Travel: Michigan Ice Fest

After all the running last year, I’m kinda marathoned out. To be honest, the sight of running shoes is enough to reignite the pre-ulcers from Gu overload, and to aggravate the permanent chafe scars in places innomable (french for “heck, don’t ask”).

So I’ve run out of running… at least for 2016.

Which means: *POOF*, around 20 hours/week of running training suddenly freed up. For me at least, the training is a respite from heavy the keyboard work, a re-centering. A necessary re-alignment. Without the stringent running schedule, the early part of 2016 involved drifting around like a sports Bedouin, aimlessly wandering from discipline to discipline, trying to find my oasis. My personal golden ratio is: for every 8-10 hours of heavy, ‘thinky’ work I need at least 1 hour of running, boxing, climbing, yoga, cycling, snowboarding, whatever. I require that “whatever”. Without it, sleep is like the elusive 7-minute mile, and cue the insomnia-induced blogging, anime marathon sessions, with a steady decline into daytime zombie/night-time web-crawler-cult-scifi-reader ‘what-the-heck-are-you-doing-on-facebook-at-3am’ guy.

Nope… need to train.

So I started messaging friends, asking about fun events.

Me: “Long time, no speak, how’s the climbing going? Anything fun on the calendar?”
Miri: “Hey, what are you up to next weekend? We’re going ice-climbing.”
Me: “Isn’t that dangerous?”
Miri: “No idea, but sounds like fun, right?”
Me: “I’m in! You had me at ‘next weekend’.”

Cue: Michigan Ice Fest!

So I had a bit of a Google-fest at work one day, try wrap my mind around this latest caper.

Little known to anyone but the staunchest ice-climbers, the Southern edge of Lake Superior in Upper Peninsula, Michigan, is a haven for ice climbing. Every year around February, the Michigan Ice Fest is hosted in a small town called Munising, a hairs-breadth from the lake, about a 5 drive hours from Chicago or Detroit.

Ice climbing looks cold. Brutally cold. It also looks very different from normal climbing because the moves are a lot sharper (like kicking into the ice and embedding tools), and I feel it would involve a fair amount of whimpering about trusting feet (at least for me).

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So we arrive in this small town, borne on an Upper Peninsula snowstorm, and hunt to find the meeting location – an American Legion hall – at some ungodly early hour of the morning. You know the cliche Western walk-into-a-bar-and-everyone-stops-even-the-piano-guy-because-you’re-not-supposed-to-be-there feeling? Quietly, while checking that we are at the right place – and I would never admit this to anyone at the time – I felt like that was going to happen. Was sure about it. Totally expected some bearded stranger with an ice-pick to walk up to me while I’m registering and drawl ‘You sure you’re supposed to be here? This is for ice climbers, not joggers with a climbing problem…’.

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And we enter (me skulking at the back, because the bearded guy would be nicer to Miri -> logically she should be the vanguard, right?).

Scene: A climber’s candy story… If that candy store was a base-camp. Literally everyone looked they were loading up to tackle the South Face of K2. An eclectic crowd of Midwestern friendliness clad in colourful neon thermal jackets, everyone dying to talk about the best climbing, crampons, picks, beer, and “…getting out there to go poke some holes in frozen waterfalls”. Not a clear surface for miles, just about everything was littered with picks, crampons, helmets, ropes, and carabiners. Between the throngs of people and gear, Black Diamon/Mountain Hardwear/La Sportiva/North Face gazebos with vendors offering free demo equipment.

It’s overwhelming, completely immersive, and downright the best idea for a weekend during the middle of the Chiberian winter.

*LATER: Ice climbing just won the coveted SemiSorted 2016 – Most Fun you Can Have With Your Pants On (while holding an ice pick) Award.*

*(I’m serious, both about it being fun, and about not trying it with your pants off. No recommendados. I tore my leg a bit while kicking into a wall, and it got kinda drafty…)*

An important note: Before I dive into details, it’s worth mentioning that the event is not designed strictly for experienced climbers and alpinists. Literally anyone can go, and should climb if they want. I’m a sport climber, and mostly a climbing gym-bunny. Compared to the hosts of the event, that’s like standing around with Boston marathoners and mentioning your only run was a Glow-Run 5k. But that seems to be the beauty of the Michigan Ice Fest – people who had not even climbed in a gym were out playing on ice. The idea seems to be to grow the sport, and the awareness of the great climbing on Lake Superior. You don’t need to buy gear ($40 gets you everything you need for the 5 days), you can learn when you get there (there’s a great lesson program for everyone from beginners to advanced climbers), and the famous Midwestern friendliness means that people really go out their way to help you get started.

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Another outstanding feature of Michigan Ice Fest is that the people providing the lessons were not amateurs – they were the cream of the ice-climbing crop. Case in point, we did the ‘Intro to Ice Climbing Teaser’, a half-day group lesson, Kendra Stritch and Kim Hall were our teachers. Both world-class ice climbers, for example Kendra had just come back from the Ice Climbing World Cup in Korea. And they were showing us how to place our feet, the basic stroke of the ice tools. Man, I love learning from the best. Compare that to learning to ski at some of the US resorts, where majority of the lessons are provided by kids that have no passion for the sport, but want to work abroad and teach something. Nothing wrong with that, but here you have someone that lives the sport, and standing next to them, you can feel the passion emanating as they talk about what they do. It’s akin to Chris Sharma giving you tips on bouldering… Inspiration much?

*NOTE: When I originally wrote this I stated that Dawn Glanc taught us. My mistake – we wrote down everyone’s names and then I promptly got them all confused. Kendra Stritch and Kim Hall taught us that day – my bad! Way to go putting your foot in it, Sam :P*

Anyway, hopefully I’ve conveyed how great the event was :). There is also a great movie on it, the scenery of which would defrost even the most skeptical heart:

Okay you sold it to me already… How do I do it?

Here are some details if you plan to attend it in 2017 (I’ll definitely be there, let me if you want to discuss crampons over a libation):

Where

Munising Map

When

  • Looks to be in early February every year – keep up to date on the website

Why

  • How often will you:
    • Have a chance to try ice climbing, especially up 20-30m waterfalls?
    • Have that chance, and can get top-notch gear for $40?
  • How often can you:
    • Get lessons on the sport, and make good friends in the process?
    • Drink a UP beer with said crazies?
  • Not often!

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How

  • Follow the group on Facebook to see when the next event comes around
  • Register at Michigan Ice Fest
    • Make sure you do 2 weeks before the event, because they close online registration early
  • Book accommodation at any of the recommended places on the website
    • We were late and booked at White Fawn Lodge, which was great (tip: get up early and join the snowmobiling guys for breakfast)
  • Pack:
    • Snow pants and gear as though you are going skiing
    • If you’ve never climbed – no worries
    • If you have and want to play – bring rope, harness, and gear to set a top-rope

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Cost Estimation

  • Event entry: $40
  • Demo gear: $40
  • Lessons:
    • Half day climbing lesson: $75
    • Full day climbing lesson: $130
    • There are also more advanced courses on the website, in case you want to lead on ice etc.
  • Accommodation/night: $50 – $100

Selling Points

  • Definitely a bucket-list item!
  • Official Opportunity vs. Risk analysis:
    • Opportunity: A chance to break loose and climb huge frozen waterfalls!
    • Risk: Well… ummm… it’s relatively safe… so the only risk I can think of is possibly running out of Fireball during the nightly movie showing?

What to Expect

  • Go with an open mind, risk some!
  • Climb – even if you have never climbed normal rock – beginners are welcomed
  • Talk to people –  the stereotypical laid-back climber personality is totally true, combine that with the renowned Mid-West friendliness and you have an event full of people who just want to hang out, climb, and talk about climbing 🙂

– Sam

Ice geese in their natural environment - not often seen so tranquil

Ice geese in their natural environment – not often seen so tranquil

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3 thoughts on “Travel: Michigan Ice Fest

    • Hi Maddog,
      Thanks for the heads-up! That’s a good point, do you have some details (website, etc.) about how to contact you for guiding? I’ll add the details to the article.

      Thanks,
      Sam

      Like

      • Hi Sam, Thanks for returning my message. My Website is at Superior Ice Climbing Adventure .com It has all the details needed to explore or book a climb . Thanks again Maddog

        Like

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