Living the Dream – Grand Island Ice Climbing Trip

We awoke in a wooded cabin with a gentle snow falling outside. We were warm for the first time in over 24 hrs thanks to Sean Dòmhnaill who worked on the propane heater for an hour, the rest of us too exhausted and hungry to bother. An unexpected find, spending the night at the cabin meant we had to do the 4 mile march through snow across Lake Superior 3 times yesterday, going back to town to retrieve our sleeping bags and resupply on food. A small price to pay for the unbelievable adventure we were experiencing. Now, warm and well rested, we are only a mile away from world class ice climbing.

I won’t bother describing the breathtaking scenery, my words cannot do it justice, but Jeff’s pictures get pretty close. As we walk I’m trying to absorb my surroundings, it’s not every day you can say “I’m living the dream” so I try to hold onto the moment for as long as I can.

As we arrive at the ice wall I begin to scope out the line I want to take to the top. As imposing this massive 120 ft tiered wall of ice is, despite the fact I only have 6 screws and 1 previous lead behind my belt, I am not in the slightest nervous. Inspired by tales of great climbs and my own yearning for adventure, I had visualized myself in this situation many times before. There are times in life where you have to put your fears aside and get shit done. I had made the decision to climb before I even set out on this trip. Thus the difficult part, the mental battle, had already been won. Now it was time for the easy part, and the fun part, climbing the thing.

I shoulder the rope and stake up the snow ramp with the shaft of my tools. I get into the rhythm instantly – jab, step, step – quickly reaching the base of the vertical ice. Too quick, I was rather enjoying that. My mind is blissfully calm as I cut a belay stance for peter into the side of the slope. It is rare to have the consistent stream of thoughts that normally occupy my mind subside.

Peter joins me as I’m finishing up digging with the adze. We tie in and do safety checks just as in any ordinary climb. We exchange a fist bump, the most important part of safety checks, and I start climbing.

The first crux is transitioning from the snow ramp and establishing myself on the vertical ice. Where the snow meets the ice, there is a crust of hard snow that my feet break through and sink into the powder underneath. It makes it impossible to kick into the ice, and clearing the crusty snow would be quite labor intensive. I place my tools as high as I can and pull myself up out of the snow. Arms locked off on the tools, I kick my feet into hard ice. Establishing a wide stance, I gradually ease my weight from my hands to my front points. I rock my right tool out of its placement as I scan the ice above. I look for irregularities, the concavity between adjacent ribs of ice, the rounded tops of subflows, regions that more easily give home to the pick of an ice tool. I stick the tool higher up. It responds with a reverberation down the shaft that indicates it was a good placement. Now the other tool. Now kick the feet higher up. Scan the ice. Repeat.

At a stable stance with 2 solid placements I clip a draw to the spike of one of my tools and clip the rope to it. It’s a little trick that gives some peace of mind as I let go of my tool and reach for a screw on my harness.

Those Petzl screws cut into the ice like butter. Climbing gear, especially ice climbing gear, has advanced so much from the days of hammering nails into ice that it is no longer the same game. The boldness and daring that the label of ice climbing signifies was earned by great climbers of the past. Climbing vertical ice with modern gear should not be confused as carrying the same prestige.

Everything has been going as smoothly as can be. Halfway up the pitch however I began to notice that numbness has gradually been creeping up my fingers and is entering my hands. I elected to put on a thin pair of running gloves for better dexterity. They became wet from brushing snow off the rope before I even started the climb. I did my best to remain calm. With numb hands it is easy to over grip the tool because you can’t tell if you’re actually holding on. I fight my instincts and relax my grip. Squeezing too hard will make the cold worse and lead to pumping out. I have thicker gloves on my harness, I just need to move quickly and finish the pitch.

Eventually I reach the belay I had eyed from the ground. It is at a ledge, the top of a tier of ice that seeps out the porous sandstone cliff behind. At my face icicles chandelier down from the ice tier that seeps out 50 ft above. I think about slinging some of these to serve as part of the anchor. I want to save on screws. If I leave two at the anchor I’d only have 4 pieces of protection for the crux pitch that follows. Hmmmm… two tool placements counts as one screw, right? Add a slung icicle for good measure and I should be able to save a screw.

I shout down to Peter, “hey, you cool if I sling a couple of icicles for an anchor?” Hesitantly he places his trust in me and agrees. I pause for a moment, place the last screw on my harness and equalize a solid two screw anchor. I don’t want my personal climbing decisions to jeopardize other people’s safety. If I’m not prepared to run out the next pitch on 4 screws I should have no business being here anyway. “You’re on belay Peter”, and sometime later were hanging of the same pair of screws together. Clouds cover the sun so no need to worry about the metallic tube conducting radiation and melting the ice around the threads. “Hell yea man, we’re out here fucking getting it done”.

A quick transfer of gear, a flip of the rope, and it’s time to face the crux. Literally. Immediately to my left is a 20 ft section of pure vertical ice with no rests. For a moment there is a hint of nervousness as I debate whether I should just run out the whole thing. I stick my tools, get established on the vertical ice and calmness returns. I try to stay to the left and be gentle with my right foot. At the belay I saw the right side is thin and freestanding. Nearing the top I glace down to spot my foot placement. The rope drops from my harness directly to peters hands. I just need to top out on the crux section and I’ll have a good stance to place a screw. I swing my right tool. It is rejected as chunks of ice are liberated from the face and hit peter below. A few more swings and I get a marginal placement. Cracks emanate from the pick in all directions. Fearful of causing even bigger chunks of ice to fall, I accept the marginal placement. I place a screw lower down into better ice, feeling warmth in my left forearm. Concentrate on not dropping the screw as the teeth bite into the ice. If I fumble my forearm arm will surely pump out. The screw goes in and I reach back for my right tool. As gently as I can, I shift weight onto it, hoping the cracked ice holds. I reposition my feet stand and up on my front points. One more move and I’m past the crux.

The rest of the pitch is slabby ice with the occasional vertical step. I top out on the ice section and place my last screw. Leaving my tools behind I scramble up a short choss ramp to get to the nearest tree. I throw a sling around it and enjoy the view as I belay Peter up.

​“Living the dream.”

Trip Report by Mihail-Iceman-Krumov
Photos by Jeff Urbahn