Climbing High at Ice Fest

Ice+climber+Emily+Gantner+picks+her+way+to+the+top+while+paying+atteniton+to+technique+and+anticipating+her+next+move.+Photo+by%3A+Devon+Hains

Ice climber Emily Gantner picks her way to the top while paying atteniton to technique and anticipating her next move. Photo by: Devon Hains

Noah Hausmann

Geared-up with ice axes, helmets and boot spikes, hundreds gather this week to climb the ice curtains of Munising’s Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore for Michigan Ice Fest, one of the oldest and largest ice climbing festivals in the Midwest.

The annual Michigan Ice Fest has its origins some 30 years ago with a small group of enthusiasts appreciating what the Upper Peninsula winter has to offer. Now it draws climbers and spectators from around the world and is organized by Down Wind Sports and sponsored by Black Diamond outdoor equipment maker. This year’s festival began Wednesday and will continue through Sunday.

“It grew from 10 good friends to 30 to 40 to 400 to 500, so now we’re looking at 1,500 people coming to the event itself,” said Emily Gantner, an intern and organizer for the festival, and an NMU senior outdoor recreation and leadership management major. She’s been assisting Bill Thompson, co-owner of Down Wind and U.P. outdoorsman, to prepare the event since September.

Each year, the natural features of Pictured Rocks create pristine ice climbing conditions, Gantner said.

“There’s a lot of waterfalls that turn into waterfall ice, and the sandstone cliffs actually secrete moisture from the holes that create what look like [frozen] curtains,” Gantner explained. “It’s one of the most premiere places to climb in the Midwest because those sandstone cliffs create great vertical ice.”

Some challenging ice curtains rise to 200 feet or more, but there are also climbs for all ability levels and for all ages from “9 to 80,” located as easy as a 5-minute walk away to as distant as an 8-hour ski trip, Gantner said. Despite their excellence, these ice climbs are still relatively little-known in the global community, Gantner added, and to have the ice climbs conveniently located in Munising is an added bonus.

“People want to go to Alaska, to Patagonia, to Antarctica, to these remote places—but we have that right here, and people just don’t see it,” she noted.

Admission cost was $40 for preregistration, but tickets are still available at the headquarters’ door for $60 at Munising’s Central Community Center, inside the old Mather Elementary School. This registration includes presentations in the evenings by ice climbing pro athletes, some skill classes and complimentary beer provided each night by the Ore Dock Brewing Co. at after parties hosted in Munising locales, Gantner said.
Climbing is free, but if participants need ice climbing gear, all the tools one would need are available for rent for an additional $60—and considering the high price of purchasing the gear for oneself, that’s a good deal, Gantner said. But the festival also offers discounts of 20 percent or higher on buying gear. Furthermore, for another fee, there are also beginner and advanced guide-instructed field classes to learn ice climbing.
As the complimentary beer implies, this festival is also a social event, Gantner said.

“Everyone is coming together to celebrate their love for ice climbing and also their love for the community that it brings,” Gantner added.

The sport presents its own unique challenges and joys, Gantner said, who will work as a backcountry guide in Alaska this summer, leading mountaineering, whitewater rafting and ice climbing trips.

“Ice climbing is a lot more technical and gear intensive than rock climbing. You have ice axes in your hands, crampons on your feet [and] ice screws to screw into the ice to support your body weight. But it is one of the most peaceful things I’ve ever done in my entire life. You get up there and it’s euphoric,” she explained. “There’s always a moment when I think ‘Why am I doing this? This is horrifying. I’m literally putting myself on a big icicle.’ But that feeling when you actually finish the climb and do it well, that’s the happiest moment.”

For Joseph Thill, an NMU senior criminal justice major, this is his third year participating in Ice Fest, and he is an ice climbing guide at the festival and also for the guide company Superior Ice Climbing Adventures at Pictured Rocks.

“I go ice climbing every weekend that I can,” Thill said. “Munising is the hotbed, the Midwest ice climbing capital. It can hold a candle to some of the [climbs] out West.”