Michigan Ice Fest marks 28-year anniversary

Participants of Michigan Ice Fest climb large formations along the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. The event has enticed ice climbers from around the world to Munising for 28 years, making the event one of the largest festivals of its kind in the world. (Courtesy photos from Michigan Ice Fest)


Journal Staff Writer

MUNISING — The Michigan Ice Fest broke its attendance record this week, with over 1,000 participants flooding the city of Munising to engage in ice climbing activities for the country’s longest running festival of its kind.

The festival, which is sponsored by numerous outdoor equipment manufacturers, began Wednesday and runs through Sunday. The event includes classes, demos, slideshows, films and a variety of ice climbing-related fun. The ice climbing itself takes place at several areas in the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore.

The festival makes ice climbing accessible to the first timer, teaches advanced courses to those looking to improve their skills and connects participants with the greater climbing community. Event organizer Bill Thompson said the festival officially started 28 years ago.

“Every year we add new things and try to keep it fresh for people,” Thompson said. “There are people who have been coming up for decades, and to keep them coming up we add new things. We get some of the world’s best climbers and new instructors and people want to meet them and learn from them. We also have some new classes, there’s always something new.”

Thompson got into ice climbing after he and his college roommate, Arni Ronis, were taken to the Eben Ice Caves by Northern Michigan University professors Phil Watts and John Rebers, who taught the students how to ice climb.

Ronis and Thompson co-own Downwind Sports.

Thompson first became involved in the Michigan Ice Fest as a participant for its first two years and took over the responsibilities as organizer shortly afterward. The festival continues to grow every year, he said.

“It started building over time, but it didn’t happen overnight,” he said. “Social media was a big part of it. We did some preaching on there about how we have some of the best climbing in the country.”

The group got recognition after posting pictures of ice climbers, Thompson continued, with world-known athletes contacting them to see if they could also participate by climbing and teaching some classes. Now about seven countries are represented at the event, Thompson said.

“The furthest someone has traveled this year is from New Zealand,” he said. “It took them 29 hours of flight time to get over here. There are a lot of European countries that are also represented.”

Sales representatives also come from all over the country to support the event and represent the leading manufacturers of climbing equipment and clothing.

“That’s another cool thing about the festival — not only do they support the event, they’re here in person and have booths set up so people can talk to the people who make the gear and check it all out,” he said.

The fest is headquartered at the Munising Community Center, with films and slideshows presented at the Mather Auditorium. Most of the activities are in the center — such as registration, the class meeting spot, gear demos and sales, and shuttle pick up. Since parking spots are limited near the trails, a free shuttle service is offered throughout the week.

After-parties were also to be held at different Munising businesses for people to gather, share stories and have fun. On Friday night, East Channel Brewery was to host an outdoor party for participants.

“The East Channel Brewery is a wonderful tavern in town and we’re very grateful of the support the city of Munising gives us for allowing us to close the street off,” Thompson said. “It enables more people to get together and that’s really what it’s all about. It’s just fun to hang out and share a story.”

Thompson said spectators are encouraged to watch ice climbers.

“Any spectators can come to our headquarters and catch the free shuttle. It’s just a short walk to the trailhead from the drop-off point,” he said.

If a spectator likes what they see and wants to try it out sometime, Thompson said Michigan Ice Fest now offers both winter and summer guided climbs, lessons and group adventures. More information can be found at iceclimbmichigan.com.

Jaymie Depew can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 206. Her email address is jdepew@miningjournal.net.