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Photo Essay: Dream Team Ascends Massive Frozen Pillars of Superior Ice

Feb 16, 2018 11:01AM ● Published by Editor

Sasha DiGiulian and veteran ice climber Angela VanWiemeersch overcome extreme obstacles on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

By Whitney Boland from redbull.com - February 15, 2018

The mission

From a prop plane in the air, Sasha DiGiulian and veteran ice climber Angela VanWiemeersch scouted remote ice formations along Grand Island just off the Upper Peninsula of Michigan in search of potential first ascents.

“There,” VanWiemeersch pointed at an ice pillar visible below. It looked promising, but they needed a closer look to assess potential risk. So they hired an airboat that cruises on both water and over ice. The next day they launched into Lake Superior.

Remember ice was once water
When searching for an ice climbing route, safety is key © ANDY MANN

Rewind to 2015. DiGiulian first ice climbed in Colorado, when she learned to negotiate ice tools in just two weeks. While there, she competed in one of the world’s most prestigious ice climbing competitions, the Ouray Ice Fest, and also climbed a mixed route (combining rock and ice terrain) graded M10. She showed great potential, however, DiGiulian spent the following few years rock climbing and collecting achievements like the first female ascent of Mora Mora in Madagascar.

Sasha DiGiulian belays for VanWiermeersch
VanWiermeersch charges up the ice falls © ANDY MANN

Finally, DiGiulian was ready to again push her comfort zone and linked up with VanWiemeersch to join her for a one-of-a-kind adventure. Known for her strong head and long list of first ascents on ice in Alaska and Utah, VanWiemeersch is a Michigan native who grew up as a competitive ice skater. She was on the road to crafting Olympic-potential skills, but then found ice climbing, trading skates for crampons and one form of frozen ice with another.

Ice climbing can be dangerous when the ice is unstable
DiGiulian's conquered many new routes recently, but none looked like this © ANDY MANN

They made a plan: January in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula (known to many as the “U.P.”) chosen for its potential for new routing and its appeal as an underappreciated gem of winter climbing.

Freezing lake water makes for odd ice formations
Mysto ice world in Michigan's Great Lakes © KEITH LADZINSKI

To first ascent or not

The boat was nearing the shoreline, and they were still unsure if this pillar was worthy of an ascent or not.

“We were on a total recon mission at that point,” VanWiemeersch said. “We hadn’t yet made any decisions to climb it.”

Both girls are bundled up in the frigid Michigan conditions
Sasha and Angela eye their approach before the climb © ANDY MANN

The pillar’s potential instability was top concern. They arrived in Michigan during a warm spell — an unwelcomed shift from the previous few weeks of the single-digit temps that create solid ice.

The boat pulled up as close as it could get to the shore, but just as they were about to disembark, the entire pillar came crashing down.

Thanks to the leadership of VanWiermeersch DiGiulian had a successful trip to Michigan
This was DiGiulian's first foray into ice climbing and she fared just fine © ANDY MANN

The U.P.’s humid yet cold weather harbors perfect conditions for climbable ice, which is mostly situated along Lake Superior’s shoreline just outside of the town of Munising or across the East Channel on Grand Island. The lake forms an ethereal backdrop to the climbing on the same awe-worthy level as the Colorado Rockies.

What they realized once on foot was what they ultimately would have discovered before climbing it: The pillar was bound to fall. The lake freezes to form surface ice, and rock debris along the shoreline forms a solid foundation for soon-to-be-forming pillars. However, this pillar had no such rock base, and with warmer temps, the shelf ice became dangerously thin.

Both sports require delicate balance
Rock ice and water combine on the UP
Different equipment is needed for ice climbing
Ice climbing is very different than big-wall climbing
The girls take on a little nighttime snowshoeing
VanWiermeersch went from ice skater to ice climber in a few short years © ANDY MANN

“Hundreds of feet of ice crashed down,” DiGiulian said. “I was rattled to the core; it was a moment that the severity of our consequences if something went wrong set in.”

First ascent attempt thwarted, they shifted their focus to repeating established climbs in the area, like Bulls on Parade (WI4) and Twin Tower (WI5). (When rating route difficulty in ice climbing, W stands for water, I stands for ice and the number is the difficulty grade.)

Mission aborted

Ice climbing inherently requires the right conditions by its very nature: For ice to freeze it must be cold enough … and cold long enough. First ascents are therefore a precise cocktail of skill and luck — skill in climbing them, but luck of finding fresh ice and finding it in ideal conditions.

“It was challenging at times,” VanWiemeersch said. “I had my sights set on big and unclimbed lines, yet changing conditions and making good decisions mandated in the end what we ended up climbing.”

Sasha DiGiulian climbs up a whole lot of white
No rocks on this wall © KEITH LADZINSKI

Finally, after a stretch of ice-threatening warm weather, the temps dropped. On a cold, windy day with the waves of the lake crashing, they headed into true Michigan conditions to access one of the hardest and tallest lines in the area of which VanWiemeersch previously had a first female ascent — HMR (WI5). Located in the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore and first ascended by Paul Kuenn in the mid-1980s, this ice route is frozen to a bluff directly over the water of Lake Superior.  After a six-mile hike in on snowshoes, DiGiulian and VanWiemeersch rappelled down to the frozen surface of Lake Superior and climbed out setting hand-cranked ice screws as protection.

The two female climbers conquered many routes around Michigans Upper Peninsula
DiGiulian and VanWiermeersch share a moment of triumph (and relief) © KEITH LADZINSKI

For DiGiulian, the trip was about both exploring and refining her newly-minted ice climbing skills, which will be documented in "Superior Ice," an upcoming short film. But it was particularly meaningful having another woman as a mentor.

“I have always believed that empowered women empower other women,” DiGiulian said. “Working together we can obliterate boundaries and define what our gender is capable of. You see it in rock, and now I’ve experienced it on ice.”

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