It’s 2005 at 8pm on a Friday night in February. I was 23 years old and waiting for Joe Mucci to pick me up while hanging at my then girlfriend’s house ready to go. Class was out hours ago at UW-Oshkosh, with no desire to even think about the homework to be done for the following week. Joe left a few hours before from Delavan WI working as an engineer at a pump factory. I was in my third year studding Geology and this is how we would spend three weekends a month every winter season. We would drive to Munising Michigan to climb the ice that forms along the 20+ miles of cliff line in Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore.
Driving north for the next four and a half hours we always stopped at the same place for dinner, Mickey Lu’s in Marinette. We would both order a couple doubles then hit the road stuffed for the final push of the drive north into the snow belt of Gitchigumi. We would shoot through the town of Munising late, passing a few bar jumping snowmobilers filling up for the last tank of gas of their night and continue east through a tiny town called Melstrand to get to the trailhead. Arriving after midnight we would get out the car into the crisp cold air and into the silence, something I always looked forward to each Friday night of the week.
We would change into our baselayers and cutting edge softshell clothing of the day, shoulder our 50 pound packs and click into our skis. Joe learned to XC ski this way, under the moonlight with a heavy pack breaking trail in the deep snow. After a few miles of gently rolling trail, which of course is a road in the summer we would reach the real trailhead of Pictured Rocks. The plow stops a few miles out from the actual trail head, which was always a blessing on the way in, and a curse on the way out. From that point it was just 4 more miles to Chapel Beach where we would make camp for the weekend. Arriving around 3am tired from the long day, we would set up our tent, put on a few dry layers and crawl into our winter bags for some quality rest.
I have always believed Saturday mornings were a day to sleep in, which we sure did. Getting up no earlier than 9am we would start melting snow for water and cooking breakfast. We always had precooked sausage patties or bacon, to make a “McMucci” sandwich of meat and melted pepper jack cheese on an everything bagel…ummmm! Chucking the pots back into the snow, stashing the stove and zipping up the tent, we would be off to go climbing for the day soon after. We would set off east along the lakeshore trail and would make the only tracks in the snow since the previous weekend, which were ours as well if not yet buried by the ever accumulating snow.
About a mile down the trail we would rappel onto the frozen lake below and into a whole new world. Leaving the perceived safety of the land, trees, and trails above, the lake ice is a magical place that always gave me goosebumps the first time each season walking on it. The lake ice would extend out into the lake by about a ½ mile in some places, and some places we would be walking right next to open water on our left, and a 100 foot sandstone cliff on our right, not a place to go for a swim. After walking the lake ice for another 15 minutes we would arrive at our first destination for the day, Spray Falls.
Spray falls is a high volume creek making a 40 foot vertical drop directly into Lake Superior. Massive curtains of ice would form with rushing water behind it, sometimes over it and through the cracks in the lake ice into the frigid lake below. We would find the driest piece of ice, as getting wet from the rushing water above was not an option that far out, and set to climb it. Strapping on our crampons, tying in to the rope, picking up our ice tools and gazing up; just like every other climb I have done, but still magical every time for the addicted ice climber. A few swings, a few kicks and a few ice screws later, we were both atop the first climb of the weekend looking out at the miles of open water below ready for another.
We would climb till about dark then head back to camp. One would make a fire, the other dinner. This night it was stir fry in a bag from your local grocer’s freezer isle with precooked chicken in a bag. One pot was for dinner, one pot was for making water, and one spork was to share between the both of us. Scoop-Scoop pass was the mantra that we abided by till the dinner was gone and our bellies were as full as they were going to be. Watching the fire wind down and the small flask of some cheep swill disappear; we would catch up with one another on the week and shoot the shit till we were too tired to keep an eye open.
Sunday was always an early rise to get a few more climbs in before the ski home. We would climb till our proposed cut off time of 2pm, then head back to camp to pack up and start the long ski out. Those seven miles were always long and uphill. One more shot of Hammer gel to get myself back to the car was all I ever had left for calories, arriving after dark, tired. We would throw our gear into the back, shove the skis on top and drive into town for a red bull and a snack for the next few hours driving south. Just like the drive north, we had our tradition for the drive home. We would stop at the all you can eat Chinese Buffet in Oconto filling our plates until we could no longer walk trying to replace the thousands of calories we burned over the last 40 hours on the go of 16 or so miles traveled and 10 pitches of ice climbed. Always amazing that a work week is 40 hours long, and the weekend 48!
Hitting home was always first for me, arriving a bit before midnight ready to sleep for my 9am Monday morning lecture at Harrington Hall. Joe would have another few hours to go arriving by 3am, just enough time for a pot of coffee, a shower and a quick nap before he went to work at 7am. Monday I would dry out the tent, hang up my climbing gear and wash out the pots for the first time and not wanting to even think about ice climbing. Tuesday would roll along, and I would almost be out of recovery mode. By Wednesday night, the phone would ring. It would be Joe, “What are you doing this weekend?” My response after forgetting about the amount of work the previous weekend and only the fun, “Ice climbing with you, buddy”