Ice climbing festival celebrates slippery slopes

John L. Russell
Special to the Detroit News

Munising — The ice is plentiful at the Dryer Hose and the Curtains.

The two ice climbing sites are among dozens of spots for ascending ice formations at the annual Michigan Ice Fest in Alger County and along the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore.

“Our festival began informally about 30 years ago, with a bunch of guys getting together to socialize and climb the area ice columns,” said Todd King, one of the original climbers.

“Through word-of-mouth, news spread about our ice, which is not good, it’s epic good. We organized and began searching for sponsors, who came out in force. They jumped to support us.”

Ice formations — both from natural waterfalls over the cliffs in the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore and “seeps,” where water seeps through the porous limestone rock that makes up the lakeshore — attract the climbers.

Festival organizer Bill Thompson says the festival — which began Wednesday and runs through Sunday — is growing from input from climbers.

“We have been sifting through participant evaluations and working tirelessly to put together an amazing week,” Thompson said. “Based on participant feedback, we now have smaller class sizes, staggered class times, an improved free shuttle system and more ice to climb.”

Seminars and daily climbing clinics, both in the classroom and at the ice sites, have brought more than 600 pre-registrations to the festival, which has filled area lodging sites and restaurants with customers.

Each night, informal gatherings with renowned climbers and instructors offer the chance for participants to learn about the sport and socialize.

More than two dozen volunteers, a 10-person festival staff and Munising community input have made the festival a must-do event for ice climbers, organizers say. Over the years, as news of the festival spread over social media and was captured in two movies, the festival has become the largest ice climbing event in the country.

The National Park Service is an event supporter.

“The festival has a huge impact on the Munising community,” said park ranger Bill Smith. “I’ve been working the ice festival for 18 years, and the NPS and the community have established a nice relationship.”

In 1999, the festival attracted an estimated 2,000 people over three days. In 2016 an estimated 6,000 people attended the festival, Smith said.

“The park feels no negative impact from the festival,” he said. “The ice is a renewable resource, the climbers are very thoughtful with their approach to the woods and the ice, and we have several months of safe climbing. Everyone benefits.”

The Michigan Ice Fest invites instructors from all over the country andholds climbing classes for participants prior to heading out to the lakeshore. The cost is $40 for online early registration and $60 at the door, with an additional fee for equipment, according to the Ice Fest website.

Helmets, clothing, specialized boots, crampons and ice axes are available to loan out each day.

Instructor Kendra Stritch of Minneapolis taught an intro to climbing class for women.

“My brother and I are rock climbers, using a rock wall at our gym to learn the sports. I took up ice climbing about 10 years ago,” Stritch said.

“The places we climb are like a puzzle. The ice is different every time we climb. Ice can change overnight from temperature, humidity, snowfall, there are lots of factors,” she said. “You have to learn the ice. You don’t have to be really strong if you have good technique.”

Leading a group of male climbers on Thursday at The Curtains, a seep of ice about 12 meters high, was Marcus Garcia, a Junior Olympic climbing coach from Durango, Colorado.

Proud of his team’s third-place finish in the recent world championship, Garcia took time to demonstrate and assist new climbers on the use of ice axes and climbing technique.

“The ice here is wonderful,” said Garcia. “The festival has become a favorite event for climbers.”

North Face, Grivel and Black Diamond, this year’s main sponsor, are world-renowned gear companiesthat have offered substantial support for the event.

More information can be found at

John L. Russell is a photojournalist and freelance writer from Traverse City.