Ice Climbing in Michigan’s U.P.

I feel like a walking safety violation.

Brian Ledtke

Before me stands a wall of ice; a waterfall frozen by the Upper Peninsula’s brutal winters.  On my feet I’m wearing boots with a device called a cramp-on attached to it, which means there are sharp spikes jutting out from my boots. In my hands I hold two sharp ice picks, ready to crunch into the sheer wall of cold ice. I feel like a walking safety violation. A rope goes from my harness, to the top of the ice wall forty feet up and back down to the guy who’s there to save me from injury or death should I slip and fall. I’m about to try ice climbing for the first time. And I’m shaking. A blast of winter chill slaps me in the face.  I step up to the wall and swing the pick.

Before I continue I should probably digress as to why I’m even doing something as crazy as ice climbing. I’m an Adventure Tourism minor at Grand Valley State University and through that program I heard about a weekend trip that was going to the Ice Festival in Munising in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. I knew I couldn’t pass this opportunity up, even though rock climbing has always scared me a little.

I signed up, had a brief introduction class and off we went braving white-out, blizzard-like driving conditions so we could reach Munising in time for the festivities to begin. Normally, a drive to Munising would take about 6 to 7 hours. We took 10. Going about thirty on the highway will do that.

Once we got to Ice Fest the organizers immediately opened up a free keg for all the thirsty would-be climbers. Along with that we got to see slideshows put on by some of the world’s best ice climbers. During the day you climb, and at night you drink and listen to tales of intense situations of extreme peril. Will Gadd, considered to be the third best ice climber in the world, told us stories of his climbs on K2 and Everest. Needless to say though, these stories of scrapes with death did nothing for my nerves when the very next day I was supposed to face the ice myself.

The morning of the first climbing day was cold. Not cold like you’re used to though, this was biting, freeze your nostrils cold. But nothing would keep us from the ice, so my group of fellow students headed for the Curtain; a wall of ice about 200 feet long and 40 feet high.

I watch a few other of the braver students clamber up the wall first, making it look quite easy. I started to feel a little better about doing it. That is, until I heard a scream. I looked over and dangling upside down half out of his harness was another climber. He had broken off a sizeable chunk of ice, lost his balance and now was hanging upside down. He obviously wasn’t too worried though, as he righted himself back up and finished the climb.

Now it was my turn. My picks in hand, spiky shoes on my feet, and a cold sweat on my brow, I face the ice.

“You don’t want the screaming barfies,”

my belayer

“Just remember to stop every so often and shake your hands out. You don’t want the screaming barfies,” my belayer told me (a belayer is the guy who’s attached to your rope on the ground. The guy keeping you alive).

“Huh? The what?”

“Screaming barfies. But don’t worry about it; just remember to shake your hands out every few feet.”

I tried to clear my mind of this while I approached the wall. That’s one of the great benefits of climbing. No matter what kind of stress you have or things on your mind, all of it goes away as soon as you start to ascend. You think about nothing but not falling and it feels great.

I kick my cramp-on covered boot into the wall. Little shards of ice fly off in every direction. My other boot goes in. Alright, so far so good. I chink both ice picks into the wall, test them to make sure they’ll hold, and then up I go. Ice climbing is a very slow moving process. It’s not like rock climbing where you can pretty much go whatever speed you’re comfortable with. With ice climbing you move slowly and methodically, making sure each kick of your foot and throw of your ax provides a good stable hold for you. And of course, stopping every so often to take your hands off your picks and shake your hands out; which is the scariest thing because all you have holding you up are your toes sticking in the ice.

Screaming Barfies?

The hot aches (also known among North American ice climbers as the screaming barfies[1][2]) is a very painful physical reaction to the cold, most often felt in the hands or feet. When exposed to the cold, blood stops flowing normally to the extremities. Later once you warm up, the blood begins to flow again; this causes the pain known as the hot aches.

Photo courtesy of

Little by little I make it farther up the ice. My heart is racing. My hands are clenched hard around the ice picks hanging on for dear life. My…and I fall. Just like the upside-down hanging gentleman, I too hit a piece of ice which decided it didn’t want to cooperate. A huge chunk goes falling to the earth and I lose my balance and start to drop. Usually in this kind of situation my belayer would catch me after only falling for 2 to 3 feet. He isn’t paying attention though and I end up falling about 10 feet. For that second or so I feel like I’m probably going to die. Even though I’m only about 25 feet up a fall onto ice wouldn’t feel too hot. But I’m snatched up, and my belayer yells up a quick, “I’m sorry! Didn’t see what was happening.”

I mutter some choice words for him then continue up the wall, still thoroughly shaken by gravity’s almost win over me. After about fifteen minutes of unstable climbing and feeling like I’m going to fall again, I reach the top. I breathe a sigh of relief. I did it. It’s amazing the feeling of accomplishment that washes over you after you conquer something like a wall of ice. I looked down at the tiny people below me cheering for me and then out towards the beautiful and icy Lake Superior, and I realized this is what life is all about. It’s about conquering something that seems impossible and pushing yourself to finish. It’s about being in nature, despite frigid temps. It’s about camaraderie and working towards a common goal together. Yes, at this moment, I’d never felt so alive.

After that moment of revelation I leaned back and started descending the ice wall. It was at this point I realized how cold I truly was, and I couldn’t feel my hands. I hit the nice earth and tried to take my hands off the ice picks. I couldn’t.

“Dude. I think you’re about to have the screaming barfies,” my belayer said.

So let me explain what the screaming barfies are. It’s a term used by ice climbers to describe what happens sometimes after climbing. Because your hands are constantly above your head, freezing cold, and gripping the ice pick handles, you lose all blood in your hands. Then when you get done, the warm blood rushes back into your frozen hands, thus causing you to want to scream and barf at the same time. This was now happening to me.

The best way to describe the feeling is to imagine a time when you’ve fallen asleep on your arm only to wake up and feel like someone’s poking a thousand needles in it. Well, it’s that times a hundred. Don’t ask me why it’s worse, I’m not a doctor. All I know is that I wanted to scream and barf but I couldn’t because I didn’t want to ruin my manly credibility. So I sucked it up and screamed inside my head. Needless to say, I never again forgot to shake my hands out on the way up the ice.

Despite my encounter with some mild pain, ice climbing has become one of my favorite adventure experiences, right up there with skydiving and white water rafting. If you ever get the opportunity to do it, don’t pass it up. There were all ages at the Ice Festival from 4 year olds to people who looked about 80. And you don’t really even need any experience, just some pointy shoes, some ice picks, and a whole lot of self-confidence. So go out there and experience nature, experience the rush, experience the beauty. The ice is calling you, but watch out for those screaming barfies.

By Brian Ledtke

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