I have always been fascinated by climbing areas with a special view. What in my opinion makes a climb more beautiful than others, it is not only the line on which you climb, but also everything that is around and that we can admire in moments of rest or at the top. The Michigan waterfalls in the United States, which form on the cliffs of Lake Superior, have a special view.
So I enthusiastically accepted Grivel's invitation to the Michigan Ice Festival, which takes place every year in February in the small village of Munising. So, together with my partner Marco and my friend Maurizio, we set off in search of ice overseas, in my luggage also the brand new Dark Machine X ice tools that I was very anxious to try.
One thing was certain before we left: the waterfalls had all formed and the lake had even frozen, which does not happen every year. This was due to a particularly severe cold and snow storm that had arrived from Canada, which had caused the closure of roads and airports in most of the north-east of the USA until a few days after our arrival.
We landed in Chicago and took of our rental car (4x4 or SUVs are recommended), and we drove 6 hours to Munising.
After a first day of quiet climbing to clear the jetlag, we got to experience what a snowstorm in the United States means. Gale, snow and temperatures below -15°C, which were perceived as much even colder, because of the wind, which made any climbing impossible. We showed all our good will, tracing the path in the fresh snow but after almost two hours of walking we realized that it would be impossible to climb with these conditions. The following days we climbed despite the storm but with a little less strong wind.
After the storm, we had a sunny day and we decided to spend it on the island in front of the bay of Munising, which offers wonderful ice: a wall 500 meters wide, totally covered with ice with various slopes and degrees. Reaching these waterfalls is possible only in the years when the lake freezes and the approach is possible with skis and skins and lasts several hours, or with snowmobiles. We opted for the second and spent a wonderful day, choosing line by line to climb in the sun.
The falls in Michigan are single pitches of all difficulties and lengths, from WI 2 to WI7, from climbs of a few meters, suitable for beginners and children, up to 50-meter climbs. Many of the waterfalls can be reached by rappelling from above as they are located directly on the cliffs of the lake. Only when the lake is frozen can you reach them from below, paying close attention to the depth of the ice. It is advisable to ask logistic information from the local guides who work at the Downwind Sports shop in the town center. The rappel can be an advantage for those who want to climb a level that they cannot lead yet, something that many of the American climbers visiting Munising practice. This together with the number of easy waterfalls and the simple and short approach of many waterfalls, makes this place perfect for those who are beginners with ice axes and crampons.
But it's not all that simple in Michigan, especially for those aiming for higher grade waterfalls. The most beautiful and difficult ones are to be found in the northeast of the country in an area declared a natural park. For this reason, there are no roads that arrive there and it is not even possible to get there by snowmobile, as there is a ban on driving them off existing roads. So, you can only reach them with skis or snowshoes and the distances to cover are considerable, between 15 and 20 kilometres one way and even if there are no mountains in Michigan, there is still a continuous up and down on hills. Even finding the path in the woods is not easy, especially if the tracks are permanently erased by frequent snow storms.
Another particularity of the Michigan waterfalls is certainly the quantity and variety of ice columns. Since the sandstone was consumed by the waves of the lake in the preceding millennia, often the rock is overhanging and therefore the streams that descend over the rocks form columns of ice, some of these quite short and very large, others thin and fragile.
All the waterfalls in the area are described in the new guide book that was published during the 2019 Ice Festival.
The severe temperatures will surely remain in my mind for this journey. In fact, in two weeks we had only two sunny days, but with morning temperatures below -20°C and we saw three different storms and blizzards. In these two weeks, the temperature has never reached 0 degrees Celsius and from the locals we have been assured that this is normal weather. Long live the ice in Michigan, where real winters still exist!
Article and pictures by Angelika Rainer.
Angelika Rainer, 32 years old Grivel athlete since 2005. Born in South Tyrol (Italy), she became three times Ice Climbing World Champion and two times Ice Climbing World Cup winner. Today she practices rock climbing, ice climbing and drytooling.
Grivel favorite product: Dark Machine X ice axes.