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.