First in a series of articles on some of the best winter activities Michigan has to offer.
When a person thinks of ice climbing, Michigan might not be the first place that comes to mind. But in truth, thanks to its unique terrain, Michigan’s Upper Peninsula offers some of the best opportunities to climb ice anywhere in the country. With lake-effect snow, porous sandstone cliffs and frozen waterfalls, the U.P. typically offers climbers a wide range of ice structures. Each year both novice and experienced climbers travel to the northern country to take part in this fast-growing popular sport. Similar to rock climbing, climbers will scale frozen ice flows or columns, with the aid of specially designed equipment.
When Lisa Nowak, a Michigan native and outdoor adventure traveler, was asked who might like the sport, she answered: “If you seek adventure and like winter, you will love ice climbing.” Asked where to climb in Michigan, she replied: “The Upper Peninsula has fantastic ice. Some climbs are located a couple hundred feet from where you parked the car. Others are nestled miles into the backcountry. Personally, I love climbing in the Munising area. The waterfalls tourists hike to in the spring become our playground in the winter.”
There are a several good locations throughout the U.P. for ice climbing, but best-known would be Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore above Lake Superior or Grand Island in Munising Bay. This island becomes accessible by foot or snowmobile once the bay freezes over. Numerous ice formations that form on the sandstone cliffs shores of the island make it an ice climber's paradise.
According to Bill Thompson, owner of Down Wind Sports: “The best ice climbing in the state is at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore in Munising, Michigan. It truly is world class.”
Although the ice terrain may vary, the basic equipment necessary to ice climb is pretty straightforward. An ice tool – more specifically an ice axe – is used to swing and lodge into the ice for gripping while the climber pushes upward with their legs. One for each hand is required. Crampon’s - rigid plates with angled spikes that attach to climbers footwear with bindings – are needed to dig into the ice and allow for a secure foothold. A reliable rope harness system and additionally ice screws may be needed unless already in place. A helmet is necessary to protect the climber from falling or dislodged ice chunks.
When asked what equipment is needed to start ice climbing, Bill Thompson offers: “For starters, you need proper winter attire. The technical gear can all be rented, but if you are cold and wet, you will be miserable. This means NO COTTON. Bulky gloves are not ideal for holding onto the axes so bring a second pair and swap back and forth. If the temperature is above freezing, a rain jacket is ideal. For cold weather, a down jacket is indispensable when you are waiting for your turn to climb.”
What advice do you have for someone who may be interested in trying ice climbing for the first time? “Attend the Michigan Ice Festival (Feb 1-3 2013) in Munising. This three day festival is beginner friendly with tons of demo gear available to rent. They have beginner climbs safely rigged with the necessary ropes and staffed with belayers so you can walk up and climb. World class ice climbers teach dozens of clinics for those looking to develop technique.”
With guidance and safety precautions, ice climbing can be an enjoyable winter activity for many. Bill Thompson says: “If you have the endurance to jog a ½ mile and do 20 pushups, you are probably physically fit enough to try ice climbing. Ice climbs vary in difficulty; most beginners will start on a climb with a low incline until they are prepared for the challenge of vertical ice. Picture yourself swinging the axes into the ice and using the handles to hold onto for balance. They are not pull-up bars. You use your feet to kick little steps into the ice and inch your way up like climbing a ladder.”
Hands on guidance can be found at Peabody Ice Climbing Club in Fenton, MI where they offer rental and ice climbing instruction.
For experienced rock climbers looking to get into ice climbing, Down Wind Sports is the go-to gear store in the U.P. They rent axes, boots, crampons and they sell an ice guide book - An Ice Climbers Guide to Munising Michigan - an invaluable source for up-to-date information, descriptions and locating the climbs.