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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.