A climber’s guide to climate action
We recently get the chance to interview Lena Marie Müller, the first German woman to climb an E9 and PhD in ecology at the University of Innsbruck on the effects of the climate crisis on mountain regions. We will get through the high points of her career and discuss about her principle of "ecopointing". By Faustine Wheeler
Posted on Tue 4 Apr 2023 · Athlete interviews
"7am on a Saturday. Your alarm goes off. You jump straight out of bed, psyched: it’s time for a day at the crag.
After a quick breakfast — yogurt, muesli and coffee — you grab your bag and jump in your car. You arrive at the crag a couple hours later, wait around a bit for your climbing partner and catch up on the hike in. After climbing all day, you crack open a post-climb beer, hike out and drive home your separate ways. Pretty regular day - so what?
Each of these actions adds to your carbon footprint, from the food you eat to your choice of transport to the crag. You’re probably aware of this already. But how much does this knowledge impact the decisions you make in your day-to-day life?"
Last year, I had the pleasure of interviewing climate scientist and professional rock climber Lena Marie Müller. Lena is the first German woman to climb E9 trad, which she achieved without using a car to get to the crag. In the interview that follows, Lena discusses her concept of ‘ecopointing’ — car-free climbing — and shares some tips for climbers looking to build more sustainable habits into their lives.
Hi Lena, thanks so much for taking the time to speak to us today! Could you tell the reader a bit about yourself and your journey with climbing?
Lena: Sure! I grew up in South Germany, but moved to Innsbruck a few years ago for my studies. I’m now in the middle of a PhD in ecology and biodiversity. I’ve always climbed a lot — even while studying — and ended up taking half a year off between my Masters and PhD to climb and travel. It was at this point that I began to realise that the way I climbed was completely incompatible with the reality that I was confronted with on a daily basis through my job: we’re in a severe climate and ecological crisis.
I had already made some lifestyle changes to try to reduce my climate impact, such as eating vegetarian, and was involved in climate activism through the climate strikes. However, the fact that I was constantly driving to climb felt at odds with this.
Not long after, I decided to go all in. I made a pact with myself to find other ways of approaching the crag. I started looking through climbing guidebooks to see which crags could be reached by public transport and bike. I eventually sold my large van and later bought a small e-car and completely transformed my approach to climbing.
In February 2020, I climbed Prinzip Hoffnung — which I later realised made me the first German woman to climb E9 — and got some media attention from this. Since then, I’ve been working as a freelancer to inform people about how great it is to go climbing by bike and public transport, and how, in my view, these habits really complement each other. I think it’s really important that we talk about the climate crisis within the outdoor industry, and share ways in which we can continue doing what we love with less impact on the planet.
Traveling by train may not be that difficult for us climbers © Johannes Ingrisch
Wow, what a journey! Can you quickly outline why it’s so important we act to address climate change now?
Lena: I think the concept of the carbon budget illustrates this best. Basically, carbon budgets set out how much more carbon we can emit globally before it becomes impossible to achieve the 1.5 degrees of global warming set out under the Paris Agreement. The latest figures suggest that we have seven years in which to significantly reduce our fossil fuel emissions if we want to stay within this budget. If you take into account how long it takes to bring about change on a political level, seven years is not a lot of time.
Aside from climbing Prinzip Hoffnung, you’re best known for your journeys to go climb by bike and public transport, something which you call ‘ecopointing’. Was this a concept you came up with yourself?
Lena: Yes! I came up with it while trying Prinzip Hoffnung. That route was the first big project I tried without using a car to get to the crag. I spent a lot of time on the train (it took 3 hours to get there each way) so I had some time to think!
On one of these journeys, it dawned on me that I should name this concept of car-free climbing travel, because it’s always easier to promote an idea if you have a name behind it. I first came up with the name 'greenpoint', but then realised it’s already used to describe the process of climbing a route clean. Sofie Paulus then reached out to me to say she loved the idea, and we came up with the name ‘ecopoint’.
Of course, I wouldn’t say that I am the first person to come up with the idea of going climbing without using a car. After all, there were climbers long before there were cars!
Taking your time and getting to the crag by bike has lots of upsides: one of them is being able to explore the area and connect with the environment. That's what Lena is doing here! © Johannes Ingrisch
Car-free climbing sounds great to me, but a lot of people are concerned that using their energy to cycle to the crag will detract from their climbing performance. How would you respond?
Lena: This was definitely a concern I had! I’d respond by saying that you definitely don’t have to cycle huge distances to ecopoint.
It obviously depends a lot on where you live and the public transport infrastructure available in that area. I’m very lucky to be based in Innsbruck where I can get to crags that are just a 10 minute cycle from the train station. My advice would be, if you can, to start by choosing crags that don’t require a long cycle approach. Then, in the long term, it’s about recognising there are trade-offs. You can choose to visit lots of different crags, but this might mean you cycle a lot. Alternatively, you can select crags that require as little cycling as possible, but then you might not have as much variety.
Of course, some people will live in poorly connected areas or have other reasons why they can’t access crags by train, bike or public transport. That’s ok! My goal with promoting the concept of ‘ecopoint’ is not to convince everyone to cycle to the crag. It’s about encouraging people to face up to the climate crisis and think about what actions they can take to reduce their environmental impact.
I totally agree. Do you have any tips for those who do want to give ecopointing a go?
Lena: Yes, plenty!
First of all, get some friends on board with the idea and treat it like a mini adventure. It’ll probably feel pretty hard the first time you cycle with all your gear, but stick with it: the more you cycle the easier it gets.
Second, invest in a good setup for carrying your climbing gear on your bike, such as a rack and panniers. A good book will help the train journeys pass much faster.
Finally, e-bikes can be your best friend! Taking this mode of transport is a win-win: you don’t expend so much energy cycling, but you also avoid traffic jams and the stress of finding a parking spot.
Lena climbing around her hometown © Johannes Ingrisch
Great! What about climbers who can’t or don’t want to practice ecopointing for various reasons? What other changes could they make in their lives to reduce their carbon footprint?
Lena: The two things that increase your carbon footprint most as a climber are mobility and consumption (e.g. how much kit and clothes you are buying, what food you eat etc.).
In terms of mobility, you could reduce your carbon emissions by carpooling with other climbers, transitioning to an electric vehicle, or going on fewer climbing trips that require you to fly.
Consumption wise, you could change your diet to include less meat and dairy, take care of your climbing kit and clothes so they last as long as possible, buy second hand, resole your climbing shoes… Other changes could include switching to a green energy provider or investing your money in a greener bank.
The other side of the equation is to think about making change on a societal level. This can be as easy as talking to your friends about the climate crisis, or sharing on social media some of the steps you are taking to reduce your carbon footprint. You can also choose to vote for politicians who prioritise a green transition, join the climate strikes, volunteer with a local climate action or conservation group, sign petitions, and make your voice heard in lots of other ways.
I’m convinced that everyone can find a positive action they can take to combat climate change which excites them and enriches their lives in some way. You just have to commit and not let perfection get in the way of progress.
In the film ‘More than just a route’ you mention that you choose to have hope regarding the future of the planet. How do you escape the trap of climate anxiety?
Lena: Hope is something that I have had to work hard for. Climate science can be very fatalistic as our goal is to inform and press for change, and it’s hard for me as a scientist not to fall into the trap of feeling super pessimistic .
In my opinion, hope comes through taking action. When I became involved in activism, I met all these other people working hard to bring about change and as a result I started to feel a lot more hopeful. I also get a lot of positive feedback from just sharing my journey and the actions I’m taking to reduce my carbon footprint. This gives me hope because it shows people care and want to play a part in building a better future.
I totally agree: there’s no better antidote to fear than taking action.
To wrap things up, are there any people or accounts you recommend following to learn more about the climate crisis and what we can do as an outdoors community to start bringing about change?
Of course! Here are some of my favourites:
- Project Drawdown is a site where you can find out about all the different ‘climate solutions’ available to help us limit global warming to 1.5 degrees. Good news: there are a lot!
- ACTS, the charity set up by Arnaud Petit, has some great resources.
- Protect Our Winters (POW) do a lot of great work, especially around snow sports.
Thanks so much Lena, this has been really interesting! I hope readers will take some inspiration and find a change they can make in their daily lives which they are psyched about.
Thanks for having me!
Where can people find out more about the incredible work you are doing?
You can follow my instagram or the ecopoint climbing instagram, or you can also head to my website, https://lenamueller.com/.
Cover photo © Johannes Ingrisch
Interview by Faustine Wheeler
Who is Lena Marie Müller?
© Johannes Ingrisch
Lena Marie Müller is doing a PhD in ecology at the University of Innsbruck on the effects of the climate crisis on mountain regions. In 2020, she became the first German woman to climb an E9 with the trad test piece “Prinzip Hoffnung”, which she travelled to by train. Since then, she has been working as a freelancer to raise awareness about climate-friendly climbing through articles, talks, and films. Her mission is to inspire and inform others to climb more sustainably and raise awareness about the climate crisis.
Who is Faustine Wheeler?
Faustine works in climate policy by day and as a freelance copywriter in her spare time. A passionate climber and occasional coach, she is interested in how we can use this sport as a means of opening up conversations on some of the pressing issues facing society today. When not working or climbing, she can often be found whizzing around the city on her bike or replenishing her energy at best local coffee spot.