“There is a tribe of folks who do love this lifestyle and want to challenge themselves, and the U.P. is the place for them.” - Aaron Peterson
STORY BY Samara Napolitan PHOTOGRAPHY PROVIDED BY Aaron Peterson
From Munising to Grand Marais in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, rugged sandstone cliffs jut 200-feet out of Gitche Gumee—the Ojibwe name for Lake Superior. Permeated with layers of pinks, browns, blues and greens, the ancient beauty of the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore is exalted and formidable.
During the long and brutal winter, one of the largest concentrations of climbable and easily-accessible ice in North America emerges. Pictured Rocks boasts 100 named ice climbs within 20 miles. Although these icy cascades are often overlooked by the media and the industry, they are home to a family reunion style peer-to-peer learning environment, the Michigan Ice Festival. Every year, world-class and rookie climbers alike travel to the U.P. to learn, connect and celebrate their shared passion for scaling frozen falls.
This untold story is the subject of a new project from Clear & Cold Cinema, a small production company led by veteran writer and photographer Aaron Peterson. “The Michigan Ice Film” is three winters in the making and divulges the ice climbing culture of the Midwest. At its core, the film is not merely an athletic showcase; rather, it explores the aesthetics of a globally-unique landscape and the self-reliant culture that surrounds it. When you live in the exposure of a lake that sinks 1000-foot freighters and unleashes a six-month-long winter, you master the essence of true ice climbing.
Clear & Cold Cinema received national attention with their 2013 action documentary, “Cold Rolled.” The film explored the 30-year history of snow biking in the U.P. and featured the cutting-edge Noquemanon Trails Network. Shot in four days with zero budget, the film shined a spotlight on the obscure sport and the small harbor town of Marquette, Michigan.
“The Michigan Ice Film,” seeks a similar outcome: to boost visitation to Munising, capture the history and unique culture of the ice climbing scene, and inspire locals to appreciate the majesty of their own backyard.
“Travel is an active pursuit, a seeking, an endeavor filled with curiosity and a willingness to explore,” said Peterson. “The Upper Peninsula is not easy, it's not designed for tourists—it’s not designed at all—and that's what makes it perfect for the active travelers who are willing to be open to our regional quirkiness while exploring a world-class landscape.”
The film entwines local narratives with tales from a cast of professional climbers. Among them is Sam Elias, a Michigan native whose ice axe has brought him to Europe, Venezuela, Turkey and the World Cup Ice Climbing Competition in Russia. While Elias celebrates his homecoming, Raphael Slawinski, known for conquering new routes in the Canadian Rockies, reflects on the lessons he cultivated while cutting his teeth on Midwestern ice cliffs. Conrad Anker, consummate professional and captain of the North Face athletic team, also makes an appearance alongside Dawn Glanc, Will Mayo and more.
Peppered between the shots of gripping ice-climbing action and its breathtaking natural backdrop are scenes celebrating the hardy—yet easy-going—Munising community. Local ice climbing heroes—Adam Dailey, Ben Erdmann, Paul Kuenn, and others—share stories, shandy songs, locally-brewed-beer and Michigan Ice Fest hijinks.
“There is a tribe of folks who do love this lifestyle and want to challenge themselves, and the U.P. is the place for them,” said Peterson. “As more of that tribe discovers us, we are evolving. It’s slow and that allows it to be organic, grassroots growth.”
Samara Napolitan is a writer based in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Her work has appeared in The Post & Courier, Relix Magazine, and the Clean Eating Magazine blog, among other places.