There are already 7 million climbers in America and the sport’s popularity is growing.
Sport climbing made its debut at the August 2021 Tokyo Olympics. The word “climbing” peaked in popularity on Google during this event.
“The nature of the outdoor user evolves over time,” said Brad Garmon, director of the Michigan Office of the Outdoor Recreation Industry.
“We shouldn’t get stuck in certain avenues where certain activities are legitimate and others are not. Let’s find out what people want to do in nature and how we can support that,” Garmon said.
Rock climbing isn’t widely recognized in Michigan and the rest of the Midwest because most people don’t expect to find exceptional rock climbing here, Garmon said. That’s one thing that makes rock climbing so exciting: It can change perceptions of the state’s outdoor recreation opportunities.
Michigan’s outdoor recreation industry is responsible for 110,000 jobs and $5 billion in wages each year, according to the agency.
“Nature is part of Michigan’s heritage. It is part of our economy and our communities. We’re an outdoor state,” Garmon said.
Just this year, Slugg’s Bluff on the Upper Peninsula became the state’s premier crag.
The popular crag – climbing jargon for a climbable rock face – is about 20 minutes southwest of Marquette.
People have been climbing there since the 1970s, said Bill Thompson, a board member of the Upper Peninsula Climbing Coalition, a nonprofit group dedicated to promoting sustainable climbing.
The Arbelius family, which had long owned the 10 acres of Slugg’s Bluff, recognized rock climbers cultivating the land and gifted it to them, Thompson said.
Climbers clear out the litter — everything from broken bottles to refrigerators — that local non-climbers throw off the ledge.
Craig Kasmer, a park interpreter at the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and a former rock climber, said the increased awareness that rock climbing requires leads to a deeper connection with nature. This means that climbers can play a key role in the conservation of an area.
“Climbers are aware of their surroundings. With, say, a cyclist, it’s practice. You have to go from point A to point B passing trees and not even looking at them.
“The slower the activity, the better. When climbing, you have to be slow and meticulous. And so you have time to stop and look at things, to engage with the nature around you.”
When climbers scale a rock or ice wall, their focus is on finding the route. You need to be extremely present when searching for different holds, whether it’s with your hands exploring the rock or an ice ax testing the ice.
It’s this awareness and connection to nature that has prompted organizers of the popular Michigan Ice Fest to set a goal of achieving net-zero emissions over the next three years.