TR - Michigan Ice Fest 2020
2020-02-11 through 14
With many fine folks!
Day 1 "Say 'ya' to da UP, eh?"
The Upper Peninsula of Michigan is not an easy place to reach. You can fly into one of the small airports in the area if you're willing to spend an extra hundred bucks or commit to the long drive up from the mitten or Wisconsin. Since my parents live in Ann Arbor, I decided to fly into Detroit and spend a day with them before heading up north. My new friend Helaina arrived Sunday night and we were treated to home cooking and puzzles at my parents' house. We left early Monday morning with the hope of making it to Munising in time for a pitch or two of ice. The drive up is largely passing cornfields, pastures, and the occasional town. Despite a snowstorm the night before, the roads were beautifully salted plowed - one of the niceties of an area with good snow infrastructure and no mountain passes to speak of.
Upon arriving in Munising, Helaina and I checked into the hotel, packed up, and made a beeline for the closest ice we could find. We ended up stumbling on a stellar 15ft "pitch" right off the main trail. It was great to warm up on an actual warm-up instead of going straight for WI5 pillars like I did in Hyalite. We got to run a few laps on the fall before heading back in town.
Day 2 - Real Ice!
I had the pleasure of meeting Nikki Smith a while ago in Portland after a midnight climb up Wy'East. Despite my sleepless delirium during that brunch, we kept in touch and met up at the Bozeman Ice Fest in December where she let me know she'd also be at the Michigan Ice Fest. The world of queer & trans people in ice climbing is extremely small and I was excited to finally get to hang out with another climber who understood more about my identity.
I grabbed coffee in town and met up with Nikki's friend Sean who would be joining us for the day. He had been making the ice fest circuit and seemed keen on getting on some harder pitches which are few and far between up here. The main goal of the day was Dairyland WI5 which a local told us was in good condition. We drove out to pick Nikki up from her hotel room and pretty soon were trekking out on the shore of Lake Superior to find some ice!
After finding another party on Dairyland (which qualifies for crowded up here!), we tried scouting further up the coast, but were disappointed when rapping into Strawberry Daze revealed it was about 40ft from touching down. Resigned to waiting in line, we queued up for Dairyland and waited for the climbers ahead of us to finish.
Nikki decided to take photos while Sean and I rapped into the climb. Even though I wouldn't be leading, I felt a pang of anxiety as we pulled the rap rope. This was commitment! As cold wind blew across the lake, Sean started his lead up and around the base of the pillar. The ice was solid and largely vertical with a few good spots to stem and rest. I followed Sean and was immediately more nervous than I wanted to be. The climb starts out with a traverse from a nice low-angle ramp to a dead-vertical pillar and the step out onto the pillar felt incredibly exposed. I had also neglected to bring a tether for my tools and was petrified of dropping them in the lake. This led to me overgripping and pumping out frequently on the climb, but thankfully there were ample screws for me to clip into and rest. I was also (perhaps irrationally) afraid of taking a fall, even on top rope, since the rope we were using was an 8.5mm single and would surely stretch quite a bit. I managed to avoid weighting it through a combination of sheer determination and crafty ice-aid tactics.
Once we both topped out, we headed back south toward The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly WI4. This climb was shorter and thankfully more sheltered from the wind. Once again, Sean and I rapped down while Nikki stayed up top to take photos. Sean led up and I followed. This climb was decidedly more moderate and I was able to get better rest stances without resorting to clipping in direct to screws.
At this point in the day, it was decidedly balmy with a bit of blue sky. As a result, the ice was getting a little melty and I emerged from the pillar with my down jacket soaked. The climbing was quite enjoyable but we were all ready to head back to warmth and food. But first, Nikki took some 'lifestyle' photos of Sean and I packing our gear up. Never before have I been so self aware at how often I grimace while trying to take my crampons off.
We ended the day at Shooters Firehouse Brewpub with burgers, pasties, and beer. Helaina joined up with us and gave me a few movies to add to my bad movie list. Everyone talked about how they'd be staying inside on Thursday as temperatures were expected to drop to -10ºF while I regretted my decision to sign up for a backcountry clinic that day.
Day 3 - Rest!
On Wednesday, I decided to stay in and stay warm while Helaina was off taking a clinic and Nikki was teaching one. The town of Munising is quite lovely even though most folks depart for the winter. I had missed the hospitality and culture of rural Michigan even though that comes with a strong feeling of being an outsider. I never know how much of that feeling is due to being queer & trans or how much is just looking like a city-slicker, but I try to assume the best in people. I also know that midwestern niceness works two ways and that sometimes the best way to fight hostility is with overwhelming hospitality.