Ice Climbing on the Shores of Lake Superior

It's not all about hockey when winter hits northern Michigan; the region boasts killer ice climbing.
Ice Climbing on Lake Superior
Big ice on a big lake © Mike Wilkinson
By Josh Sampiero

When it comes to world-famous places for climbing, the shore of Lake Superior on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula (affectionately known as the "U.P.") is probably not the first place to jump into your mind. But if you like to climb in winter, and you like to climb on ice, the region is paradise (get a taste in the Instagram video below).

Boasting one of the longest, coldest, and most humid winters in the North American continent, there’s good reason the U.P. is home to one of the oldest ice-climbing competitions in the world (the Michigan Ice Festival), and that it's the subject of an upcoming new film.

During filming for the project over the winter, excellent conditions allowed climbers to explore the region, and even score an "ice bouldering" session, booting their way up over the frozen lake (watch the Instagram teaser below).

"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 are countless routes along the lakeshore, on Grand Island, a few miles off-shore, and deeper inland, with climbable ice going up over 160 feet. Not to mention quite a bit of first-ascent potential.

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. However you do it, climbing the best ice — like the routes pictured here — is a serious, full-day commitment.

Ice climbing on Lake Michigan
Ice from above © Mike Wilkinson

But it it’s worth it. “The lake has all these different personalities,” says Elias. "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.

Every swing rattles your tooth fillings

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 — [like] 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!”

Ice Climbing on Lake Superior
Looking up to the next hold © Mike Wilkinson

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.”

Then there’s the cold. How cold? Well below zero. “Ambient temps on the day we were out were around zero to -10 degrees,” says Elias. “With the winds up to 30 mph, it felt like about thirty below zero. 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.' Once 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 producing images of one of the most unique bouldering sessions we’ve ever seen."

This year’s epic winter climbing season has given the filmmakers plenty of footage to work with; you can watch 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.

Check out some insane ice climbs from Will Gadd in the links below:

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