Winter Above the 45th Parallel“Dad is leaving on his own vacation, again. Kids, come say bye,” my wife said before I left for Montana this past summer. My cellmate was right, even though she was joking: just because you are obsessed with something doesn’t give you a green light to neglect your primary responsibilities.
Winter climbing is all about logistics, because oftentimes the hardest thing is just getting to the trailhead. Twice a day, in the two weeks leading up to us leaving, I checked the weather along our driving routes and the mountain forecasts. Everything was looking good. We had a window.
Three days before we were scheduled to depart, however, the snowfall around Eagle Mountain in Minnesota changed from light to severe. “Winter storm warning” is the worst thing you can read. We had to go a day earlier or give up on Minnesota. Never!
Left at noon from my writing job, packed up the car and we were on the road in Ohio at 3 p.m. on Wednesday. 8.5 hours later we were pulling into a hotel in Madison, Wisconsin. The last time I was in Madison I was picking up a Q.P. of magic mushrooms to take back to Cincinnati to sell to my college friends. The city remained the same.
The next morning, Thursday, we left the hotel and it was 2.5 hours to Tomahawk, Wisconsin. The small village with a thriving downtown welcomed us to the land of cheese and DVD rentals at gas stations and to the true North. What is the true North? I used to think it was about the Civil War.
You see, Ohio was the first Free State, the first to outlaw slavery, and growing up, I identified with the North as it related to the Civil War. But Ohio is only in the North politically. Geographically, it’s the Midwest.
The real North starts at the 45th parallel. Climbing Granite Peak with “Minnesota David,” I was insulted when he said, “We think of Ohioans as Southerners.” But I understand it now. Above the 45th, they have real deep snow, lakes you can actually set up permanent shanties on and ice fish all winter, pee wee hockey on the FM radio stations, endless sled trails—a true outdoor winter culture. Everyone just stays inside and complains in Ohio during winter anymore. Like my father says,“Ohio has become slush.”
Nice lunch in downtown Tomahawk and then a short drive to the county park of Timm’s Hill.
The park roads are closed in the winter, as I researched, but luckily, one, the snow was packed out from snowmobiles and skis. And two, it was only 1.5 miles roundtrip from the parking area. So it was to be a family affair.
Halfway to the summit, a sled trail intersected the main road and an older man driving a 1970s Ski Doo passed us and waved, going slowly. He had a chainsaw rigged to the back of the snow machine.
The ¼ mile final push to the tower and survey marker was enough to break my 5 year old, who threw himself down near the summit and declared, “All my energy is gone; I can’t go on.” I assisted him the final 10 feet.
Pretty windy at the top of the wooden fire tower. Forecast said 30 mph winds and it felt extremely cold for how low of elevation it was. Back to the car and then stopping just outside the park at Hill O Beans, the little log-built coffee shop overlooking Alcohol Lake.
On our way out, the man we saw snowmobiling before entered with freshly cut wood and threw it on the coals of the stone fireplace.
“Hey, we saw you on the way to Timm’s Hill,” my wife told the older man.
“Out clearing the trails,” he said, smiling at her.
“Is that you?” my wife asked, pointing to the giant hung picture of the man’s younger self in full ski gear, medals around the frame and his neck.
“Haha, yes, we used to do a lot of those races,” he told my wife.
From Hill O Beans it was 3 hours through the heart of the Wisconsin north, and we really lucked out with the weather, as the roads were plowed and no further accumulation was on the horizon that day.
Finally, we crossed the southwest corner of Lake Superior and entered Minnesota and the city limits of Duluth. Do you all know about that city? I didn’t.
It’s like a Christmas-lit snowglobe port city with hills leading right up to the water. Freighters, mid-sized city skyscrapers, ocean-esque views and skywalks. It would have been a powerful fort 500 years ago, controlling all vessel traffic through Lake Superior and all human traffic to its north and south.
After checking in at the Holiday Inn downtown, all the gear was taken into the room, sorted and organized. The pressure was starting to seep in as my 10-year-old son really wanted to do this climb with me. And I wanted to take him. But there’s no room for error when taking your child into the remote death cold of northern Minnesota. After dinner and hugs and kisses from the wife and 5 year old, we departed.
Up along highway 61 with some lake effect snow from Earth’s largest freshwater lake. 2 hours later, just outside of Lutsen, we took Route 4/153 for 22 miles and it was brutal for several reasons. The road was plowed, but “Minnesota plowed,” which meant they do it like once a month. It took me nearly an hour to get to the trailhead. And I’ll never forget the screams I heard.
Shortly after turning off of highway 61, I let a car pass that seemed to be in a hurry. A mile later, that car was pulled over with their hazards on. As I crept passed, I noticed another vehicle across the road that had crashed into a massive snow bank and a telephone pole. I cracked my window and slowed down. My muscles tighten to a spastic level when I heard a female shriek and moan.
I pulled over. My son was already asleep in the passenger seat, so I couldn’t just leave him. But the crying… OK, I thought, I’ll leave my Nissan Rogue running, lock the door and wake him up to get back in. It was 8 degrees by the car’s digital thermometer. I was throwing on my jacket and about to shut the door when the women from the car that had passed me was walking back across the road.
“What’s up?” I yelled. In retrospect, I regret not being more friendly and forward with my open.
“We’re good,” was her startled response.
I thought, good??? There’s no cell reception, there’s a wreck in the middle of the tundra nowhere, it’s almost midnight, I hear crying…
“OK, I’ll keep going then,” I said, hoping back into the car that thankfully was still open.
Took me over an hour to go 22 miles. If there was more snow, that would have been fine, but it was just like two inches over a foot of ice, so you would hit these ice rink patches and start to slide. I refused to wreck, to be stranded and vulnerable with my son, even with all-wheel drive, good tires and brakes, so slow and beyond steady was the pace.
We pulled into the trailhead and I made beds in the back. Zero and beyond rated sleeping bags. Just when it was lights out, I realized I had to pee. Jumped out real quick without my coat, got back in and saw headlights. I froze upright and a white SUV came barreling into the parking area. It was the sheriff. He whipped the truck around and blasted out, back into the white abyss. What was he or she doing this far out and this late? I hadn’t seen any other tire marks in forever.
Around 3 a.m., I woke up a little cold. This wasn’t possible. I slept in this bag in -14F on Mt. Marcy and was hot. It’s not the bag, I concluded, but the car. So I started it. “Car can’t trap your body heat and insulate you like the tent and the snow can,” my father would tell me two days later in Baraga, Michigan.
Hours later on Friday morning, we were up before dawn with our headlamps, attempting to get dressed against the space confinements of the vehicle. And I started the car, again. Kept telling my boy that the worst part of winter climbing is getting out of the sleeping bag and getting dressed when it’s in the single digits. Robbed him of that pain I guess.
With just enough light, we filled out our permit and started on the trail. The first mile was slow. My son was ahead and thus set the pace. We took at break at the one-mile mark.
“How is your temperature?” I asked him.
“My hands are cold because I got snow in my glove.”
Hand warmers were applied.
“It’s been 45 minutes,” I told him, “we’re not going to make the summit at this pace. 6 hours is all I’m allowing you to be out here, in these conditions. We have a turnaround time set for three hours, so if we’re not at the top by then, it’s over.”
He did not appreciate this detail I perhaps failed to brief him on in all the days leading up to the climb, as he ran twice a week on the treadmill and walked miles to break in his new ultralight winter hiking boots.
An example: it takes you 4 hours to get to the top, and let’s say, you sprang your ankle. Then it takes you triple the time to get out. You become slow and cold. The weather changes. You get caught in a storm and have to bivy. Pretty soon you’re eating your fingers to survive.
The second mile was completed in a half hour.
“Wow, bud, you just shaved 15 minutes off your mile,” I told him, full of pride. “You must really want to make that summit.”
“I just don’t want to miss all the fun stuff mom and my brother are doing in Duluth without me,” he said.
“Hahaha, OK, well, whatever motivates the climber. Great job on the pace. How are your hands?”
“They are hot, I don’t need the warmers anymore.”
My feet were actually a bit cold for the first time ever so I made the switch. It was amazing. Like walking in a hot tub. Usually, I try to keep a pretty aggressive pace on the mountain. The whole light n fast thing is very real to me. But I forgot I’d be hiking with a 10 year old, who was well trained, but just still operating at a different speed. I had few too many layers. The foot warmers compensated for me.
We only had 1.5 miles to go once we got to the other side of Whale Lake, but it was all uphill. There was a great vista near the top, followed by another shortly after. Then the packed-out trail ended. This was a false summit. Everyone that had come before us this winter had yet to reach the true top.
From reading trip reports and from what other climbers told me, I knew the real summit was back in the woods about another ¼ of a mile. But the snow was sooooo deep and I didn’t know where to go, postholing to my knees the whole time. My poor son was just about on empty from a morale standpoint, as he followed me one way, then backtracked another way. Eventually, I realized I needed to break out my map. Planning and logistics have allowed me to be a successful mountaineer. I had a topo map of the route and the summit encased in waterproof plastic. My little Garmin handheld GPS was also summoned. Before we left, I downloaded backcountry maps of the area, and the thing that really saved me was loading tracks onto the GPS.
The tracks lead us into the woods and the powder, pulling my leg out of the knee-deep white quicksand with every step. But we still couldn’t locate the marker. After circling a bit, I noticed something I thought looked to be protruding a bit more from the ground than the usual drift. I scraped a little bit off the corner thinking I’d found rock, but instead, it was the black plaque! Success and the summit were ours!
My 10-year-old son (who begged to go) finally understood THAT summit feeling, since he trained for a month, endured the drive and cold weather and got to scrape the untouched marker clean of snow.
A small snack was consumed back at the vantage point and my son sat relaxing while I went back through the thick to retrieve his forgotten hiking pole at the marker.
His pace was even faster on the descent, and we made it out in 2 hours. 7 miles roundtrip in 5 hours total. Frozen water bottles to prove our plight.
It was fortunate that we made good time because a nasty storm was coming in. As we drove south along Highway 61, every 10 minutes the precipitation increased, and we crept into downtown Duluth just as the city went under a winter weather advisory, with 6-8 inches due throughout the night.
Luckily, the Holiday Inn had two indoor pools and a hot tub so we could soak our chilled souls in enjoyment instead of anxiety.
The next morning, Saturday, was New Year’s Eve, and we were off after breakfast and coffee to Michigan. Across Lake Superior’s southern belly, through the lake town of Ashland, Wisconsin (and we all concluded we had been living in the wrong Ashland).
A bald eagle raced us along the two-laned Route 2 in Wisconsin—insane how fast they can fly. “Look out for the white tail,” my brother MF told me, and he was right, it was a dead giveaway.
5 hours later and with a grilled cheese lunch at the Korner Kitchen, the family had arrived in Baraga, Michigan. Previously, we had been pronouncing it with a hard R, like “bar” then “aga.” The locals had other ideas, and called it “bear” then “ah” then “ga.” Which sounds a lot like the Mexican word, “verga,” which means “dick.” Whatever the people of Dick want to be called is fine by me.
My parents had been waiting days for us in that little lakeside town, having pulled up sleds (snowmobiles) to Yooper country so we could continue the expedition. Northern Michigan is where we spent ALL of our vacations as kids, so it felt a little closer to home, after so many miles of spraying washer fluid to clean the glass of the windshield.
My parents had a suite at the Dick Lakeside Inn and ensured we had an adjoining room. Darkness had fallen so you couldn’t see the lake, but the blackness off of the docks showed its existence.
Ohio St. was in the college football playoff, and my grandpa, dad and both brothers are alumni, so there was a vested interest. More drinking and jokes and staring out at the snowmobiles continuing to crowd the front parking lot, staggering into the bar for a cold beer warm-up before continuing down the endless trail system of the U.P.
Surprisingly, the next morning, Sunday, I wasn’t hungover. My father, the 10 year old and I started towards Michigan’s peak around 9 a.m. Through L’Anse and then the long truck to the gravel pit parking area by Roland Lake. More snow-coated roads, but with the added element of a covered trailer and two sleds.
We were so close. My father pulled the first Ski Doo out of the trailer and kept it running. I presented a thumbs up to him for permission to take her for a lap, and he nodded. I went about 100 yards, got into just a small bit of powder, let off the gas, and the sled came to an abrupt halt. I gassed it but nothing. Went to the back of the sled, moved the rear end into fresh snow, and gassed it again. I smelled burnt rubber and saw blue smoke. What the hell had I done?
My father came racing down with the other Ski Doo and quickly realized the parking brake was locked on. A feature new to us. And he knew the belt was fried. After some light cursing, he popped the side panel off, broke out an allen wrench, and changed out the belt like a one-man pit crew. Dude is 66, still acting like a 30 year old.
It was only about 25 minutes to the top of Mt. Arvon via sled on a well-traveled trail. The summit wasn’t much to speak of; it looked more like a campsite at a once-overcrowded and now abandoned park. The picnic table, grill and signs of humans long since passed. Sweet view through the trees if you hiked down off the summit a bit, but other than that, nothing special. But the route is often better than the destination, as the cliché goes.
Back to Baraga, err, Dick, and then all across the U.P. to Hessel, where my parents’ cabin resided. Followed by the 8-hour ride home on Monday. 2,000 miles of pure winter success. And only three more states east of the Mississippi left to do in winter: Rhode Island, Delaware and mighty Katahdin. Eventually I will have to stop hiding from Maine and the "Beast of the East."