An education in adventure

by Nate Hoekstra

It’s a hiker’s paradise, with scenery, wildlife, sunsets and dozens of waterfalls that cascade off the bluffs.   

Roughly 130 miles from the Mackinac Bridge, majestic cliffs of sandstone climb vertically from the edge of Lake Superior, marking what’s better known as the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. More than 73,000 acres of land make up this area of water and rock that stretches from Munising to Grand Marais in the Upper Peninsula. For several months of the year, this northern shoreline is bitterly cold. Gripped by temperatures that regularly drop well below zero, wind chills that can exceed 60 degrees below zero, and an average of more than 230 inches of snow per year, another side effect is that the majestic waterfalls that gracefully spill over the edge of the rock in the summer turn into rock-hard columns of pure blue ice.

But despite temperatures below zero and several feet of freshly fallen snow, a group of more than a dozen Grand Valley students ventured to Munising at the end of January to try their hand at climbing the ice. An annual event, the Michigan Ice Festival is one of the largest ice climbing expos in the nation, drawing hundreds of enthusiasts to the tiny hamlet on the shore. It’s a well-organized event, planned by local adventure outfitter Downwind Sports, and climbers gather in the evenings on the second story of a small bar called Sydney’s for camaraderie, slideshows from expert climbers, and a traditional U.P. pasty dinner.

The students, accompanied by Grand Valley climbing center manager Joe Bitely and affiliate professor Robert Robins, have varied climbing experience and abilities. Most have climbed before, but only on the wall at the climbing center in Grand Valley’s Recreation Center, and only a couple of the 16 students on the trip have ever climbed ice before. Unlike rock climbing, where hands and feet are used to push up the face of a wall, ice climbers use special tools, including crampons and ice axes to climb. The gear is sinister looking — the crampons are essentially huge spikes that attach to specialized rigid boots used for mountaineering, and the ice axes look like metallic dinosaur claws, used to dig into the ice above the climbers’ heads.

photos by Amanda Pitts

Steve Ossim inches toward the top of a section of ice known as ‘The Curtains’ during the Michigan Ice Festival in Munising.

Some of the students on the trip, like James McAlloon, a junior hospitality and tourism management major and Spanish minor, came for the experience and a sense of adventure. Others, like Steve Ossim, a sophomore geology major, came to spend time doing something fun with friends. 

“There’s something about the friends you make climbing,” Ossim said. “Nobody cares if you’ve done it before, and nobody cares how good you are. I think it’s just a mentality that people who like to climb have. I’ve never met a climber I didn’t like.”

McAlloon didn’t know all of the other students on the trip, but made fast friends. “There’s an instant connection,” he said. “You kind of realize that there’s not that many people who have the mindset that going outside when it’s 10 degrees below zero out and climbing up a frozen waterfall is really fun, so you gravitate toward people with that mentality when you
find them.”

The trip to the Ice Festival was organized by Bitely and Robins; both men have a passion for adventure. Bitely manages Grand Valley’s climbing center and runs the university’s Outdoor Adventure Center. Robins, an avid adventurer who’s done just about everything once, teaches the main course in the university’s relatively new adventure tourism minor. Bitely said the turnout for the trip was higher than expected, but he did acknowledge that a trip to the U.P. in the middle of the winter to climb ice formations is certainly not a trip for everyone.

“The heights are what really turn a lot of people off to climbing,” Bitely said. “It’s a common fear, but we see people overcome it all the time. Trips like this are for people who are looking to challenge themselves, and who are looking for something new and exciting.”

Robins says there are many reasons people get involved in the world of adventure sports, and many reasons why people take on uncommon activities that could be dangerous as hobbies. He said that for some people, it’s an ego issue, while for others it’s the novelty of doing something few other people have done before.

“Motivation for why people get involved in this stuff is extremely varied,” Robins said. “Some try it for the first time and don’t like it. Others get hooked. One common thread is that people who stick with adventure hobbies is that they’ve all got a certain state of mind. It’s a sense of conquering something, a kind of journey that helps them feel alive.”

Lauren Meyer, a senior hospitality and tourism management major with an adventure tourism minor, has been on the trip twice. She likes to climb because of the different challenges that are presented each time she tries a new route up the ice face.

“It’s a big confidence thing for me,” she said. “It’s totally different than climbing at the rec center. When you’re climbing these big ice walls, you know that when you get to the top you’ve really overcome a challenge. It’s really hard, but when you’re almost to the top, you can taste it it’s so close.”

The climbs themselves can be exhausting. An inexperienced climber can take half an hour or more to climb a formation that’s 35-40 feet tall. Watching the climbers, the physical exertion is apparent — arms and legs shake from fatigue, climbers will pause for minutes on end waiting for a calf cramp to relax. But Meyer said that despite the physical demands, she tries as hard as she can to refuse to give in and quit.

“I can’t explain why,” she said. “You just have to keep trying. You have to try to beat the wall.”

The same applies to Brian Ledtke, a senior writing major and adventure tourism minor who wants to write travel guides after he graduates.

Lauren Meyer looks for a secure foothold on a brittle piece of ice that flows over the top of an overhang in the rock face.

He said trying a difficult route up the wall can be a humbling experience, but it forces
you to practice and try to continually better yourself.

The trip was a good experience for Ledtke, who doesn’t want to pursue a career in the hospitality field, but can use the experience from the adventure tourism minor all
the same.

Robins said about half of the students who are adventure tourism minors aren’t hospitality majors. The minor applies to many students who will come into contact with adventure tourists in their chosen fields. Students who study fields like natural resource management, physical education and wildlife biology can use the experience they gain on the trips to help them apply what they’re learning in the classroom. He said many occupations that involve field work will put students in the same space as adventurers, and having a better understanding of the activity, and the people doing it, will be helpful.

Benefits that aren’t directly related to the classroom are another big motivation for both the students and the trip leaders.

“My personal motivation is getting the pleasure of introducing students to a new activity,” Robins said. “I love to see the students get excited about what we’re doing — they’re able to do things that my body won’t let me do anymore, so I suppose part of it is experiencing that thrill vicariously.”

Bitely said trust is a large part of what he tries to teach students. “Getting students to trust is essential when we’re out climbing. They’ve got to trust their hands and feet, the gear, and a pretty thin-seeming rope, not to mention the person on the ground holding the other end,” he said. “Making those connections and developing that trust is a trait they can take with them away from the wall.”

Ossim said being “in the zone” is the best part of each of his climbs. “It’s hard to explain, but you have to sort of tune everything else out when you’re climbing. The focus you develop is amazing,” he said.

Even students like Australian McAlloon, who have experience scuba diving, climbing, and hiking, get a new perspective from putting foot and axe to the ice. “This is so much different than what I’ve done in the past, but it’s helped me focus on not being intimidated,” he said.

Robins said taking students on trips like the excursion to the Ice Festival is a critically important tool that the university offers to help give students a chance to take part in experiential learning in a safe, enjoyable, affordable atmosphere.

“We have excellent support from the university, and excellent support from the HTM department,” Robins said. “Without these trips, it’s not very likely that these students would have similar chances to have personal and learning experiences like this.”


 

Page last modified May 13, 2013