In the spirit of rehabbing my relationship with Midwest winters, it was high time I found recreation to keep me outside and moving.
After a summer of hiking, off-roading and even eFoiling I was in dire need of some fresh air adventure, but didn’t know where to start. I could’ve started nice and slow with a leisurely snowshoe trip to get my bearings, but I’m beginning to learn that dipping a toe in might not be for me.
Let’s go ice climbing
Spiked boots, pickaxes and 50 foot vertical ice formations — winter is getting fun. I’m always chasing a new experience and ice climbing hit the mark. The only relevant experience, I thought, was infrequent visits to an indoor rock climbing gym. This was until my guide Emily at Downwind Sports gave me my first bit of advice.
If you’ve ever been rock climbing, don’t think this is the same thing.
My plans had been foiled, I’m at the mercy of the ice. Luckily, I was in good hands.
Spoiler alert — I had a great time and I definitely owe it to Bill and Emily at Downwind Sports in Munising, Michigan. After crushing my dreams of familiarity, Emily broke down the basics and left me feeling confident while Bill proved himself to be a wealth of knowledge. This was no surprise seeing as Bill spearheads the Upper Peninsula’s annual “Ice Fest,” a week in early February where winter sports enthusiasts from around the world gather around the coastal cities of Lake Superior. I have to admit this was the first I heard of it, but I learned that Ice Fest was far from obscurity for ice climbers and for good reason.
In true Great Lakes fashion, the ice found around Munising offers some of the best recreational terrain a climber can find. Bill explained this is largely due to the sandstone cliffs scattered about. Again, I have to admit to my ignorance. Up until this moment I was confident I was en route to climb a frozen waterfall. To my surprise, this wasn’t the case, but the real destination was far more interesting.
Hips to ice, use your legs, rest your arms
One of my soft spots for winter is how dramatically the freezing temperatures shift the landscape. This is especially true for sandstone cliffs. Sandstone soaks up water in the summer and contracts when the winter freeze comes, which forces the water out of the sediment. It freezes as it flows down the cliff face creating impressive pillars of ice.
Bill said it’s this mode of creation that makes Munising a global destination. Vertical shafts like these are a rare challenge and this of course only made my head bigger when I reached the top.
As a visual learner, I knew I wouldn’t understand what I was doing until I was doing it. I focused on the tools of my earlier lesson: Hips to ice, use your legs, rest your arms. My hips were to the ice, my legs were carrying the load, but resting my arms had slipped my mind. When using the pickaxe, most first timers unconsciously grip the handles believing their lives depend on it, myself included.
By the time I reached the top, my forearms had caught fire. I was sure I’d never use them again. Determined through the flames I still reached my goal, where a stunning view of Lake Superior waited for me.
Okay, final admission of the article — ice climbing is way easier than it looks. Bill and Emily coached me up to the top not once, but twice. I’m never going to miss an opportunity to brag, but as a journalist I have a duty to give it to you straight. I believe anyone with full mobility can do this. It’s adventurous, exciting and you walk away feeling like a professional mountaineer. If you’re looking for something to ignite your winter love I can’t suggest ice climbing enough. The cold is no reason to stay inside.
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Featured image: “If you’ve ever been rock climbing, don’t think this is the same thing.” (Photo Credit: Ian Solomon)