ACMG Full Alpine Guide Sarah Hueniken Shares Her Top Tips for Ice Climbing and Mixed Climbing

Climber Sarah Hueniken
Piltdown Man Haffner Cave. Photo credit: Savannah Cummings

My name is Sarah Hueniken. I work full time as an ACMG Alpine guide running my own business called, Sarah Hueniken Guiding, and instructing and guiding rock and alpine trips in the summer and ice and mixed climbing in the winter. I live in Canmore Alberta but originally came from Ontario, Canada. I moved to the Canadian Rockies after years of working for various Outward Bound organizations, NOLS throughout the US, and also St Lawrence University where I developed their climbing program.

How and why did you get into climbing?

I discovered climbing during University in Thunder Bay at the local climbing gym and it has pretty much consumed my life ever since…in a good way I think! After school, I went on a road trip with some friends to Joshua Tree and Red Rocks and really fell in love with the people, places and lifestyle that climbing opens you up to. I love a lot of other outdoor activities, like Mountain Biking, surfing, skiing, but climbing will always be a huge part of who I am and probably where I get the greatest satisfaction. I am currently sponsored by Outdoor Research, Scarpa, Sterling Ropes and Petzl.

Climber Sarah Hueniken
Whitman Falls K-country. Photo credit: Forest Woodward

Why is climbing important for you?

Climbing teaches you so many things. It teaches humility, trust, judgement, personal responsibility, it rewards hard work and perseverance. It allows moments of complete presence that is rare in today’s world. Climbing has helped develop my confidence. It has helped build my trust in my own decisions. When every action you take has real feedback that may have consequence, you learn to believe in your own judgement and that is extremely empowering.

Getting outside is very important as it brings us back to our roots. It forces us to to let go of external matter that isn’t important in the very moment we are in, when we are dealing with a mountain environment. The outdoors also helps refill our spirit. There is some unspoken connection that we all have to the outdoors. I know for me, it is where I feel the most myself.

How do you train and become better at climbing?

The best way to become better at climbing is to climb. I try to climb as much as possible when time and energy allow. Aside from that, I just try and stay active, whether that be through my work, or biking, or using the rowing machine or the climbing gym. During the fall, I try and get ready for the winter mixed season by climbing up and down our overhanging climbing structure with my tools. I don’t have a very structured program – I wish I did – but I just try and do something almost every day.

Climber Sarah Hueniken
Helmcken. Photo credit: Katie Bono

What are the hardest parts of climbing?

Like anything, climbing can wax and wane along with ones motivation for it. Sometimes you perform when you least expect it and other times you suck when you thought you might kick ass. Letting yourself not get frustrated or disappointed by a lack of performance is always difficult, but is also a good learning! In the end, we are all capable of much more than we let ourselves accomplish I think. To really hit a goal or target, you have to believe you can. This isn’t something any coach or mentor or partner can give you, it has to come from yourself. Sometimes that is the greatest setback for achieving things yet at the same time it can be the greatest tool for accomplishing goals.

How do you prepare for events/races?

I don’t really do too many competitions. When I do decide to compete though, I try to take it seriously. I want to do as well as I can, and so I try to train for it as best I can. The only competitions I’ve done recently have been mixed climbing, so training on my tools in the gym and outdoors, is usually the best thing to get myself ready. I also try and picture myself in the situation ahead of time so that I’m not as surprised by the anxiety and stress of it all. It also helps to have achieved a personal goal/climb ahead of time to help build that self belief.

Climber Sarah Hueniken
Inglorious Bastards – Bozeman

How do you eat and sleep?

These are all questions I would be curious about asking other people. 🙂 I like to sleep and try to get 6-8 hours if I can. I feel like I need more, but often don’t get it. I don’t follow a diet, but try to eat reasonably healthy with the exception of yummy snacks after big days and a pretty much regular and unavoidable nightcap. 🙂

How do you handle injuries and recovery?

Without jinxing myself, I fell quite fortunate injury wise. I have experienced smaller injuries, fingers, intercostals, elbows, knees, tendons, etc., but not chronic, nor a total take down. I think I am pretty good at self monitoring and not over doing things that I’m not ready for. I love being sore the next day from a big mountain day or a hard workout, but I don’t like to push to the point of injury.

Climber Sarah Hueniken
Yamabushi John Price

What is your best advice people new to climbing?

These days the outdoors are becoming more and more popular. It’s great to see all ages out there enjoying the natural spaces. The transition from indoor climber to outdoor climber sometimes seems to have some gaps. I recommend that people getting into outdoor climbing for the first time take some instruction from a qualified source. This will make their experience not just safer but more fun for sure. I also advocate for patience and experience. A sport like ice climbing can have some very real consequences for poor judgement and this is best learned over time and experience.

How do you balance normal life with climbing?

Balance is always the crux. Family and work most always come first with personal climbing next. With that said, I’m trying this year to work a little less and try to get re-motivated for some personal goals. My Dad and siblings are in Ontario and seeing them is a priority at least 2 to 3 times a year. My boyfriend has two amazing kids that live with us half the year and so that is also a time priority. When I have free time, I choose to spend it climbing so if I’m missing something, it is learning new activities or trying new things during that time that I spend choosing climbing. It’s always hard to know if you are making the most of your time/life. It’s a constant juggling act for everyone!

Climber Sarah Hueniken
Rainbow Serpent. Photo credit: John Price

What kind of climbing shoes and clothes do you use?

I am working with the companies Scarpa and Outdoor Research. Scarpa for sure makes the best ice and mixed boots as well as climbing and approach shoes. I own a fair amount of all of them, but I also use them all a ton! I have been working with Outdoor Research for nearly 15 years. Their women’s line and technical line have grown so much in that time, I feel super lucky to have been a part of their journey and be able to test and give feedback. I pretty much wear their clothes everyday, all day.

What has been your best sport purchase below $100?

Hand and toe warmers, neck tube and a thermos. Cheap and easy things to bring and use that make any colder day more manageable!

As for other favorite gear, I am inti OR Deviator Hoody, Sterling Rope Aero, Scarpa Phantom techs, Petzl Nomics, Hot Chillys patterned tights.

Climber Sarah Hueniken
Temple of Silence. Photo credit: Rafal Andronowski

What will the future bring?

This winter I’m excited to guide and teach a ton in the Rockies, compete in Ouray, participate in clinics for both Bozeman and Ouray, head to China with Will to climb some ice and mixed lines, and hopefully have some extra time to climb some new routes in the rockies and complete some of the mixed lines that I’ve been working on the past couple years! Oh, and if it dumps a lot of snow, learn to ski again!

Visit Sarah Hueniken on her website

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