To the top
A group of women meet at the Michigan Ice Fest
by Amanda Monthei
Outside a small diner in Munising, Michigan, a group of women stand in a small circle, shuffling their feet asking each other how their days have been. Some of the women appear to know one another, but it’s obvious that most of them have no idea what they’ve gotten themselves into.
A shuttle bus comes to a stop in front of the group. Anna Pfaff, the sole professional ice climber among them and instructor for the day yells, “All right ladies. Lets rock! Or, um, ice!”
One by one, with daypacks and borrowed dry ropes in tow, the 15 women from Wisconsin, Michigan and California file onto the bus, cramming into corners and getting more comfortable with each other with each invasion of personal space.
Once on the bus, Pfaff introduces herself and gives the women a quick lesson in crampons and appropriate layering. She finds one woman she hasn’t spoken to yet and asks her what her favorite place in the world is – her go-to conversation starter, something to bond over.
“Alaska,” the woman says, unzipping her neon snowmobiling jacket to show Pfaff her sweatshirt, “The Last Frontier” written across it in bold letters. Pfaff smiles and nods before adding that she, too, loves Alaska.
The women are dropped off at a roadside trailhead as quickly as they were picked up. They take off up the trail single file under cover of birch and oak trees, making their way to the frozen waterfall that will be their classroom for the day.
After receiving a second crash course in crampon and ice axe use, the women head down a steep bank to the bottom of the climbs – two nearly identical waterfalls, frozen solid by below-zero Upper Peninsula temperatures, surrounded on both sides by sandstone cliffs that flake off handfuls of sand when brushed against. From above, the climbing area resembles a theater, as the visible stratum of the sandstone walls all end on those two focal points – 40-foot-tall, vertical flanks of ice.
The 15 women pace at their bases, some wondering how on earth they’re expected to climb up these things.
But it takes only a few minutes before the women are an opera of positive reinforcement; a ballet not of flats and tights but of crampons and ice axes, each performing their own solo as they find their way to the top of a waterfall in front of 14 new friends.
This is the Michigan Ice Fest.
A range of motivations
Most of these women haven’t been on ice before, though three or four have climbed Mount Rainier or Kilimanjaro or any number of other mountains around the world. They have all somehow ended up in Munising for the annual festival celebrating freezing temperatures, ice climbing and a motley reunion of some of the country’s best climbers and mountaineers.
Twelve of the 15 women in the beginner ice climbing class stay together in a rental. One convinced another to come, who invited a friend from college, who invited Susie Weber, who brought her workout partner Laura Holmes. Holmes had never climbed ice before, and knew none of these women a day earlier.
Holmes, from Wisconsin, wasn’t too hard pressed to find a reason to tag along on the U.P. girl’s weekend. She lost her husband in July 2014, and finding a way to fill the void hadn’t been easy.
“The more (Weber) talked about it, the more intrigued I got. I said ‘sign me up, I need an adventure, I need to go do this,’” Holmes says through tears. Weber sits beside her, fiddling with her crampons on the morning of the ice climbing course that brought them to Munising, Michigan.
Weber has her own reasons for attending Ice Fest. Diagnosed with multiple sclerosis a few years prior, she now wears bright pink, heart-shaped sunglasses while talking about how she just ran her first full marathon after completing half marathons all over the world. In 2011, she, Gina Anderson (who also suffers from MS) and Tina Liebetrau climbed Mount Kilimanjaro to raise awareness of MS and Parkinson’s disease. All three are now here, at Ice Fest, introducing their new friends to the sport that had already made an effect on their lives.
“Anderson and I both made it to the top,” Weber says, still beaming with pride four years after the fact. “It was so cool. Liebetrau was our companion climber. We were with 10 people who had MS and four people with Parkinson’s. It was so life changing.”
Pfaff, the instructor for the climbing clinic that brought these women to Munising, is a La Sportiva athlete and a world-class ice climber. Once her group makes its way to the base of the climbs for the day, she gathers the women under the overhanging sandstone cliff to discuss form. Do this, not that. Be a triangle, not a square. Step, step, pick. No chicken wings. Push your hips closer to the wall. Perfect.
The most daring ladies – Holmes among them – volunteer to go first but still approach the belayer with hesitance. This is the embodiment of the things Laura didn’t think she could ever do, and it’s becoming more and more real as her belayer ties a figure eight and tells her to “climb on.” She looks back timidly, as if waiting for someone to object to this crazy thing she’s about to do. Eventually she looks up at the wall. Tied in, axes in hand, feet shuffling to stay warm, she throws an axe into the ice and looks up.
Ice fest draws women
The Michigan Ice Fest has offered women’s climbing clinics for years, though almost no women attended the event in its humble beginnings in the early 1990s.
Pfaff was the only female athlete to attend in 2015, out of a group of professional and internationally-renowned mountaineers that included Barry Blanchard, Will Mayo, Raphael Slawinski, Mark Wilford and Ben Erdmann. There were nearly 500 registrations in 2015, the festival’s biggest year to date. Just under half of the registrants were women.
Among the women in attendance was a college student studying aerospace engineering at Purdue University in Indiana and others who were lawyers, professionals, athletes, widows and teenagers.
Sixteen-year-old Leigha Woelffer got her first taste of climbing over the weekend as the recipient of the Sue Nott Scholarship, which provides a local girl under the age of 17 the opportunity to attend the ice fest and take the women’s clinic.
“When I got the acceptance letter, I was so happy and was counting down the days until I could go to the ice fest,” Woelffer recalls between climbs. “I already can’t wait for next year. This will become part of my life after this. If I hadn’t gotten this scholarship, who knows if I would have ever had the chance to do it.”
Now that she’s here, the other women in the group take Woelffer in as their own for the weekend. Weber jokes that she has become her adoptive mother for the day, and takes lots of photos while offering words of encouragement. Tina chimes in that Woelffer has acquired 13 other adoptive moms this weekend, adding with a laugh, “that must be a complete nightmare for her.”
At first, Holmes tries gently pushing her crampons into the ice with little success. Three or four tries later, the aggression comes out. Now she’s kicking with full force, chipping off chunks of blue ice with every swing of her foot or pick of her axes. Pfaff continues to preach form between shouts of encouragement from the group.
As Woelffer gets tied in, Holmes finishes the climb and is lowered to the snow once again, standing, finally, at the base of the ice, she is embraced by Weber and begins to cry.
“I wish he could have been here,” she whispers, referring to her late husband, Alan.
Later that night, after a slideshow by professional mountaineer Barry Blanchard, Weber reflects on that moment, and the many reasons she convinced Holmes to come along to climb some ice on Lake Superior’s south shore.
“When something so traumatic happens in your world, sometimes you need other women to pull you out of that,” Weber says, after winning a raffle for a new down jacket.
Holmes also had some luck on the last night of Ice Fest, receiving the grand prize of a brand-new pair of mountaineering boots that she’ll use when she inevitably returns to Ice Fest this year. She mentions that she’s already planning a trip back to Munising before the winter’s over, before the ice melts and the temperatures rise once again.
Holmes vacationed in Alaska with her husband. Together they climbed into and out of the Grand Canyon together. They kayaked, biked and did triathlons. And when her husband, Alan, died two years ago, Holmes elected to take her then shattered life day by day, hour by hour, moment by moment.
“I had absolutely no idea what my life path was going to look like,” she says. “I’ve just been taking it one moment at a time, not looking too far out, keeping my focus on right here and now.”
That refined focus led her to Munising. It led to throwing sharp objects into clear blue ice surrounded by sandstone cliffs. It led her to 13 women she had never met but who convinced her to return this winter for a few more climbs. It led her to find the strength within herself to reach the the top of a frozen waterfall.
Michigan Ice Fest, Feb. 10-14
The 2016 Michigan Ice Fest will make use of the naturally occurring ice along the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore of Lake Superior near Munising, Michigan. A day has been added to the festival so ice climbers have more time to attend instructional courses, clinics and inspiring slide shows from world-class climbers. For more information, go to michiganicefest.com.
Amanda Monthei is a freelance writer and odd jobs connosieur who lives, works, skis and fishes in Marquette, Michigan. More of her writing can be found at amandamonthei.com.