Inside the Former Apple Orchard Where Local Athletes Train Like Olympians

Peabody Ice Climbing in Fenton offers enthusiasts the rush of the summit
Facility Factoid: The number on the screen represents the altitude that is simulated based on the oxygen levels in the room. For reference: As a person goes higher up a mountain, usable oxygen decreases based on diminishing atmospheric pressure. The lower oxygen levels impair exercise performance tremendously. Bodies can adapt, but it takes time. Working out at the facility helps people pre-acclimatize to that air pressure prior to going to the real environment, thus increasing their chances of safety and success. // Photograph courtesy of Peabody Ice Climbing Club

When you pull up to Peabody Ice Climbing Club — off of a desolate, dirt road in Fenton, Mich. — the lot resembles the average farmyard, or perhaps the ghost of one. The former packaging and storage facility doesn’t look like much from the outside: small and outdated like a miniature ski lodge. What’s on the inside, however, is what gives the site the potential to become a training facility for Olympic athletes … and the location for a national mixed ice-climbing competition.

Apples to Axes

“It’s our family’s retired apple orchard,” says Garrett Peabody, owner and certified climbing instructor at the club. “We stopped farming in ’96. I was in the military for years. I moved back to Michigan in 2006 after going out west, climbing all over the place, and this place was sitting here, doing nothing.”

Upon returning to Michigan, Peabody familiarized himself with a 20 to 30 mile-portion of Lake Superior shoreline stippled with waterfalls. Many freeze in the winter, which makes them ideal environments for recreational ice climbing. “Michigan doesn’t have great rock climbing … but the ice climbing around here is world class,” he says.

Peabody realized that it’d be difficult to get better at ice climbing if he could only take a handful of trips up north during the winter. So he and some friends began building what are now 45-foot and 72-foot towers in Fenton. In the winter, he runs water down the towers to freeze them over, then blasts fake snow at them to create practice walls.

Little did he know, he’d later establish a full-fledged, indoor ice-climbing business — and a community of climbers, too.

Altitude Adjustment 

As if the homemade training towers weren’t original enough, the standout attraction sits inside the old packaging and storage building — a treasure left behind after the family’s apple growing declined. The concrete-insulated room in which the apples were once stored is now a sealed training facility where Peabody can adjust the air composition to match that of the altitude for whichever expedition he’s planning.

Peabody says apples are one of the few fruits that can be stored indefinitely by reducing the oxygen concentration in a sealed room — a technique in the agricultural industry called controlled atmosphere storage. Peabody’s father, who was the president of the Michigan Apple Committee, would store apples from the family farm and other local growers. Their biggest client was the Kroger grocery chain.

“The climbing that we were doing, we realized, ‘how are we going to simulate altitude so we can continue to pursue these peaks and still live in the Midwest?’ ” Peabody says. “And I walked by that room and realized, ‘Oh yeah. That’s the same thing we’re doing with apples — simulating altitude.’ ”

By pumping nitrogen into the altitude simulator and decreasing the amount of oxygen, the room, which is about 1,000 feet above sea level, can simulate a level of up to 19,000 feet.

“[Effective air composition at] sea level is about 80 percent nitrogen and 20 percent oxygen,” Peabody says. “At 10,000 feet, it’s 14 percent oxygen. So, it’s only 6 percent less, [but] to us, [it feels] like 40 percent less than what we’re used to. What we were storing those apples at is 2 percent oxygen, and the top of Everest is 6 percent oxygen.”

Training for a mountain expedition in an altitude simulator helps athletes pre-acclimatize, or assimilate, to the environment they are planning to conquer. There are only about five of these types of rooms in the country.

“Our facility had an intern that was at the Colorado Olympic training facility for the Rio Olympics,” Peabody says. “I showed him the room and he said, ‘This is the same size as the Olympic training facility.’ ”

The main motive for pre-acclimatization training? Saving time. Controlled altitude training can reduce the necessary duration of a Mount Everest climbing trip from three months to one. Climbers that choose to summit Everest without pre-acclimatizing must do so with quite a bit of backtracking: hiking a few thousand feet, coming back down to rest and acclimatize, then waking up in the morning and passing their prior benchmark.

The Next Trip

Last March, Peabody Ice Climbing hosted the Midwest’s first mixed climbing competition with the help of Ice Climbing World Cup competitor Nate Kutcher of Canada.

“Nate called last fall … and he came out in winter to build most of that stuff and then hosted that event called The Great Lakes Mixed Comp,” Peabody says.

This year, Peabody is working with USA Climbing to prepare for a national championship — high hopes for a small town. Then again, anything’s possible if your idea of the perfect altitude is around 10,000 feet.