Ines Papert: Climber, Crusher, Mother

Few female names in the world of rock and ice climbing are as synonymous with “crusher” as Ines Papert. With three World Cup titles to her name, multiple Ouray Ice Fest wins and a first ascent—solo, no less—in the Himalaya, she’s on fire for climbing.

When ice climber Will Gadd introduced Papert at the Bozeman Ice Fest this past December, he laughed at how unimpressed he’d been the first time he saw her climb. He went on to say that when she had her son, 13 years ago, he thought for sure her career would be over. But instead, she’s now climbing harder than most women—and most men, too—and planning an Antarctic climbing expedition with Gadd. The Clymb caught up with her during the Bozeman competition to find out what drives her, and how becoming a mother has changed her climbing.

Photo Courtesy of Arc’teryx

You haven’t always been a climber, right? How did the mountains first start calling you?
I had no background at all. I came from a flat part of Germany. I was playing in the forest when I was a child, but I had never climbed a mountain. My parents tell me I was a lazy child, in terms of sports.  But for some reason, when I moved to Bavaria, I liked starting to hiking, biking, skiing, and ski touring. So I hiked all the summits where I live, and I was like, I can’t really travel a lot because I’m a poor physical therapist. So I thought, I want to climb these mountains, because I’ve hiked all the trails. So with the help of some climbers in the area who had experience, I jumped into it. I never had a course. It was just with friends.

So how did you go from casual peak bagging to where you are now?
As soon as I did my first climb, I knew this was something I really want to do. And of course, in the beginning, you do progress really fast. And pretty soon, you’re climbing harder and harder. But I didn’t want to just climb hard, I wanted to climb mountains. So I started alpine climbing at the same time I started sport climbing. I’ve always been a mountain climber. I still like the sport climbing, I’ve always liked it, but it’s just training for the bigger stuff.

You’re also doing big projects in the mountains, but it’s your ice climbing—specifically competition climbing—that has really caught the public’s eye. How did you get started ice climbing?
We were planning a trip to South America, to Peru, and there were a few 6,000-meter peaks we wanted to do. And, of course, I had to do some ice climbing before, because it was mainly ice. It was my first ice climbing, in late 90s. It was terrible. We made all the mistakes you can make. We climbed in a party of three. My boyfriend at the time was leading, and he was climbing just above me. I was stupid enough to just follow him, and he dropped a huge piece of ice on my face, and my nose was all bloody. I thought, no, this will not be happening again. But for some reason, I did it again. And started to like it.

Then pretty soon the World Cup started. These events started around 2000 and became really popular in Europe and North America. And when my son was born in 2000, it was another chance to continue climbing and meeting people from all over the world, like Will Gadd and others. One important reason I’m here [at the Bozeman Ice Festival] is to meet those guys again. They were like role models for me. I used to be like, “Oh my god, he’s so strong,” and now we climb together.

Not very many women who climb as hard as you do are mothers, as well. Did having a child change how you climb?
I think if I had been older when I became a mom, I would have thought about it more. But I was 26 years old, in the middle of my climbing life, and it was more like, what am I going to lose if I stop climbing? That was not the question for me. So I kept going climbing.

I choose my routes that I’m going to attempt in terms of the obvious dangers. If there is a massive, obvious danger, I wouldn’t go. Just because I love my life, and I don’t want to leave my son behind. I think this would have been maybe a little different before my son was born. The younger you are, the more open you are. It’s not that I risk my life every single day. There is some risk, of course. But I think the risk of staying home and getting into a boring life, becoming a boring mom, a depressive person, is much higher than in the climbing that I want to do.

For example, in the Himalaya, there was a really perfect line on a mountain we wanted to attempt on the north face of Tengkangpoche. The line looked hard, but possible. But on top of the mountain there was a huge hanging serac. And I don’t know if I would have attempted that route if I didn’t have a child—I don’t know. But it was just obvious to me. Already, two Russians had died there two years ago. On the same face, same situation. And that’s not worth it.

What has been your most proud or memorable mountain? Or is there one you’re really looking forward to? A lifetime goal?
I’ve never had a lifetime goal. I like to try something, and if it doesn’t work, try it again, and if it still doesn’t work, try it again, and if it still doesn’t work, try something else. But the first ascent of a mountain, which I did recently [solo on Likhu Chuli 1 in Nepal], was something special. Because I’ve never stepped on a summit where no one has been before.

What do you miss the most when you’re on expedition, besides your son?
Well, my partner, my boyfriend, of course. And sometimes I wish I had a hot shower. On the other hand, it’s good that you don’t have it, because when you come back home, you feel like, this is the best. The longer you don’t have something, the more you appreciate it.

Are there any little luxuries you always pack with you?
I don’t bring heavy books anymore, since I have an eBook. And, I always bring a pillowcase so I can put my down jacket inside and have a soft pillow.