Bill Thompson: Ice Climber


During the 1970s, forested areas around his Flushing home beckoned a young Bill Thompson.

Nature became his happy place, providing endless hours of enjoyment during an era when kids’ screen time was limited to live television and occasional movie theater outings.

“Flushing was less developed then and there was a sizable area of woods behind our house that was not even part of a park or anything like that,” Thompson remembers. “Along with playing plenty of baseball with friends, I ended up spending a lot of time back there. I have always had a great passion for the outdoors.”

By his teen years, Thompson’s passion led to a part-time job at For-Mar Nature Preserve in Burton and then to a decision which would change the course of his life.

He resolved to turn what he loved into a living.

Education was step one, so after graduating from Flushing High School in 1980, he enrolled in classes at Mott Community College with an eye toward obtaining an outdoor recreation degree.

Then, in fall of 1983, as Thompson tells people with excitement in his voice, he discovered his version of paradise upon arriving in Marquette to continue his education at Northern Michigan University.

He has never left.

“Honestly, I could not think of a better place to complete my undergraduate degree and then master’s degree in outdoor recreation than an area with so much outdoor activity,” Thompson says. “There are so many opportunities – backpacking, mountain biking, fishing, kayaking, rock climbing – to get out and play within minutes of where I live and work. It was not a difficult decision to stay here after college.”

Thompson has indeed turned his life’s passion into his life’s work while spending any spare time immersed in all the outdoor playgrounds the Upper Peninsula has to offer.

At 60, Thompson remains as passionate and busy as ever as co-owner of Down Wind Sports, a leading go-to destination for outdoor recreation needs and expert advice with locations in Marquette, Houghton and Munising.

In addition to overseeing the retailer’s anchor store in Marquette not far from his residence, Thompson, along with other staff members, guides ice climbing and rock climbing outings offered through Down Wind. He is also an Upper Peninsula Climbers Coalition board member and chairperson for the Great Lakes Section of the American Alpine Club.

Yes, when it comes to climbing north of the Mackinac Bridge, Thompson has literally helped write the book(s) on the subject as co-author of both A Rock Climbers Guide to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and An Ice Climbers Guide to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

Yet, his most satisfying role is none of the above.

What brings the lifelong outdoors enthusiast the most joy is organizing the annual Michigan Ice Fest in Munising, one of the nation’s oldest and largest ice climbing festivals which draws more than 1,000 participants of all ages, backgrounds and ability levels.

The 31st annual event takes place February 8-12, meaning life was becoming a bit chaotic by early January for Thompson and more than 100 others who have a hand in making it happen, including Down Wind Co-owner Arni Ronis, a Saginaw native and Thompson’s good friend since college.

“It seems like we are all working 24/7 now on mostly logistics because it’s always quite an undertaking to pull the whole thing off,” said Thompson on January 9. “Registration continues for another few weeks (until February 1) and we are on par to set a record with more than 1,200 people coming. I’m lucky to work with so many dedicated folks who are just as passionate about the festival, or it wouldn’t be possible.”

Some of climbing’s biggest names and novices alike come to tackle the area’s awe-inspiring ice formations, created by water seeping around, over and through the iconic sandstone cliffs, some rising more than 200 feet above Lake Superior, of Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore and nearby Grand Island.

▶ Bill Thompson has attended every Michigan Ice Fest as an organizer or participant.

Many of the area’s scenic waterfalls also freeze solid. Some of the most popular formations are close to downtown, including the “Dryer Hose”, a 35-foot frozen waterfall surrounded by a half-bowl of sandstone and “No Boundaries”, a 25-foot frozen fall climbers can walk behind. “The Curtains” is a 200-foot-long, 30-foot-high sandstone ledge covered in white and blue ice.

More remote frozen wonders include “Dairyland”, a 150-foot climb over a wide section of ice with a sweeping view of Lake Superior and “HMR” – 160-feet of rust-colored vertical ice hanging over Lake Superior.

“Even experienced, famous climbers coming here for the first time are amazed, especially when climbing formations directly above the violent waves of Lake Superior,” Thompson says. “They usually can’t believe it’s Michigan.”

Angela Limbach, a member of the USA World Cup Ice Climbing Team, is among the elite climbers who have come to believe. Last year, she finished in the top six at the North American Ice Climbing Championships and in the top 22 at the World Championships in both the speed and lead categories.

Limbach has been a part of Ice Fest since 2016 and will again be instructing this year. When it comes to her own climbing during Ice Fest, she seeks out some of the area’s most remote and challenging routes.

“Ice climbing in mountainous areas has its own joy, but there’s little that can compare to lowering over a cliff edge with waves smacking the wall below you, knowing that you are safe on a rope but feeling perilously close to the foamy water below,” she says. “The crashing waves, ripping wind and bullet-hard ice all juxtaposed with skiing or hiking through quiet, snowy woods to get there makes for some satisfying days out.”

Conrad Anker, one of America’s most accomplished mountaineers, first attended Ice Fest in 2014 as part of a team making “National Parks Adventure”, an IMAX film celebrating the National Park Service’s 100th anniversary.

Summiting Mount Everest three times and establishing new climbing routes around the world, including the extremely difficult Shark’s Fin in the Himalayas of northern India, are just a sample of Anker’s achievements.

▶ Founded in 1992, the Michigan Ice Fest in Munising is one of the nation’s oldest and largest ice climbing festivals, drawing more than 1,000 participants of all ages, backgrounds and ability levels.

“I return to the Michigan Ice Fest for the community because the people are wonderful, warm and inviting,” he says. “The hardwood forest and expanse of Lake Superior, combined with the sandstone bluffs running with pigment from the iron, all pull together to make Michigan ice climbing unique in the world.”

Among the other featured athletes this year is Barry Blanchard, a legendary master of difficult first ascents around the world, who has appeared in several climbing documentaries and served as a consultant on movies like “Cliffhanger” and “Vertical Limit”.

Renowned mountain guide Emilie Drinkwater will deliver a presentation on leading a historic all-female climb to the highest point in Afghanistan. Another notable presentation features members of Full Circle Everest, the first all-Black climbing team to reach the top of the world.

“Even experienced, famous climbers coming here for the first time are amazed, especially when climbing formations directly above the violent waves of Lake Superior. They usually can’t believe it’s Michigan.”

Bill Thompson

There is also Carlos Buhler, who has summited six of the world’s nine-highest peaks, including leading the first successful climb of Everest’s east-facing side. He is the first American to reach the top of Khangchendzonga, the world’s third-highest mountain.

“The week is crazy for me, going from early morning to late at night, but what I love the most is seeing all the people I have not seen in a year and catching up,” Thompson says. “It’s been awesome getting to know people like Barry and Carlos. Barry is such a great human being, who has done so much to advance climbing and Carlos looks like somebody’s grandfather. You’d never know what an amazing career he’s had.”

Ice Fest also boasts numerous courses and clinics, an extensive gear raffle and the chance to meet representatives from leading outdoor apparel and equipment companies.

“Ice Fest offers the safest opportunity for anyone to try ice climbing for the first time because it would be dangerous to try to figure it out on your own,” Thompson states. “World-class instruction and guided climbs for all skill levels are offered from near downtown Munising to the Pictured Rocks backcountry. Equipment and transportation are taken care of.”

Thompson, who has attended every Ice Fest as a participant or organizer, never dreamed he would witness the event grow from a handful of friends seeking out the best ice climbing around Munising to more than 1,100 people last year.

“I would say the biggest reason Ice Fest keeps growing is the chance for people to spend time with and learn from some of the world’s best climbers,” he says. “It’s like going to a basketball camp with Michael Jordan, LeBron James and Stephen Curry as instructors. The social aspect of so many people with a common interest coming together, talking about their experiences and bouncing ideas off each other is huge too and one of my favorites aspects of the week.”

Thompson loves to recount the story of his own climbing journey which began in the mid-1980s when NMU professor Phil Watts, known as the “Godfather of Marquette Climbing”, took him and Ronis rock climbing for the first time. Thompson was introduced to ice climbing the following winter.

They continued climbing with Watts, who died on December 29 at 71, for the next three decades.

▶ Bill Thompson has been rock climbing and ice climbing since the mid-1980s.

“At the time, I didn’t even know climbing existed in Michigan, but it only took a second to fall in love with it on that first trip with Phil,” Thompson recalls. “The same thing happened after my first ice climbing experience. I was absolutely hooked.”

“It only took a second for me to fall in love with rock climbing. After my first ice climbing experience, I was absolutely hooked.”

Bill Thompson

Thompson worked with Watts as NMU Outdoor Recreation Center Director while earning his master’s degree. He also taught classes for the outdoor recreation curriculum before joining Down Wind in 1992. By the end of the decade, he was running Ice Fest.

“It’s always a year-long project to pull it off,” Thompson says. “We’ll compare notes about what was good and what might need improvement and then spend the next year making another Ice Fest happen.”

For further information about the festival, visit and for details about other rock and ice climbing opportunities.


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