Words and photos by Mountain Hardwear athlete, Freddie Wilkinson.
Ice climbing demands special character… and the residents of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan are nothing if not characters.
They came from Lansing, Kalamazoo, and Akron. From Milwaukee, Detroit, and even Louisville, Kentucky. Streaming north along darkened highways under the winter sky, to the frozen shore of Lake Superior.
Mostly, they came for the ice. Ice formed in narrow pencils, fat curtains, thin smears, and splattered mushrooms. Ice oozing in shady groves of cedar in every imaginable color, from yellow-brown to deep blue. They came for many other reasons as well: to try something new; to connect with old friends; to test themselves; to party; to be outside in the simple beauty of the snow.
The second weekend in February this year, approximately 1200 such souls converged on the sleepy village of Munising, Michigan for the Michigan Ice Fest. One of a handful of successful community events organized around major ice climbing destinations like Colorado’s Ouray Ice Park, Montana’s Hyalite Canyon, New York’s Keene Valley, and New Hampshire’s Mount Washington Valley, The Michigan Ice Fest has been around for 35 years and is going stronger than ever.
Until this winter, I had not tasted ice climbing of the Midwestern flavor. And so, as we sped down state roads that seemed laid out in cardinal directions regardless of the frequent hills, I found myself wondering: Why Munising? And more broadly: why ice festivals?
The first question was immediately answered when I saw Munising in daylight. Tucked beside the largest freshwater lake in the world by surface area, Munising felt like a town build next to a polar ice cap. East of town, a series of sandstone cliffs provide the ideal geology for forming ice: the soft, porous rock perfectly directs groundwater and natural springs to drip over miles of vertical and overhanging walls. As soon as the temperature gets below freezing in Munising, the ice starts to grow.
I hadn’t been in town long before I was introduced to a gentleman known only as Maddog.
[Author’s note: I should say that having climbed extensively on several continents with a different Maddog – the New Hampshire – Yosemite SAR – Anchorage Maddog, I was disinclined to make room in my heart for another Maddog. But this Maddog, who also occasionally goes by “The Maddog”, and whom I ended up referring to in my phone contacts as “U.P. Maddog”, won me over with his candor and good cheer.]
Over fries and fish tacos at the 378 Restaurant, Maddog recounted his personal journey towards climbing. A welder by trade from the South Side of Chicago, who became a nurse, who also happened to moonlight as a Christmas tree salesman, Maddog hides a big personality between a grey beard and a pair of omnipresent tinted glasses. He added ice climbing guide to his list of careers three years when he founded Superior Ice Climbing Adventures.
“It was without a doubt, 100 percent, a full-blown lifestyle change…” Maddog says of the first time he discovered ice climbing, seven years ago. “I went from being an atheist to spiritual… discovering ice climbing gave me a completely new community that allowed me to step away from some vices. I started hanging out with college kids, not drinking, and I lost 100 pounds.”
Smaller tales of self-discovery bubbled up in cragside conversations I had with students in each of the clinics I taught. I met fathers and sons, boyfriends and girlfriends, aspiring guides and one very stoked fifteen year old ice climbing scholarship student. All glowed with an energy that can only be released through the pursuit of something fundamental… or fundamentally absurd.
Why ice festivals? This one is hard to answer, because I don’t know if I’ve ever heard a logical rationale for ice climbing, really. You go out on the coldest days of the year with twenty-six points of sharpened steel on your hands and feet, and you scratch your way up frozen waterfalls. It’s an esoteric, slightly dangerous, time-consuming hobby.
But man, it’s also a lot of fun… And once you’ve had a taste, you’ll never look at winter the same way again.
Maddog had spent the week before the event digging in a basecamp for the Mountain Hardwear crew at the end of the Sand Point Road, where you can look out directly at walls of ice falling from Grand Island 2 miles distant into the East Channel. Inside the tent’s cozy orange walls, climbers, fisherman, and the curious gathered to share warmth and a hot drink.
No one seemed in much of a hurry to move on. Outside, the wind blew steadily through the woods and across flows of ice that were at times broken and at times pure. I helped myself to cup of coffee, and sat down with newfound friends.
“Where you’d come from?” someone asked me.