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What We Can Learn About Life From Ice Climbing

ice climbing: man on top of the Alps

A couple of years ago I took up ice climbing in the Austrian Alps. It's one of those things that’s super scary — and I love it. I did some alpinism and some rock climbing before but climbing up frozen waterfalls is a different level. 

In today's article, we take a look at the sport of ice climbing, what basic equipment and preparation are required, and how it perfectly fits into the idea of generality and specificity in fitness. What's more, if we look deeper under the cover, there are a bunch of life lessons that we can draw from a rather extreme activity like ascending vertical frozen water. 

What Is Ice Climbing?

Ice climbing is part of mountaineering and essentially is the winter sport of ascending different ice formations. This can include water ice (like frozen waterfalls) or alpine ice, which typically includes a mixed climbing approach with rock climbing passages. In addition to security equipment, which I cover in the next section, a climber uses one ice axe (i.e., ice tool) in each hand and crampons on the boots. 

The ice can be climbed leveraging various techniques that rock climbers are typically well aware of like lead climb, top rope, belay, or ice bollards. This article is not about climbing techniques, but if that’s what you’re looking for, refer to this excellent summary

What You Need for Ice Climbing

The first thing you need to go ice climbing is proper and thorough preparation. Make no mistake: This is dangerous. People die. Preparation is really important and can save lives. Preparation includes getting familiar with the location and route, the weather, and the ice conditions. This is especially important if you plan to climb towards the beginning or end of the ice climbing season. I always go with an experienced alpinist or even better: Hire a local guide. I typically enjoy these trips with my good friend and top guide Joe from Kalymnos Primal Climb.

The next part of preparation is the right climbing gear and knowing your gear. Don't save money on gear. Your life may (literally) be hanging on it. If you go with a guide, they usually bring a lot of gear. Just make sure you coordinate so that nothing is missing. The gear includes the aforementioned (front-pointing) crampons, and ice axes, and security equipment like helmets, harnesses, carabiners, quickdraws, ice screws, belaying equipment, and ropes.

Last but not least, you need to have a certain level of good general fitness. When you are out ice climbing you are usually out for a couple of hours and it will be taxing on your strength, muscle endurance, and aerobic capacity. A good level of general health and fitness is what I advocate and encourage in everything I do with my 4 Legs of Fitness model. In addition, you need specific skills which you will acquire and improve while ice climbing. This perfectly follows the principle of generality and specificity, which I will cover in the next section as one of the lessons. 

Lessons for Life From Ice Climbing

ice climbing: person reaching the top of the Alps

An ice climb is miserable.

You are cold all the time. You are wet all the time. It's hard work. You are high up and extremely exposed a lot of the time. And you are at your limits almost all the time. Sounds very enjoyable, doesn't it?

Well, no. But as we always say here: Nothing valuable comes easy. Ice climbing is hard but approaching it with the right attitude can help us draw a lot of very valuable lessons for life.

Apply the Principle of Generality vs. Specificity 

I am a big fan of the principle of generality and specificity. Once we understand it and know how to apply it, it can be very effective in helping us improve faster with better quality. I described that in detail in my article How Is Your Health Related To Fitness? 

Like with any other specific sport, we need a solid foundation that is covered by the principle of generality with the goal to achieve a high level of fitness. This is very beneficial in everyday life and general well-being anyway. 

The principle of specificity covers everything that is specific about your sport. In this case, it's ice climbing. So, here we would learn, isolate and drill certain techniques that make you a better ice climber. Examples include technical rope work or training on a hangboard

The third and last part of the puzzle is executing your sport in its entirety, i.e., bringing all the pieces together. Only this will make you become a really good mountaineer by applying all the general and specific features seamlessly and instinctively. 

For me, this was one of the moments where I understood firsthand the power of this principle. The first time I went ice climbing, I knew that I had good general athleticism. Very quickly I also knew that I lacked a lot of specific skills and knowledge. But this helped me to see very quickly where the "problem" was. It was, for example, not a lack of strength or endurance but certainly a lack of understanding about how to apply the right technique at the right moment. In climbing, this is a huge deal. After that, I could go and work on my weaknesses in a targeted way.

Learning this lesson is extremely valuable and transferable. Every time I try something new, more often than not the application of the principle of generality and specificity helps me progress faster by choosing to do the right things.  

To Do Stuff, You Need to Do Stuff

I discovered ice climbing purely by accident. Originally I wanted to complete a course about alpine mountaineering in which I wanted to learn how to traverse glaciers, rappel on ice or self-rescue from a crevasse. This course was canceled. Ice climbing was offered at the same time. I had no idea about ice climbing and hence also no real excitement about it. But I decided to just go for it. 

This turned out to be a great decision. I learned a lot of transferable skills for alpinism and climbing anyway. But it's even more important that I met a lot of very interesting people who I still stay in touch with today, it led to valuable relationships and collaborations and indeed I discovered a new passion. Last but not least, with a bit of reflection there are lots of life lessons that can be drawn from an activity like this. 

The bigger lesson here is not only about learning how to climb ice routes but sometimes it is just necessary to do stuff and find the value in it later in case it's not obvious from the beginning. We tend to overthink things. I made this one of my rules of thumb that whenever I have doubts about doing something or not, I ask myself simply, “What's the drawback of doing it?” In most cases it's "only" monetary cost, and that for me means that I go for it.  

Embrace the Toughness Factor 

man climbing the Alps

Climbing vertical ice is not necessarily for the faint of heart. You never really know if the ice screw or the icicle is going to hold. During ice climbing routes you are constantly challenging yourself. And this is a great metaphor for life itself. 

In ice climbing you are constantly confronted with hard problems and you are at the edge of or outside of your comfort zone all the time. You will complete the route by being persistent and positive. Sometimes you’ll have to take a step back, review your situation, and then make the appropriate decisions to progress further. This attitude can be trained in ice climbing (or any other tough situation that you put yourself into) and then transferred and applied to life in general.

In this context I like Jocko Willink's quote, "To be tougher, just be tougher!" It's simple and powerful. Way too often we overthink things and hesitate. We should more often just be more courageous and take the leap of faith.

Of course, ice climbing is inconvenient — you are wet, you are cold — and it's probably much nicer to stay in bed under a warm blanket. But I am convinced we can train to be tougher by deliberately facing and overcoming small inconveniences (like daily cold showers). How should we be able to overcome real adversity if we are not able to cope with small inconveniences? I am convinced this can be conditioned to a large degree. 

It's a Mental Game 

The main limiting factor in ice climbing is your brain. You may have more physical capability but because you put yourself into a potentially dangerous situation, your brain may tell you, "Don't do it!" This may limit you in successfully climbing harder routes or simply having fun while doing it. This is another great example of the power of the body-mind connection.

Two things can help to improve this: First, experienced ice climbers like Will Gadd suggest isolating certain hard parts you are struggling with and train them in a safe environment over and over again.

Second, since it's a mental game, trying to think positive is a recipe for success. Conversely, if you only see the negative things related to a certain situation you will deprive yourself of all motivation. It will turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy and you will indeed fail. This is fully applicable to life in general, too.

You Are Not Alone

In ice climbing like in life it is critical for success and happiness to surround yourself with the people who are good for you and make you happy. It is just a lot more fun to hang in steep ice with people who you harmonize well with, with similar values and with whom the chemistry is right. After all, your life can depend on the fact that you can rely on the other person with 100% certainty. This becomes absolutely crystal clear when you practice ice climbing.

Earlier I spoke about the power of sometimes taking a step back to review the situation and find a new way forward. This is another analogy between ice climbing and real life. Often we may have a certain blind spot — things that we may simply not see. That could be a certain non-ideal behavior about us or it could be a useful ice hold. People who we trust may have a useful perspective about such things or may as a belayer just have a different angle to see the ice hold better. This can just be the right cue for us to advance — in life as well as in ice climbing

Get Some N.U.T.s

I recommend that everybody should find and define their non-negotiable, unalterable terms (or N.U.T.s). 

N.U.T.s are those things in life that are really important for you. They are those things that make living your life worthwhile. I go climb icefalls maybe once a year and while I tremendously enjoy that and take something away from it every time, I would not regard it as one of my N.U.T.s. But constantly trying new things, learning, growing, and embarking on mini-adventures (sometimes weird ones or even crazy ones) is definitely one of my N.U.T.s. I do this often. It enriches my life. It makes me happy and the people around me who are close to me know this well.  

I believe that finding your N.U.T.s, grabbing them, and pursuing them increases your self-awareness and is one element of happiness and well-being.

Nothing Valuable Comes Easy

In this article I have alluded to the fact climbing icefalls is a bit of a scary endeavor. But nothing valuable comes easy and every single time I went ice climbing or did any similar scary project it was totally worth it. I don’t regret it. With an open mind, lots of different lessons can be derived for life which can offer tremendous value. "Fortune favors the brave," as the Romans said. Ice climbing is one of my ways of cultivating bravery and stepping outside of my comfort zone. I recommend everybody find their own ice climbing

One of the takeaways is that whatever specific sport you are engaging in (climbing, boxing, pole dance, basketball, mountain biking, or whatever else), you will always need a solid basis of good general health and fitness not only to avoid injuries but to perform well and progress quickly. This is the purpose of my Build Bullet-Proof Health program. It will equip you with the right foundation to start just about any specific sport. If you want to work with me to prepare for anything specific like a race or a competition, take a look at my Super Coach program and let's schedule a call.  

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