Michigan Ice Fest: Up, Up and Away!

This is a guest post from our friend Alice Rossignol. She’s a big fan of the great outdoors and her love for the Upper Peninsula is blossoming. You can follow her on Twitter. Photos courtesy of Courtney Shuert.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve always preferred one direction: up.

And I take it as it comes: straight up, upstream (on Cripple Creek, preferably), Up (the movie), what’s up, shut up, up north, or since I moved to Michigan – UP, the Upper Peninsula.

As an Oregon native I’ve been rock climbing mediocrely since I was a kid, but even with 10,000-foot peaks, Smith Rock and a bunch of other things that you don’t spot in Michigan, no one offered to show me good, accessible ice. Ice that you can climb, that is.

Two girlfriends and I took advantage of what the UP has to offer and headed up (…as in north… ok, I’m done) to one of the largest ice climbing festivals in the country, the Michigan Ice Fest.

According to the fest’s Facebook page, climbers have rallied in Munising for the event since 1983, climbing frozen walls along the shores of Lake Superior in Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. Down Wind Sports organizes the event.

On Saturday, we tackled the 6ish hour drive from Lansing and arrived in rather good form, with zero ice climbing experience, multiple clothing layers made of various wicking materials, and ready to take on the challenge.

Climbers had been donning crampons and gripping ice axes since Thursday. Eager to catch up, we hit up (…) Sydney’s Restaurant – a local eatery that sacrificed itself to be the fest’s home base – for a climbing social. That means, free beer and conversation, and more polar-fleece laden people than we expected – a sizeable chunk of this year’s more than 300 participants.

After some drinking and gear browsing, two guest climbers: Vince Anderson and Barry Blanchard took to the stage to discuss their climbing experiences, easily impressing the masses with their awesomeness.

Before we hit the ice on Sunday morning, we checked out our gear (harness, boots, crampons, helmet), and Vince personally showed me how to size crampons, put them on, take them off and store them. Needless to say this was…also awesome.

The weather had been very mild throughout the fest (in the 30s during the day) and Sunday was no different. The organizers mentioned that warmer temperatures stretched the ice out during the day making climbs longer, while freezing temperatures at night kept the climbs from melting completely. Vince also noted that even though the conditions this year weren’t ideal, these local climbs were great and prepared you for real-life conditions on more difficult ascents.

The accessibility of the area’s climbs is incredible. After a 10-minute van ride to the lake, and a 5-minute hike up a slippery slope, we found two routes with ropes in place for belayed climbing.

Locations of Munising’s local climbs

View Munising Ice Climbs in a larger map

Vince and a local guide, Linda, were both amazing teachers and ready to share expertise, experience and encouragement. So, in no time at all, most of us looked like this:

Upper Peninsula Ice Climbing
Ice climbing in Munising

And up I go!

Michigan Ice Fest 2012

Fellow UP adventurer Courtney looks for a solid spot to drive that ax.

This made us very happy:

Alice and Layla

Alice (author) and scientist friend Layla.

Honestly, ice climbing was a bucket-lister for me – something I figured I’d try once, fearfully wet myself in the process, and move on to…dog sledding. Turns out, I’m a big fan of the cryosphere.

Some find ice climbing a thrill because of the adrenaline that inevitably shoots through your system when you realize you’re 20 feet up on a sheet of frozen water – but I found comfort in its methodical movements, required concentration, and the freakishly beautiful Lake Superior venue.

My grandfather, who instilled a love of learning and the outdoors in my family, had passed peacefully just days before the experience. It was a painful loss, but I loved him and he knew that, and he left me with some ridiculously fantastic memories.

Call it what you want – a tribute, in honor of, a journey of self-discovery, a spiritual quest – but there was no better time to do something that made me feel so alive.

And no better place to do it.