We’re in the muddy part of the winter to spring transition in the Upper Peninsula, so I’ll revert back to winter for another post. One of the new activities for me this season was ice climbing. I didn’t know ice climbing was a thing until I moved to the UP, but it’s a great sport for beginners and experts alike – as long as you don’t mind a little exertion.
Where to begin?
Pictured Rocks has amazing stretches of cliffs. People admire these in the summer during the traditional tourist season, but locals know that the same cliffs do amazing things in the winter, too. That includes producing a lot of ice. How does the transformation happen?
The cliffs in Pictured Rocks are mostly sandstone, which is a soft, porous rock. Nature can do some beautiful sculpting with sandstone, creating overhangs, caves, colors, etc. This is because water finds its way over, around, and through the rocks without too much difficulty. When you have waterfalls, which are numerous around the UP, it’s obvious. Less obvious is the water that squeezes through layers of sandstone. It might be a trickle, or it might just be wet patches. Whatever form it takes, much of this water freezes in UP winters. When it gets cold, a waterfall might turn into an ice column. The water that goes through the rocks often forms ice curtains.
This was my first time ice climbing. A few of us got together and reached out to Downwind Sports to set up a guided trip – the best and safest way to learn a skill like ice climbing. Downwind provided all the equipment, as well. We met at the Munising location, got to know our guide, David, and received our gear. The equipment is cool. The boots have very firm, inflexible soles to support your weight when you’re vertical on the climb, and they have terrific spikes that help you grip the ice. You also get a harness for rappelling and a helmet to keep your brains inside your head. But the pièce de résistance is the pair of “ice tools” you use to climb, two crook-necked handles with saw-like blades extending from the top.
With the gear in our packs, we headed off to the North Country Trail where it meets Munising Falls. From that point, we hiked about fifteen minutes until we reached Twin Falls, a good ice climbing spot for newbies. The name tells it all. These are two small but very pretty falls located in a cirque, aptly named Right Twin and Left Twin. On the date of our climb, Right Twin was totally frozen. Left Twin was frozen enough to climb, but you could still hear the water falling inside it, a mesmerizing effect like tinkling glass.
Have I mentioned that it gets cold in the UP in the winter? We scheduled the outing a few weeks in advance and had no clue the polar vortex would show up on our chosen date. And did it ever! Wind chills were around 30 below zero, so we geared up in layers that covered just about every inch of skin, brought food along for plenty of energy, and made sure we had hot herbal tea in our big thermos. I know plenty of people who don’t like extreme cold, but it’s actually easy to stay warm when you have the right clothing and supplies.
We got to the top of Right Twin and David set everything up to belay us down, explaining everything along the way. Now, I’ve never rappelled before, but it sure looks easy on television. In reality, not so much. Let me tell you, there are few things more unnatural than waddling to a precipice and leaning backward over it as your guide yells, “There’s nothing to it! Let the rope do the work!” No matter what the guide says, instinct immediately tells you to get your rear end back to safety. The grey cells don’t like it. It does not compute. But I forced myself back even further and, with some effort and no small amount of flailing around, hopped my way down with characteristic lack of grace.
Of course, the trick is climbing back up again. We received more instruction on how to use our ice cleats and ice tools. Jam the cleats in, try to find cracks and crevices for the ice tools, lift, step, and repeat. David made a quick climb to demonstrate technique and good form. Then it was our turn to climb as the guide coached and encouraged. I watched my two companions make their journeys up the ice. Not too bad. When it got to me, I connected to the belaying rope, gripped the tools like Vin Diesel grabbing those cool, curved blades in Pitch Black, and determinedly stabbed my cleats into the ice.
Appearances are a funny thing. When you’re looking at the ice, it appears bumpy but nicely vertical in a stepped sort of way. The bumpiness is reassuring because it seems good for footholds. The vertical, stepped nature of the ice gives the impression that you’ll have a fairly straightforward climb up.
Sadly, the ice lies.
The bumpiness isn’t nearly as bumpy as you think. And the good footholds are never convenient. They’re either too close together or so far apart that you have to put your knee in your chin to get to them. That’s when you realize you’re going to be climbing as much with your arms and ice tools as you are with your legs and cleats. You pop the ice tool in, give it a wiggle to make sure it’s sound, get one foot up, ram it into the ice, do the same with the other foot, then rest for a few seconds as you search for a new location for your ice tools. Then, just as you finally feel like you’re getting to the top, you realize the ice isn’t exactly vertical in the nice, inward sloping way you thought. Instead, the ice at the top bulges, forcing you to climb slightly out and up. That’s when your arms and legs really start to feel it. It’s only a few degrees, but boy do they make a difference. It’s also the point at which your brain tells your whining instinct to go pound sand. But once you get to the top…triumph! What a feeling! And you rappel back down.
You don’t think about it until you’re on the ground again, but you hang on to those ice tools for dear life. You’re belayed and you know the guide won’t let you fall, but it’s just what you do. As it turns out, this curbs blood flow to your fingers. In the bitter cold, you end up with some serious pain once the guide pries the tools away from you.
“Oh, that’s the screaming barfies,” David said sagely as he watched me massage my digits.
“What?” I asked, grimacing.
“If you don’t stop to flex your fingers while you climb, it can hurt real bad when you get down. Some people scream and barf.”
Noted. On my next scamper up, I did a lot of flexing of the fingers. I can accept my lack of grace, but I’m not screaming and barfing in front of anyone.
In the end, I loved ice climbing. It was challenging, physical, fun, and oh, so gratifying once you reach the top. Did I mention the ice tools make you feel like Vin Diesel in Pitch Black? Bring on the evil aliens! You can’t discount the cool factor. Every now and again, snowshoers, cross country skiers, and hikers along the trail at the top of the cirque even stopped to watch and cheer us on like we were pros. I love that about the UP. Good people.
If this post gives you the itch, call the good folks at Downwind Sports and set something up. It’s a great experience. They even help put on an ice fest every year which provides even more opportunities to learn about the winter sports and activities that’ll make you feel like a true Yooper.
Location: Twin Falls, just north of Munising Falls near Munising, MI