Courtesy Michigan Ice Fest
Ice above open water is a special part of Big Lake climbing.
Inches from my face, the mineral-stained ice smells clean, like wind. I hold an ice axe in each hand, and my feet are encased in thick boots fitted with spiked crampons.
Harness tight around my waist and secured to the top rope. (Check.)
Helmet firmly in place to protect me from falling ice. (Check.)
My winter gear staves off the sub-zero temps, but I wouldn’t be cold anyway. I’m too excited, nervous … and a little terrified. I’m about make my first climb 20 feet up a waterfall in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.
Just before I swing my ice axe, I hear water trickling down the cliffside. The waterfall is not completely frozen. Is that okay? What if my axe hacks through to water? Will I fall?
I remind myself that my safety rope will hold and it’s managed by a belayer on the ground, the legendary world-class climber Sue Nott. Sue is teaching this Chicks with Picks class for beginners as part of an impressive lineup of clinics and presentations at the annual Michigan Ice Fest in Munising. She and co-instructor Zoe Hart have hiked us a couple miles, backpacks full of gear, across a farm and through the woods this early February day to a waterfall just outside Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore.
I had imagined the waterfall as a flat sheer wall to scale using ice axes and the crampons, but it offers small steps and ledges, natural footholds and shelves. I step up, then swing my right axe. Thunk! I swing the left axe and kick in with my left toe. I’m hanging in a squatting position, feet in ice and both axes anchored above my head.
“Stand up,” Sue directs.
Against all logic, I put my weight on my legs and stand. Two feet off the ground, I’m officially ice climbing.
Courtesy Michigan Ice Fest
The author tackles a climb at the Michigan Ice Fest in Munising.
This was in 2006, and I returned to the Michigan Ice Fest this past February to catch up on what’s happening with a quickly snowballing Big Lake adventure sport.
The abundance of climbable ice by the Big Lake had been an accidental secret of climbers since the early 1980s. But that’s changing, thanks to increased interest in the sport and to the growth of events like Michigan Ice Fest and Nipigon Ice Fest in Ontario.
Once highly specialized and for die-hard climbers, the sport has grown into something almost anyone can try, and the Lake offers experiences unlike anywhere else, both for its quality ice and variety of climbs within remote and spectacular wilderness.
Shaun Parent of Batchawana Bay, Ontario, can be called a pioneer of Big Lake ice and rock climbing. An experienced rock climber, he sampled a 1978 ice-climbing course in Boulder, Colorado, and two winters later, started climbing in Thunder Bay.
“I didn’t realize when we started in the 1980s that we had the climbs in Orient Bay and Agawa Canyon. Now Orient Bay is a destination; people come from all over to climb. We have climbs near Batchawana Bay 250 meters high (820 feet) – just as high as anything out west in British Columbia or Colorado,” says Shaun, director and an instructor for North of Superior Climbing Company, a rock- and ice-climbing school based near his home.
He also owns Superior Exploration, Adventure and Climbing Company, tapping his background in geology and geophysics as a consultant to mining companies. His worldwide mountaineering experience includes North America, Nepal, India and Oman. In summer, he guides treks, climbs and paragliding in Peru.
“I’ve probably peaked on difficulty,” he says. “I do it because it’s fun to develop new climbs and share them with the climbing community.”
Around Lake Superior, Shaun has discovered and developed hundreds of ice climbs, including the highest ice climb in the Midwest: StratosFear on Batchawana Bay stands 853 feet tall. Shaun has written many climbing guidebooks about Ontario and founded the Orient Bay Ice Fest (now known as Nipigon Ice Fest).
“It’s nice to look back and see the early efforts we put in have been carried on by second and third generation climbers,” he says. “The guys I climbed with in Thunder Bay in the ’80s, their children are in their 30s, and they have kids who are 10, 12 years old and just starting to climb.”
Shaun also sees more people coming here to give ice climbing a try. “This is not a tourist activity, but it’s becoming one.”
The annual Michigan Ice Fest also has seen an explosion of attendees. The event started in the 1990s with 10 guys at Sydney’s restaurant in Munising who came together once a year to climb and share stories. The event is still about climbing and stories, but has grown into a five-day extravaganza uniting professional climbers with novices who have never wielded an ice axe. Attendees come for the clinics taught by world-class climbers, the experts’ presentations and – as organizer Bill Thompson often reminds everyone – the beer.
Co-owner of Down Wind Sports in Marquette and Houghton, Bill has been the major Michigan Ice Fest organizer for more than 20 years. He cites a few reasons for its growth. “It’s not an activity where you can go into a shop like ours, buy the stuff and go climb. Gear is expensive, and you can get hurt trying to teach yourself.”
Minimal ice climbing gear means a harness, carabiners, helmet, ropes, ice axes, boots, crampons and ice screws.
“Ice Fest gives folks a way to show up with nothing and with a relatively inexpensive cost, get an ice climbing experience,” Bill says.
The world-class climbers who come to instruct clinics and give presentations are another lure. Participants can learn from the best, then share a drink and talk with them. Professional climbers, meanwhile, enjoy teaching first-timers.
My own instructor, Sue Nott, was an elite international climber. Sadly, she and climbing partner Karen McNeill disappeared on Mount Foraker in Alaska just four months after she taught our 2006 class. They were never found.
Her inspiration lives on at the ice fest. Olivia Bartelli, now at Northern Michigan University in Marquette, received the Sue Nott Scholarship as a high school student in Charlevoix. She took classes with professional climbers. “I took an all-women class, and I really liked that. Normally when you’re climbing, it’s all guys.”
Climbable ice is a major reason Olivia chose NMU. “I liked it so much, and this is the area for it.”
“Most people think it’s an extreme sport,” says Bill. “It really isn’t. That’s another reason why Ice Fest is so important: You get instruction. It gives people confidence to get up the ice. I’m 54, and I’m still doing it.”
Courtesy Michigan Ice Fest
Lake Superior vistas – a reward of Munising ice climbs.
The local geography offers climb options. At Pictured Rocks and Grand Island, people can climb right over the Lake, or they can head to the backcountry for a less exposed climb.
Expert athletes, who make higher climbs elsewhere, enjoy Munising for a unique experience, Bill says. “They can’t believe it. It’s like climbing in an exotic location. You have a frozen Lake, the storms come across, you’re out on the lakeshore, winds are blowing, white-out conditions – they can’t believe that’s in Michigan. And it doesn’t get more exciting than having 20-foot waves crash at your feet as you’re climbing at the sandstone cliffs. It adds drama and excitement to an already exciting activity.”
Weather is key: Very low winter temperatures make the ice quality and conditions especially challenging, forming hard-to-negotiate columns. Minnesota-based James Loveridge, who has climbed extensively around Munising, says colder temperatures can make the ice brittle, more likely to shatter and more difficult to climb. The high mineral content of the local ice can also make it more dense.
Wind also affects the ice, James says. Wind “forms crazy umbrellas and bat wings and all manner of wacky shapes as it whips the freezing water up the ice, against gravity, so you get these otherworldly formations. Plus on the lakeshore, the exposure is exaggerated, as there is nothing behind you. So a 100-foot climb feels much bigger than it actually is.”
James finds the area’s remoteness and scenery most compelling. “It truly is not like any other climbing destination in the world. The mix of beginner, intermediate and advanced terrain is great for all levels, and there is also a mix of commitment levels.” Climbers can trek 100 feet from their their car or take a long hike, snowshoe, ski or snowmobile to reach a remote climb.
Courtesy Shaun Parent
Can you spot Big Lake climbing expert Shaun Parent?
Lake Superior also has urban ice climbs. Quarry Park in Duluth centers around Casket Quarry, good for mixed rock and ice climbing. Long an unofficial wall to ice climb in town, the quarry is now a city park and hosted its first Duluth Ice & Mixed Fest in February 2016, with clinics for beginners, intermediates and youth.
“That’s an amazing spot,” says Christian Fraser, Vertical Endeavors Guided Adventures coordinator and an advanced climb team coach at its climbing gym in Duluth. “It’s got something for everyone in there.”
Christian started ice climbing at Casket Quarry as a student at the University of Minnesota Duluth. From there, he sought routes farther north on the shore. He tells of skiing 2 miles – “just enough to get warmed up” – along the Devil Track River to a climb called Nightfall. “There’s a narrow river, a canyon, then lo and behold, a 150-foot climb rears its head around the corner.”
He cites climbs at Manitou River, Silver Creek Cliff and into Ontario to Nipigon, where the coldest day he climbed was minus 15° F. “It’s spectacular. The views you get there, overlooking the river, with surrounding cliffs. Some of the best climbing in the country.”
Like a lot of climbers, Christian climbs rock and ice. For him, ice is challenging because it’s always in flux. “Some days it will be really cold, dense, some days it’s like Laffy Taffy. Ice is always breaking off and reforming – so you can climb one day and come back the next, and it’s a different experience. … One year, it’ll come in and then it won’t reform for 10 years. It’s pretty cool to get the opportunity to climb something that won’t be in again for 10 years.”
One thing is certain for me; after my first experience, the call of the ice remains. I’ll never be an elite climber, but the half-dozen times that I’ve climbed since that first jump of faith have all been challenging and rewarding. There’s plenty of ice to climb around the Big Lake … what are you waiting for?
Duluth-based writer Felicia Schneiderhan has hung up her crampons for a while to work on a novel that features ice climbers.