“If you can climb in Michigan, you can climb anywhere,” said Bill Thompson, head organizer for the annual Michigan Ice Festival. Many who have discovered the wildly unique, icy landscape along the south shore of Lake Superior, share the sentiment.
Sometime in late ’80s, four ice climbers from Kalamazoo, Michigan caught a whiff of ice and headed north to chase the scent. When they arrived in Munising, a small town on the upper peninsula of the state, they realized they had come upon a gold mine of untouched ice. The excursion was deemed a success and over dinner, drinks, and banter the group decided to make this an annual trip, giving birth to the ice festival.
“Ice climbers from the area have preached to the climbing community for decades about the quality and quantity of ice nearby,” said Thompson. As word has spread, this Midwestern jewel has gained popularity each year. It has progressed from four fellows seeking adventure to an expected 700 attendees in 2016.
The festival continues to mature not only in attendance, but is also flourishing with vendors, visiting athletes, and major sponsors such as La Sportiva and their title sponsor, Black Diamond. Having attended ice festivals across the country, Thompson truly enjoys the friendly, grass-roots atmosphere that surrounds this event. “We will have people show up in snowmobile suites and Carhartt jackets excited to check out the sport, test the gear, and to learn from the best in the game. It’s very Midwest,” said Thompson.
Much of the ice can be found in and around Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. Towering sandstone cliffs seep with rainfall and snowmelt waiting for a cold snap to shape the stunning winter falls. A majority of the routes here reach dead vertical, creating a spectacular variety that rivals the country’s best ice pitches. Climbs that dangle above open water and at times ferocious waves will give any climbing party a unique taste of Michigan spice. Adding to the allure, Grand Island sits one mile offshore with up to 200 foot walls covered in quality ice. The only catch: You can only reach it once the lake freezes over, or by boat if you just can’t wait.
The Michigan Ice Festival will continue to open doors for those interested in swinging their first ice axe from February 10–14. Clinics unique to the festival include an expedition planning clinic hosted by Carlos Buhler and a photo workshop led by Mike Wilkinson.
If you’re willing to leave the mountains for the flatlands, Michigan might change your view of what it looks like to live and adventure in the Midwest.