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Passing the Torch: Michigan’s Next Generation of Ice Climbers

How Conrad Anker sparked change in Michigan's youth at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore

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On a frigid February afternoon in 2014, during the filming of MacGillivary Freeman’s National Parks Adventure for IMAX Films, climbing legend and author Conrad Anker looked around in disbelief. There were no local kids getting after the climbs on Michigan’s Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, an unlikely climbing destination in a state with no mountains, but a climbing destination nonetheless. Not one to sit around, Anker inspired a collaboration between The North Face and the climbing nonprofit Michigan Ice Festival to begin developing a youth climbing program for Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. The group named itself the Pictured Rocks Climbing Academy (PRCA) and its young chargers have been climbing ice ever since.

With temperatures consistently plunging well below freezing throughout the long winters, Pictured Rocks form some of the most beautiful ice around. These hidden gems sparkle atop ancient sandstone cliffs high above the greatest freshwater lake in the world, Lake Superior. The towering cliffs seep water throughout the year, resulting in a winter playground along the lakeshore in Munising, Michigan. Taking full advantage of the amazing wonders in their very backyards, a group of young climbers embraced Anker’s idea and are learning the art and mastery of ice climbing.

[Also Read The Approach Pitch: An Inside Scoop on a High School for Climbers]

Before she was even big enough to board amusement park rides, Violet Gort, now 10 years old, was sending WI 4 routes on toprope. In her fourth year of climbing, Violet sees the sport as a way to connect with her friends, build confidence in herself and most importantly “have fun!”

Violet Gort on top-rope. Photo: Courtesy of Wilkinsonvisual.

The PRCA is a free program introducing the area’s youth to ice and rock climbing, sustainable outdoor ethics, and stewardship in the local community. The group is dedicated to inspiring the next generation of local adventurers. Aubrey Palmer, age 15 and a third-year PRCA member, says, “I have learned so much from my climbing companions. From picking a particular route to making better life choices, climbing has given me confidence, self-awareness and personal growth.” Regarding environmental ethics, Palmer adds, “Climbing has brought me to amazing places, and in turn, I have a great deal of respect for the environment and Mother Earth.”

Along with Palmer, Maija Fox—age 16—and MaKenzee Van Buren—age 18—parlayed their climbing skills into an invitation to join the USA Climbing Youth Team. Van Buren says, “Climbing continuously stands out as a great source of happiness in my life due to the endless amount of adventure it brings me … I don’t just mean the adrenaline I get … the true adventure shows itself to me in the meaningful relationships and spectacular experiences I’ve found through climbing.”

[Also Check Out Photo Gallery: Michigan Ice Fest 2018]

In the spirit of our world-wide climbing tribe, the PRCA embodies the age-old tradition of elder mentors passing along their knowledge, experience and enthusiasm to the next generation. As the academy evolves, big plans are in the works to visit climbing areas around the country and abroad. And it all started with a simple suggestion by one of our most respected climbing elders, Conrad Anker. Today, the PRCA has a growing membership and a bright future. Each year young climbers learn and grow in their skills and ethics, and pass their own growing knowledge down the line.