At times winter can be a drag. I write this sitting in my chilly home, which I’ve now been moping around in for an entire week because the roads have been so snowy that my work has been cancelled. I’ve taken a couple of walks here and there, and gone out for errands and to the climbing gym, but it’s mostly been a boring five days. I’ve considered driving to the lakeshore every day this week, and even attempted it once, only to loose my nerve before getting on the highway. It’s cold out, the snow is knee-deep, the roads are treacherous, but I still love winter.
Snow and ice hold an indescribable beauty for me, and I love to go outside and explore the frozen wonderland that Michigan becomes every winter. I am inspired by a an equal love for adventure, and experiencing nature’s artistry. Those were the drives that compelled Vince, Jordi, and me to climb Miners Falls on an extremely cold weekend in the Upper Peninsula.
The folks at Michigan Ice Fest had shared some photos of the frozen waterfall, and I could not get it out of my mind, so we set out early Saturday morning with little information on the climb. We knew that we wouldn’t be able to drive all the way to the trailhead for the waterfall, but we didn’t know exactly how far down the unplowed road we would be able to get. The hike to the falls could have been anywhere between one to four miles, which meant we could have been walking for up to eight total miles through uncut snow that day. We also knew that the ice conditions likely wouldn’t allow us to lead climb the waterfall, but we didn’t know how we would cross the Miners River and get to the top of the canyon on the other side to set up a rope. With these factors in mind, we hit the road, trusting that we would figure everything out as the day progressed.
Our first bit of luck came when we were able to drive much further down the fall’s access road than we thought. We were actually able to make it all the way to a half mile from the trailhead before we could drive no further. We got out of the car, shrugged on our backpacks, and started hiking. The approach was only a mile from where we had parked the car, much less daunting than the four mile slog we were anticipating, and we reached the waterfall quickly. Miners Falls is beautiful in the summer, but I found it even more breathtaking covered in ice and snow.
We stopped to appreciate the scene from a very icy lookout deck before getting around to discussing logistics. From what we could see, the ice had filled out a lot since the Ice Fest climbers had been there, but it still didn’t look thick enough to lead climb. We also couldn’t see where we might cross the river, so we donned our crampons and headed downhill to investigate. After a bit of clumsy hiking, we found an area where we could safely cross to the other side of the water, and began the slog back to the falls. As we picked our way along the side of the canyon, we admired cascading sheets of ice that had formed along the cliff.
Back at the falls, we decided to check out our would-be belay area to see if the ice was thick enough to stand on, and if there was a spot where we could stay out of the river’s path. I must admit, that I let Vince and Jordi do the legwork on this as I gaped at the unreal scene around us.
Once we were reassured that we had a sufficient belay area, we had to tackle to problem of how to get to the top of the cliff to set up our rope. We surveyed the area, and found a bit of ice that the guys felt comfortable free-soloing. They climbed up, then lowered a pair of ice tools and a static line down to me, and I scrambled up to meet them. Then we hiked uphill a bit farther, using our ice tools to navigate obstacles while maintaining balance on the cliff. My chest swelled with excitement over a combination of the beautiful area, and how downright “adventurey” everything felt. There is a lot of great ice climbing in Munising, and a lot of it is easy to get to, but I loved the feeling of being out farther from the climbing crowds, improvising and problem solving.
We easily found a couple of spots to set up ropes, and after we had one ready, Jordi rappelled back to the belay area to send up more gear for Vince and I to set a second route. We picked some great anchor trees and began to flake Jordi’s rope, but quickly realized it was a tangled mess. In fact it took us so long to untangle, that my fingers and toes became dangerously cold, and Jordi climbed back up to the top of the cliff to see if we were ok. We finally managed to drop the rope and Vince, who was really anxious to be doing anything other than untangling knots, rappelled to the base of the falls first, leaving me and Jordi to figure out how we wanted to set our static line for photography. Jordi tied a line to another tree, and we began to discuss who would use it first. We planned to rappel down the line, eventually using an ascender to climb back up when we were done. The only problem was neither of us particularly felt like dropping into the climb quite yet. I can’t speak for Jordi, but at that point I was too cold to dangle from a rope for twenty minutes while the guys climbed. I had to get moving again to revive my freezing toes. We decided to just rappel down to the belay area and join Vince, who had made good use of his time already, by piling up snow to divert some of the waterfall’s flow away from our belay area. He had also found a spot where the ice was thick enough that we could easily cross the river. He showed me where to cross, and I scrambled over and got in position to photograph the guys climbing.
The landscape made for the most unique climbing photos I’ve ever taken. Once Vince and Jordi had each climbed once, I crossed back over the river and took a turn.
The climb was actually quite easy because the ice was forming in perfect little bumps that were great for placing ice tools. I didn’t have to do a lot of swinging, which kept my arms from getting too tired. This was my first time using my new ice tools (Black Diamond Fuels for anyone wondering) on such vertical ice, and I was super impressed with how well they handle. I’ve never climbed with a tool that sticks to the ice quite as well as these ones do.
While I was still on the ground, I had relayed my plan to have Vince lower me back down to the end of the static line after my climb. I would tie into the line, and then hang out and photograph the guys from above. I tied into the line and did a weight test before telling Vince I was safe. I also set up a backup anchor with a couple of ice screws just for my own peace of mind. Then I attached the ice tools to the climbing rope and sent them back down to Vince in exchange for my camera bag. I was all set to capture the moment as Vince and Jordi climbed above the roaring waterfall.
After they climbed, Jordi and I traded places and I gave it another go, this time choosing to climb closer to the waterfall where the ice was thinner and more brittle. This was a more difficult climb, and I ended up getting hit in the face with a chunk of ice that I dislodged with my ice tool. I felt fine, so I kept climbing until I heard Jordi exclaim, “Sweet, dude! Your face is bleeding!” I stopped for a couple of pictures, and then finished the climb, much more exhausted this time.
Back on the ground, Vince teased me about my nose, which was now producing a steadier stream of blood from an impossibly tiny cut. Unperturbed, I asked Vince to take a picture, fairly certain that facial bleeding was the mark of a real ice climber.
At this point in the day we had yet to encounter another person, but soon a parade of snowmobilers began to emerge on the observation deck. This lasted for about an hour, and then we didn’t see another person for the rest of the day. We climbed around the canyon more, and just had a good time with it until about four o’ clock, when we decided to pack up and meet up with our friends in Munising for dinner.
We hiked back out of the canyon and were back at our hotel warming up by five o’ clock. That’s unusually early for us, but since we were the only ice climbers out there, and our hike had been so short, we managed to make it back to the hotel a couple of hours before our friends did. This left us plenty of time to warm up in the hot tub before they arrived and we all went out for pizza. As we ate, we talked about going out again for a night climb. Jordi, Vince, and I planned to go, and our friend TJ decided to join us.
Once we were full of way too much pizza, we geared up and went out to Sand Point Road, which has the easiest access to ice climbing in Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. We went to the Amphitheater, an ice fall that we pass by every year because we’ve never seen it frozen all the way to the ground before. This winter, it is actually climbable, so Vince and TJ set up a rope as Jordi and I set up lights and cameras at the base of the climb. We each got a chance to climb the route, and I photographed Vince, TJ, and Jordi, thinking I was getting some really good shots. Unfortunately, I had accidentally set my camera to its lowest possibly quality (the downside of having a touch screen), which made all of the images thumbnail sized. I guess I will just have to go out for another night climb sometime, and quadruple check that I am shooting in RAW.
We were eager to get done climbing and then get in bed as early as possible, so we each only climbed once. We finally trudged back to the hotel around midnight, and were met with stares from a large group of people still hanging out in the lobby. Feeling awkward, we went up to our room and crashed, thoroughly exhausted from a long day.