Big Ice: Angela VanWiemeersch on Iconic First Female Ascent

‘Sometimes I just have to remind myself to chill and not panic when things seem dismal.’

Angela VanWiemeersch leds 'HMR' above Lake Superior
Angela VanWiemeersch leads ‘HMR’ above Lake Superior; photo courtesy Red Bull

“Dismal” is an icy wind whipping off Lake Superior, battering your body as you cling to a 160-foot tower of ice. Angela VanWiemeersch‘s advice to “just chill” in that scenario refers to a challenging moment on the HMR route above Lake Superior. It’s an iconic ice climb on a cliff along the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

Last year, VanWiemeersch made the first female ascent there. She climbed the enormous cascade of ice late in the season on what she called “warm, sticky, and amazing conditions.”

This year was different. She went back to lead HMR with Sasha DiGiulian on a project with Red Bull. It was bitter cold with strong winds, and VanWiemeersch said her ponytail blew sideways as she squinted up to swing axes into brittle ice.

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Sasha DiGiulian Swings Axes on Michigan Ice
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This is not a normal ice climb. HMR requires a massive approach and goes at a WI5 rating, meaning it’s a long, strenuous, technical climb. Most climbers top-rope with a belay off the trees. For the really brave, you rappel to the water and pull the rope – your only way out is to climb back up.

VanWiemeersch’s climb with DiGiulian was fraught with unfavorable conditions. And it only served to make her successful HMR climb last year all that more impressive. So we caught up with VanWiemeersch at the Michigan Ice Fest late last month for a recounting of that inspiring first ascent.

Interview: Climber Angela VanWiemeersch

Congrats on the first female ascent of HMR. It’s a stout climb in a precarious setting. How’d it go?

Angela VanWiemeersch: Thanks. I’ve led HMR twice. My first lead of it was in warm, sticky, and amazing conditions. It was later season, and the angle of the ice was more forgiving. This year, when I led it with Sasha, it was in pretty cold, windy, and brittle conditions. It was also early season, so the ice formed steep. The wind was sure blowing that day, and my hair was whipping in the wind. I find strong winds to be unnerving while climbing. It’s something I’m trying to work through. I always feel like it could just blow me right off the climb!

ice climbing
VanWiemeersch climbing in a world of ice, where the vertical frozen meets the horizontal ice of Lake Superior below; photo courtesy Red Bull

You made the first female ascent of the route (on lead). Why had no women climbed this before?

Hard saying not knowing, but maybe I made the first female ascent because it’s far away and just hard enough of a grade that it’s intimidating. On foot, HMR is a 12-mile day. There are plenty of women in the ice climbing community that were strong enough to make the trek to go out and climb this route.

Maybe it’s just that Michigan was off the map for many years, or it just seemed like more trouble than it’s worth. But for me, it is one of my all-time favorite climbs, and it’s worth every footstep.

Was there a single hardest moment on that route you can recall, or was it a methodical sustained effort?

At the steepest part of the climb, I had a distinct moment of struggle. I was trying to get a good tool placement, and the ice just kept on breaking everywhere I swung. I was locked off and getting tired. So I climbed about one foot back down into a resting position and reevaluated. I was able to breathe, then move a bit out left and find good placements and move. Sometimes I just have to remind myself to chill and not panic when things seem dismal.

Sasha DiGiulian climbing ice
On HMR, Sasha DiGiulian follows VanWiemeersch to the top; photo courtesy Red Bull

You’re living this winter in Munising, Michigan. How many first ascents have you made in the U.P. this year?

Two first ascents so far that I’ve led. They are called “Cautiously Optimistic” – WI4, 30 meters – and “Chimp Simpleton” – WI5, 35 meters. The first was a thin smear that had just enough ice to take stubby screws and climb without things getting too crazy. At the end there is a wild and very three-dimensional batwing feature you must climb to top out. Chimp Simpleton was a beautiful vertical pillar that seemed almost gothic in style, with beautiful orange daggers hanging from either side.

Although the technical grade and steepness on Chimp Simpleton made it more difficult, I found Cautiously Optimistic to be more challenging because pulling through the batwing at the top was so awkward! I got stuck for a while trying to figure out how I was going to be able to do it.

Any scary moments, or did they go smoothly?

Everything on both routes went smoothly. Just your typical hurdles, like breaking off big ice or trying to find a good placement. But, all in all, I luckily did not get gripped on either one.

A long trek in through the wilderness to approach HMR; photo courtesy Red Bull

What is your biggest challenge in ice climbing, either macro-level or specific?

My biggest challenge in ice climbing at the moment is pushing my limits while assessing risk and being confident in my skill to perform a particular task. Sometimes when you’re pushing the sport, the hard ice climbs aren’t as safe as you want them to be.

For example, if I find a climb to be beyond inspiring, but it [isn’t receptive to] great gear, I want to assess the risk and come to personal terms on whether the risk is worth it or not. And when I make the decision to climb or not to climb, I want to feel confident in my decision-making process and stay true to my decision and not look back.

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What’s next for you on the U.P. and beyond?

I will continue to climb and search for new lines in two weeks if the ice survives that long. I’m working right now full-time on a production, saving money for my next adventures. I am focusing in the coming months on developing my strength and applying that toward rock climbing. I have trips planned to Africa, Kentucky, California, and Alaska.

–Follow Angela VanWiemeersch on her blog and Instagram.

climbing ice in michigan
VanWiemeersch in the heat of HMR, her second time leading the route; photo courtesy Red Bull
Stephen Regenold

Stephen Regenold is Founder of GearJunkie, which he launched as a nationally-syndicated newspaper column in 2002. As a journalist and writer, Regenold has covered the outdoors industry for two decades, including as a correspondent for the New York Times. A father of five, Regenold and his wife live in Minneapolis.