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Persistent winter conditions good news for ice climbers in Michigan's Upper Peninsula

1:44 PM, Mar 27, 2013   |    comments
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(DETROIT FREE PRESS) -- Fierce wind drove snow into head-high drifts.

Night had fallen in Munising, where dozens of frozen waterfalls and ice curtains clung to the porous sandstone cliffs of Lake Superior. It was the first day of Spring.

Well into March, persistent cold weather and heavy snow contributed to epic late-season ice climbing conditions at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore in Michigan's Upper Peninsula.

"There's more ice than we can put climbers on up here," said park ranger Bill Smith.

On Munising Bay last week, lake ice was frozen solid out to Grand Island, which is part of Hiawatha National Forest, where a bounty of additional climbing exists. A 3-day storm on March 20 dumped more than two feet of snow in the area, Smith said.

These conditions are in contrast to the same time in 2012, when Michigan experienced an unusually warm spring, with parts of the Upper Peninsula experiencing warm temperatures -- into the 70s, Smith said -- in March. Virtually no lake ice remained and the few ice climbs left were crashing violently to the ground.

But this year, Smith said, things are different.

"The formations are in and climbing is still very much alive and well here, so the opportunity will continue for probably another month at least," he said.

Spring is a prime time to climb ice. During single-digit temps of mid-winter, ice is brittle. As the temperature warms, ice softens, making it easier to climb and more pleasant to experience.

Equipment outfitter Down Wind Sports -- located in Marquette, about an hour from Munising -- offers ice climbing gear for rent and lessons for anyone looking for thrills and guidance.

And not every trip has to require a walk across an icy bay. Several climbs exist within a short walk from the Sand Point parking area near park headquarters and dozens more exist further down the lakeshore.

Smith said visitors should check with the park service for weather and lake ice conditions before venturing out.

By Brian Kaufman, Detroit Free Press

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