As winter blankets the Upper Peninsula, the water seeping around, over, and through the iconic sandstone cliffs — some more than 200 feet high — of Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore and nearby Grand Island creates awe-inspiring ice formations.
The ice takes the shape of curtains, columns, pillars, and even dryer hoses, as all that moisture oozes through the porous rock above Lake Superior. Many picturesque waterfalls freeze solid, as well.
These frozen wonders will take center stage Feb. 8-12 when more than 1,000 ice-climbing enthusiasts of all ages, backgrounds, and ability levels gather for the annual Michigan Ice Fest in Munising.
“Those cliffs rising so high right out of Lake Superior, and all the beautiful formations that appear, make Munising a phenomenal ice-climbing destination because we also have dozens of waterfalls that freeze, and ice is everywhere,” says Bill Thompson, organizer of the Ice Fest, which celebrates its 31st anniversary in 2023.
“Even experienced, famous climbers coming here for the first time are amazed. They usually can’t believe it’s Michigan,” he adds.
Count Conrad Anker, one of America’s most accomplished mountaineers, among the believers. Summiting Mount Everest three times and establishing new climbing routes around the world, including the extremely difficult Shark’s Fin in the Himalayas of northern India, are just a sample of his achievements.
Anker first attended Ice Fest in 2014 as part of a team making “National Park Adventure,” an IMAX film celebrating the National Park Service’s 100th anniversary. He has returned nearly every year since, to test himself on the formations while helping others do the same.
This year, Anker is conducting a clinic entitled Expedition Primer: Denali 101, which covers what it takes to prepare for climbing North America’s highest peak. He’ll also be signing Yeti brand cups and water bottles, as well as copies of “The Call of Everest,” a book he co-authored.
“The beauty of ice-climbing is that every area is unique and, every day, experiences change,” Anker says. “The hardwood forest, the expanse of Lake Superior, the sandstone bluffs running with pigment from the iron all combine to make northern Michigan ice unique in the world.”
Angela Limbach is a member of the United States World Cup ice-climbing team. She finished among the top six at the North American Ice Climbing Championships, and was in the top 22 at the World Championships in both the speed and lead categories last year. She’s been a part of Ice Fest since 2016, and will be providing instruction again this year.
“Ice-climbing in mountainous places has its own joy and beauty, but there’s little that can compare to lowering over the cliff edge with (Lake Superior’s) waves smacking the wall below,” she says. “The crashing waves, ripping wind, bullet-hard ice, low temperatures, and feeling like you’re in a snow globe can make the more challenging climbs on the shore brutal, but also beautifully wintery and fantastic.”
Thompson, who has attended every Ice Fest as a participant or organizer, has witnessed the event grow from a handful of friends in search of the most thrilling ice-climbing around Munising to more than 1,100 people last year.
Among other featured athletes this year are Barry Blanchard, a legendary master of difficult first ascents around the world, and Michigan native Sam Elias, one of the few climbers who has summited Mount Everest and free-climbed Yosemite National Park’s El Capitan.
Blanchard will lead a screening of a film about his life and sign copies of his autobiography, “The Calling: A Life Rocked By Mountains.” Elias will conduct presentations on the fusion of art, climbing, and woodblock printmaking.
Renowned mountain guide Emilie Drinkwater will be making her Ice Fest debut and plans to deliver a presentation on leading an historic all-female climb to the highest point in Afghanistan.
Ice Fest boasts numerous courses and clinics, an extensive gear raffle, and the chance to meet representatives from many leading outdoor apparel and equipment companies.
Thompson emphasizes that the event offers perhaps the best and safest opportunity for anyone wishing to try ice-climbing for the first time or improve their skills and tackle more challenging climbs.
“This is the place to just go out and ice climb, to see if it’s for you, because it would be dangerous to try to figure what equipment is needed and do it on your own,” he says. “Ice Fest offers world-class instruction and climbs for all skill levels. We provide all the necessary equipment and guided climbs (transportation provided) from near downtown Munising to Grand Island and the Pictured Rocks backcountry.”
Some of the most popular formations are off Sand Point Road, not far from Munising, and include the Dryer Hose, a 35-foot frozen waterfall surrounded by a half-bowl of sandstone, and No Boundaries, a 25-foot frozen waterfall that climbers can walk behind.
There’s also The Curtains, a 200-foot-long, 30-foot-high sandstone ledge draped in white and blue ice.
Farther away are Dairyland, a more than 150-foot climb over a wide formation of ice with a great view of Lake Superior, and HMR — 160 feet of rust-colored vertical ice hanging directly over Lake Superior.
Each Ice Fest day concludes with an after-party and the chance to mingle with some of the elite climbers.
Ice Fest’s popularity has soared during the past decade thanks, in part, to social media postings and the 2016 release of both the National Park Service’s film, “Ice Capades: The Winter Wonderland of Pictured Rocks,” and “The Michigan Ice,” an 84-minute film about the event directed by Michigan resident Aaron Peterson.
Michigan Ice Fest