Ice & Ice: Climbing and Freediving on Frozen Giants
Ice climbing and freediving on an iceberg

Ice & Ice: Climbing and Freediving on Frozen Giants

and…How to not die while freediving and ice climbing icebergs 

This article is my personal narrative about ice climbing and freediving icebergs in Iceland. Two weeks, crew of four and five adventure-sports to document. I also give you five useful tips for cold-water freediving and ice climbing.

Reading Time: 10 minutes (and worth it trust me!)

Ice climbing and ice freediving on icebergs, in Iceland. Canada freedive record holder Luca Malaguti and world-record ice climber Tim Emmett on it. Photo by Jimmy Martinello.

PROs & CONs of COLD

First, to get you intrigued on cold water and ice, let’s start with some PROs and CONS of cold-water freediving, ice climbing and simply suffering in the cold in general.

PROS

  • Consistent exposure increases your metabolism
  • Cold exposure maximizes adrenaline release
  • Addition of brown fat (brown adipose tissue): the good kind of fat
  • Helps reduce inflammation post-workout
  • Increases your chances of survival
  • Trains your Mammalian Dive Response (MDR)
  • Boosts immune system over prolonged period of time
  • Desensitizes your extremities (hands and feet) to the blood shunting due to peripheral vasoconstriction (the “screaming barfies” as we call them: read more below!)
  • Training to reduce resting heart rate

CONS

  • You need to train gradually: don’t stress your body into moderate or advanced hypothermia right from the start.
  • You’ll get to know the painful “screaming barfies”: yes, you want to scream and vomit at the same time.
  • This is when the blood shunts from the extremities (hand and feet) and when it flows back after you get out (i.e. peripheral vasoconstriction).
  • The “screaming barfies”, as we call them in ice climbing, occur both in cold-water freediving and ice climbing!
  • Cold-water adaptation generally sucks at first, then you love it!
Perfect visibility, freezing temperature (water 1C and below zero air temperature). Tim Emmett coming up from the deep. Photo by Luca Malaguti.

THE SETTING of Our Story

”Be gentle on the body, be tough on the mind”. I kept repeating myself with each swing of the axe in the blue glacial ice. With each breath-hold before diving under an iceberg in the glacier lagoon.

Climbing out of the glacial canyon, In the heart of the Vatnajokull Glacier, I could feel the importance of controlling my breath, controlling my mind. Focusing on the present task at hand. You owe the glacier all of your attention, your concentration, your respect. You lose this, at the wrong time, get unlucky, and one small error can cost you dearly.

Freediving beneath a massive iceberg, in the evening, in complete darkness, into the unknown and with zero visibility: you are completely vulnerable, at the mercy of this frozen giant, completely humble to its presence.

I CANNOT STRESS THIS ENOUGH: CLIMBING ICE AND COLD WATER FREEDIVING ARE VERY DANGEROUS IN THEMSELVES. Doing both at the same time on icebergs that roll and move constantly is a whole other level of madness.

Tip #1: Acknowledge you’re in a dynamic and constantly changing environment. You lose focus, awareness or concentration and the price can be very high. Observe the change in colours of the ice, feel any movement in the water. Listen to the cracking sounds of the axe striking the ice and be ready for the unexpected. 

The setting: finding the right iceberg to climb and also dive under. All the while without dying. Luca Malaguti and Tim Emmett climbing. Photo by Brian Hockenstein.

BE WATER….and ICE 

Like water, ice has to be felt, listened too and constantly analyzed. This is ice climbing. As in freediving, there has to be a state of fluidity, a flow of movements with minimal resistance.

The more you push against nature, the more nature pushes back. A profound lesson in both ice climbing and freediving. This delicate balance acknowledges that our energy [as humans] is finite, especially compared to the “infinite” energy a glacier as large as Vatnajokull in Iceland has.

Think of it this way: energy and mass are connected (think Einstein’s Theory of Relativity). So your mass, as a human, is infinitely tiny compared to the mass of a massive glacier the size of a small country. Therefore, your energy, is also finite with respect to the energy a glacier has.

The same exact thing is to be said about water. The famous saying “the shape of the vessel is more important than the size of the engine” is emblematic of this. Your mass in water (you’re mostly water yourself) is nothing compared to the mass, and thus energy, of the sea or ocean that surrounds you. Perspective is often overlooked. 

So, if you waste your energy in incorrect or over-exaggerated movements, both in ice climbing and freediving, you will feel the effect. This is my obsession between these two sports and their connection in body, mind and spirit. 

Tip#2: Practice everything beforehand. Movements, knots, breath-holds, placing ice screws, etc. When its “go time” you can’t second-guess things. It’s not just instinct, but also familiarization and practice. You took too much time to gear up, got cold and lost the light: that’s it, time to wrap it up and try again next day. 

Climbing out of the heart of a glacier. Climbers Luca Malaguti and Tim Emmett. Photo by Jimmy Martinello.

ICE CLIMBING & FREEDIVING

Two seemingly different sports, but far more connected than I had previously imagined.

One requires you to be among mountains, striking into ice with sharp tools and focusing on not falling at the whims of gravity. In ice climbing, falling isn’t an option unlike rock climbing. A fall in ice climbing usually results in injury or sometimes death.

On the other hand, freediving, embraces gravity to sink to the bottom of the ocean. A freediver must push through the positive buoyancy zone (i.e. first few meters) in order to “free-fall” down into the depths.

Tip #3: This one one is obvious: know how to climb and hold you breath for a long time. When climbing icebergs, you are essentially free-soloing. There is no falling. Period. Freediving under them is similar, there is no panicking if you get lost or disoriented. 

The shot of a lifetime: Tim Emmett ice climbing while Luca Malaguti freediver under. Photo by Jimmy Martinello.

THE BODY 

Yes, the body must be strong, but also flexible. Your physiology has to be prepared to take on the massive pressure of water. The rib cage and lungs have to naturally “bend” under the increasing hydrostatic force as you sink deeper.

The muscle fibres have to be ready to buffer changes in carbon dioxide, oxygen and even nitrogen at certain depths. The mechanical movements required to equalize at great depths must have thousands of hours of practice in muscle isolation, and control.

EVERYTHING IS HARDER IN COLD WATER. WHEN YOU’RE SHIVERING, STAYING CLAM, HOLDING A CAMERA. EVERYTHING.

This is freediving. 

In ice climbing, the body must be tough and ready to endure mild forms of suffering. It has to fight the resistance of gravity as you rise higher and higher. The arms must endure repetitive movements and swings of the ice axe. The calfs and thighs hold your position in place, fixed as the force and load is transferred to the lower part of the body. You endure the cold, the wind and often the chilling drip of water for hours. EVERYTHING IS HARDER WHEN YOU CAN’T FEEL YOUR HANDS. 

This is ice climbing.

Preparing the body is usually the easier part. You show up, do the training, performance the movements, and rest. Rest plenty. The body adapts, and thus improves. 

Tip #4: Be prepped to hang (with one or two arms) off of an ice tool longer than expected. Be ready to hold your breath through miserable cold-water shivering contractions. Know that when you’re tired, sick and haven’t slept you can still perform the tasks. 

Teamwork! Ice climbing out of steep ice in a glacier crevasse. Climbers Tim Emmett and Luca Malaguti. Photo by Jimmy Martinello.

THE MIND

Tim, one of the world’s top ice climbers and professional athlete, turns to me and says, “STOP USING THE WORD SAFE LUCA…THERE’S NOTHING SAFE ABOUT CLIMBING ICEBERGS…LET’S FOCUS ON MINIMIZING RISK.” 

This sentence changed my perspective. How I saw what was in front of me, how I read the signs and analyzed everything. How I envisioned myself moving onto, around and under the iceberg. 

The mental approach to seeing “what is what” without the ego involved is difficult. To have an objective right in front of you, one you have obsessed over for months, but to hold yourself back. 

He had an excellent point there: change your perspective and re-analyze what you consider “safe”. Risk analysis teaches us to evaluate risk as a metric based on probability and consequenceI wrote an article on this.

RISK = PROBABILITY X CONSEQUENCE 

This comes from engineering risk analysis. I strongly believe every high-altitude mountaineer, freediver, spearfisher or “extreme sports” athlete should understand this concept. I wrote a longer piece on this right here. 

The mental preparation required in freediving is far more important than the physical preparation. This is my view of course. A background in suffering cold nights in the mountains, 24-hour days in the alpine and exhaustion at altitude makes other activities feel easier. 

Tip #5: Practice ice climbing (free-soloing) bet the toe of a glacier. Getting comfortable navigating on and around tight places. Familiarize yourself with gear and with being “on your own”. Practice cold-water adaptation and swimming. If you fall in the freezing water will you panic?

Trending carefully on a frozen giant. Luca Malaguti climbing across an iceberg. Photo by Tim Emmett.

SPORTS & SPONSORS

This project could have never been realized without the support of some of the best outdoor gear companies in the world. Their products, combined with our vision, made for a truly remarkable and unique experience. 

A great crew and quality gear is needed to succeed in a project of this scale. Photo by Jimmy Martinello.

THE BEST CREW

Nothing even close to this can be achieved without an epic crew of pros at the top of their game. From professional freedivers, to ice climbers, surfers, photographers and editors. Everyone on the team had immense talent and experience.

The best crew you can imagine for such a project:

  • Luca Malaguti: Professional freediver, instructor, photographer, Canada record holder, climber and mountaineer. Check out Luca’s social media and his school in Vancouver, Canada called Sea to Sky Freediving.
  • Tim Emmett: One of the world’s best ice climbers, professional rock climber, base jumper, freediver and coach. Check out Tim’s social media here.
  • Brian Hockenstein: Snowboarder, backcountry madman, freediver, professional photographer, filmmaker and editor. Brian’s social media.
  • Jimmy Martinello: Surfer, freediver, mountaineer, climber, one of Canada’s top photographers and all-around athlete. Check out Jimmy’s Website.

Luca Malaguti

Luca Malaguti is a former engineer turned freediving professional athlete and founded Sea to Sky Freediving. He lives in Vancouver, Canada among other places including Dahab, Dominica and Philippines.

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