How a Chicago trade show, 4 Michigan residents and a stop at a bar launched an international festival

As Bill Thompson tells it, the Michigan Ice Fest, slated for its 31st year in Munising from Feb. 8-12, had humble beginnings that slowly developed into a world-renowned location for professional ice climbers as well as the best spot for the sport’s newcomers to learn.

Thompson, in a recent podcast with MLive’s Eric Hultgren, recounts that four men from Kalamazoo with an interest in ice climbing were at a winter trade show in Chicago and happened past a snowmobiling booth with images of amazing ice formations. They asked the volunteers where the pictures came from, and they learned it was along the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, not far from their homes.

The men visited, climbed the ice surfaces that formed on the face of the sandstone cliffs, and they were hooked. Afterward, they retreated to a Munising bar and agreed: “We should do this every year.”

They did, and so have many others, Thompson said.

“When people think of ice climbing, they think of somewhere else other than Michigan,” he said. “They’d be wrong because we have some of the best ice climbing on the planet. We’ve been telling people for 30 years that it’s just an amazing place to come climb, but (it remained undiscovered).

“Now 1,200 to 1,300 climbers come from all over the country and the world.”

All About Munising: Learn more about the U.P.’s top outdoor destination.

The ideal conditions are created by abundant moisture in the fall that is followed by a heavy snowfall, courtesy of Lake Superior. The sandstone cliffs, which are a summertime draw for their multi-colored face, leak water that freezes and the surface builds to an ice climbing mecca.

“A lot of people come up here in the summer, but they should experience it in the winter,” Thompson said.

While the professional climbers come to compete, the festival is oriented to all potential enthusiasts with programming and presentations about the sport, as well as instruction and gear for beginners. It’s the best possible exposure to the outdoor activity, Thompson said. He’s recently compared it to being at a basketball camp and having Michael Jordan, Lebron James and Steph Curry as your coaches.”

“People that might be thinking about it say, ‘oh, I could never go ice climbing, I’m not strong enough,’” Thompson said. “But that’s totally not the case. With the proper instruments, really anyone can start to do it.”

The outdoor fun doesn’t stop at just ice climbing, said Dan Nadeau, a lifelong Munising resident who has watched as the region morphed from a tried-and-true snowmobiling town to a summertime draw. He still maintains that there’s nowhere better to snowmobile than in Munising and the U.P. in general.

With more than 200 inches of snow annually and 330 miles of groomed trails that traverse all types of terrain from waterways to woods and open fields to rolling hills, Munising still maintains the title as the “Snowmobiling Capital of the Midwest.”

“If you haven’t been here to see it, there’s really something about the middle of winter and being outside,” Nadeau said. “(With the trails) you get to go places you can’t in a vehicle, and you see so much more”

Two of Nadeau’s favorite rides are Munising to Grand Marais and going from Munising to Kitch-iti-kipi and Manistique. Each is roughly 100 miles round trip, which makes them perfect for a day of activity and being in nature. The surroundings, getting glimpses of Lake Superior while headed to Grand Marais and experiencing the clear water of Kitch-iti-kipi are powerful.

Rentals and gear are available locally, so first-timers are welcome and able to visit Munising without owning sleds, helmets and more.

“It’s something you can come up and do for the weekend, and once you do, you’ll want to come back for more,” he said.

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