Chasing Waterfalls: Michigan Ice Fest draws climbers and legends from across the nation and around the world
Wednesday, April 26, 2023
The climber swings her axe into the frozen waterfall, steps up with both feet, swings higher, and steps up again. The distinctive, oddly gratifying sound of ice crunching and cracking as she swings her axe into the ice wall is the loudest noise she hears. Each time her axes are solid in the ice, she moves both feet up, kicking the sharp metal crampon spikes on the front of her boots to achieve solid placement. Finding good footholds is crucial. Her movement is followed closely by her instructor and cheered on by a crowd of enthusiastic onlookers. She continues in this fashion until she reaches the top, where she’s rewarded with panoramic views of Lake Superior.
Michigan’s Upper Peninsula is an adventure lovers’ paradise that attracts outdoor enthusiasts year-round. But in mid-February, almost 1,400 people from around the world ventured to Munising in the U.P. during the chilliest time of the year to take part in the 31st annual Michigan Ice Fest. This year, climbers from seven countries and every state in the U.S. participated, according to organizer and owner of Down Wind Sports Bill Thompson.
The festival had a modest beginning in 1990, when four guys from Kalamazoo discovered the area through snowmobilers. They saw pictures of the ice and planned a trip. After the first year, they advertised to anyone who wanted to go ice climbing, and a college buddy and Thompson showed up. More than 30 years later, the ice climbing festival has evolved into the marquee event it is today.
Thompson credits the growth of the festival to renowned athlete Conrad Anker, who has climbed in Antarctica and summited Mt. Everest. Anker came to the festival in 2013 to film an IMAX movie for the National Park Service. Thompson says the weather was brutally cold and beautiful, and Anker fell in love with the area. Akers told his two million Instagram followers that the area offered the best ice climbing in North America that nobody has ever heard of.
“I certainly believe that everyone should be visiting this place from all over the world to climb,” Anker said.
“One of the unique things about ice climbing in Michigan is we have something nobody else has, and that’s Lake Superior,” Thompson said. “The numerous waterfalls that make up Pictured Rocks really make the area a unique place for ice climbing. Climbing over open water is something you can’t do anywhere else in the world. We have this sandstone formation that makes up Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, and it’s very porous. We get a lot of rain in the fall, a lot of snow during cold temperatures, and this ice forms everywhere. We have miles and miles of ice. Lots of ice, Lake Superior – it’s the place to climb.”
The festival this year offered more than 150 climbs. World-renowned climbers and guides taught courses on topics ranging from Belay Techniques to Climbers’ Yoga, to Intro to Ice Climbing for People of Color.
The festival provides an opportunity to try a sport that traditionally has a high barrier to entry by providing the gear and high-quality instruction from professional athletes. All the equipment needed for ice climbing is made available at the event, including helmets, clothing, specialized boots, crampons and ice axes.
Thompson insists that anyone, even not-very-adventurous souls, can ice climb.
“The Michigan Ice Festival is an opportunity for people to try the sport of ice climbing,” Thompson said. “There’s a lot of ice festivals all over the country, but ours is unique in that we have a lot of first-time climbers. You have someone who’s never ice climbed before – we give them everything they need and set them up with the Michael Jordans, the Steph Currys, the LeBron Jameses of our industry. They go out and climb with them and it’s a winning formula for getting people excited about the sport and giving them that ice climbing experience.
“We pride ourselves in being welcoming to beginners,” Thompson said. “We offer courses for women only, taught by female athletes. We provide the gear, tools, techniques and quality instruction. Anyone who’s reading this should know they can do it.”
Our end goal is to give people the experience. A lot of people say, ‘I could never do that, I’m afraid of heights, I’m not strong enough.’ The instruction gives people the tools and techniques to overcome that fear so they can concentrate on what they’re doing to have success.
Diversity is the Key to the Future of the Sport
According to Thompson, the sport is working hard to expand beyond its insular community. “We’ve made strides to include everyone,” he said. “We feel strongly that we need to make our activity viable, we need to be more inclusive. It makes for a better, stronger community.”
This year for the first time, the festival hosted the Full Circle Everest team, the first group of all-Black climbers to summit Mt. Everest. Members of the team like “Dom” Williams participated, along with other North Face-sponsored athletes including Conrad Anker and Sam Elias. They were on hand for the entire event, and led groups of new climbers attending as part of the Detroit Outdoors Collaborative, an outdoor adventure and environmental education program supported by the Sierra Club, the Detroit Parks and Recreation Department, and the YMCA of Metro Detroit. that provides urban youth with positive outdoor experiences.
“A second year of Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC)-centered introduction to ice climbing courses allowed Detroit Outdoors staff and participants to engage with Michigan Ice Fest in a meaningful way,” said Garrett Dempsey, lead Sierra Club staff with Detroit Outdoors. “Seeing how our instructors, who were both climbers of color and white climbers, worked together as peers and friends reminded us that we had a place in that community.
“Support from the Michigan Office of the Outdoor Recreation Industry was crucial in our ability to offer an accessible experience for first-time climbers of color from Detroit,” Dempsey said. “Repeated, positive experiences at Michigan Ice Fest helps outdoor enthusiasts of color from Detroit meaningfully engage in the sport of ice climbing and to become partners in growing the community.”
Senior Strategic Advisor and Executive Director of the Michigan Outdoor Recreation Industry Office (ORIO) at MEDC Brad Garmon agrees, saying that supporting the diversity efforts of the event and helping develop partnerships with other likeminded businesses and organizations helps the industry become better and more relevant.
This year the Outdoor Industry Office served as Michigan Ice Fest’s diversity program sponsor, partnering with Detroit Outdoors and Memphis Rox, a nonprofit climbing gym and community center in Memphis, TN, to help with the mission of using the transformative powers of Mother Nature to leave a lasting impact on the lives of under-resourced populations.
“Through our partnership, these amazing climbers and aspiring athletes were able to learn from and socialize with legends of climbing and mountaineering who travel to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula for this unique experience,” Garmon said. “One of the hallmarks of the event that Bill and his team developed is that newcomers are getting not only knowledge and an amazing ice climbing experience, but also connecting and developing friendships and a sense of community.”
Garmon said that the group’s Detroit Outdoors Après Party was once again well-attended and, in addition to support from businesses and partnering organizations like the Outdoor Industry Office, the Michigan Ice Fest participants themselves donated $950 to help support this program.
“We don’t plan to stop moving forward,” Garmon said. “The program focused on creating opportunities that would be otherwise unavailable to many people due to costs, transportation issues, or just a lack of exposure to mentor and opportunities. I love helping organizations and businesses foster a love of climbing in a safe and encouraging environment.
“I’m really honored for this Office be the Diversity Sponsor for the Michigan Ice Fest for the first time this year, supporting the Full Circle team and climbers from Detroit and Memphis to experience the world-class climbing in the Upper Peninsula,” Garmon said. “Bill, Matt and the whole Down Wind Sports team do a great job of focusing the attention of the entire outdoor industry on our unique offerings here Michigan, putting Michigan on the radar of the biggest brands and sponsored athletes and us market and showcase the state’s full range of assets to an outdoor economy that’s worth $454 billion nationally every year. That in turn helps us bring in other industry partners, such as Polaris, who joined as the event’s Backcountry Vehicle sponsor this year.”
Munising is a Four-Season, Multi-Sport Destination
In addition to ice climbing, Munising offers a vast array of activities, especially for the outdoor enthusiast. The Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore is a four-season recreation destination, and the area offers ice climbing, cross-country skiing and snowshoeing, snowmobiling, ice fishing, hiking, canoeing, kayaking, sightseeing, birding, backcountry and vehicle-based camping. Shipwreck tours are another popular activity. The Grand Island National Recreational Area is located just a half-mile from Munising and situated in the waters of Lake Superior. Designated a National Recreation Area in 1990, Grand Island is a 13,500-acre area showcasing a rich natural and cultural history.
“We have people coming up strictly to go ice climbing, but then they see the area offers dogsledding, great cross-country skiing, so they can make this multi-sport, multi-adventure trip,” Thompson said. “It’s really good for the community because they’re buying gas, they’re staying at hotels, they’re buying food. If we can make them into ice climbers, they’ll come back two or three times a year and that brings a lot of money into the community.
“There’s such a great vibe to it,” Thompson said. “We start to see people get that addiction to climbing, and we see them coming back year after year. They have instructors who climb all over the world and they get inspired.”
To learn more about the Michigan Ice Fest, visit michiganicefest.com.
To learn more about Munising, visit michigan.org/city/munising.
To contact a business development specialist, click here or call 1.888.522.0103.
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