If you know me at all, you'll know that every winter season I migrate to the southern shores of Lake Superior in search of ice and adventure. 2018 was no exception, and as is often the case, this year was full of its own unique series of events.
Ice Climbing at Pictured Rocks before Icefest
I spent nearly four weeks based out of Munising, Michigan, just a stones throw away from Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. I was able to snag a small room in a house, shared by friends Colten and Angela, who had already been there for a few weeks, climbing, guiding, and working on some cool film projects you may have seen.
I got to work right away, hiking, climbing, and getting my body reacclimatized to the Northern Michigan conditions and style. I linked up with a bunch of different folks for my first few days in town. Thanks to Maddog, Matt, Megan, and anyone else I'm forgetting for the catches on those first days. My efforts did not go unnoticed, as I shared a bunch of beta photos with the MIchigan Icefest folks, who in turn posted a conditions update full of my photos, giving me lots of props in the process. The local newspaper even shared some of my ice climbing photos, hyping the upcoming festival.
My buddy Nolan, a fellow Kentuckian, had decided to drive up a few days before the annual Icefest, and lucky for us, the island had just become accessible by foot! We climbed in unusual, tropical-like conditions (warm and wet on an island!) and had a blast. (you can read more about this on Nolan's own personal blog)
I spent two days climbing east channel routes at the island with Nolan, then also with Kait and Craig, tagging a number of 30ft-60ft WI3-WI4 routes and really building my confidence for harder climbs that I'd hoped to lead later in the season. These island climbs are special because the east channel doesn't always freeze up, so every year we can see them from the Sand Point parking lot, but we can't necessarily get to them. I may or may not have been in a photo that the National Park Service posted, asking for people to not walk over to these climbs...
I later linked up with a large group of friends from lower Michigan, who really were the first group of folks to introduce me to ice climbing, something like six years ago. Even though I can't always spend a ton of time hanging out with them due to my photo project obligations during the festival, every year they welcome me back and let me climb with them, share meals, and are just a great group of people. The time I spent with these friends was easily the most enjoyable couple of days I had out of my entire trip. No "work" stresses, everyones excited to be out, and conditions couldn't have been better. We spent a day out at the island, and then hopped on a snowmobile shuttle to climb in the Bridal Veil area.
As a testament to the kind of people they are, my buddy Nolan was planning on just crashing in his car, but after I was able to introduce him to these folks, he quickly welcomed and climbed and crashed with them for the next few days. I love introducing good people to good people, and the sport of ice climbing is filled with them!
Michigan Ice Climbing Photos with Karsten Delap
Just before Icefest got underway, I connected with a southern local, Karsten Delap, whom I've known for a few years, and joined me for shoots in Kentucky on a few occasions. We see each other from time to time around the US, at festivals or climber hangouts, usually exchanging a few friendly jabs related to climbing photo shoots. He was up in Michigan to teach a couple of clinics, and his dad had joined. We made a plan to check out some of the larger lakeshore routes between Dairyland and Miners Castle, and set out early one morning to get after it. Both Karsten and his father Ken were super chill to work with, and understood my desire to climb as much as my desire to shoot! That's one of the cool things about working with climbers – when you want to get in a few pitches yourself, they totally understand why.
Photography of the 2018 Michigan Icefest
The festival came swiftly and the masses arrived! There was lots of media this year, focusing on Angela and Sasha most of the time, with several groups creating short video packages for folks like Red Bull, Pure Michigan, and others. I spent two days of the festival taking still photos of backcountry clinics, taught by folks including Aaron Mulkey, Nate Smith, Ian Hahn, Kendra Stritch, Anne Gilbert, and Colten Moore. With nearly 1,000 people registered, it was the biggest festival yet! Plenty of climbing and partying ensued for these few days. Shortly after the fest, Rock and Ice magazine showed some love and shared some of my Michigan ice climbing photography, alongside two other pro shooters who had been in town the week prior.
Testing My Limits
I snuck in a rest day after the festival to process images and relax my legs, but it wasn't long before good friend Jon Jugenheimer talked me into joining him, Raphael Slawinski, Garrett Peabody and his buddy Shawn for something he calls, "the loop." The loop is exactly that– a loop around a part of Pictured Rocks, starting from the Chapel/Mosquito trailhead, hiking in to Mosquito Beach and taking the lakeshore trail all the way to Chapel beach, ticking off climbs along the way. Including the two miles of road that isn't plowed before the trailhead, this would be about a 13-mile day.
The setting was amazing and the conditions were perfect as I traded off climbing and taking photos of ice climbs like Twin Towers, Resurrection, and HMR. It was a full, amazing day, that ended with a hanging belay above the hypnotic, ice-covered water of Lake Superior.
The next day Jon wanted to get out again, for an even longer mission, and I made it in about five miles before my feet said no more. I had absolutely no energy left, and had to call it there.
Another rest day later, I linked up with fellow photographer Jacob Raab, with a mission to slay a monkey that had been riding my back for a while. In 2015, while helping on the production for the film, "National Parks Adventure," I set up Conrad Anker with a GoPro to get some extra ice climbing video footage. I belayed Conrad up and expected that he would simply rappel down and we'd wrap for the day. Not so! He promptly asked me to follow up the climb, Dairyland, after he reached the top. The production crew didn't seem to have an issue with the time needed to do this, so I said, "Sure!" You don't turn down a catch from one of the most notable alpinists of our time.
The issue though, was that these were working days; I wasn't exactly prepared to ice climb. I had loose boots, oversized gloves, and was feeling rather cold from having just stood around all day. I tried my hardest but simply couldn't climb up the line Conrad had led, which included a huge span over to a free hanging dagger of ice. His screw placements forced me to climb into a spot that I couldn't get myself out of, so I had to get lowered. As Conrad lowered himself, he knocked that entire dagger (the size of a small car) down with a single swift kick... I was humbled and disappointed with myself for not being ready and not being able to complete the climb, and this was something that has stuck with me for the last few years.
Why this story matters is because that day with Jacob, we made a B-line for Dairyland, and I planned to lead it.
All of the early season climbing I had done in Kentucky and the many, many laps I led at the island had culminated in this. Dairyland is typically rated as a WI5, but conditions were in our favor– there was no wind, and it was a bit on the warm side. Sticks were solid and with all the traffic this climb had seen in the last week, she had a few weaknesses in her icy armor. Nine ice screws and about 40 meters later, and I tossed that monkey from the belay ledge into the frigid depths of Lake Superior. Many thanks to Jacob for the positivity and stoke that day!
The conclusion of my trip included the usual weekend of hanging with another group of pals from lower MI. We rented out an airbnb and spent the weekend making home-cooked meals, ice climbing, sharing stories, and going out for day trips to places like the Eben Ice Caves, Miners Falls, and a few spots along the Lakeshore. It was a nice wrap up to crazy few weeks of work and play! Michigan ice climbing does not disappoint! Until next year...