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Will Gadd: Adventures at the Michigan Ice Fest

Tuesday, Februar 28, 2017
Black Diamond Athlete Will Gadd first journeyed to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula 20 years ago. What he found was a local tribe of hard-as-nails ice climbers and a treasure trove of frozen waterfalls. This year, Gadd traveled back to the Michigan Ice Fest to find that the local scene is thriving … and still as wild as ever.

Michigan’s Upper Peninsula is probably the wildest piece of the United States that the outdoor recreation community has never heard of, much less visited. Michigan-born but globally renowned outdoor writer Jim Harrison spent much of his life wandering the “U.P.,” out of which came one of the great quotes of all time on why it’s important to get outside:

“The danger of civilization, of course, is that you will piss away your life on nonsense.”

The U.P. is no-nonsense. On the northern end are miles of colored sandstone cliffs, the Pictured Cliffs National Lakeshore, backed up to a plateau that supplies an epic amount of water that falls into Lake Superior. It’s a natural ice-making factory with literally thousands of routes. The only comparable place I’ve ever seen with as many waterfalls is Norway. As Conrad Anker recently told me, “You know, there’s at least two weeks of amazing climbing to do here.” While I respect my friend’s experience, I think he’s seriously underestimating the climbing potential. You could spend years of your life exploring U.P.’s ice climbing and never do it all, no nonsense.

All Images: Toby MacPhee

The first time I visited the U.P. was for the Michigan Ice Festival, about 20 years ago. I’d been to a lot of ice climbing festivals, and delight in discovering each one’s unique vibe. In Ouray it’s sunshine and happy Coloradans in the latest fresh clothing, with new Subaru’s and rusty Tacoma’s lining the streets. North Conway’s ice fest has more rusty Subaru’s, more wool and lots of old-school New England, but Michigan, well, it’s domestic trucks, snowmobiles, cigarettes, polite but friendly people, and a, “I live here and like it, yep, nice to meet ya.”

The first clinic I taught was distinct in that most of the participants showed up on their own snowmobiles. This was surprising until I noticed that some of the roads have speed limits for both snowmobiles and cars while the gas stations often keep one lane covered in snow for the machines, and that while driving at night you may be passed by a snowmobile going faster than you in the snow-covered ditch.

But if the transportation was unique, it was the clothing of my clinic participants that really concerned me. I had on the latest ice climbing jacket, pants, gloves, hat, and another few thousand dollars worth of gear in my award-winning pack. It was -15 American with a wind cold enough to part your hair and then flash-freeze your brain, but many in my group were wearing multiple cotton sweatshirts and work gloves, with their bulky snowmobile helmets doubling as climbing helmets. They changed into their demoed (The Munising Ice Festival demo program is one of the best I’ve ever seen) ice boots with bare hands that also cradled the odd cigarette, and then went at the ice like it was the most natural thing ever. With their flatly unsuitable clothes I figured they’d maybe last an hour or two, but it was dark before they were ready to quit. I was cardboard cold stiff, feet lumps at the end of my legs, and now thoroughly impressed as the locals, also known as “Yoopers,” pinned their snow machines and zapped off to get a little more high speed sports action in. This was clearly a people and place that understood cold in a way that only living in it for years if not generations will provide.

The next day found us wandering over a frozen lake Superior in a ground blizzard toward an island that we couldn’t see, and due to the blizzard never found. It was too bad as the climbing in Grand island is fantastic, single-pitch routes as good as anything anywhere on orange sandstone walls that make the blue ice almost pulse with a, “CLIMB ME!” light. We wound up climbing somewhere else on a brilliant pillar that was a copy of Vail’s Fang, except that there were around 20 other similar pillars within a few hours walk or snowmachine if the lake is frozen. There’s just an insane amount of ice in the U.P.

This year was my third trip back to Michigan, and unlike the last two years I knew what to pack: Down pants, big down jacket, toe warmers, mitts I normally only use in the Canadian Rockies when guiding (we don’t climb here at -30 in general, but we’ll guide), balaclava, Scarpa 6000 boots (made for 6000M climbs, they do well in Michigan’s 600 foot climate), and the biggest thermos I could fit in my pack with all the other warm clothing. I was not going to be beaten at the cold game by a cotton-wearing snowmobiler again! But as I got off the plane it was 50 degrees, and a note from Bill Thompson, the Ice Fest’s high-energy founder, warned of crazy warm temperatures. But Bill is one of those guys who drive the planet forward with his energy and through one of the best independent shops around, Downwind Sports, and his tireless activism for outdoor recreation in Michigan, so there was a backup plan.

Unfortunately, warm temperatures are a global problem for me as I travel to climb ice. It’s easy to write off your local warm winter or the Ouray Ice Park closing a month early, or see the rain in Canmore in January, or even the flowers blooming in the Alps in February as freak “local” problems. But when I visit Greenland and see the local kids building skateboard ramps because summer (summer still being loosely defined, for the kids in Illullusiat, summer just meant no snow on the ground) lasts for months longer than it used to. Or I cancel a winter trip to Norway for the fourth time in six years, or try to climb ice on Kilimanjaro only to find that over half the named glaciers are missing. Well, I’m not a scientist but plainly something is very different globally. Not once has anyone ever said, “It’s so damn cold here now, used to be much warmer!”

But the “U.P.ers” are resilient, and unlike many other areas the friable rock (no mixed climbing) on the U.P. had been frozen for months leading up to the festival. It’s often not warm air that is a problem for ice stability, but how well the ground and ice are frozen together. The ground in the U.P. was frozen to whatever one step less than permafrost is, so that despite the warm air we still had great climbing, and then it started to cool back down. As I write this it’s a fresh -12F in Munising, so the ice season is back on. I bet the cold snap has knocked down a lot of the thin pillars (most of them fall down when the air temperature drops suddenly due to unequal contraction in the ice surface and interior), but there’s an endless supply of water to build them again. Climate change is mixing things up, but the U.P. is still the U.P.

On my last day this year I rode out to a “back country” area with my clinic participants, all of us towed in a train of sliding bathtubs behind a sled driven by “Singing Carl,” who is famous for serenading climbers as he drags loads of them out to the climbs. Our other option was a ride with Forward Frank and his antique Jeep mounted on tank tracks. There’s character in Michigan like Colorado has sun. Two-stroke exhaust is now indelibly linked to great ice climbs in my mind, an odd mix of climate change and climate joy that somehow works.

A big part of the Michigan Ice fest is the clinics. I love teaching ice climbing; the simultaneous fragility and solidity of ice climbing is far less inherently obvious than scampering on rock to most, but within a few hours of good instruction most people can make huge gains in their safety and technique. In my clinics this year a surprising number of the participants were native “Yoopers,” but sporting their own fresh technical clothing and honed tools along with stories of new ice areas just a short sled ride away. It made me nostalgic for the cotton sweatshirts, but new clothes don’t change old customs. When we all got soaked from the melting ice in the warm temps nobody but me mentioned quitting.

Like many of the best fests, over the last 20 years the Michigan Ice Fest has grown from a few friends meeting to climb and drink beer to many hundreds of friends meeting to climb and drink beer. To me the best of these events are gatherings of the tribe, where for a weekend or longer we can share our cold madness with others who really get it, and celebrate the joy of climbing frozen water. The “MIF” is one of those events, and if you can make the trek it’s really worth it. Other states may have bigger climbs, but Michigan has more high-quality natural ice than any other state I’ve ever visited, and at least a month’s worth of great climbing, guaranteed. As I drove to the airport I stopped at a restaurant for a “Pastie,” or small log of pastry stuffed with about six hamburgers and some veggies, and watched the snowmobilers rip up for breakfast. The grins were wide, then one of them saw my bright climbing jacket and started telling me about some new ice he’d seen on one of his rides …

—Will Gadd

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