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Conquering the Dryer Hose: Ice Climbing Along the Shores of Lake Superior in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula

Conquering the Dryer Hose: Ice Climbing Along the Shores of Lake Superior in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula
January 26, 2017 Mary Ellen Geist
Ice Climbing - Grand Isle; Photo courtesy of Darryl Smith

The Dryer Hose. The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. Sweet Mother Moses. Flaming Stinksocks.

It’s not a list of bad B-rated movies. It’s the line-up of some of the most challenging ice formations in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula that are considered coveted conquests for ice climbers. Many of them will be featured in the upcoming Michigan Ice Fest in Munising along Lake Superior’s shoreline in the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore in mid- February.

Bill Thompson, co-owner of Downwind Sports, has been running this festival since the early 90’s. He says, “The first one I organized had about 40 people. A restaurant and bar named Sydney’s was the headquarters. It was mostly local people who were really into ice climbing. But through my contacts at Downwind Sports, I was able to contact professional athletes, instructors and presenters. It’s grown significantly.” He says last year was the largest festival yet, with more than 700 people involved.

Thompson says, “What’s special about our event is you don’t need to be an expert ice climber. The thing about this sport is that you can’t just walk into a store and buy equipment and then go ice climbing. We can give you the experience, see if you enjoy it, and whether you like it. We provide demo clothing, gear and instruction and then entertain you at night with interesting presentations. It’s a good way to find out or experience what ice climbing is all about.”

He says this year is the strongest line-up ever, with international ice climber Conrad Anker, leader of the North Face climbing team (featured in the 2015 climbing documentary “Meru”) who is known for locating the remains of legendary British climber George Mallory’s body on Mt. Everest in 1999, and Will Gadd, one of the best technical ice climbers in the world and the first person to legally ice climb Niagara Falls. Twelve other high-profile professional ice climbers will also be at this year’s Michigan Ice Fest February 15th through 19th in Munising.

Thompson says the word is getting out not only about the Michigan Ice Fest, but about Munising’s special qualities for ice climbers.

“What makes Munising a phenomenal ice climbing destination is the two hundred foot sandstone cliffs. They rise right out of Lake Superior and they are very porous. We get a lot of moisture in the fall with rain and snow and it seeps through the ground table and forms beautiful ice formations. We have dozens of waterfalls that freeze and there’s ice everywhere.”

Another plus for the Munising area: the sport of ice climbing is helping to diversify the economy, and making it more resilient to climate change. Thompson says, “We have something a lot of places in the country don’t have: we have consistent ice. A lot of people in this area depend on snowmobiling. That industry goes up and down depending on the amount of snow we get. But here in the winter, the ice is always there. It’s exciting for Munising and adds a lot of business to the area.”

Munising’s Mayor Rod DesJardins agrees with Thompson’s assessment.

DesJardins says, “What we lack in vertical drops, we make up for in water seepage which is, of course, what creates the ice columns. The area has a lot of sandstone seepage, streams and waterfalls that become immense columns of ice in the wintertime.” DesJardins says up to a thousand people are expected for this year’s Michigan Ice Fest in Munising, and he says it’s a diverse group, “from affluent professionals who do it as a hobby to the ice equivalent of ski bums and beach bums who build a snow cave to stay in during the event, or sleep in their cars.” DesJardins says his wife got so upset when she learned about the homeless ice climbers “we adopted three last year and put them up in our home because my wife didn’t want them to sleep out in the cold.”

DesJardins says he can’t really see taking up the sport of ice climbing. But he says, “We like to go out on bitter cold days to look at the intricacy of the ice crystals and formations. The ice climbers themselves are a really good bunch. But they’re nuts! Because they climb icicles for fun.”

Kathy Reynolds is Executive Director of The Alger County Chamber of Commerce and Munising Downtown Development Authority. She says there’s no exact number on how much money ice climbing brings in to the area, but she says, “We are excited every year to see the Michigan Ice Fest grow here in Munising and the economic impact to the area has been in the hundreds of thousands. The popularity of ice climbing at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore and other locations here in the county is growing not only because of the stunning beauty of the area, but the climbing itself is world class.”

Lake Superior – the largest freshwater lake in the world at 31,700 square miles – is the coldest, deepest and highest in elevation of the Great Lakes, which makes some interesting conditions for ice climbers all along its shores. Ice formations sometimes appear in Munising along the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore as early as October and often don’t disappear until the end of May. The last time Lake Superior totally froze over was in 1997.

A man who wants to be referred to only as Maddog- owns Superior Ice Climbing Adventures in the Munising area. He says he’s seeing a spike in interest in ice climbing, and it’s been fueled by the Michigan Ice Fest as well as by a recent documentary that features the area called “The Michigan Ice Film”. The film highlights the spectacular ice formations along the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. Maddog says his clients are mostly a Midwestern crowd so far, from Detroit, Cleveland, Chicago and Lansing.

Maddog says he took up ice climbing ten years ago and he’s been addicted ever since. Great Lakes North asked Maddog to explain why people seem to love such a precarious kind of sport. Maddog says, “The best way to describe it is when you’re ice climbing, the rest of the world disappears. You can only concentrate on that one single task of staying on that ice. It’s almost calming. It’s an adrenalin rush, but it’s calming at the same time”. But Maddog admits: “It can be dangerous, if you don’t respect the conditions.”

He says, “if you can climb a ladder, and listen to instructions, you can climb ice.” Maddog says when he takes clients out for the first time, he climbs up one of Munising’s many ice formations using screws, and then every four feet he attaches rope. Then when he gets to the top of the formation, he builds an anchor system with three solid anchors that all connect to the rope at the same time. He says,“everybody climbs on that rope until we’re done.”

Maddog has a permit with Pictured Rocks National Park to take people to one of the more than a thousand frozen ice climbing areas that form along Lake Superior every year. He says, “I love taking people to the Twin Falls, and to a place called the Dryer Hose. It’s a waterfall that freezes into a kind of big giant hollow straw. It’s maybe 15 feet around at the bottom but at the center it’s still hollow and there’s water running inside it. So when it melts in the spring, it looks like a dryer hose! When it just started forming, the locals took an actual rubber plastic dryer hose and stuck it in there so it would run toward the edge.” (A quick note: using man-made devices to shift the direction of water to create formations for ice climbing is known as “ice farming.”)

Maddog says one of the most daunting ice climbs in the area is The Amphitheater, a huge structure of what look like icy stalactites along Lake Superior. (see video in next email of amphitheater. He gave us permission to use but DO NOT USE AUDIO!)

But he says “the jewel of the midwest – the best ice climbing in the area – is called HMR.” He says nobody seems to know what HMR stands for, but it’s a 200 foot high frozen waterfall, a daunting wall of ice that’s featured on the cover of the book written by Jon Jugenheimer and Bill Thompson called “An Ice Climbers Guide to Munising Michigan.” Maddog says climbing HMR is a lifetime achievement.

Maddog and other ice climbing experts admit the sport isn’t for everyone. One way to check it out is by attending The Michigan Ice Fest in Munising February 15th through the 19th. For more information, go to michiganicefest.com

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