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Climbing Ice At Pictured Rocks

Spray Falls is just one of the ice-climbing options in Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore / Lars Jensen

Spray Falls is just one of the ice-climbing options in Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore/Lars Jensen

You don’t have to be crazy to ice climb, but it helps.

Crazy, that is, about getting out in the winter, breathing in some cold, clean air, and just getting away...far away. Because, when you’re setting an ice screw into a frozen waterfall, clipping in a carabiner, balancing on the front points of your crampons as you consider your next move, you’re not thinking about anything else but that. Crazy. It’s all about being in the present. Climbers know that their sport is as much of a concentration game as it is physical prowess, and ice climbing is even more so.

The surface of the ice is slippery, of course, but it can be as hard as stone when the temperatures drop. The challenge is to ascend something temporary, with evidence of your ascent erased quickly: the ice is always changing 

Climbing frozen waterfalls is also flat-out beautiful. Look into the blue ice, hear water running behind a curtain of ice, and peer down at the fantasy castles of ice.

The UP (that’s the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, by the way) has one of the largest concentrations of short-pitch ice climbs around. The 15 miles of cliffs at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore are prime climbing, with dozens of ice features.

But don’t just focus on the ice. This is a region of vast forests, quaint villages, and pristine waters; where the eastern deciduous forests and northern boreal woods meet maples and beech, pines and fir trees. At the lakeshore you can hike, snowshoe, snowmobile, cross-country ski, ice fish and, of course, climb ice. These multicolored sandstone cliffs have been stained by water over time, as it flows towards the lake, and even the ice picks up this color.

Many roads aren’t plowed, so access is by snowmobile, ski, or snowshoe, but approaches are easy and flat. The town of Munising (population 2,500) is the western gateway to the lakeshore with easy access to areas like Sand Point, Miners Castle, and Munising Falls. You should be able to find a climb (mostly top roped) to suit you (from 70 to 200 feet), with names such as Dryer Hose, Dairyland, and Sweet Mother Moses.

If you’d like to test yourself against the pros, or learn how to climb ice then head to the Michigan Ice Fest from February 14-19 near Munising. Take instruction from world-renowned alpinist Conrad Anker, find a climbing partner, or just generally have a hot time on the cold ice. For more information visit this site

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I've always called the frozen waterfalls my 'cathedrals', because the frozen spires remind me of the vertical pipes on a grand pipe organ. I've never climbed ice, but in my nursing days treated many an unlucky or careless climber.

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