Michigan Ice Fest: The History of the Oldest Ice Climbing Festival in the US

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Bennett Slavsky

Two Michigan Ice Fest attendees climb The Dryer Hose (WI3+)

“If you can climb Michigan ice, you can climb anywhere in the country,” says Michigan Ice Fest curator, Bill Thompson. Some might find Thompson’s statement to be a bit bold—Michigan isn’t exactly renowned for its verticality or adventure. But after rapping off the edge of Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore in the howling wind with the angry waters of Mother Superior biting at your heels to climb world class WI6 ice routes, you might change your mind.

Michigan Ice Fest boasts being the oldest organized ice festival in the country, though the start date varies depending on who you ask. This year the small town of Munising hosted its 28th or 29th annual Ice Fest. The old schoolers will tell you that Ice Fest started in 1990, when a group of four climbers from Kalamazoo, MI, heard lore of the Munising ice and ventured on an exploratory mission. They were entranced by the quantity and difficulty of climbable terrain off the sandstone cliffs of Lake Superior, as well as the awe inspiring setting along the lakeshore.

Mark Riesch, one of the original four, authored the Great Lakes Ice Climbing Newsletter in 1990, and used that to spread the word of the frozen wonderland and promote the event that would come to be known as Michigan Ice Fest. The following year (the year that others consider to be the commencement of Ice Fest) drew around 10 or 15 climbers to Munising. During the day they climbed the frozen pillars and curtains along the lakeshore and at night they gathered at the local watering hole—Sydney’s Restaurant—to refuel, watch slideshows on the restaurant wall, and get psyched on ice climbing. Waitresses walked through the slideshow projections, while local diners starred, befuddled by the ragged lot.

One of those 10 or 15 attendees was Bill Thompson, a college student with nearly zero ice climbing experience. “I was hooked from the get go,” Thompson says. Within a few years, Thompson took over as curator of the festival.

HMR (WI5) climbs directly above the waters of Lake Superior.

HMR (WI5) climbs directly above the waters of Lake Superior.

In the mid-90’s, Mark Wilford was a featured athlete and keynote speaker at Ice Fest, bringing around 40 people to the festival, which Thompson felt as an impressive number. Michigan Ice Fest 2019 hosted 31 professional athletes and over 1,000 attendees, representing eight countries. Climbers are attracted by the raucous good times and open arms of the festival, as well as classic Munising ice like Dryer Hose (WI3+), a 60-foot tall freestanding pillar, and The Curtains (WI3-5) a shorter sheet of ice offering a wide array of difficulty, perfect for newcomers testing their skill. Or one of the burlier Munising climbs like HMR (WI5), with 160-feet of rust-stained vertical ice hanging directly over the waves of Lake Superior.

But for a long time climbers refused to believe that Michigan—The Mitten—could provide any sort of righteous terrain.

That is until Conrad Anker ventured to the shores of Lake Superior in 2014 to shoot footage for the National Parks Centennial IMAX film. The filming was supposed to take place in Bozeman, Montana, but it was too warm and wet in Bozeman that year. Meanwhile, Michigan was in the thick of one of its famous polar vortexes, with ice aplenty and conditions not for the faint of heart. Anker posted on his Instagram that Lake Superior “is about as close as one can get to a polar experience in the Lower 48 ... The top drawer ice climbing is defined by steep pillars and mineral stained seeps. Definitely worth a visit of you find ice climbing an enjoyable way to spend a holiday.” After that, climbers started to believe the rumors.

“For all those years, I was preaching that we had phenomenal ice climbing and people said, ‘Eh, it’s Michigan.’" says Thompson. "Conrad came up here and posted on his Instagram ... Next thing you know everyone is calling us and sending us messages. We owe a lot to him for exposing our area for what is actually here.”

Angela VanWiemeersch, a pro ice climber native to Southeast Michigan, has been attending Michigan Ice Fest as an athlete for four years. VanWiemeersch has a serious resume, having climbed all over North America and put up first ascents in Alaska, Utah, and Michigan. “It’s my second favorite place in the world to climb,” says VanWiemeersch. “Zion is number one, and Michigan is a close second. It’s unlike anywhere else.”

While Michigan is not often thought of as a climbing destination, there's no shortage of ice in the Upper Peninsula.

While Michigan is not often thought of as a climbing destination, there's no shortage of ice in the Upper Peninsula.

“There’s a lot of great places to ice climb in this country,” says Thompson. “But none of them have a violent inland ocean beneath them. When you lower into some of these climbs you might have a 20-foot wave blasting your feet as you’re belaying and climbing out. Throw in thirty mile-an-hour winds and white out snow conditions and it gets pretty hairy sometimes.”

“It’s terrifying,” say VanWiemeersch, about rapping in and climbing out of ice routes along the open waters of Lake Superior. “Pulling ropes to lead out is like, Get me out of here. It’s super spooky.”

It may be her second favorite place to climb, but VanWiemeersch says that Michigan Ice Fest is her favorite climbing festival. Compared to other festivals, “The community is much tighter knit and the vibe is very non-competitive. It’s all about the spirit of adventure.” Any day out climbing you are sure to find hardened veterans sharing ropes with first time climbers, everyone equally stoked to be sharing the adventure with one another. Despite its growing popularity and teeth shattering conditions, Michigan Ice Fest maintains a genuine Midwestern warmth, coupled with some of the most badass ice climbing in the world.