Outside a small diner in Munising, Michigan, a group of women stand in a small
circle, shuffling their feet and asking each other how their days have been. Some of the
women appear to know each other, 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, and the sole professional ice
climber among them (and instructor for the day) Anna Pfaff yells “alright ladies, lets
rock! Or, um, ice!” One by one — daypacks and borrowed dry ropes in tow — the 15 women from Wisconsin and California and Michigan file onto the bus, cramming into corners and getting more comfortable with each other with each invasion of personal space.
Once on the bus, Anna 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 Anna her sweatshirt, ‘The Last Frontier’ written across it in bold letters. Anna smiles and nods before adding that she also loves Alaska.
The women are dropped off at a road-side trailhead as quickly as they were picked up. They take off up the trail in a single-file line, immediately under cover of birch and oak trees as they make their way to the frozen waterfall that will be their classroom for the day, making small talk all the while as everyone gets acquainted. After receiving a secondary crash course in crampon and ice axe operation, the women head down a steep bank to the bottom of the climbs — two nearly identical waterfalls, frozen solid by negative Upper Peninsula temperatures, surrounded on both sides by sandstone cliffs that flake off handfuls of sand when brushed against. From a vantage point above it, 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, and 15 women pacing at their bases, some wondering how on earth they’re expected to climb up these things. 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 Michigan Ice Fest. Most of these women haven’t been on ice before, though three or four have climbed on Rainier or Kilimanjaro or any number of other mountains around the world and have all somehow ended up in Munising, Michigan 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 day’s beginner ice climbing class are staying together in a rental, many of them not knowing the others before this weekend. How they all ended up here is serendipitous at best — Gina convinced Tina to come, Tina went to college with Marge and invited her along, Marge brought Susie, who brought her workout partner Laura, who knew none of these women before yesterday morning. Etcetera etcetera, 12 times over. Laura, who is from Wisconsin, wasn’t too hard pressed to find a reason to tag
along on the U.P. girl’s weekend. Laura lost her husband in July 2014, and finding a way
to fill the void hadn’t been easy. “The more Susie talked about it, the more intrigued I got. I said ‘Sign me up, I need an adventure, I need to go do this,’” Laura says through tears, her friend Susie sitting beside her, fitting her crampons. Susie 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 (who also suffers from MS) and Tina climbed Mount Kilimanjaro to raise awareness of MS and Parkinson’s disease.“Gina and I both made it to the top,” Susie says, beaming with pride four years after the fact. “It was so cool. Tina was our companion climber, we were with 10 people who had MS, and four people with Parkinson’s. “It was so life-changing, I can’t even begin.”
Anna, the instructor for the climbing clinic that brought these women to Munising, is a La Sportiva athlete and a world-class ice climber. Once they’ve made their way to the base of the climbs for the day, Anna gathers the women to talk form where the overhanging sandstone cliff forms a sort of cave: 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 — Laura included 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, but 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 has offered women’s climbing clinics for years, though almost no women attended the event in its humble beginnings from 1991 until the mid-90s. Anna was the only female athlete to attend in 2015, out of a group of professional mountaineers that included Barry Blanchard, Will Mayo, Raphael Slawinski, Mark Wilford and Ben Erdmann. There were nearly 500 registrations in 2015, Ice Fest’s biggest year to date. Just under half of those registrations were women. Among the attending women was a college student studying aerospace engineering at Purdue 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 Ice Fest and take a women’s clinic in order to inspire and introduce them to the sport of ice climbing. “When I got the acceptance letter, I was so happy and was counting down the days until I could go to Ice Fest,” Leigha says in between climbs. “I already can’t wait for next year. This will become part of my life after this, and 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 have taken Leigha in as their
own for the weekend, growing the motley group one burgeoning ice climber at a time.
Susie jokes that she has become her adoptive mother for the day, and takes lots of
photos while offering words of encouragement to Leigha. Tina chimes in that Leigha has
acquired 13 other adoptive moms this weekend, which, she laughs, “must be a complete
nightmare for her.”
At first, Laura tries gently pushing her crampons into the ice with little success. Three or four tries later, the aggression comes. Now she’s kicking with full force, chipping off chunks of blue ice with every swing of her foot or pick of her axes. Anna continues to preach form between shouts of encouragement , while the others keep morale high with intermittent reminders of “get it girl!” and “you rock! Or, um, ice!”As Leigha gets tied in, Laura finishes the climb and is lowered to the snow once again — standing, finally, at the base of the ice, she is embraced by Susie and begins to “I wish he could have been here,” she whispers.
Later that night, after a slideshow by professional mountaineer Barry Blanchard, Susie reflects on that moment, and the many reasons she convinced Laura 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,” Susie says after winning a raffle for a new down jacket. Laura also had some luck on the last night of Ice Fest, receiving the grand prize for a brand-new pair of mountaineering boots that she’ll use when she inevitably returns to Ice Fest next 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.
Laura’s favorite travel destination in the world is Alaska. She wears a sweater under her jacket with “The Last Frontier” in scripted font, a tiny brown pine tree emblazoned next to it. She went to Alaska with her husband. They once climbed into and out of the Grand Canyon together. They kayaked, biked and did triathlons. And when her husband Alan died two years ago, Laura elected to take her now 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. 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, Michigan. 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 have already convinced her to return to Munising later in the winter for a few more attempts on the ice. It led her to Ice Fest, and to strength that can only be found at the top of a frozen waterfall.
Amanda Monthei is a freelance writer and an employee at Down Wind Sports in Marquette, Michigan. Whether by writing or selling gear, she enjoys making action sports more accessible for those who wouldn’t otherwise have the opportunity or desire to try them. More of her writing can be found at www.amandamonthei.com.