Climbing... in Michigan? No way, you might say--it’s all flat and/or snowy. That is not entirely the case, however: at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, there is world-class ice climbing to be found.
It is true that most of the state is geologically unsuitable for climbing. The entire Lower Peninsula (and parts of the eastern Upper Peninsula) is dominated by a large limestone basin centered on the ‘palm’ of the Mitten. This is topped by a heterogenous mixture of gravel, boulders, sand, and dirt washed out from the glacial advances and retreats which created the Great Lakes-- it’s great for farming, but certainly not climbing. The Upper Peninsula is very different. It is geologically more similar to the Canadian Shield, a formation of mostly igneous and metamorphic rock which includes the oldest rocks found in North America. These rocks and their minerals are what make the UP such good mining country; some of the most spectacular copper deposits in the world are found up there. Parts of the central UP include sandstone beds which date to around 500 million years old, known as the Munising Formation, named for the town on South Bay (“Munising” itself is derived from an Ojibway word, “Munisii”, meaning “near the island”): these are the aforementioned Pictured Rocks. In the summer, these cliffs grace Lake Superior with breathtaking beauty, delighting hikers and boaters alike, and in the winter, they provide some of the best ice climbing in the United States.
I asked Black Diamond athlete Dawn Glanc why the ice climbing up here was so good: she told me that “the shittier a rock is to climb regularly, the better it is for ice climbing”. Regular rock climbers would not want to climb sandstone, or any sedimentary rock for that matter: these tend to crumble apart due to the fact that they are cemented together by one or several minerals. Igneous and metamorphic rocks like granite or basalt make for much safer rock climbing, because they were forged together by heat and pressure rather than low-temperature chemical reactions. These don’t make for good ice climbing, though, because there is no space for water to go, much less to freeze into ice. Sedimentary rocks, especially sandstones, make for excellent ice climbing: the spaces in between the grains of sand hold water, and these spaces are filled up all year by rain and snowmelt. When the temperature drops (as it particularly does in the UP right on the shore of the largest body of fresh water in the world), this water freezes, and as you might remember from intro chem, water expands when it freezes; it has nowhere to go but to seep out of the cliffs. This means that climbers can experience spectacular routes without damaging the rock, of which the National Park Service highly approves.
Photo from Michigan IceFest’s Facebook page.
IceFest was started around 25 years ago as a pretty small and low-key affair. In contrast, this year’s festival had over 200 people registered. The festival was originally been held in a local restaurant, Sydney’s, but this year American Legion Post 131 was generous enough to tolerate an incursion of a bunch of people nuts enough to climb frozen waterfalls.
The festival was February 10-14, but the Biv Crew didn’t make an appearance until very early Friday morning. Being an outdoor gear shop we, of course, intended to camp. Thursday evening after work, Beniece, Hunter, and myself (Helen) headed north. In the face of the windy, snowy weather, we made fairly good time… however, we still arrived in Munising at about 2:45 in the morning. We found a spot on the side of Sand Point Road and set up camp: Hunter in his Hilleberg Nammatj (and a bivy sack), and Beniece and I in the borrowed North Face VE-25 Summit Series mountaineering tent. She and I were also very comfortable (surface-wise) on some borrowed ExPed MegaMat, however, still cold. She had borrowed a -20* The North Face sleeping bag from our manager Kate, and I was double-bagging it in two 15* North Face Cat’s Meows. We both wore many layers AND gloves to bed.
Friday morning we were greeted by a snowplow driver with a very thick Yooper accent, who admonished us to “get movin, eh, afore the rangers show up”. It turned out that we were behind the Ranger Station… whoops. Protip: you need a backcountry camping permit for Pictured Rocks, since the regular sites are closed during the winter, and parking lots are not legal campsites. We therefore hightailed it into town.
Thankfully, there was coffee and bagels waiting for us at the American Legion. We registered, though Beniece and I were disappointed to learn that the Ice Climbing Teaser (geared towards people who had never before ice climbed) had filled up. Hunter and Beniece got their climbing demo gear provided by Downwind Sports (of Houghton and Marquette), and I looked into finding a real campsite. Because our class had filled up, we had the morning free: we went to go check out the campground which an IceFest volunteer had recommended to me. Walking back to the car, we came upon two guys around our age next to our car, with their stove out and cooking pancakes in the windbreak created by the cars. “You guys have the right idea, “ I remarked. We all introduced ourselves, and pancakes were exchanged for homemade granola bars. Brian and Eric, it turned out, worked at Downwind Sports in Houghton, where they went to Michigan Tech. They were also planning on camping, though in their car (Sasha the Ford Focus station wagon). They planned to go climbing at the Three Sisters that afternoon, so we exchanged numbers and figured we’d meet up after lunch.
We thus headed out into the worsening weather to look into the Furnace Bay Campground. That turned out to be Very Closed: it looked like it hadn’t been plowed yet this winter. Hunter got out to see how deep it was; he was itching to drive his Jeep Rubicon into some exciting terrain, but the snow was a bit too deep. We then headed to the Park Headquarters in town to ask more specific directions. It turned out that the Park Service ranger was stuck in the whiteout conditions on the road, the Forest Service ranger couldn’t issue the right permit, and looked pretty skeptical when we said we wanted to camp. It was barely ten o’clock, so we figured we’d just go outside and play and figure out lodging later. Hunter decided to take a nap, and Beniece and I decided to check out the hall with the various vendors and representatives where we saw our regular Patagonia representative Erin! While refilling on coffee, we ran into Brian and Eric again. They were about to take the shuttle out to Sand Point Road where the climbing was going on, so we decided to join them. Beniece grabbed her climbing demo gear and I grabbed the snowshoes I was demoing from MSR, and we headed out.
setting up to climb
Unfortunately throughout the day, the weather continued to worsen. Beniece had been hoping to meet up with Chelsea, a former Biv staffer who lives in Marquette, but the state police were about the close M-28 between Marquette and Munising. Another Bivouac staff member, Emily, had been celebrating Valentine’s Day with her boyfriend Steve, and they were trapped in Christmas (a tiny town between Marquette and Munising). The wind was picking up and the temperature dropping. And even after lunch in the nice warm restaurant, Beniece was still freezing. Hunter, being certified in Wilderness First Aid, brought up that he thought Beniece was exhibiting signs of hypothermia. She was upset, because she wanted to climb some more, and I was alarmed, because how on earth would we safely camp this evening? As we sat drinking cocoa and looking out at the view of whiteout conditions, we called it. We would give up camping and try to find somewhere to stay in a hotel that night.
Beniece and I posted up in the Legion while Hunter went climbing, and I called every hotel in town. We managed to find the only accommodation available: a cabin on the bay with room for our whole party (if the weather allowed them all to get here). We secured the place, and now that the main worry of alcohol-induced hypothermia had been alleviated, had some delicious Ore Dock Brewing beer. That evening Beniece and I attended a boot-fitting clinic run by none other than Henry Barber, a pioneer in the world of free-solo climbing. He is now in his 60’s and works as a representative for Asolo. We asked a couple of questions about fitting boots on other people, and told him that we worked at Bivouac. “Oh, I know Ed and Randy,” he chuckled. He also declared at our feet were “perfect”, that is, both of them are the same size.
Beniece and Henry Barber, getting fitted for some Asolo alpine boots
After the clinic, we continued to be amazed by Henry Barber in his presentation about two of his more famous solo first ascents. He talked about his still-unrepeated climb of the Vettisfossen, a 900-foot frozen waterfall in Norway, and his dangerous ascent of Korea Peak in what was then the USSR. We were also blown away by Dawn Glanc’s presentation chronicling her many first ascents in Iceland. She had decided to look into that country because her grandfather, “Grandpa Kono”, had been stationed in Keflavik during WWII with the Nav and had an interesting perception of Icelandic geography.
After some delicious free beer from Ore Dock Brewing, we decamped to the cabin, and it was glorious. There was a gas fireplace, a big kitchen, and it was generally the sort of thing you might see in a Pure Michigan ad.
Hunter demonstrated rappelling techniques off the rafters, Beniece finally declared that she was warm, and I poured myself a drink and relaxed. We did contact our new friends, though, as they had declared that they were car-camping and the temperature had dropped (before the wind chill!) to -14. They eventually joined us, and we spent a convivial evening pretending to camp by sleeping on the floor in our sleeping bags in front of the nice cozy fire.
Hunter demonstrates rappelling techniques
After a much clearer drive than they expected, some of our other friends arrived around 9 in the morning. Beniece went climbing with our new friends. They snowshoed about 6 miles to their climb and had a good afternoon of climbing. After a nap, Matt and Hunter headed out as well. I, being into staying on the ground, decided to snowshoe around Miner’s Falls. I got a little bit stuck on the side of the road and got pulled out by some nice gentlemen with a very interesting vehicle.
An interesting vehicle indeed. They had been ferrying climbers out to the falls. Apparently they made this contraption themselves!
Hunter and Matt get the prize for the most exciting afternoon: they rescued someone! They were at a real waterfall, not just a seep, so some liquid water was still flowing down a sort of ice pipe. The belayer of the other climbing pair had somehow managed to throw the rope down the hole without either of them noticing, so the guy rappelling down had a wet and frozen rope in his belay device, and wet, frozen gloves. They threw some gloves up to him while they and Armaan, a former Biv staffer, got ready to climb up. They ended up having to cut the frozen rope and replace his with their extra. All in all, we made some friends and used some cool new gear. Bivouac highly recommends IceFest!
- Helen DeMarsh (salesperson)