When it comes to world-famous places for climbing, the shore of Lake Superior, on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula (affectionately known as the ‘UP’) is not the first thing that comes to most people's minds. But if you like to climb in winter, and what you like to climb is ice, the region is paradise.
Big ice lines in Michigan
Boasting one of the longest, coldest, and most humid winters in the North American continent, there’s good reason the UP is home to one of the oldest ice climbing competitions in the world, the Michigan Ice Festival, and the subject of an upcoming new film.
During filming this winter, excellent conditions allowed climbers to explore the region – and even score an ‘ice bouldering’ sesh, booting their way up over the frozen lake.
Bouldering the frozen shores of Lake Michigan
"The Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore is a haven for ice climbing,” says Sam Elias, a professional ice climber with ties back to Michigan. “The humidity, cold, length of winter, porousness of the rock – it’s a perfect combination to produce climbable ice.”
There’s countless routes both along the lakeshore, on Grand Island, a few miles off-shore, and deeper inland, with climbable ice going up to 50m, and quite a bit of first-ascent potential.
How do you get in? From above
The challenge? The approach. Six miles in and six miles out. If you’re all about the climb, you take a snowmobile. If you’re all about the experience, you use backcountry ski gear. If you’re doing it on the cheap… you use snowshoes. Either way, climbing the best ice – like the routes pictured here – is a serious, full-day commitment.
See images of the ice climb
But it it’s worth it. “The lake has all these different personalities,” says Sam. "Open water with massive chunks of ice, big, hard climbs – even the most experienced climber can enjoy it.” They can also enjoy it in (relative) safety.
The extreme cold, coupled with the density and low air content of the ice, means ice screws hold incredibly well – providing plenty of protection. However, it also means each whack of the ice axe takes more out of you. “It’s brutally hard, concrete – you have to wage war with the ice to get your pick in. Every swing rattles your tooth fillings – you might as well be hitting rock!”
Every swing rattles your tooth fillings
And almost all of this is done just above the shelf ice of the frozen lake, a unique experience in itself. “It’s this iceberg-style, other-worldly landscape,” says Elias, of the lake surface. "Just these jagged shelves of ice that you have to navigate over and around, or car-sized chunks of ice floating in the water.”
See images of Lake Michigan frozen
Then there’s the cold. How cold? Well below zero. “Ambient temps on the day we were out around zero to -10 degrees,” says Elias. “With the 40-50 kmh wind, it felt like about thirty below zero, Farenheit. That’s the coldest weather I’ve ever climbed in, and one of the most brutal cold snaps of the year for Michigan. Your hands freeze immediately, and it’s tough to even place ice screws.”
Videographer and photographer Mike Wilkinson also shares how the crew scored the ‘ice bouldering’ session down by the lake. “The wind blankets the bluffs surrounding the lake, building ice up just above the ‘deck’ – one after during shooting, the athletes just decided to start having a go at these short, ‘bouldering’ lines right by the lakeshore,” he says.
“It’s pretty risky – if they fall, that ice is hard, and there’s not enough snow to replace a bouldering mat. But that didn’t stop the crew from seeing where they could get an ice tool to catch – and produced images of one of the most unique bouldering sessions we’ve ever seen."
This year’s epic winter climbing season has given the film-makers plenty of footage to work with – you can check out the trailer here. In the meantime, feel no shame if you’ve got to go turn up the heat – these shots were cool enough to give anyone a chill.