By now, you probably know about a number of activities that can be done in Michigan during the wintertime – skiing, snowboarding, tubing, etc. Another lesser known activity to add to the list is ice climbing. With ice climbing being one of the activities featured in the Pure Michigan winter video series, we spoke with adventurer Lisa Nowak on what ice climbing in Michigan is all about.
Q: Can you tell us a little about yourself and how you got into ice climbing?
A: During my freshman year at Michigan State University I joined the Outdoors Club and it changed my life. Not only did the organization help me discover a passion for outdoor adventure, it’s where I made lasting friendships and met my husband. To afford gear, lodging, and gas for the many trips I took in college I flyered campus weekly and rounded up as many beginners as I could find to join me for the weekend adventures. Twelve years later, ice climbing ranks at the top of my list of favorite sports.
Q: What are some of your favorite winter activities?
A: I enjoy downhill skiing, but if I can get away for a weekend, I’m usually going ice climbing. Sometimes this means I get to enjoy snowshoeing and/or winter camping as part of the ice climbing adventure. It’s been awhile, but I also have fond memories of sledding, skating, and ice fishing.
Q: What do you love about the Michigan outdoors in the winter?
A: I love the variety of activities that are available to us in Michigan. Fresh air and the scent of pine is invigorating. Picking out animal tracks in the snow is fun. It’s easy to enjoy the outdoors when you’re dressed for the weather.
Q: For those who don’t know, what is ice climbing and who might like this sport?
A: Ice climbing is similar to rock climbing. Climbers wear the same harness and use the same rope skills for setting anchors and belaying their partners. Instead of climbing rock, ice climbers ascend frozen waterfalls with specialized equipment. If you seek adventure and like winter, you will love ice climbing.
Q: Where in Michigan can you ice climb? Do you have some favorite places to ice climb?
A: The Upper Peninsula has fantastic ice. Some climbs are located a couple hundred feet from where you parked the car. Others are nestled miles into the backcountry. Personally, I love climbing in the Munising area. The waterfalls tourists hike to in the spring become our playground in the winter. If I don’t have a weekend to commit to a trip up north, I head over to Peabody Ice Climbing Club in Fenton where there is a 45ft and a72ft tower of ice that offers many interesting climbs within an hour from my house in Lansing.
Q: What advice do you have for someone who may be interested in trying ice climbing for the first time?
A: Attend the Michigan Ice Festival (takes place the first weekend in February each year) in Munising. This three day festival is beginner friendly with tons of demo gear available to rent. They have beginner climbs safely rigged with the necessary ropes and staffed with belayers so you can walk up and climb. World class ice climbers teach dozens of clinics for those looking to develop technique.
If you can’t make it to the festival, hands on guidance can also be found at Peabody Ice Climbing Club in Fenton, MI where they offer rental and ice climbing instruction.
For experienced rock climbers looking to get into ice climbing, Downwind Sports is the go-to gear store in the U.P. They rent axes, boots, and crampons and sell an ice guide book to help you locate the climbs.
Q: What equipment is needed to start ice climbing?
A: For starters, you need proper winter attire. The technical gear (ice axes, ice climbing boots, crampons, helmet, climbing harness, and sometimes snowshoes) can all be rented, but if you are cold and wet, you will be miserable. This means NO COTTON. Bulky gloves are not ideal for holding onto the axes so bring a second pair and swap back and forth. If the temperature is above freezing, a rain jacket is ideal. For cold weather, a down jacket is indispensable when you are waiting for your turn to climb.
Q: The sport looks like it could require some strength; do you recommend anyone try the sport?
A: If you have the endurance to jog a ½ mile and do 20 pushups, you are probably physically fit enough to try ice climbing. Ice climbs vary in difficulty; most beginners will start on a climb with a low incline until they are prepared for the challenge of vertical ice. Picture yourself swinging the axes into the ice and using the handles to hold onto for balance. They are not pull up bars. You use your feet to kick little steps into the ice and inch your way up like climbing a ladder.
Q: What is your favorite thing about ice climbing?
A: I love the challenge. Each time I rope up for a climb, I am laser focused on the present. I have to carefully push my limits to grow and improve, and know when to back off to stay safe. There is no room for mindless chatter to creep into my thoughts like upcoming deadlines or wondering if I said the right things at my last work presentation. Ice climbing also takes me to breathtaking scenery that few people see.
Q: Does one particular ice climbing adventure stand out to you? Why?
A: Two words: Agawa Canyon. While this place isn’t in Michigan, us Michiganders should be boasting about how close we are to this natural wonderland. In Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, fifteen friends and I hopped on a train heading north. Two hours past civilization, the train made a stop at a trestle nestled 600 ft deep inside a wide canyon lined with dozens of enormous ice climbs. Traveling by train means you can practically bring the kitchen sink. We were camping in sub-zero temps, but we filled our bellies with gourmet dinners, laughed while we sang songs around the campfire, and smiled thinking about the epic ice routes we had climbed. It was an incredible four days.
Q: What is your favorite thing to do after going ice climbing?
A: Hanging out with friends around a hot fire with a bowl of chili in one hand and a microbrew in the other, makes the perfect ending to a day of ice climbing.
Lisa and Chris are Michigan natives who love to travel and play outdoors. Their passion for sports like ice climbing, rock climbing, kayaking, and backpacking has taken them all the way around the world, but they always find their way back home to Michigan. In their days of organizing trips for the Outdoors Club at MSU, Lisa estimates they have introduced more than 200 people to these adventure sports that are such an important part of their life.