Ice Climbing at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore: A Winter Adventure You'll Never Forget
Yes, this is me scaling a wall of ice. Going ice climbing was never something on my to-do list and honestly I never thought I’d attempt it but when you live in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan you embrace winter in an almost daredevil way because you just have to. Snow and ice are prevalent for months so it’s not as easy as it once was to hide out for two months willing warmer temps to arrive.
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I need to start off by saying I am not an expert climber. This was my first time climbing anything, which is exactly the reason I wanted to share my experience. No matter your climbing expertise, or lack there of, you can go ice climbing. If you have the appropriate gear and go with a guide service or experienced group, you’ll have a great experience.
Ice climbing in the Upper Peninsula has been growing in popularity for many years. As some of y’all know my hubs is a teacher in the outdoor adventure industry so we often get to do fun activities because of his work. We were invited to go climbing with a group of faculty and friends from the local university going out with the Michigan Ice Fest Guides. We were both nervous to tag along because neither of us are experienced climbers (I’d never been climbing period) but they assured us beginners were welcome.
When Can You Go Ice Climbing?
Ice typically starts forming in December and lasts through April. If you’re new to ice climbing, check out Michigan Ice Fest in mid-February for a variety of classes, demos, and seminars.
Popular Ice Climbing Spots in Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore
Curtains at Pictured Rocks National Seashore in Munising, Michigan
20-50 ft columns, off of Sand Point Road
The Curtain Wall at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore is one of the most popular spots to go in the Upper Peninsula. Located in Munising, this National Lakeshore is a wildly popular destination the summer because of the dramatic sandstone cliffs overlooking the crystal clear water of Lake Superior. During the winter, that same sandstone becomes a perfect vehicle for ice formations. The porous nature of sandstone allows for water to pour through the rock and create ice walls perfect for climbing. The Curtain is popular because it is the most easily accessible spot in Pictured Rocks and located just off of Sand Point Road. *Note: There’s no parking on Sand Point Road. You have to park at Sand Point Beach and walk to the trail to the Curtains.
Another popular climbing spot at Pictured Rocks:
Miners Falls - 40 ft column, hike in 3 miles from junction of Carmody and Miners Castle Road
There are many popular ice climbing routes around the Upper Peninsula. Bill Thompson, owner of Downwind Sports and the creator of Michigan Ice Fest is an authority on ice climbing in the area and has an extensive list of ice climbing locations in the UP. Check out his guide here.
What to Wear Ice Climbing
Warm layers (obviously) but you don’t want to wear so much that you get really hot when you’re climbing. You also want to be able to move freely. I have a pretty standard winter outdoor outfit that has been perfect for outdoor adventures in the Upper Peninsula. I never leave the house without these Patagonia thermals and layer them under the Prana Halle pants. These are excellent hiking pants and when layered properly they’ll take you through winter as well. I think I’ll get some heavier winter pants or ski bibs at some point but this combo has been working for me so far.
On top I like to start with a Patagonia Capilene tops or Mountain Hardwear base layer long sleeve top. You can get them in a silk weight or thermal. On top of that, I like to layer this jacket. It’s definitely one of the best things I’ve purchased since we moved up here. It is fuzzy on the inside and has a wind blocking shell on the outside which is great. To top it all off, I have my Arc’teryx down jacket which keeps me nice and toasty no matter how cold it is outside.
Sizing is all over the place so I’d recommend trying on everything. I never know what size I’m going to be for different pieces and brands. This is the one thing that drives me crazy about outdoor gear. For example, I bought a North Face long down coat to wear around town and it is a size M. This Arc’teryx is an XL. In retrospect I should have just gotten a L because the XL is a little big but the L was pretty snug and was worried about not being able to layer under it if I wanted.
Other Gear You Need
Crampons, boots, axes and lots of stuff I’m way less familiar with. Like I said, I’m not a professional climber so if you’re a newbie like me, I’d highly recommend going with a guide service. We went with the Michigan Ice Fest Guides and they provide everything you need so it makes the experiences a lot less stressful.
What to Expect When Ice Climbing
The first thing I realized when we reached the Curtains was how little flat ground there was to stand on. It became clear why you wear crampons throughout the whole experience even when you’re not climbing. Once I got those on my boots I felt much more grounded and comfortable because the spikes grab on to the ice as you walk around.
The other bonus of going with a guide service is they set up all the ropes for you while you hike from the car to the site. So when you show up you just put on your crampons and jump on a rope. I hung back for a while shooting photos and videos trying to decide if I had the guts to actually try it. Watching everyone make it up the ice with the help of the guides giving cues made me feel more comfortable about trying it for myself.
I started on the shortest climb thinking it’d be the easiest. I think it was 20 or so feet tall (pictured above) but the ice poured over a rock formation that jutted out instead of being straight up and down. Bill Thompson, the creator of Michigan Ice Fest assured me that it was harder than any of the straight climbs, but the height of the other columns freaked me out. But he was absolutely right. It felt nearly impossible to kick my feet into the ice enough so I could stand and keep working my way up. Somehow I made it to the top and celebrated my return to the ground with some hot chocolate.
The guides convinced me to try one of the columns after I caught my breath. I shimmied down the icy hill to the tall curtains and got tied into the belay system and started my second climb. With every swing and stick of the axes, I realized quickly that it was much easier to find the right placement for tools in the straight ice. I got up about halfway and rested my hands and said “ok, I’m ready to come down.” Unanimously, everyone shouted back at me, “but you’re so close!” Being a very competitive person, I immediately started climbing again determined to get to the top like everyone else.
Helpful tip: Don’t death grip your axes and rest your hands after each step up. With your hands being above your head for so long, they tend to lose blood flow quickly and feel numb which can cause you all sorts of issues. So once you get your axes in a good position, you can drop one hand at a time to give them a good shake and rest.
I finally made it to the top and took a quick rest before heading down. Watching the ice go by as you walk down the column just hanging out in mid air, was equally as wild as the climb.
Seeing the curtains initially had me terrified, but I’m so glad I tried this. I’ve never felt like such a bad ass.
If you’re looking to rent gear, check out Downwind Sports. They have 3 locations: Houghton, Marquette, and Munising. Or plan your visit during Michigan Ice Fest in mid February for classes, demos and more.
**Would you try ice climbing? **
If you’re looking for a place to stay near Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, check out these deals in Munising, Michigan.