The Michigan Ice Fest has come a long way in three decades.
The first festival, held in 1991 and advertised mostly by word of mouth, drew just 10 climbers to Munising. Bill Thompson and his climbing buddy were among them.
Today, Thompson is (and has been) the organizer of the annual event, which kicks off Wednesday, February 7, and runs through Sunday, February 11.
Last year’s festival attracted about 1,400 climbers and spectators from all over the United States and several countries to Munising and Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore.
Believed to be the oldest ice climbing festival in the country, the Michigan Ice Fest is not a competition but an opportunity to introduce the curious to the sport and to hone the skills of those with various levels of experience. It’s a chance to learn from some of the best athletes in the sport and socialize with like-minded enthusiasts.
“It’s kind of grown organically and steadily over the years,” says Thompson, who is co-owner of Down Wind Sports in Munising and Marquette and is well-known in climbing circles. “When social media came around, we started to see some amazing photos posted of climbers. It drew a lot of attention. People would tell their friends and then come up. A lot of them come back every year. It’s become like a big family reunion.”
Events like the Michigan Ice Fest, one of a nationwide circuit of ice climbing festivals, are an important segment of the state’s outdoor recreation industry. Snow activities accounted for $130 million in value-add to Michigan’s economy in 2022, according to the federal Bureau of Economic Analysis Outdoor Recreation Satellite Account. That was a good year.
This winter has not been so good in the U.P. or elsewhere in Michigan. A number of big winter events – including the UP200, one of the region’s biggest dog sled races – have been canceled because of the lack of ideal winter conditions. Although the weather has posed some challenges, the Michigan Iee Fest is going forward – with some adjustments.
“These events, and the people who work all year long to pull them together, are critically important to the overall outdoor economy in Michigan,” said Brad Garmon, who is senior strategic advisor and executive director of the Michigan Outdoor Recreation Industry Office, part of the Michigan Economic Development Corporation. “They help us showcase our amazing assets to the world, and also subtly put our expertise in product design, innovation and manufacturing into the conversation.”
While drawing adventurers and travelers from all over to experience Michigan and spend money in the Great Lakes State is important, these events also bring major outdoor brands to the state. Among the national and international brands sponsoring the Michigan Ice Fest are Patagonia, The North Face, Yeti, and Black Diamond, a Utah-based manufacturer of outdoor equipment for climbing, skiing and mountain sports.
Some are also involved in other aspects of the festival. One of the design engineers from industry-leading Black Diamond, for example, will be on stage alongside Marquette’s own well-known outdoor innovator, David Ollila. Ollila created the first action sports camera as well as the Marquette Backcountry Ski and other products.
“It’s a testament to the legendary status of some of our own Michigan outdoor industry leaders, such as event organizer Bill Thompson,” Garmon said. “Bill is way more famous in national climbing circles than he is here at home in Michigan. Everyone in climbing knows Bill, and respects what he does with this event. You can tell by the level of professional athletes he brings in and the kinds of industry presence he gathers in Munising every year.”
Telling the stories of Thompson and Ollila and their impact on the national outdoor industry is among the goals of the Michigan Outdoor Recreation Industry Office. That effort helps grow the industry and attracts more outdoor founders and innovators to Michigan, Garmon said.
That work is part of Make it In Michigan, the cornerstone of the Michigan Economic Development Corporation’s approach to economic development. That program supports projects in targeted industries in which Michigan is uniquely competitive.
“The outdoors industry is a priority sector of the economy for Michigan, because it builds on what people love and helps us diversify and lean into some core strengths, like innovation and product design, to create sustained, long-term growth that can attract more investment and more talent to our communities” he said.
Centered in Munising and Pictured Rocks, the festival traces its beginnings to a random visit by four men – all ice climbers – from Kalamazoo in 1990. They saw photographs of ice formations in the area and planned a visit. Sitting in a local bar afterward, the foursome decided to return the next year and create an event so others could join.
“Back in those days, there was no real festival,” recalled Thompson, who learned of the first event through a flier. “The festival has really been created by me and my climbing partner. We were passionate and wanted to teach other people how to ice climb. It’s all been magnified since – we’ve introduced more than 1,000 people to the sport.”
Most of the people who come to the Michigan Ice Fest have never climbed before.
“We offer an opportunity to learn. You can come up here with virtually nothing and we will outfit you and pair you with professional guides,” said Thompson, who is originally from downstate but earned his undergraduate and master’s degree in outdoor recreation from Northern Michigan University. “That’s how a lot of people get hooked.”
That’s the case for Casey Sims, a senior studying outdoor recreation at Northern Michigan University, who was introduced to ice climbing last year.
“It was intimidating at first,” said Sims, who is from Holmen, Wisconsin, and is an outdoor enthusiast, enjoying mountain biking and skiing. “It was really exciting and it was something I wanted to try for a while. It’s a puzzle to figure out what your next move is when you’re climbing. It’s a good feeling to get to the top.”
In addition to classes, the festival features films and presentations by some of the world’s best ice climbers and sponsors. Climbers include Clint Helander, Kevin Lindlau, Sarah Morris and Graham Zimmerman. Parties at local bars follow the presentations each night, offering an opportunity to share stories and socialize with climbers.
Besides showcasing more of Michigan’s world-class outdoor offerings and capacity for innovation, the state’s Outdoor Recreation Industry Office is also working to help invite more people from more diverse backgrounds into the outdoors.
“These are often amazing, talented people who might not have grown up doing outdoor adventures but will help us grow and innovate the spaces and gear we use outdoors,’ Garmon said.
The Outdoor Recreation Industry Office is sponsoring the Diversity Program of the Michigan Ice Fest, “so that more people, especially from our bigger urban centers like Detroit, can learn from national experts and experience the outdoors for themselves,” he said.
Last year the Ice Fest hosted the Full Circle Everest team, the first group of all-Black climbers to summit Mt. Everest. A member of that team, “Dom” Williams, will be back this year, along with other North Face-sponsored athletes to help new climbers who are attending as part of the Detroit Outdoors Collaborative, an outdoor adventure and environmental education program that provides urban youth with positive outdoor experiences.
“We’re really proud to support that partnership and will continue to find ways to connect more people to enriching outdoor experiences in Michigan,” Garmon said.