Bill Thompson: Iceman Climbeth

Ice climbing seems to involve nearly everything your mother always told you not to do – playing with sharp objects, clambering up tall things, being out for long hours in the cold. Which may explain why ice climbing continues to grow in popularity – and why, every year for 25 years, the Michigan Ice Climbing Festival has drawn climbers from all over the world to snowy Munising for a February weekend of icy fun. Bill Thompson, avid ice climber and co-owner of festival host Downwind Sports, sheds some light on this winter world:

First, a confession: Some of us didn’t even know ice climbing was possible in Michigan.Most people don’t realize it, but the U.P. is a perfect ice-climbing venue: Munising ranks right up there with some of the best ice climbing in the country. We get athletes in from all over the world, and they’re just blown away. Before they come here they always ask, How far are you from Detroit? And we say: A world away.

What makes the climbing so great?Most of the ice is in Munising, in Pictured Rocks [National Lakeshore]. It’s sandstone there, which is very porous, and obviously we get a lot of snow and melting and freezing – we can get up to 200-foot climbs. It doesn’t get any more dramatic than climbing over Lake Superior.

What goes down at Ice Fest?Our ice fest is a little bit different than most ice fests: most of our participants have never ice climbed before. That generates a lot of excitement; people get really psyched about the sport. Every evening we have slideshows from professional ice climbers that have been all over the world. It’s like if you were to go to basketball camp and have Michael Jordan and Larry Bird and Magic Johnson be there. It’s like that, but for ice climbers. We have instruction: beginning and advanced, and classes for women and kids. That’s really to teach people the techniques of ice climbing. We have demos, an opportunity for ice climbers to test all the latest gear and clothing.

How dangerous is ice climbing, anyway?Everyone always asks that question. But I’m the biggest chicken there is, and I ice climb. I think snowmobiling is way more dangerous … ice fishing is way more dangerous. If you use safety precautions, you’ll be fine. Can you get hurt? Yeah. Can you get killed? Yeah. But I wouldn’t do it if I thought it was dangerous.

So why do you do it?Seems like ice climbing could be more work than play. I’ve just fallen in love with it. It’s an extension of your summer rock climbing; it’s challenging; it’s kind of like a puzzle, you have to get from Point A to Point B. It gets you out in winter, and it takes you to beautiful places. Everyone can do it – and if you can ice climb in Michigan, you can ice climb anywhere.

Any extra-special plans to mark the festival’s 25th anniversary? I can’t divulge everything. We have some special presenters this year. And during the evening, we have socials that go on before the slide shows, and we always have free beer – but this year we’re having free martinis.

Nice. Yeah. We’re classing it up a little bit. Well, as much as we can.

For information or to register for the 25th annual Michigan Ice Climbing Festival, Feb. 1-3, call Downwind Sports (Marquette, 906-226-7112; Houghton, 906-482-2500) or visit downwindsports.com.

Emily Bingham is assistant editor of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine. [email protected]

Note: This article was originally published in February 2008.

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