How To Ice Climb a Frozen Waterfall in Michigan

In advance of the Michigan Ice Fest in Munising this January 30th – February 1st,  festival organizer and ice climbing enthusiast Bill Thompson lets us in on some of his tips for ice climbing a frozen waterfall in Pure Michigan. 

In casual conversation when it comes up that I enjoy the sport of ice climbing, the usual response is, “there’s ice to climb in Michigan?” followed closely by “you guys must be crazy”.  The fact of the matter is that Michigan has some of the highest concentration of ice climbs in the country, and no we are not crazy!

Ice Climbing in Michigan has changed a great deal over the years.  Back in the “olden days”, only a handful of climbers danced up routes that seldom saw two ascents in a single year.  Now with the popularity of ice climbing it is common to see climbers “up here” every weekend.

Nestled on the shores of Lake Superior, Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore offers some of the country’s most outstanding ice climbing.  The area is predominately sandstone which rises magnificently up to 200 feet above the shores of Lake Superior which has been shaped over the decades by wind, ice and pounding waves. These cliffs, colored in shades of brown, tan, and green by the iron, manganese, limenite and copper in the water, give the area its name sake.   During the cold winter months, these sandstone cliffs seep water that forms spectacular ice curtains and pillars which ice climbers are drawn to.  Add dozens of true water falls to the mix and suitable climbing conditions December through April and Munising becomes an ice climber’s paradise!

For me the attraction of ice climbing is part location and part sounds.  Image being on the shores of one of the largest bodies of fresh water in the world, snow lightly falling and not a sole around for miles.  The sound of your ice axe sinks into to the pillar with a confident “THUNK”.  Moving your feet slowly up, crampons biting into the ice, you ascend to a place where few people are privileged to visit.  The sounds, sites and movement are truly addicting.

Now ice climbing isn’t a sport where you run down to your local outdoor store, purchase the gear, and head on out to climb…….now that WOULD be crazy!  The best way to experience the sport to see if you like it is to head on out to the Michigan Ice Fest.  Traditionally held the first weekend in February in Munising Michigan, this grass roots event has been taking place since the early 1990’s, making it one of the oldest Ice Fests in the country.  During Ice Fest there are opportunities to try out the latest climbing gear and clothing, take instructional courses and clinics on a variety of ice climbing-related subjects, as well as interesting and inspiring slide shows from world-class climbers.  If you are an aspiring ice climber- the Michigan Ice Fest should be on your calendar!

With the right training, just about everybody can ice climb.  Many are driven by the challenge, others to the opportunity to experience the unique landscape and beauty of the Upper Peninsula in winter.  Whatever their reasons are, I can assure you that there are thousands of ice climbs in Michigan, a unique opportunity to learn how to do it, and you really don’t need to be crazy to try!

Have you tried ice climbing in Pure Michigan? Tell us about it! 

Bill Thompson is co-author of An Ice Climber’s Guide to Munising, Michigan. For the last 28 years, Bill has lived and climbed in the beautiful Upper Peninsula of Michigan. He is co-owner of Down Wind Sports in Marquette and is also the organizer of the Michigan Ice Festival, which draws 400+ climbers to the region annually. Bill enjoys traveling to different climbing destinations nationally or internationally, but can be just as happy cragging locally with his son, Blake. 

Slopes and Trails Abound in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula

With all the winter weather we’ve had lately, it’s the perfect time to plan a ski trip in Pure Michigan! Mickey MacWilliams from the Michigan Snowsports Industries Association gives us an overview of some spectacular Upper Peninsula ski slopes to check out this season. 

Powder glade skiing, uncrowded lift lines, ski jumping, scenic trails and terrain parks for every skier ability level, comfortable accommodations, ski jumping and lift ticket rates that are at least half the price of those in the Rockies.  If this sounds too good to be true, then you haven’t skied Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

Although the U.P. might not immediately come to mind when thinking about skiing, the area actually has a long and colorful ski history.  At the latter part of the 19th century and early 20th century, ski jumping was the primary form of competitive skiing in the country and the Upper Peninsula was a key center, hosting one of the most popular ski jumping tournaments at that time.

Touring the Upper Peninsula’s ski areas is a fun and relatively inexpensive way to take a ski vacation.  For this article, our trip begins in Marquette and heads west from there, stopping at nine ski areas along the way.

Taking a leap at Marquette Mountain

Home to Northern Michigan University, Marquette is a picturesque town along the shore of Lake Superior.  Marquette Mountain is just a few miles out of town and although the ski area doesn’t have on-site lodging, they partner with local hotels to provide packages for as little as $55 per night.  Marquette Mountain is a large Midwest ski area, with 169 skiable acres, 25 runs, a 600 foot vertical drop and trails up to 1 ¼ mile in length. The day lodge is comfortable and there are slopes for all ability levels. Marquette Mountain’s website has a “Special Rates” page that lists discounts that change as the season progresses.

Heading west from Marquette on US 41, a stop at the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame is definitely worthwhile.  Located in Ishpeming, about 10 miles west of Marquette, the Hall of Fame is home to the world’s largest skiing museum.

The view from Mont Ripley, overlooking the cities of Houghton and Hancock

Next stop is Mont Ripley in Houghton.  The ski area picturesquely sits on the Portage Lake Canal, which separates the cities of Houghton and Hancock.  From the top of Mont Ripley, the view of the canal and the cities below is breathtaking.  A popular destination for Michigan Tech students, Mont Ripley features 25 runs of all ability levels.  NOAA’s National Climatic Data Center keeps track of annual snowfall and listed Hancock Michigan as the third snowiest city in the United States (behind Crested Butte, Colorado and Valdez, Alaska) with an annual average of 215.8 inches of snow. Like Marquette Mountain, there is no on-site lodging at Mont Ripley, but accommodations are available in Houghton and Hancock.

Heading north from the Houghton/Hancock area on US 41 takes one up the Keweenaw Peninsula, where the snow doesn’t ever seem to stop and the mountains get higher with each mile traveled.  Close to the tip of the peninsula is Mount Bohemia, an expert-only ski area.  MSN.com has called Mount Bohemia “one of the top ten undiscovered ski resorts in the world” for a reason.  The lift lines are short; there are over 500 acres of skiable terrain, a 900-foot vertical drop and powder skiing most of the winter. This hidden secret is a true treasure for backcountry skiers and riders. The average snowfall in Michigan’s Keweenaw Peninsula is 273 inches. The lake effect snow is dry, similar to the conditions in the Rockies, and accumulates as powder which is untouched because Mount Bohemia’s slopes are never groomed.  Mount Bohemia offers on-site accommodations that include hostel beds for $25 per night, heated yurts that can sleep up to 10, trailside cabins and The Inn on Lac Labelle that includes breakfast and dinner.

The Yurts at the base of Mount Bohemia provide cozy shelter for the night.

Once you’ve had your fill of the steep and the deep, the western side of the U.P. offers a variety of recreational options that fit all ability levels and price ranges.  Taking in the beauty of the Upper Peninsula on snowshoes or cross-country skis is a must and Porcupine Mountains State Park near Ontonagon offers thousands of acres of snow-covered backcountry wilderness to explore. Four main and several smaller cross-country ski trails combine to form a 42 KM Nordic Trail System through the unspoiled beauty of the state park. The trails feature two warming shelters and are power-tilled and groomed daily. As a bonus, a trail pass includes use of the downhill ski chairlifts, giving skiers quick access to the heart of the Nordic Trail system, as well as the entire Alpine Ski area.

After a day of state-park beauty, it’s time to enjoy some comfortable accommodations in preparation for skiing in Big Snow Country.  The western border of the U.P. is called that for a reason.  The town of Bessemer, which is in the heart of this area, registers in at 210 inches of snow annually.

Lodging options abound at Big Powderhorn Mountain Resort in Bessemer.  Its location provides easy access not only to Big Powderhorn, but also to Black Jack Ski Area, Indianhead Mountain and Mt. Zion.  Sporting a new lodge built two years ago, Big Powderhorn provides accommodations from, modest to luxury, in chalets and condominiums at the base of the slopes.  Big Powderhorn Mountain offers 33 downhill trails with a 622 vertical drop.  There are 9 double chairlifts and a beginner hand tow to get you around the 253 acres of skiable terrain.  There is something here for every ski ability level, with 35% novice runs, 35% considered more difficult, and 30% expert.

A couple of miles away is Black Jack Resort with its family-friendly atmosphere.  Black Jack has 24 slopes on 126 skiable acres serviced by four double chairs, a rope tow and a handle tow.  Looking to make skiing affordable to families, kids 12 and under ski free with a paid adult lift ticket, plus discounts for military personnel and college students, and ski slopes and terrain parks for every level make Black Jack a fun and affordable place for all.

Mt. Zion, operated by Gogebic Community College, provides affordable winter recreation for everyone.  With 10 slopes and free cross-country ski trails, a snow tubing park, a 300’ vertical drop, free skiing for Gogebic Community College students and senior citizens 62 and over, the slopes are a popular place for the local community. Adult full-day lift tickets are priced at just $20, making Mt. Zion one of the least expensive areas to ski at in the state.

Also located in Big Snow Country is Indianhead Mountain.  Voted Visitor’s Choice Favorite Family Friendly in 2011 and Best Terrain in 2012 by OnTheSnow.com, Indianhead has been a favorite of many families for generations.  With a 638 vertical food drip and 30 runs over 230 acres serviced by 9 lifts and tows, there is plenty to explore.  Fifty percent of Indianhead’s runs are considered expert terrain, but there are also 10 intermediate runs and five for beginners.  Indianhead also has two terrain parks so there really is something for everyone.  Indianhead’s comfortable lodge is at the top of the mountain, and lodging is available in Mountain Top Hotel Rooms, Mountain Top Village Chalets and Trailside Condos.  Dining options range from cafeteria cuisine to The Lodge, which is considered one of the region’s quality restaurants.

Leaving Big Snow Country and heading south along the Michigan/Wisconsin border, brings one to Ski Brule in Iron River.  Ski Brule prides itself as being the first ski area in Michigan to open for the season and the last to close.  A favorite of many, for the sixth consecutive year Ski Brule was voted the Midwest’s Overall Favorite Ski & Snowboard Resort at OnTheSnow.com.  With 17 trails, 11 lifts (five chairlifts, two T-bars, three rope tows, one paddle tow), 150 acres of terrain, 500 vertical feet, three terrain parks, two terrain trails and cross-country ski trails that wind around the slopes and down to the Brule River, the whole family can easily find recreational options to suit their needs.   Affordable on-site lodging in chalets and condominiums is available and since Ski Brule is usually open for skiing six months out of the year, a return trip in April – or maybe even May – is always a possibility.

The final destination on our U.P. ski loop is Pine Mountain, which features 27 runs, serviced by three lifts and two surface tows.  Night skiing is available Wednesday through Saturday.   Pine Mountain offers three terrain parks including beginner, intermediate and advanced parks for all levels of skiers and riders to enjoy.  All terrain parks are accessible from the triple lift and all are hittable in one run. In addition to the downhill skiing options, Pine Mountain also has a ski jump! Every year The Kiwanis Ski Club hosts one of the most popular jumping tournament in the United States. Top jumpers from around the world make their way to Pine Mountain to partake in this historic annual event. With an attendance of over 20,000 spectators and tailgaters flocking to the resort for the competition, Jump Weekend is truly a unique experience.  This year Jump Weekend is scheduled for February 6 – 9. Pine Mountain offers a variety of room accommodations in their lodge at the base of the slopes, as well as slope-side condominium units to suit both short-term and long-term stays.

To experience all that Michigan’s Upper Peninsula has to offer, a weeklong trip is recommended.  However, if you don’t have time to do it all, that’s okay.  Fun can be had whenever you visit.  For more information on Michigan ski areas, go to goskimichigan.com and click on the Ski Areas & Conditions button.

Have you been skiing in the Upper Peninsula? Where did you go? 

Mickey MacWilliams is the executive director of the Michigan Snowsports Industries Association, which represents the ski and snowboard industry in our state.  She is an avid downhill and cross-country skier and a very timid but enthusiastic snowboarder.  You can reach her at info@goskimichigan.com.

An Inside Look at Cold Rolled: Amazing Video on Snow Biking in the UP

Today, featured blogger Jesse Land of Things to Do in the U.P. shares his interview with filmmaker Aaron Peterson on snow biking in Michigan and his new film Cold Rolled.

Photo courtesy of Aaron Peterson

A new film by Michigan filmmakers shows that Marquette, Michigan is breaking ground in the sport of snow biking, with veteran snow bikers leading the way. With a custom made trail groomer and a dedicated snow bike trail (simply dubbed the “SBR” for snow bike route), there’s yet another reason to visit Marquette in the winter. I caught up with filmmaker Aaron Peterson this week for a quick Q &A about the film, Marquette and snow biking in general.

The film is being released in five parts, and you’ll find the first two parts below the interview.

How did this film come about? What were some of the challenges you ran into while making it? Did you run into any pleasant surprises?

I wanted to showcase the unique winter riding opportunities available in Marquette. We started out with the idea to make a short action video for the web, but then found a deeper story about a strong culture of winter cycling in Marquette and decided to expand the project into a film. Some of the challenges were that I’m new to video and filmmaking, this is my first major undertaking. I’ve been shooting video for about a year and just started to learn editing about 10 months ago.

As far as you know, how does the snow bike trail in Marquette compare to snow bike trails in the rest of the country?

Marquette’s SBR is, as far as I know, the first of its kind. It is very similar to a standard summertime mountain bike singletrack flow trail, meaning its fast, narrow and has fun features like bermed corners, rollers, etc.

From what I’ve seen in other areas, most places are simply allowing fatbikes on existing Nordic ski trails, which has a very different feel than buzzing through the woods on a dedicated bike trail. The NTN SBR is a really unique product, and one that I think was made possible due to the 30-year history of winter riding in Marquette that is featured in the film.

How does the NTN groom the snow bike trail?

Mike Brunet and Matt Belic of the NTN experimented with a number of different techniques and equipment over the past few years before developing and constructing their own groomer design. It’s sort of a cross between a snowmobile trail groomer and a Nordic ski trail drag. It rolls and packs the snow leaving a 27-inch wide courdoroy ribbon of fun through the hills and forest within the city of Marquette.

Are there any other snow bike trails in the area that will be opening in the foreseeable future?

The Range Mountain Bike Club of Negaunee/Ishpeming is planning to groom some of its system this season, making Marquette County a true hub for winter cycling. Also the Noquemanon Ski Marathon will have three races during the weekend of†Jan 24-26, 2014.

Do you need a special bike to ride the snow bike trail?

Yes, this is a trail specifically for fatbikes, bikes with oversized tires available from a variety of manufacturers. Fatbikes are available to rent from The Sports Rack in Marquette and can be demoed at any of Marquette’s four bike shops. The trails are also open to snowshoeing.

Can you talk a little about snow biking in general? I heard of it last year for the first time and it seems like it’s rapidly growing in popularity.

Fatbikes are the fastest growing segment of the bike industry right now. They use an oversized tire with low pressure to increase flotation and traction in soft conditions, they work in all types of terrain but excel like no other bike when it comes to riding on snow, which is why locally they are called snow bikes.

They do need a packed surface of some sort, like a ski trail, dedicated snow bike trail or anywhere a snowmobile of snowshoe traffic has compressed fluffy snow. Riding on snow is surreal. For an experienced cyclist, the feeling is similar to mountain biking but different enough that it lets you feel an entirely new experience on a bike. Marquette’s SBR can be very fast because it is smooth, the ride is like a roller coaster.

The bikes are very stable because of their wide tires and the traction is unbelievable. It’s just fun to try something familiar yet different and see what the bike can and can’t do. Plus it’s outdoors in crisp fresh air and great exercise. You just have to try it.

Video One:

COLD ROLLED-Chapter One from Clear & Cold Cinema on Vimeo.

Video Two:

COLD ROLLED-Chapter 2: The Thirty-Year Winter from Clear & Cold Cinema on Vimeo.

The remaining three videos (and the full length film) will be available the following dates:

These approximately 4-minute long chapters will be live by 8 a.m. EST on the following dates:

  • Saturday, Dec. 21 Chapter 3: The Lake Superior Session
  • Saturday,Dec. 28 Chapter 4: MindSparks-Birth of the SBR
  • Saturday,Jan. 4 Chapter 5: The SBR Shred Session
  • Saturday, Jan. 11 Full film available

Have you ever been snow biking? Tell us about your experience.

This post was written by Jesse Land of Things to do in the U.P. on behalf of Travel Marquette Michigan.