Obsession and Ingenuity, Part I: Michigan

Posted on: October 17, 2007

Garrett Peabody on the tower, approaching the sprinkler heads for adjustment. The adjustment process can be a decidedly unpleasant task, as it can only be done 55 feet in the air, in the cold, with water spraying all over you. [Photo] Courtesy of Jeff Shoemaker

Despite its length and apparent hardship, the arduous approach to the tower is actually short enough to allow quick lunch-time climbing sessions and after work burns. [Photo] Luke Bauer

The lucky ones find superb climbing in their backyard year-round. Most of us—not quite so pampered—drive varying distances depending on the time of year. For others, there's no vertical enjoyment within a reasonable day's drive, no matter the season.

What follows is a story—the first in a multi-part Weekly Feature series on climbing obsession and ingenuity—of a 57-foot ice tower in Fenton, Michigan. If going to the climbing takes too long, why not bring the climbing closer?

But why open the series with Fenton's vertical anomaly? It's not very tall, and it's certainly not very wide, and fewer than a hundred people have ever climbed there. What gives? Well, as Garrett and Jeff would likely tell you, every big idea starts out small—though in this case, the initial engineering began a little too small, as you'll see. To honor those who indulge and share their climbing obsession creatively, we, too, will start out small. Enjoy.


"There can be no vulnerability without risk; there can be no community without vulnerability; there can be no peace, and ultimately no life, without community."

—M. Scott Peck


The harsh conditions of the belay station. [Photo] Courtesy of Garrett Peabody

Being an ice climber in Michigan is, like many things in the Midwest, a little, well, odd. Rather than an off-season, Michigan has three off-seasons and one all too brief on-season. This state of affairs is compounded by the lack of any significant topographical relief.

The three months (if you're lucky) of joy for most Midwestern ice climbers are filled with long, sleepless drives to Ontario, Northern Minnesota and Michigan's Upper Peninsula. There are even a few weekends each season with ice festivals. In Munising, Michigan, and Sandstone, Minnesota, people come together for long weekends of gear demos, slideshows, gear raffles, free beer and a hearty dose of socializing with new partners and old friends. Unlike more well-known festivals in Ouray, Colorado, and Hyalite Canyon, Montana, where multiple climbs are easily accessible from the hotel's hot tub, even meccas of the Midwest still necessitate a long snowshoe or ski to widely scattered curtains, diminishing the social aspects of climbing, even during festivals. But the gatherings are the driving force in a part of the country whose climbing scene is based more on tenacity, stubbornness and a sense of belonging than on what most climbers would consider great climbing.

The last days of the season melt away. The sprinkler at the bottom of the tower was Brittany Schram's addition to the construction. The spray fills out the lower sections which would otherwise be rather thin. Plans for next season's tower, and festival, are even bigger. [Photo] Courtesy of Jeff Shoemaker

Thankfully, two visionaries in Fenton, Michigan, have solved both problems of geologic banality that plague all parts of the Midwest not immediately adjacent to Lake Superior, and the dearth of available festival weekends. They built a tower, put sprinkler heads on it, waited until some ice formed, then had a festival.

Garrett Peabody, a 27-year-old insurance salesman, and Jeff Shoemaker, a 28-year-old owner of a landscaping company, realized that they were trapped in a flat place with absolutely no chance of natural ice. "We started by climbing in the storage cooler walls out at the farm," Garrett said, but they soon realized that insulating foam didn't have much structural stability. "That's when we decided to build a tower." Conveniently, they had access to an abandoned apple orchard, a crane, and an abundance of creativity.

The grandeur of the warming lounge may be lackluster—or rusted—on the outside, but it's plush shag carpet interior and mildly dangerous open propane heaters provide such an ambiance that even the canine ice climbing contingent keeps coming back. [Photo] Luke Bauer

The first attempt was simply a rope running down from the crane arm, but the formation quickly collapsed from the weight of the ice.

The second attempt was two 37-foot poles wrapped in chain link fence and attached to the crane arm. It didn't collapse, but it wasn't very tall, or stable.

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