Climb Onsight Attends Michigan Ice Fest

Lakeshore Curtains

On a mild day in the year of February 2024, I traveled to Munising, Michigan to conquer the ice. Around one thousand people traveled to the Michigan Ice Festival to partake in ice climbing, meet fellow climbers, reconnect with friends, and be awed by the big names in the industry.


I loaded my car, downloaded a book on K2 to get in the right mindset, and embarked on the 9+ hour road trip from Toronto to Munising. While my mind was engrossed in Ed Viesters’ tale of climbers braving the white snow and wind, the physical scenery around me stayed green. Ice, it appeared, may not be a requirement for ice fest.


I arrived exhausted, late on Tuesday night at the one-bedroom rental an hour outside of town. The host’s two cats greeted me, followed me into the washroom, and waited expectantly on the sink. After a few minutes staring at their pleading eyes, I noticed the sign stating, “the cats like tap water.” I turned on the faucet to give them their midnight licks of water and said goodnight.

Cats drinking water

I woke up, ready to climb! I joined an “intro to ice climbing” class, taught by Gerry Voelliger and Luke Baker. After a shuttle to the Lakeshore Curtains, we stood before a ten meter cliff with ice falls draped over. While us beginners were awed, Luke sauntered over and cruised up the ice to set up the top ropes. At the bottom, Gerry explained the basics, which I’m paraphrasing as:

Swing your axe, lower your body, step, step, stand up with your belly close to the ice, swing your other axe, and repeat. Focus on keeping your heels down to let the three spikes of your crampons dig into the ice.

The simple, repetitive movements are difficult to master! Given my climbing experience focused on rock climbing, my heels refused to flex downward. I also blame a lack of hammering experience for my inaccurate chops with my ice axe. I forgot to breath. My forearms ached. But man, it was liberating to reach the top.

Shaun climbing

It was so liberating, in fact, that soon afterwards I felt I deserved a pizza. After wolfing down a whole pizza myself, I napped to get ready for the night social.


At the social, I saw friends reconnecting after a year apart. For myself, I met loads of interesting people and friends. For example, a marine veteran who climbs to find peace, a company executive who places family first and lives next door to his son and daughter-in-law, many campers of various accommodations (cars, vans, ice, sleeping bags on hotel floors, etc.), and many more.


Day two began with a coffee and listening to a conversation led by Sending in Color, a Chicago nonprofit that strives to create a diverse and inclusive climbing community and industry.


Michigan Ice Fest hosts coffee talks in the morning and speakers at night. I learned from Detroit Outdoors about their efforts to provide Detroit youth’s with positive outdoor experiences; the state and federal initiatives to encourage investment in outdoor activities, both for environmental and economical reasons; the first ascents of multiple peaks in Alaska (with first-hand video of the aftermaths of avalanches, yes, plural avalanches, demolishing their tents) by Clint Helander, and the first repeat of the D16 dry-tooling grade, the hardest grade in the world, by Kevin Lindlau.

Detroit Outdoors Coffee Talk

After the morning coffee talk, I entered a classroom to learn how to build ice anchors from Nick Wilson. We reviewed how different factors affected the anchor stability, redundancy, and strength. We practiced anchors in the classroom, and then repeated them under supervision in the field. The mix of educational and practical training gave me confidence to climb on future properly rigged anchors.


Day two concluded with the raffle. Climbers, like everyone, love free merchandise. Bill Thompson, an owner of Down Wind Sports, built a crescendo of excitement as he raffled the various gear generously donated from sponsors. A good-natured competition arose after the lower balcony won raffle after raffle, until, finally, we, in the upper balcony, jeered as our fellow compatriot won a pair of mountaineering boots.

Michigan Ice Fest Raffle

On day three, unfortunately, I had to dash 9+ hours home to make it in time for my brother-in-law’s birthday dinner.  As I reminisced on the weekend, I came away amazed. An ice fest with minimal ice… preposterous. And yet, Down Wind Sports, Michigan Ice Fest, the volunteers, the guides, and the speakers did an unbelievable job running the festival—expertly weaving informational and inspiring speakers, educational clinics, fun raffles, and socials.


As someone may say, you can take the “ice” out of “ice fest”, but you can’t take the “fest” out of it (or something like that). I’m looking forward to the next year!

Picture of Shaun Rosenthal

Shaun Rosenthal

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