Michigan has no real mountains. Climbers typically call it “fly-over” country. But in winter, it’s legitimately amazing. Michigan has steep walls of ice, unclimbed lines, overhanging curtains, and aesthetic pillars. And the oft-forgotten Great Lakes state also hosts one of winter’s best climber parties and chances to take classes and demo free gear surrounded by these stunning lines. We caught up with Bill Thompson, owner of Down Wind Sports, to hear about the history behind the Michigan Ice Fest.
I have lived in Michigan all my life. I moved to the Upper Peninsula 32 years ago and learned to Ice climb after two professors took me climbing. I absolutely fell in love with it.
I found out there was an ice climbing festival in Munising Michigan 44 miles east of where I was living. My main climbing partner and I drove over to Munising and found 10 guys sitting in the middle of a restaurant watching a slide show on a wall. In 1990 a local climber had started the Great Lakes Ice Climbing Newsletter and thus the Michigan Ice Fest had been born.
What makes Munising “the best ice climbing in the country that no one has ever heard of“, is the fact that we have a combination of topography, and conditions. The Upper Peninsula is located on the south shore of Lake Superior, which is essentially an inland sea. The area is predominantly sandstone which rises magnificently 200 feet above the lake. The sandstone is very porous, so that water virtually seeps out of the middle of the rock. The lake provides moisture for lake effect snow, and dumps 150-200 inches of snow per year in the area. With increased water in the ground table, and bitterly cold winter temperatures, you have the perfect machine for making ice. With white out blizzards conditions, wind screaming across the lake, waves thundering against the cliffs, and frequent sub zero temperatures, the climbing can be quite exciting.
The Michigan Ice Fest is a non-profit corporation that works in close cooperation with Down Wind Sports, a local outdoor specialty retailer. Through the shop, we are able to access professional athletes to come and instruct at the festival. Mark Wilford was our first professional athlete to instruct and present and we drew a record number of participants- 40! This year marks a record number of athletes for us as we have 16 athletes committed, include 4 CAMP/Cassin athletes. We anticipate 700 participants at the 2016 festival.
What makes the Michigan Ice Fest different from other festivals is that 60% of our participants are female, a majority of our participants have never ice climbed before, and we offer some pretty unique classes. Combine first time climbers, professional athletes as their instructors, some of the best ice in the country, and you get a super high stoke level.