February Follies 2022
When you think of ice climbing, places that come to mind are Munising, Winona, Starved Rock, Ouray, etc. Needless to say, there are many options when deciding on a location to go ice climbing. The CMC’s February Follies trip has been going up to Canada since before I became a member, and my membership started in 2009. I had never heard of Batchawana Bay or Montreal River Harbor before, and Jamie Norris and other members gave me the whole rundown at a monthly meeting. I was hooked right then and there, looking at photos of past outings of climbers on big ice in a winter wonderland. My first time on the outing was a memorable outing, to say the least, and deserving of a trip report of its own. That first February Follies outing left an impression on me. There was a cast of legendary CMC climbers, and one mythical climber that many climbers still talk about at every February Follies. This has been an outing I try not to miss, no matter what.
The years I have missed, were due to having newborns and, last year, due to a pandemic. So, I was pretty excited when the Canadian government opened the border to visitors this year. There would be a February Follies in Canada, again. As it goes with planning an outing in this part of Canada, where most of the businesses close for the winter, our choices can be limited. During the pandemic, several businesses changed ownership and were no longer available. I found an Airbnb that would fit our needs, without breaking the bank. To get into Canada, there were several hoops to jump through and a looming worry of “Will they let us in at the border?” So, why not just change the location of the February Follies trip and make it easy?? Well, it’s just not that easy to replace the experience and semi wild adventures that are had in Canada. Why do we do hard activities that many in the world don’t? “If it was easy everyone would do it,” is one way to look at it. But, it falls short of really explaining why you would jump through questionable hoops to cross a border, worry about driving 11 hours to be denied entry, and the no refund policy on the Airbnb. Ice climbing in Ontario is that good, so we put up with a lot to get back up North. The outing this year had five attendees: Al Graber, Jeff Brath, Jim Considine, Dave Kenealy, and Shaun Parent. I have to say, though, I was very close to abandoning my plans for Canada and just staying in the U.S. The group, however, was committed, and everyone knew we would all eat the cost of the Airbnb, if they denied us entry.
As this outing almost always starts with driving through a snowstorm, 2022 was no different. We ended up driving north through Wisconsin and the U.P., which is a longer drive, but this route had less snow forecasted. Jeff met me at my house, and we picked Jim up on the way. Dave was driving up by himself the next day, and Shaun lives up there. The drive up north was uneventful, except for three cattle in the middle of the road that scared the crap out of me. Luckily, we were able to slow down, and they moved a bit without incident. Then, more snow, more night driving, and then the signs for the Canadian border. Yeah!! The long drive was almost over. Now, for the moment of truth. Will we get across? Well, we did everything that was asked: everyone had a negative PCR test, uploaded vax cards, had the Arrivecan app, and Canadian flag underwear ready for inspection.
I was nervous as we drove across the bridge. In past years, I was normally full of anticipation of the ice climbing and the crazy amount of snow. I would usually be looking all around as we drove. I would be looking at the different ice formations on the iced-up channel and the industrial areas of Sault Saint Marie, a border town of just over 70,000 people that are mostly blue collar and clearly used to living in very cold weather. This year, I can’t recall what I really looked at. All I could see was the border gate with a truck and an SUV ahead of the truck in line. There was a beat-up sign that kinda told us to wear your mask, so we did just that. We did not want to give them any reason to turn us around. So, when it was our turn at the booth with the border agent, I just told myself “We are fine, we are good, nothing to worry about”. Then, the border agent says, “What are you guys doing here at 5:00 am?!” I think to myself, and quickly come to a conclusion, that this guy is an asshole. Biting my tongue and trying hard to not say something smart, I explained to the border agent that this is an annual trip we take up to Canada to go ice climbing, except last year. The agent then says, “You drove all the way up here just to ice climb?!”, while shaking his head. Again, I’m biting my tongue and now trying very hard not to call this guy an asshole. I just say “yes.” He took our passports and paperwork and started typing on his computer and looking at our PCR test papers. All the while, I’m thinking “Great! It’s not happening.” Then, he asks for Jeff and hands him his passport and a random COVID-19 test. He tells Jeff to read the directions and make sure to take the test within 24 hours. Ok, we are getting in, and only Jeff got a random test, which we knew could happen. The agent then hands Jim his passport and another random test. The same would happen to me, and we were across!! Ok, so what? We have to take a test - no big deal. The agent then asks us the usual questions, like if we have any firearms, drugs, and alcohol. Of course, we have alcohol. It’s the CMC! The agent mumbles something like “you’re good” and closes the booth door. Alright! We are in! My worries of not getting in have melted away, and it was all good happy feelings. We drive into town following my Google directions, until I lose my network, and then we are on memory from previous years on how to get to Highway 17. It seems like we take a different way through Sault St. Marie every year we come. There is no one direct route that is labeled. I weave my way through side streets and main roads to Highway 17 which takes us north out of town to Goulias River where our Airbnb is located. We pulled into the Airbnb without having any trouble finding it. Before I turn off the truck, I look at the temperature gauge and it reads -21 degrees F. It was cold with a capital “C”. We unload the truck and get into our beds for an hour or two of sleep.
We wake up around 8am, get coffee going and decide to get these COVID tests done and out of the way. This would prove to be a lesson in how to waste resources and make us shake our heads. To take the test, you have to go on a video call with a nurse to walk you through the test and witness you do it. I can hear the nurse on the line telling Jim to stick the nose probe higher into his nose. “Sir, stick it in more.” After completing the test, the nurse informs us to schedule a pick-up for our tests. This is where we all find out that the earliest pick-up will be on Tuesday - a day after we are back in the U.S. (Shaking my head.) Not sure what the point of that was.
Shaun arrived, and after we had breakfast, he says we should go to Searchmont. He says it [the ice] is in huge and fat and hasn’t seen it this big since the 80s. With two hours of sleep, an easy hike in and out was very appealing. Searchmont is a climbing area near a ski area called… Searchmont. There is a well- beaten trail to the wall about a half mile in. Shaun was pulling a sled full of firewood and ice gear that seemed to slide over the snow very easily. I was wowed! The whole climbing area was packed down and no need for snowshoes. We had a firepit with chairs around it to keep warm. We had it very good, because in past years the trail is there but snowshoes are required, and we had to stomp out an area for our packs and change into crampons.
The sun was out, it was cold - like 4 degrees F - but it didn’t feel that cold. Jeff and I went to the right side to lead a route to the top and set top ropes. Jim and Shaun walked up and set a route on the left side. Jeff was gearing up, and I was flaking out the rope, when Shaun came up and stopped us from climbing. He said he had to make a quick offering to Mother Earth before anyone started climbing. Shaun pulled out a small bag of sage and started burning it and thanked Mother Earth for the day and wished everyone a safe day and good climbing. I had never seen or heard of an offering like this, but I now think there is something to it. We had a great day climbing.
Jeff started up the route getting one ice screw in, when he started having trouble. Jeff lost weight and was climbing better than ever. He said it felt awkward and more strenuous than it should be. The route was a slopy series of small pillars and ledges, about half a rope length. Jeff backed off, and I gave it a shot. To me, the route looked like a cruiser, and Jeff felt the same. When I got on the route at his screw, I noticed the slope was at an angle away from me and was an awkward pull and step over the ledge. I made the move, and not very well, but good enough not to fall, and continued on to another ledge to place a screw. The ice was hard and brittle, which makes for a hard time getting screws in. I started a 16cm screw and couldn’t get a bite. I tried two more spots and same result. I started getting frustrated quickly. My calves start burning and I’m wasting energy - too much energy for this route that should be a cruiser - and, finally, I start getting a bite after beating away at the ice with my ice tool. The screw goes in, but the damage was done - this climb cost me a good amount of energy and I’m only about halfway up. I continue up through the ledges on a better angle to the ice and conditions improve. Screws go in better and my tools sink in better. I make it to the top and find that Shaun had set up slings on all the trees, so I whipped up an anchor quickly and put Jeff on belay. He made the move at the bottom and had no problems for the rest of the way up. We both looked at each other and said what the FUCK! That was supposed to be a lot easier than that. Maybe it was the lack of sleep, maybe because it was the first time I’ve been on ice in a year, or because the ice was brittle, or we just went up the wrong way. We end up figuring it out later.
We rap down and I can smell the campfire going and Jim says Shaun had some work to do and he would climb with us tomorrow. Jeff and I take a rest and belay Jim up the rope he set, which was a steeper and less ledge-filled climb than the one that just kicked our asses. Jim goes up and down, and I give it a go with a bruised confidence in my ice climbing. The route goes smoothly and easier and less strenuous than the previous. Ok, I’m not doing as horrible as I thought. I trailed a rope up behind me and set a third climb. The middle route was the really steep one - I still needed to work up to that. We went back to the right-side route that gave us the hard time, and approaching it from a different start, the route flowed much easier, and Jeff did the same. Our confidence was returned, and we climbed the route twice. Now, all that was left to climb was the big steep middle route. I started up good with my feet taking my weight, and as I climbed into the steep crux of the route, I felt awkward, I couldn’t keep my hips into the wall, my feet kept popping out. I was all arms. I muscled through it and topped out. I was done for the day.
We had a really late start and 5pm was fast approaching. Thanks to Shaun, all we had to do was pull the ropes. We had no gear up top, which made the pack-up quick. The fire had burned out and the sun left us about an hour ago and now it was snowing pretty good. It was beautiful out. We had an easy walk out in a light snow that seemed to be getting heavier. After getting to the truck, we all agreed it was a good first day and headed back to the cabin. We had a nice snowy drive back, with a wrong turn here, and a turn back this way there, and before we knew it, we were back at the cabin. It was pizza night, and there were many opinions on what the best pizza is. Jim, Jeff, and I all had a different favorite, but one thing was without question: all pizza tastes better with a beer. Sleep was easy that night.
Dave got in around 3am, and I heard him come in, so I got up to say hello. The snow was dumping, and he said roads were bad, and it took him longer to arrive. I had to ask him about the border crossing, and wouldn’t you know it, he got a random test at the border too. We woke up and had coffee and talked a little too long before we got moving. We were supposed to meet Shaun at his house at 8am. We were 45 minutes late and when we arrived, he told us it was too late in the day to break trail into the Land of the Giants climbing area. We drove the hour or so up to Montreal River Harbor and twisted and turned our way around on unplowed backwoods roads to Wind Tower Wall.
The whole way there you could really tell that Shaun knew the area and could tell us how to get anywhere blindfolded. At every turn, he had a tidbit of info about something that happened here and over there, and we talked about every topic of conversation we could think of. We parked by a huge active windmill that made a strange mechanical motor humming, and you could hear the 100-foot blades slicing through the air. I’ve never been that close to one before, so I thought it was pretty cool. We geared up, strapped on the snowshoes, and with no surprise to anyone, the trail was not broken in. I was one of the last guys on the trail and had a wonderful hike in behind the main group breaking trail with an occasional post-hole with my snowshoes. I chalked that up to just stepping a little off trail. I was mostly hiking downhill, so at times I was really just sliding like, step, slide, step, slide, oh boy! Big slide, step, slide. I caught up with the group in no time.
Starting out, I had a good chill, and my hands were pretty cold. I warmed up a bit, but my hands were still cold. I windmilled my arms to get more blood to my fingers and warm them up. This worked for a bit, and then they would get cold again. I needed to get up front and break some trail to warm up more. Dave was in the front breaking trail like a crazed yeti, and I made my way up behind him. Dave didn’t want to give up the front. He said, “I need you in good shape to lead everything today.” So, I stayed #2 which was fine. The first and second trail breakers did a good amount of work, and before long, my hands were plenty warm.
The sun was out, but you couldn’t feel much warmth. It was in the single digits again with snow in the forecast later that afternoon. I did notice the snow was really deep. I would post-hole in my snowshoes and then have to fight to get back up. At one point while stepping with my right foot, my left sunk in, and I went face first down the hill. I’m now headfirst down the hill and sliding farther the more I fought to get my snowshoes in front of me. It took me a few minutes to right myself and get back on trail. Shaun informed us that we were in 5 feet of snow. He was right. After we got to the climbs and packed down a spot with our snowshoes, we got situated and put on our crampons. I immediately sunk to my hips in our packed down spot. This would be a trend for the day. Sink, swim out, and sink again. Dave and I roped up for the first climb, which was a two-pitch slopey climb to steeper ice. The first pitch I climbed up about 20 feet of chest deep snow on the slope up to the ice. I made it to a steep part of the ice and built a hanging belay with two big screws (22cm) in solid ice. The terrain was easy and really, I could have soloed it to the belay. Dave followed and we exchanged gear and off I went on the steeper ice. Due to the large amount of snow, parts of the ice were rotten and had to be broken up to get to the good ice. About two screws up from Dave, I sunk my tool and I saw a huge, chair-sized chunk crack around my tool and start to separate from the wall. I shouted down to Dave that a large chunk of ice was coming down. I pulled at it and not very hard either, and the chunk came off. I was able to direct it away from Dave and the rope as the ice broke and tumbled down to the deep snow away from everyone. This was not a place to get hurt. Getting out of there to help or a hospital is no easy task. So, going forward I tried to be as careful as possible. I traversed a ledge about 20 feet to a break in the bushes above the ice where I could see slings around a big tree. After a couple of ledges and short steep sections, I topped out. I belayed Dave up and marveled at the beauty of the high hills/mountains and Lake Superior in the short distance. The clouds were building, and you could tell the snow was coming. We rapped down a different tree that put us in a position to walk off the rest of the climb. As soon as I hit the slope, waist deep snow to chest deep snow greeted me until rappelling was no longer useful. I gave Dave a fireman’s belay and we slid down with the snow. We would plunge down to our chests at times and then have to swim out. We got to a point where we could slide down to the platform we made where our packs were.
Jeff and Jim led a route off to the left of where Dave and I were with the same bit of difficulty minus the deep snow on the way down. Jim had forgotten his crampons, so Shaun lent him his. Shaun said, “I climb up here often, you take mine.” That is the sign of a good friend. Shaun took the keys to Dave’s SUV, because he was getting cold just watching us climb and he said he’d meet us at the cars at 5:30pm. Jeff and Jim wanted to do another variation of their climb, and Dave and I went to a climb we saw on the way in that looked better than what we just did. The idea was to keep our crampons on and hike over because we packed the tail in. Well, we ended up crawling because we kept post-holeing and we had no snowshoes with us now.
I can easily see how someone without proper gear could get into a lot of trouble in these conditions. I was using a lot of energy just to go 40 feet. We arrived at the base of the climb, and again I’m swimming in snow and fighting my way to the ice. Sweep with the tool, push it to the side, then repeat, then try taking a step. Easy climbing at a very high energy cost. Finally, my tool sinks into solid ice and I pull myself out of the snow and onto ice. Wow! This snow is deep! I get to a spot that will accept a screw and forward movement speeds up. I move up a ledge here, around another there, to stay on steep ice. Get to a nice ledge, sink a screw, repeat. I had a nice rhythm and then over the top to slings around a large pine tree. Snow is falling and the view is majestic. Lake Superior is no longer visible, and a white haze has taken the horizon. I led a straight line from the trail, and it looked perfect. Dave swam through the snow and made it to solid ice; then, made quick work of the route, cleaning the screws out at a lightning pace. We got to the top, took a photo, and started getting our rappel together.
We rapped down the far-left side of the ice wall, which was dripping wet, and, as soon as you stepped off the ice, deep snow. I rappelled almost to the knots we tied at the ends and realized a second rappel will be needed to get over a short cliff/ice shelf. We could not tell what the short cliff was due to all the snow. After a small hiccup in pulling the rope with a knot still in it, a quick climb up, and an easy snow slope, we corrected our mistake and made the second rap down. Deep snow, again. This time, I knew I couldn’t just walk to our packs, so we coiled the rope and left it there. We could get it after we got to our packs and snowshoes. The rope would be on the way out anyway. We slid on one knee or both, we post-holed a little bit, and made it to the packs. The sun was going down, and snow was falling. We packed up and started out. I grabbed the rope and continued on a wonderful hike up the hill and I didn’t want to be anywhere else. After about a half hour hike, I arrived at the cars where the rest of the group was waiting. The drive back to the cabin was about an hour or so and we had to drop Shaun off. Shaun said to meet him at his house again at 9am and be ready to break trail into the Land of the Giants. Back at the cabin, it was Jambalaya night, and this is also better with beer! Sleep came easy again, and I really wanted to sleep in, but we needed to be on time.
The next morning, we all got up at 6 am, ate breakfast and got ready, then Jeff told us Shaun was out today. He had injured his foot and was unable to climb or break the trail. A slowdown was immediate, and we had to rethink and replan the day. Mile 38 Road was only plowed to Km 6. That didn’t leave us much and my favorite route Blue Avenger, was accessible at km 4. Everyone seemed to like that idea. So, Jeff and Dave were going to climb at the same time as Jim and me, or stagger leaders to keep things moving. We got rid of any gear we didn’t need and headed out.
The forecast was to be in the 30s with snow all day and windy. I was feeling sluggish that day. I figured I would catch my wind and I would be good to go once we got moving. On the ride to Mile 38 Road, Jim was telling me that his watch, which was super expensive, could gauge your energy levels (and give you winning lottery numbers) said his energy was low, and he should take a rest day. That is exactly how I felt, and I couldn’t shake that sluggish feeling.
Mile 38 Road hadn’t been plowed in a while, but it was still navigable. Driving down a snow-covered logging road is all kinds of fun. The best way I could describe it would be like driving a boat down a narrow river at full throttle. Pure fun! Just remember that you don’t drive your truck or SUV down those roads gunning it. There are other trucks and snow machines on the road too, so be careful. We got to km 4 and parked. The wind was blowing, and the snow was dumping. The storm seemed to be getting stronger and we started across the frozen pond towards the climb. Blue Avenger is visible from the road, but the storm was quickly blocking our view. Looking across the pond, not a trail could be seen, and this was going to be an all-you-can-eat buffet of breaking trail. Crossing the pond was the easy part. We agreed to a rule of 50 steps per guy breaking trail and then stepping to the back. This would make sure no one would be breaking trail the whole way in and be exhausted when we arrived at the climb. Blue Avenger is a three-pitch ice climb about 3/4 of a mile from the road. It’s mostly a flat approach until you are about 3/4 of the way there and then it’s uphill to a boulder field that is covered in snow and a short steep section to the base of the climb. As soon as we left the pond and entered the forest, the snow got deeper. Those 50 steps came and went quickly, we had to weave a path through the forest with the person in the front leading the way. Two hours later, we made it the boulder field, and we did a good job avoiding tree wells and fallen trees under the snow which are notorious for not having any snow underneath them and sucking you into a void.
Now, we started up the steep boulder field which was almost invisible because of the snow. It looked like a snow slope with a few humps sprinkled around. Those humps were car-sized boulders. There are voids next to the boulders to keep an eye out for, as well. We slowly made our way up to a switchback, then we made it to a large pine tree. I stepped to the side and said, “See you guys at the top,” thinking that was my last time breaking the trail. The slope got steeper, and I assumed there would be less snow. Wrong! Dead wrong!!! I found myself second up again pretty quickly just to go about 200 feet. I ended up finishing off the snowshoe hike to the base, and everyone got to stomping out a platform and a path to the route.
Now, I felt that sluggish feeling hit me like a ton of bricks. We all needed a break and to fuel up. I drank about half my water and ate a protein bar. As I was resting, I looked back over the pond we crossed, which was below us now and no longer visible. The snow was coming down hard and visibility was short. My energy wasn’t coming back like it normally does. I was smoked. The energy I had for the day was used up on the hike in. After I ate what I could and drank water, I wasn’t feeling better. I sat as long as I could before I started getting cold, so it was time to get moving again.
I got roped up, had a rack of screws, and Jim had me on belay. Jeff and Dave were ready to go as soon as I got going. I put in a screw right away and got up about 6 feet and put in another screw. Everything in my body was yelling at me to stop. I was already gassed and I’m barely starting a three-pitch climb. The wind is blowing up, down, sideways, and through the ice, into my face. I couldn’t ignore what my body was telling me. I’ve been plenty tired before and continued climbing. This was very different - like the guys below were pulling on the rope from below trying to pull me off the route. This route had defeated me. I yelled down to Jim and told him that I was coming down. I sink one tool lower and get one front point down lower and repeat the opposite tools and front point. In a few short moves, I’m on my screw and Jim is lowering me down. I make it to the platform and immediately sink in the snow to my hips again and I knew I made the right call. I had no energy. Jeff and Dave were up. Jeff had a look in his eyes that was pure determination to lead the pitch. He plowed through the snow like a runaway train. He used my screws that were in place. In the hardest conditions I’ve ever climbed in, Jeff was moving above my screws and looking great! His feet were solid, his tools were landing right where he wanted them, and he was totally focused.
Jeff kept climbing at a sure and confident pace and soon he was over the edge and out of sight. The snow was relentless and pounding us on the ledge. When you are waiting for someone to lead a pitch and set up a belay, it seems like it’s taking forever. Add cold weather and a storm, and it feels like 10 years. Jeff made it to the belay tree which is a large pine tree off to the right of the route. Dave was on belay and trailing a rope for Jim and me. That way, we could at least top rope the first pitch and use the climbing gear we hauled up. Before long, I was on belay again, and I started climbing. My body was still trying to tell me to stop, but I was freezing, and I needed to move to get warm again. I can remember climbing the pitch thinking I wouldn’t have been able to lead this. Not this year, anyway. This was my sixth time on this route, and I’ve led the whole thing three times. Getting to the belay and clipping in, I looked up at pitch two and said “NOPE!” It was the biggest I’ve ever seen it. The harder variation to the left was in and enormous compared to past years. These beautiful pillars of ice were guarded by head- height snow drifts. Let’s say if I had had the energy to lead the first pitch, I would have definitely not made it to the second. Going straight up and leading pitch 1 and 2 at the same time would have been possible, but on a regular year there is a ton of snow at the top, and this would have been insane this year. Jeff used up all his energy to lead on the first pitch, and everyone was happy with climbing one pitch.
Normally, we grab a bit of birch bark and burn it at the top. - kinda like Shaun’s offering to Mother Earth, but it was more about the fire than an offering. There was a dead birch tree at the belay ledge, and I pulled some off and we gave our offering to Mother Earth. We set up our rap, and one by one we rapped off to the platform. Well, our offering to Mother Earth must have worked, because the wind died down and the snow lightened up. By the time we were packed up, the snow stopped. I will be burning sage every time I climb from now on in hopes of good weather. Fresh snow covered most of the trail we broke in. Hiking down wasn’t too bad; you just had to watch out for voids under the snow if you got off the trail. I almost got sucked into one. Luckily, my feet were on opposite sides of the log. I have no idea how deep the void was, but my feet were dangling in the air. An easy crawl got me around this hazard, and the rest of the group was able to see the hazard easily and get around it. Stepping and sliding down the steep slope, we made our way to the base and got our snowshoes on. The hike out was easier and more enjoyable with the snow no longer falling. We hiked across the pond in wonder at the view. This is one of the reasons we come here. One could easily imagine a pack of wolves running out across the frozen pond or a moose grazing on some vegetation poking out of the snow on the pond banks. The pond was surrounded by tall pines with last year’s cat tails ponding up through the snow. Beyond the road another set of hills rise up above the trees to give a sense that you’re out west in the Rockies.
Getting to the truck, I was soaked from the snow, the temp never made it up to the 30s and was in the lower 20s. The truck heater was cranking, and Jim and I were pretty happy to be in the truck. Driving out was still a good time, but the snowmobiles did a good job packing in the road so, it wasn’t like driving through fresh snow. At the stop sign to Highway 17, Jeff jumped out of Dave’s car waving his arms as I pulled out onto 17. I pulled a quick U-turn and quickly found the front end of the truck deep into a snowbank. The truck was really stuck in the snow. Apparently, my tailgate was down, and it really isn’t a February Follies outing without a car getting stuck in the snow. Never go on a February Follies trip without a shovel.
We got unstuck pretty quickly and were on our way. It was pasta night, Shaun was coming over for dinner, and it was our last night in Canada. We drove back to the cabin and unloaded. My clothes were wet, and I changed into my PJs that felt like a warm blanket. The night went as the rest. Everyone ate and drank and talked about every topic under the sun. The one thing we agreed on: jumping through hoops to cross the border was worth it. We came and climbed until we couldn’t. The snow was relentless, but it didn’t get to us. Whatever next year holds, I will have Presidents ’Day weekend open for February Follies. This trip was great due to the effort everyone on the trip put in: Jeff Brath, Jim Considine, Dave Kenealy, Shaun Parent, and Al Graber.