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Michigan Ice Fest

Erin Crowell - February 14th, 2011
Scaling the Falls:Michigan Ice Festival welcomes climbers to
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. It’s like this for several swings until I feel the satisfying thunk of placement. I give it a few tugs before I’m ready to do it again with the other axe; but not before moving my feet a few inches higher.
I’m ice climbing… and I’m 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.
“You’ve 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.

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 temperatures—the area is home to the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore—while 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. I’ve 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, Munising’s winter population swells like a freak tumor, growing in certain areas. The 500 people who attended last week’s ice festival matched the town’s population in 1896. Most were concentrated on the second floor of Sydney’s, a popular joint that serves fried food and shots of liquor.
The event’s ice gear demo table held driver’s 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 Hose”—a 70-foot column of ice—beckon 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 didn’t 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 (you’ve seen them on local Subarus) and cozies from outdoor retailers like Patagonia, Petzl, Arc’teryx and Black Diamond.
A friend always said the starting line of a running race is misrepresentative of America’s population: healthy, outgoing, athletic, happy… the room at Sydney’s 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 Fest’s featured speakers, the lights dimmed for photos of conquered peaks and places far away.
Majka Burhardt, a writer and professional climber/guide discusses her father’s “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.

“See, Abby’s sticking out her ass and that’s a good thing!” Burhardt announces enthusiastically to the group of women she’s instructing Saturday afternoon.
We take turns scaling the ice along a section known as The Open Curtains, each woman belaying another while listening to Burhardt’s 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 fiancé’s 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.
“It’s 1 p.m. in the afternoon,” she announces halfway through the lesson. “What happens when it’s 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 it’s back on right.
“If something happens to you, it’s my ass,” she adds jokingly, yet there’s a touch of firmness in her voice. We may not be climbing Everest, but Burhardt isn’t 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 it’s mostly our sense of vindication. We had just tried something cool.
On board the shuttle—a 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.
“It’s all about balance,” she tells the room of climbers on the night of her presentation.

I’m thinking balance now as Nguyen holds my rope.
Each bend—from the knot on my harness, to the anchor above, to the brake position at John’s hand—takes out a certain amount of weight, and it’s 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 it’s water or sweat, I can’t 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 I’m dangling nearly $500 of equipment over a crevice that won’t give me return until spring.
“Okay, I’m ready to come down!” I yell to my belayer.
It’s 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 or call Down
Wind Sports at 906-226-7112 (Marquette) or 906-482-2500 (Houghton).
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