning. Then, after eating lunch at our campsite, we walked to the Cliffs of Insanity, on the canyon's east side. Our first route was a classic called “Swamp Rat,” which was just entering the sunlight when we arrived. Soon it was in the seventies and I was covering myself with my jacket to avoid getting burned. We got in a few more climbs before heading back to camp at the end of a day of perfect weather. I no longer had any regrets of driving twenty hours to climb some rocks.

Picture of Guilhem.

Guilhem after climbing Swamp Rat.

With a short day planned for Sunday, we headed to the North 40 yet again. There are so many bolted routes on that side of the canyon, you could climb there for weeks without getting bored. After putting up an easy route called “Spam,” I got another chance to climb “Sonny Jim,” a 5.11a I climbed last year. It was just as fun this time, and the fact that it was in the seventies again made it all the more fulfilling.

We left the ranch feeling tired from climbing, yet totally relaxed from getting so much sun. On the way home, we had lunch at the Ozark Cafe in Jasper. They have the greatest breaded fried mushrooms I have ever tasted. It's almost worth driving ten hours from Wisconsin just for that food.

More climbing photos from Horseshoe Canyon Ranch

External Websites:
Hoofers Outing Club Website
Horseshoe Canyon Ranch Website
Apple Blossom Brewings Website