Michigan Ice Fest offers adventure, expertise in climbing


Fischer Genau/NW

ICE FEST — NMU senior Vaughn Rodriguez climbing a route at last year’s festival. The Michigan Ice Fest offers a wide variety of classes for climbers of any skill level. The festival returns Feb. 8-12, in Munising, MI.

Fischer Genau

Michigan Ice Fest is back. Over a thousand people will gather in Munising, MI, from Feb. 8-12 to climb ice, take courses with expert guides, listen to guest speakers and hang out at festival events and afterparties. 

The event will explore the Pictured Rocks area, an ice climbing mecca that offers people the opportunity to climb frozen waterfalls and ascend cliffs hanging over Lake Superior.

“There’s nothing like climbing at Pictured Rocks,” said Tyler Davis, a recent Northern Michigan University graduate who will be a guide at the festival. 

There are over 150 climbs along the more than 20-mile-long shoreline, with some rising 200 feet up from Lake Superior. Anyone interested can still attend and sign up for classes, and in-person registration costs $85. The festival has something for everyone, regardless of skill and experience. 

“It’s a place for anybody who wants to learn,” Davis said. “You’re never going to have more accessibility to so much knowledge and so much local talent.”

Classes offered include Intro to Ice, Night Climbing Adventure, Top Rope Anchors and many more.

The festival began in 1990 with four climbers who drove from Kalamazoo, MI, in search of ice. This year, world renowned climbers and guides from all over the country will be in Munising to explore and instruct, including Conrad Anker, who has climbed in Antarctica, summited Everest and appeared in the acclaimed 2015 documentary Meru

Although Davis is excited to meet these climbing celebrities, he is more interested in learning from them to become a better climber and guide. He has more experience guiding rock climbing, but likes how more of his beginner clients have good days on ice.

“I just love the success every person has with ice climbing,” Davis said.

Mary Jane Bauer, a freshman at NMU, is one of those success stories. She will be volunteering at the event all week, belaying climbers at the Demo Wall and working in the gear room, and she only started ice climbing in January. For her second time out, she joined a party that climbed Bridal Veil Falls, a 130 foot pillar of ice that hangs over Lake Superior in Pictured Rocks and is one of several iconic lakeside climbs.

Bauer described what it felt like rappelling down the cliffside while the wind blew fiercely and the floating ice beneath her was rocked by waves.

“It was really surreal because I’d never seen or done anything like that before,” Bauer said. “It kind of just clicked and I was like whoa, ‘this is why people like ice climbing.’”

Davis’ ascent of Bridal Veil Falls last year was a highlight of his first Michigan Ice Fest. He wishes he would have gone when he was a freshman but chose not to because of the cost.

Bauer was also unwilling to spend money on registration and courses, but by volunteering for all five days will earn free housing, free food and access to the event.

Despite the price, Davis said that Michigan Ice Fest classes and expeditions are very affordable compared to other guiding services and that Bill Thompson, the owner of Down Wind Sports and curator of Michigan Ice Fest, does everything he can to make it accessible.

“Everything will be more than worth it: the instruction day, the experience, the time with whoever you’re climbing with,” Davis said.

Bauer is hoping that the experience will help her to grow as a climber and become more rooted in the climbing community. 

“I want to be someone that other people can look up to in the future just like the people I’m looking to now,” Bauer said.

Having gone from an NMU freshman who wanted to climb ice to a graduate who is guiding expeditions, Davis reflected on the opportunities he has had. 

“If I hadn’t gone to Northern I don’t think I would have been pursuing a guiding career after college,” Davis said. “But since I had such incredible access to such good climbing year-round, ice and rock, it made me stoked to consider it and right now it’s my main career path that I’m pursuing.”

The full list of events for Michigan Ice Fest 2023 can be found on their website.