Why You Need to Attend an Ice Climbing Festival

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It’s early February and that means it’s ice climbing festival season in cold, mountainous locations around North America. Coming up February 12-16 is the annual Michigan Ice Fest, the oldest event of its kind in the U.S. From Feb. 14-17 is the Valdez Ice Festival, which John Krakauer writes about in his book Eiger Dreams. Then Feb. 21-23 is the Festiglace de Pont-Rouge in Québec, once “the largest climbing gathering on the planet.”

The author at the Bozeman Ice Fest climbing with Renny Jackson, author of ‘A Climber’s Guide to the Teton Range.’ Courtesy Chris Van Leuven

Like many budding ice climbers, I, too, learned the ephemeral sport of ice climbing at a festival. Nearly 15 years ago, back when I worked at Climbing Magazine, I got a chance to visit the Michigan Ice Fest. Bill Thompson, who still today overseas the event, shared everything I needed to know: where to stay, who to climb with, which routes were in best condition, and which overcrowded areas to avoid.

Memories from that trip are still vivid, like the time I rappelled an overhanging cliff to climb Dairyland. Located right over Lake Superior along the Upper Peninsula’s Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, Mountain Project calls the famed 150-foot frozen waterfall “the biggest, fattest, and most inspiring climb to look at and climb in the park.” As we climbed, big sets of waves rolled toward the shore below. We knew that one false move—like dropping an ice tool—meant it would disappear into the drink. Frigid temps and blowing snow froze my eyelids as I fought for purchase in the chandelier ice with my crampons and tools. By the time I reached the top, I was exhausted both mentally and physically, ready to head back to Munising for the event’s endless party. That I can still recall every detail speaks to the full range of such a memorable experience. What a blast to push limits, try some new, incredible climbing, then finish with evening programs featuring the sport’s best athletes, plus demos providing a chance to try out the latest gear.

All that, combined with the hospitality of people like Thompson make events like these even more worth the time of any adventurer, regardless of climbing skill.

In the years since attending that Michigan Ice Fest, I’ve frequented several others, including the Ouray Ice Fest (Jan. 23-26) in Colorado, the Bozeman Ice Fest (Dec. 9-13) in Montana, and the Smuggs’ Ice Bash (Jan. 24-26) in Vermont. I’ve volunteered as a co-instructor with North Face athletes including Heidi Wirtz and the late Jess Roskelley, where we gathered in small groups and worked with beginners who were taking their first swings. And there were plenty, as many folks we met were trying the sport for their first time. They could barely make it off the ground, but they still loved the experience. (When it comes to ice climbing, there’s a certain sound to learn that indicates a good ‘stick.’) Other climbers lapped nearby lines as we cheered them on.

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It’s all fun and games until someone loses an eye. Scott Bennett and Stefanie Kamm at the Ouray Ice Fest. Chris Van Leuven

Ice climbing festivals often include competitions, where the world’s best gather to contend in difficulty and speed challenges. Recently, Tyler Kempney of Boulder, Colo., took third place at this year’s Ouray Ice Fest. The USA Ice Climbing Team member placed on the podium right behind expert Russian climbers Maxim Tomilov and Alexey Dengin.

“As always, I had an amazing time in this one-of-a-kind Ice Park,” Kempney posted on the Ouray Ice Fest, celebrating its 25th year. The event draws hundreds of spectators and climbers who fill the bars, restaurants and pack the hotels in the sleepy mountain town. “It is an incredible and unique resource that helps build community and spread the love of ice climbing.”

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Evening events draw a packed house at ice festivals. Above is a Chicks with Picks event. Chris Van Leuven

Visit the UIAA’s event calendar for more info and a schedule of upcoming ice fests.


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