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Climbing melting ice in the Upper Peninsula

The Pictured Rocks National Lake Shore is a special place for Midwestern ice climbing. Every February, hundreds of climbers meet in Munising for Michigan Ice Fest. That’s because the Lake Superior shoreline has one of the highest concentrations of accessible ice climbs in North America.

Usually, Bryan DeAugustine is a middle school principal. But this weekend, he’s a volunteer instructor at Michigan Ice Fest.

“Ice climbing is like solving a puzzle and doing gymnastics at the same time. So it’s a nice marriage of your mind and your body. You have to really be focused and balanced. It’s just a fun way to spend the day outdoors.”

Ice climbers wear metal cleats strapped to their boots. In each hand, they carry an ice tool that looks like a small pick axe. They swing, chop, and kick their way up vertical ice.

It’s a lot less dangerous than you might think. Everyone uses ropes and harnesses. Still, advanced climbers often give this advice: don’t fall.

Lada Pistek is about to climb up a 40 foot tall pillar of ice. During the summer, it’s a small creek that drops off a ledge in the forest. Now it’s a thick, frozen column. It’s hollow, and water is still dripping through it. When you look into the pillar from the top, you can see all the way down to the creek bed below. It’s exhilarating.

“When we found this place, we got like, we were amazed. It’s so quiet. Not so many people here. It just touched us.”

Along the Lake Superior shoreline, porous sandstone cliffs sweat groundwater. It slowly freezes into thick sheets. Curtains of ice drop off ledges into the lake—and people climb them, lowering 250 feet down to the ice shelf and climbing back out.

Here’s Bryan DeAugustine.

“It creates a pretty fragile environment in some ways. We’re really careful with the rock and we have a great relationship with the national park service. They let us climb here and... it just... there’s ice everywhere. Every cliff band that you encounter can find ice formed on it.”

But that’s not so true this winter—which has been unusually warm by Munising’s standards.

Lake Superior still hasn’t frozen. Free floating blocks of ice crowd the shore.

Every climb is melting.

But people come anyway - hundreds of them. That’s because Michigan Ice Fest is a once-a-year opportunity for the climbing community to hang out and talk shop.

Bill Smith is a National Lakeshore park ranger. He says the climbing crowd is a good thing for Munising.

“I think they enjoy it for the economic boost that it gives. I know some of the establishments have a long running relationship with the ice climbing community. And it’s a big bonus. Great crowd. A lot of fun, I like harassing them.”

At night, Ice Fest participants get together, drink beer, and watch slideshows.

Everybody gets pretty nerdy about it.

For Bryan DeAugustine, that sense of community is one of the best things about the Munising ice climbing scene.

“It’s a sense of belonging, people who understand each other and are pretty positive about life. It’s just really fun and if you want to try this sport, the UP is the place to come. And come to Munising, Michigan to give it a try.”