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Eagle Mountain, Minnesota: Taking a 10 year old to the frozen tundra

  • 8 min to read
Whale Lake

Whale Lake, MN

EDITOR'S NOTE:  Ashland's Adam Fox is a mountaineer. Each month he shares a climbing adventure with our readers.

Where’s that line, of child endangerment versus providing your offspring with an unbelievable adventure that many will never get to experience?

If you take your child mountain climbing, and something goes wrong, if the child gets hurt or something even worse, should you be charged with child endangerment?

With every peak, there are records attached to it. Like “first ascents,” the person or team that has done a face or route for the first time, like Conrad Anker and Jimmy Chin’s route up the shark’s fin of Meru, or Alex Honnold’s free solo of El Cap.

There’s also the season to consider, as no creature on this planet has ever made it to the top of K2 in winter, the second highest mountain in the world and hardest to climb.

Kilian Jornet only cares about pure speed, so FKT (fastest known times) are all that matter to some in terms of getting up and down (my cousins and I have the world record FKT for the Southern Six Pack, for example). And others want to be the oldest or youngest to have scaled the range.

During the endless research that happens before every expedition, it’s quite common to read about these records, and it always amazes me the age of youngest climber to have summited. A 13-year-old boy climbed Everest in 2003, and my initial reaction was, what kind of parents would let him do that?

After days of driving from Ohio, finally, my family and I 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.

Duluth at Dawn

Duluth at dawn

We checked in at the Holiday Inn downtown, and 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 trekking into the remote cold death of northern Minnesota in the middle of winter. Dinner and then hugs and kisses from my cellmate and 5-year-old as we departed.

Hugging the shore, we traveled up along highway 61, with some lake effect snow from Earth’s largest freshwater lake. Two hours later, just outside of Lutsen, we took a left on Route 4/153 for 22 miles and it was quite brutal for several reasons. The road was plowed, but “Minnesota plowed,” which meant they do it like once a month. There were massive snow banks on both sides. It took us 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. The red dot taillights were devoured by the dark. A mile later, that hatchback car was pulled over to with its 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. The window was cracked and I slowed down to listen. My muscles tightened to a spastic level when I heard a female shriek and moan from the car half crushed by the timber holding electrical wires.

Instantly, I pulled over. I needed to get out and help, but my son was already asleep in the reclined passenger seat, so I couldn’t just leave him. There were no lights, houses or visible civilization in any direction. 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 a woman from the car that had passed me was jogging 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 conditioned and startled response, having failed to notice me in her panicked state.

“Can I help?” I asked, again more in a panicked yell than a question.

“No, we’re good,” again she insisted.

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 asked, and with no response as she dove into her passenger seat, I hopped back into the car that thankfully was still open.

It took us over an hour to go the remaining 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 we 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, never breaking 25 mph.

We pulled into the empty, pine-encircled trailhead parking lot and I made beds in the back of the Rogue, too lazy to set up the tent. Zero and beyond rated sleeping bags welcomed us. Just when it was lights out, I realized I had to pee. With nightmare memories of Mt. Marcy, I jumped out real quick to pee without my coat, like a moron, and as soon as I got back in, still shivering, I saw headlights. The snow terrorists that lived beyond the 45th parallel had come to kill us.

Upright and motionless I sat, as a light-colored SUV came barreling into the parking area. It was a sheriff’s vehicle. They whipped the truck around, did a donut and blasted out, back into the blizzard abyss. What were they doing this far out and this late? I hadn’t seen any other tire marks since the wreck.

Around 3 a.m., I woke up a little cold. This wasn’t possible. I slept in this bag in minus 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.

A few hours later on Friday morning, we were up before dawn with our headlamps, attempting to get dressed against the space confinements of the vehicle, windows frosted opaque. I started the car again and 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. I robbed him of that pain, I guess.

With just enough light, we filled out our backcountry permit at the wooden kiosk and started on the trail. The first mile was slow, accompanied by the loud cracking steps. Cross-country skiers had packed down the powder so we thankfully didn’t need snowshoes.

My son was ahead and thus set the pace. We took a 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. Six 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 the turnaround deadline detail I perhaps failed to brief him on in all the months leading up to the climb, as he ran twice a week on the treadmill and walked miles along the country roads of southern Ashland County to break in his new ultralight winter hiking boots.

An example of why turnaround times are an absolute requirement: if it took four hours to get to the top, and let’s say, you sprained your ankle, it would take triple the time to get out. We become slower and slower as temps drop. The weather will change and no one wants to be caught in a storm and have to bivy. Pretty soon, people are eating fingers to survive. OK, maybe it’s not quite that Game of Thrones-y, but you get the idea.

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 still operating at a different speed. I had a few too many layers. The foot warmers compensated for me.

Trail Junction

Trail junction past Whale Lake

We only had 1.5 miles to go to the top 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 thereafter. 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 through the spruce woods about another quarter 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/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 quicksand with every step. But we still couldn’t locate the marker. After circling a bit, my son noticed something he thought looked to be protruding a bit more from the ground than the usual drift. He scraped some off the corner thinking he’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 months, 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 boy 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 two hours. It was a 7-mile roundtrip, completed in five hours total. Frozen water bottles proved our plight.

Frozen water bottles

It was fortunate that we made good time because a nasty storm was coming in. As we drove south along Highway 61, glaring out at ice-coated Lake Superior, every 10 minutes the precipitation increased, and we crept into downtown Duluth just as the city went under a severe winter weather advisory, with 6 to 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 frozen anxiety.

Eagle Mnt Summit pl

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