a frozen UP playground
By Erin Crowell
I swing the axe over my head, the sharp pick slicing through air. The tip of the blade meets ice then bounces like a hammer, sending a rejected spray of snow and ice into my eyes. Its like this for several swings until I feel the satisfying thunk of placement. I give it a few tugs before Im ready to do it again with the other axe; but not before moving my feet a few inches higher.
Im ice climbing and Im not very good at it.
I begin kicking the ice repeatedly as if it owes me money, using the sharp blades of my crampons to stab the wall for footing.
Youve got a little notch to your right, John Nguyen yells from below.
He holds the other end of my climbing rope as I cling to the 40-foot column of ice. I stand about 5-foot, 10-inches and with John around a trim 5-foot four, he equals the weight of my left leg. With an iffy weight distribution between climber and belayer, I picture him leaving the ground as I come tumbling toward it.
Like me, Nguyen came north with a few others from Traverse City to participate in the Michigan Ice Festival, located in Munising. Held the first weekend in February, the annual event provides participants with an opportunity to climb and includes introduction clinics to the sport, a speaker series featuring industry professionals and a chance to demo some of the latest ice climbing gear on the market.
PLACE OF THE GREAT ISLAND
Munising, located in the Upper Peninsula about 45 miles east of Marquette on Lake Superior, is much like Traverse City, Petoskey and other northern lower Michigan communities a sister in economy and climate. Visitors come during warmer temperaturesthe area is home to the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshorewhile some stop in throughout the cold season when festivals and wintry amenities dot the calendar.
Otherwise, Munising is forgotten. Frozen. Suspended in time like its waterfalls. Ive only seen this former lumber town with its 2,800 residents in winter, when one is more likely to dim the brights for a passing snowmobile than another car on a back road (in this case, it was a trail groomer).
At times, Munisings winter population swells like a freak tumor, growing in certain areas. The 500 people who attended last weeks ice festival matched the towns population in 1896. Most were concentrated on the second floor of Sydneys, a popular joint that serves fried food and shots of liquor.
The events ice gear demo table held drivers licenses from Ohio, Colorado, Wisconsin and California. Nearby motel parking lots told the same story.
America was here to play on ice.
Climbers had the option to scale 17 frozen falls, a curtain of ice along the cliffs of South Bay and trickles of suspended water over forested sandstone ledges.
Climbing spots like Giddy Up, No Boundaries, Sweet Mother Moses, Dairyland and The Dryer Hosea 70-foot column of icebeckon those to drive upwards of 12 hours to carve their playgrounds.
Pictured Rocks has one of the largest concentrations of ice in the country, let alone the Midwest, says Bill Thompson, Michigan Ice Fest organizer and co-owner of the U.P. adventure sports retailer Down Wind Sports.
Thompson says the ice climbing season in Munising lasts between December and March, sometimes April. He took charge of the event when its original founders didnt want to run it any longer.
The age of the festival is debatable; some say 25 years while others insist 28. Regardless, the numbers have grown.
The first year we organized it, we only had 40 people, Thompson says. Today, we have a whole mix of people, from old guys to college students. Our youngest participant was 10-years-old.
OOZING OUTDOOR ENTHUSIASM At Ice Fest, there are climber socials where everyone, both seasoned and beginner, can swap stories and advice while perusing gear and snatching up free keychains, hippie stickers (youve seen them on local Subarus) and cozies from outdoor retailers like Patagonia, Petzl, Arcteryx and Black Diamond.
A friend always said the starting line of a running race is misrepresentative of Americas population: healthy, outgoing, athletic, happy the room at Sydneys is much the same. Being here, you sense the optimism, adventure, enthusiasm for nature and sport and the feeling is contagious. It oozes through the crowd as a packed room listens to Ice Fests featured speakers, the lights dimmed for photos of conquered peaks and places far away.
Majka Burhardt, a writer and professional climber/guide discusses her fathers Toughen Up Majka Campaign, a two-week challenge that started as a way for the little girl not to worry about getting dirty, but morphed into a personal endeavor that included a 40 plus solo backpacking adventure across the Yukon wilderness at the age of 17 and a career as a sponsored athlete.
STICKING IT OUT
See, Abbys sticking out her ass and thats a good thing! Burhardt announces enthusiastically to the group of women shes instructing Saturday afternoon.
We take turns scaling the ice along a section known as The Open Curtains, each woman belaying another while listening to Burhardts feedback on those climbing.
You sense nothing but confidence from this tall, lean, Coloradoan. Her chestnut curls frame her friendly, smiling face. Burhardt has taken risks in her sport. She has also been around death. A lot.
When I was twenty, my fiancés best friend was killed in an avalanche. I was new to climbing, and ever since then, climbing was always complicated by loss or, at least, the threat of loss. And then, horrified, I saw it play out in all of those ways for others. I have lived on both sides of this since that moment thirteen years ago, Burhardt wrote in a blog for Climbing magazine entitled Whispering into a Roar.
Burhardt has been exploring the precarious balance between risk and death in her blogs, but she would never bring this up to our group. Today is about finding confidence on the ice, but safety is all the same.
Its 1 p.m. in the afternoon, she announces halfway through the lesson. What happens when its this late in the day?
You get tired, one woman responds. You get lazy, I add.
Exactly, Burhardt confirms. She tells us to double check everything our knots, our gear. If we go take a piss, someone checks our harness to make sure its back on right.
If something happens to you, its my ass, she adds jokingly, yet theres a touch of firmness in her voice. We may not be climbing Everest, but Burhardt isnt stupid.
On this day, she teaches us all the basics, like how to conserve energy, swing the axe, lean into the ice, use our feet even how to approach the climb in our crampons.
You can rock it on the ice, but if you look like an idiot walking up to it, the people in your group are going to lose confidence in you, Burhardt says as she demonstrates an awkward pigeon scramble on her toes. We laugh.
The lesson goes off without a hitch and we are exhausted, our muscles burning, but its mostly our sense of vindication. We had just tried something cool.
On board the shuttlea passenger van with a scribbled sign that reads Free Ride, eh!Burhardt and I make a Traverse City connection. A group of residents recently ran over 250 miles across Ethiopia to raise money to build three schools for the families of fair trade coffee farmers.
Burhardt will release her book on coffee farming in Ethiopia this spring. She spends a great deal of time climbing in the region. The non-traditional snowbird divides her time between here and there, flocking to the heat of Africa in the summer, but returning to the ice of the states, sometimes Europe.
Its all about balance, she tells the room of climbers on the night of her presentation.
ACROSS THE CHASM
Im thinking balance now as Nguyen holds my rope.
Each bendfrom the knot on my harness, to the anchor above, to the brake position at Johns handtakes out a certain amount of weight, and its enough for him to hold me, allowing much needed rest breaks for this beginner.
I lean back in the harness and let my arms hang. With tools still in hand, I wipe a sleeve over my wet brow if its water or sweat, I cant tell. I want to make it to the top, where John says I can peek into the center of the hollowed ice, where water still trickles.
I give it one last go. I drive in the axes and violently kick my toes as I near the top. With muscles screaming from fatigue, I quickly wrap my arms over the hole. Satisfied, I crane my head over the side and peer down into the throat of gurgling ice. But my smile soon fades as I suddenly remember my axes, and realize Im dangling nearly $500 of equipment over a crevice that wont give me return until spring.
Okay, Im ready to come down! I yell to my belayer.
Its the last climb to a long weekend on the ice; and somewhere on the slow return to the ground, I think about this little slice of adventure. Where the ice is plentiful, yet conquerable. The location North, but reachable. And the experience is enough to cross that growing chasm between comfort and risk.
Planning for the 2012 Michigan Ice Festival is underway. For more information on the festival and Upper Peninsula ice, visit michiganicefest.com or call Down
Wind Sports at 906-226-7112 (Marquette) or 906-482-2500 (Houghton).