Tiny Munising gets big boost from ice climbing festival

It's not skiing, snowmobiling, or snowshoeing that brings crowds to tiny Munising on the shores of Lake Superior each winter. Some of the world's best ice climbing is found there, and it's making a big impact on the small town.
There's a guy sitting at a table at Sydney's Restaurant in Munising, Michigan, wearing mountaineering boots and a climbing harness, a loaded climbing backpack at his feet. It's really quite a scene. Where else would you find someone wearing a climbing harness while eating hashbrowns in the Midwest, and in the winter no less? 
 
Nowhere, which is why this guy and his carabiners and big puffy down jacket and harness and big boots are kind of an anomaly for an area defined by Carhartts and coyote fur hats. The snowmobilers at the table over have been throwing confused glances that suggest they have no clue why he's wearing such non-bulky, seemingly uninsulated snow pants.

The waitresses look on as if they've all seen it before, because they have--Sydney's has been the headquarters for what is now the third largest, and certainly the oldest, ice climbing festival in the United States, Michigan Ice Fest, since its humble beginnings (the year of which has been argued but which many agree was around 1991), when only 10 people showed.
 
"When we hosted the first Ice Fest, snowmobiling was a huge industry in this area," says Peggy Cromwell, owner of Sydney's. "Snowmobiling was at its peak in Alger County and probably in the Midwest, but as the years went on, the numbers (at Ice Fest) started to grow.
 
"Ironically enough, to kind of fast forward to present day, this dining room is full of ice climbers, I don't think there's a snowmobiler in this room right now. The pendulum has swung in another direction, and I think Alger County as a whole has embraced ice climbing."
 
For the town of Munising, Ice Fest weekend--this year, February 6-8--is the tourism crème de la crème. This is the big weekend. This may be just another weekend for snowmobilers, snowshoers, cross country skiers and the casual tourists, but not for the men and women who eat breakfast in their climbing harnesses. This is the weekend for booked hotels and a dining room filled at breakfast, lunch and dinner with hungry, trail-weary ice climbers, such as when Cromwell and I sat down to talk and there was hardly an open chair in the entire dining area. This is one of the only weekends where the old draw of snowmobiling bows down to the new draw of climbing up frozen waterfalls with ice axes and crampons, of hiking three, four, five miles to climb 60 or 80 feet of ice formed on the sandstone cliffs of Pictured Rocks and Lake Superior.
 
Though snowmobiling will always provide an important economic force for the Munising community--and communities the U.P. over--the benefits of the burgeoning ice climbing following have been astounding for the town with only one stoplight in the central Upper Peninsula.
 
"I have to be honest, my initial impression was that ice climbers would be good to our neighbors but they're probably not going to have that big of an impact on our business, they're probably going to be drinking bottled water and eating granola bars," Cromwell says. "But then we realized that these guys and ladies like to drink a lot of beer and eat a lot of food, and I was tickled to see what evolved from it, not just from a business perspective but otherwise.
 
"Ice climbing has really blessed us, and this is truly our biggest weekend of the winter."
 
Cromwell isn't overstating the effect of Ice Fest on her business, either. From both a business and personal standpoint, she says ice climbing has introduced the Munising community to a different world, a lifestyle many in the area knew nothing about just a decade ago. Now, she says, coffee-table conversations include discussions of professional ice climbers and new developments in the ice climbing world, as well as how pleased they are with the climbing community as a whole.
 
"Ice climbing carries us through the month of February, hands down," Cromwell says. "Six or seven years ago, it still wasn't really embraced and now, I don't think there is a business owner in town, or a local in town that has a bad thing to say about ice climbers. Ice climbers as a group have truly blazed the trail in and of itself because in small communities, everybody talks, but the conversation has been how nice ice climbers are.
 
"Ice climbers have really won the locals over with their politeness and kindness--they're easy going, laid back, no worries, everything is okay. They're just enjoying their time here."
 
And that, to be sure, is not hard to do--especially for a community of people who embrace single-digit temperatures and spending their days climbing the frozen waters of creeks and streams flowing over sandstone cliffs. The ice climbing in Munising is some of the best in the country, and certainly no other location outside of the Rockies comes close to its concentration and quality. There are over 150 named climbs (though Down Wind Sports owner and Ice Fest organizer Bill Thompson will say there are upwards of 1,000 total climbs) within 20 miles of Munising.
 
Ratings range from 30-foot beginner-intermediate climbs (the lowest technical rating in Munising is WI3, on a scale that goes from WI1 to WI7) to climbs that challenge world-class athletes--many of which are first introduced to Lake Superior ice while in town for Ice Fest. The 2015 Ice Fest hosted six professional athletes, including Will Mayo, Raphael Slawinski, who was first introduced to ice climbing on Grand Island in Munising, Anna Pfaff, a professional athlete for La Sportiva (a world-renowned climbing company), and Barry Blanchard, who is considered the grandfather of Canadian alpine mountaineering.
 
The organizers of Ice Fest find international climbing brands to sponsor the event annually, and accommodate many professional athletes who have graced Ice Fest in year's past. These climbers are world-renowned and consistently travel to South America, Alaska and the Alps to climb--and here they are, in Munising, Michigan.
 
"We fought for 24 or 25 years now to tell people that there is ice climbing in Michigan," Thompson says. "And some people still don't believe us. There is world class ice climbing here and that's no joke."
 
Ice Fest isn't just about the climbing, though: Hungry climbers have a general fondness for hearty, home cooked food and a pint of craft beer. They embrace the convenience of a nearby hotel room and hot tub. Pictured Rocks Inn and Suites, which is located just steps from Sydney's, was booked from Thursday through Sunday of Ice Fest weekend, and reaps similar benefits throughout the winter as more and more ice climbers flock to the ice formations and frozen waterfalls of Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore and Grand Island. The upper room in Sydney's was packed the entire weekend with climbing gear, climbing classes, athletes, college students, Down Wind employees, and climbers from California, Colorado, Detroit, Milwaukee, and Chicago. The nightly slideshows by various attending athletes drew upwards of 400 people a night, with about 500 coming in on Saturday night as a standing-room-only crowd spilled out of the upstairs room and into the stairwell.
 
Munising's Falling Rock Cafe owner Nancy Dwyer says the event has absolutely made an impact in town.
 
"It's a great event, it's world known, it has world-class speakers, it's a top of the line event and overall has definitely impacted our town economically," she says.
 
And the locals are catching on to the significant effect the ice climbing community has and will continue to have on the Munising area.
 
"We really carry a uniqueness that no one else carries and we should be touting that," Cromwell says. "The local community is just in awe and it's opened their eyes to ice climbing. They're almost as enthusiastic about it as we the business owners as a whole are, because of the economic impact climbers have provided for our businesses here. We're very thankful."
 
Author's Note:  Clear & Cold Cinema--the U.P.-based production crew responsible for "Cold Rolled," a film about Marquette County snow biking that brought national attention to the sport and area--is currently working on its second film, the Michigan Ice Film, which highlights the "hidden gem" of ice climbing in Munising, and features the athletes and climbers who travel from all over the world for a chance at Michigan ice. Clear & Cold has a Kickstarter project running to support the film here, and the trailer for it is online here.

Amanda Monthei is a freelance writer, a Northern Michigan University graduate and a native of Northwest Michigan. She dreams of the West, but her favorite cardinal direction will always be north. You can find her on Twitter here: @amonthei
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