My first two seasons of ice climbing were about goofing off, having fun, and hanging out with friends. The past two winters were about progress and improving my skills. If I will apply the 80/20 principle to ice climbing, it is 80% mental and 20% physical. I am definitely stuck on both. I needed to learn more about proper form and technique, as well as improve my mental game.
This winter  other priorities needed more of my attention. I have only gone four days on ice. Four! Instead of being disappointed, I focused my attention on quality vs. quantity. I attended an ice climbing clinic with All In Ice Fest as part of my first ice trip this winter, which lead me to my first lead on ice. With quality as my top priority, mindfulness played a big role on my ice climbing journey this year.
So, what about mindfulness and ice climbing?
Mindfulness, according to mindful.org "is the basic human ability to be fully present, aware of where we are and what we’re doing, and not overly reactive or overwhelmed by what’s going on around us. Whenever you bring awareness to what you’re directly experiencing via your senses, or to your state of mind via your thoughts and emotions, you’re being mindful”
The goal of mindfulness is to wake up to the inner workings of our mental, emotional, and physical processes.
Here are seven mindfulness lessons that I learned from ice climbing:
Body awareness on ice: Understanding the connection between my body, my environment, and my tools
A huge part of ice climbing is proper form and technique. The mantra of ice climbing is “do not fall”. This means my form, technique, and understanding my tools are very important to my safety and success on the wall. With body awareness comes being aware of the placement of my axes and crampons, finding the best spot to stick my axes or finding a resting spot through good feet/crampon placement. If I cannot find one, I can make one — the beauty of ice! I also needed to learn how my body moves based on my tools, like which foot to move first based on which axe is higher, what direction my hips should go, etc.
💡 Practical life lesson: Body awareness is applicable not just in sports but also in our daily life. One of the ways to increase body awareness is by doing a body scan — or intentionally paying attention to the different parts of our body, and to really focus on the sensations that are present without judging them. For example, we may think that we are not exhausted, however, our bodies provide us many signals that say otherwise. Try this: take a moment to pause and feel the sensations that are present in your body. Once you’ve acknowledged those bodily sensations, evaluate the root or cause of such sensations, and then respond based on what you’ve discovered. It could be as simple as needing to grab a snack or taking some deep breaths for a few minutes.
Breaking ice and falling ice: Staying alert and calm at the same time
When climbing ice it is very likely that chunks and plates of ice will come off. If the ice is big enough that you think it could knock off or hurt a person, like your partner or your belayer, you have to yell “ice” loudly to let them know so they can respond in a timely manner and remain safe. Ice climbing requires attention not just on our bodies, our movements, the ice conditions, our climbing partners, but also to the unexpected things that could come up. Being aware of and able to respond to things to keep you and your climbing partner safe is important.
💡 Practical life lesson: We face various stressors everyday. Some stressors require minimal or all of our attention. Mindfulness can help us manage which stressors should be front and center and requires our immediate attention and which stressors don’t. When we notice and acknowledge the stressor and how we are physically, mentally, and emotionally reacting to said stressor, we are able to intentionally center and ground ourselves, and respond to the stressor better without causing further harm.
It can be cold, wet, snowing, or sunny: Be prepared to manage different conditions
There are perfect conditions, suboptimal conditions, and there are “I’m going home” conditions. Either way, when going out for an ice climbing trip, whether at the park or backcountry, you have to be aware and prepared for any conditions. A few drops in temperature can definitely change what is “an acceptable” temperature for someone. Too warm of a temperature can make the ice wall conditions unsafe for climbing.
💡 Practical life lesson: There is something about learning or training for something and wishing to never be in a situation where you need to use it. Yes, knowledge is power, most especially in [sometimes very rare] moments when you most need it. And in those rare moments, grounding ourselves, being fully present, and aware of what’s happening can help us not become overwhelmed and overreactive. Bringing awareness to what we’re directly experiencing means being able to respond to different situations appropriately. Mindfulness can help us not miss information or details that if missed could result in unsafe and dangerous situations.
Climbing on ice can be scary: Fear of ice climbing is a healthy fear. Recognize and respond, instead of react, to your fear.
On my first season of ice climbing, one of the first advice I have gotten is to “never fall on ice”. It is highly recommended to not fall while leading on ice and it should be avoided at all cost. As I learn more and continue to improve my form and technique, I always think of the different ways I can keep my self and my partner safe on ice. With every move, with every stick of my tools, I have to be focused and aware. The fear of not falling on lead is a good fear. Said fear is teaching me not to be complacent, unobservant and perform unsafe climbing practices.
💡Practical life lesson: Fear is not irrational. Feeling fear is not a weakness. How we perceive danger and respond, instead of react, to fear is more important than trying to get rid of the threat or danger causing the fear. Remaining grounded and knowing how to think, feel, and act in the here and now, we are more equipped make correct choices that could eliminate or reduce the danger.
Take a break: You may not notice it early on but take a break even before you think you need a break
This is another thing where ice climbing is different than rock climbing — being pumped while leading on ice is not recommended and can be the beginning of a scary epic. Climbing is already a taxing activity both for the mind and the body — doesn’t matter if you are on a moderate [not a very steep] ice wall or a fully vertical ice wall; taking a break before you need a break is important. A break needs to happen each time you place protection [ice screw]. Yes, you may think and feel you don’t need a break but it may turn into a real problem if you suddenly needed a break even before you can place the next protection. Just because you are not pumped yet, does not mean you will not get pumped after the next few moves. One thing about ice is that each section is never the same, some parts can be moderate and some parts can be challenging. Having the physical and mental energy and capacity to manage both moderate and challenging sections is key to a safe and successful ice climb.
💡Practical life lesson: Our lives at home and at work can get really busy. We’re plowing through tasks after tasks after tasks. We’re accustomed to ignoring even the smallest signs of burnout and exhaustion. We think we just need to get one more done and then we can finally have the time to stop and breathe. Most of the time, that “time” never arrives or happens. Time management is energy management. Being mindful of how we are loading ourselves with “things-to-do” can help us manage how we are using our time so we do not deplete ourselves of mental, emotional, and physical energy.
It’s okay to say NO: Stopping is the best and safest thing you can do for yourself and your climbing partner[s]
Some days you just don’t have it in you. You walk into a crag and realize your head is not in it. You don’t feel like climbing. A good climbing partner is someone who will support you, your current mental and emotional state, as well as your decision to not climb. Even if that means your climbing partner will not be able to climb as well. It’s 100% okay to say “no”.
💡 Practical life lesson: Saying “yes” is not a bad thing. It becomes problematic if we say yes to everything, even to the things that don’t serve our purpose. Remember peer pressure? Adulthood doesn’t make us immune to it. Saying “no” is sometimes the best thing you can do for yourself and others. Remember a time when you said yes to a project or activity that doesn’t really energize you. What was the outcome? When we say yes to things that don't serve our purpose and are not aligned with our values, we have a hard time being fully present and showing up as our whole, authentic selves.
It’s okay to not know: Be aware of, upfront, and honest with your and others’ experience[s]
There is no shame in admitting that we do not know, that we lack experience, or that we need a refresher about something. In climbing, pretending to know and know everything can be a dangerous attitude to have, most especially when faced by a situation where said knowledge could become a matter of life and death. Being aware and mindful of ways, both old and new [old ways vs. new ways], to do things and evaluating which ones serve or don’t serve you and your climbing partner can bring a more safe and fun climbing experience for all.
💡 Practical life lesson: Mindfulness can help us notice other perspectives, ideas, possibilities, and experiences without judgment. It’s easy to assume that we are “right” and others are “wrong” because of the knowledge that we have [old and new] or because of the time that we’ve dedicated to doing or learning something. Mindfulness can help us process incoming information without relying on our cognitive biases. Having an open mind is like opening ourselves up to a much bigger world with so much to discover, learn, and experience.
I hope these little mindfulness ruminations can bring more fun and safety to your ice climbing journey as well as your day-to-day activities.