How Single Mom and Ice Climbing Champ Ines Papert Does It All

How a single mom became one of the world’s best all-around climbers
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How a single mom became one of the world’s best all-around climbers
Ines Papert Ice Climbing Advice

With loads of exposure, scarce and tricky pro, and a dangerous mixed-climbing start, this route could make even the big boys cry, but the fearless Ines Papert makes it look easy on the R-rated, 520-foot Ames Ice Hose (WI5 M6) in Telluride, Colorado. Photo: Andrew Burr

Ines Papert, a 40-year-old rock, ice, and mixed climbing master, is anything but average. She has won more than 20 World Cup events, new-routed mixed climbs like the Himalaya’s North Face of Tengkangpoche (6,487 meters), and sent 1,300-foot 5.13+ rock routes. But average is exactly how Papert started life in flat, Soviet-ruled East Germany.

She grew up far from the mountains and mid-pack when it came to everything from sports to music. After the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, she moved to the Bavarian Alps for a higher paying job, and she was ravenous for adventure. “I wanted to explore mountains more than anyone else I was friends with,” she says, “and weekends were just not enough.” After getting bored hiking, biking, and skiing her local trails over and over, Papert, at age 20, turned to the vertical. She started in the gym, quickly moved to easy alpine rock, and then tried ice climbing to prepare for a climbing trip with friends to the South American Andes. She hated it.

“Everything went wrong,” she says. “I got a bloody nose and screaming barfies many times. Plus, I thought it was boring and slow.” But she tried again and started having fun, so much so that she took a year off work to focus on climbing. Then her growing passion and harder and harder ticks were halted abruptly at age 26 when she found out she was pregnant.

“When Emmanuel was born, most people expected I would stop competing. Or stop climbing,” she says. But, even as a single mother, that was never part of her plan. She developed a rigorous training system and worked out in her basement and outside in the mountains, with all motivation leading toward ice climbing competitions.

When it came time to compete, Ines won. Then she won again. And again. She started receiving sponsorship money and dominated the women’s—and sometimes the men’s—ice climbing comps for six years, racking up four World Championships, 13 single World Cup titles, and three overall World Cup Series championships. She became the first woman to climb M11 with her ascent of Mission Impossible (M11) in Italy in 2003, which two years prior was considered the most difficult mixed route in the world. She refocused on bigger alpine objectives, with first ascents like 22,044-foot Likhu Chuli in Nepal. Her climbing partners say she’s intensely motivated, and a deep drive for freedom and a life less ordinary keeps her exploring, with the limitations of her past quelling any voice that might whisper “I can’t.” 

How to Do It All and Stay Motivated

1. Push Your Limits

Ines Papert Ice Climbing Advice

Photo: Andrew Burr

When I first started climbing, I would let stronger partners lead the hard stuff because it was easy to give up. When I climbed with friends less experienced than me, I had to lead when it got hard. This helped me develop as a climber. When it gets hard or scary, I try to breathe normally and focus on the next few moves. Push your limits and fully believe you’re able to climb at a higher level—because you are! 

2. Find Balance 

In Europe there are tons of 5.13 climbers who also work full-time. Besides responsibilities, pay attention to what you want. Women are bad at this. I’m up at 6 a.m. to get my son to school, then I climb, ski, or paraglide until he gets home. We adventure together on weekends, mountain bike, ski, or do easy alpine climbing, so time with my son doesn’t take time away from my goals, either.  

3. Build a Support Network

There are plenty of people who don’t understand my life, people who call me selfish. But I have friends around the world to stay with and vice versa. It’s not 1,000 friends; it’s more like 20. When Manu was younger, my friends had no trouble being on a trip with a mum and child. Everyone took responsibilities, and I very much appreciated this. Real friends support me, and I support them.

4. Always Have an Objective

You have to train for something at your limit. Once I choose a goal, I fully focus on the training. It’s important to have a goal or I get lazy. A timeline makes me more efficient. Rest days will maximize preparation. I became way stronger after Manu’s birth when I had limited time because it motivated each training session. And goals can be just outside your front door.

5. Have a Backup Plan

When I target a climb, I’m willing to go as long as necessary, and on longer expeditions when you have one shot, the plan is not stiff. Last year we wanted to climb Tengkangpoche, but because of the high risk, we shifted to Likhu Chuli as a plan B. We put the same amount of time, effort, and energy into the new plan. When you’ve got a set amount of time, be open-minded about what to attempt. 

—As told to Hilary Oliver. For more from Ines, check out her book, Vertical, available at ines-papert.de and amazon.com.