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The mountains are calling and I must go, and I will work on while I can, studying incessantly.

- John Muir

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Athletes & Explorers

Feb 07, 2019

Mountaineering Scene Mourns the Loss of Andy Nisbet and Steve Perry

The bodies of the highly experienced Scottish climbers were recovered on Wednesday following a fatal fall on Ben Hope in the Highlands.

WRITTEN BY

Brooke Hess

Andy Nisbet (65) and Steve Perry (47), two highly experienced members of the Scottish Mountaineering Club, died while climbing Ben Hope this past week. Mountaineering Scotland, an organization for climbing enthusiasts in Scotland, said they were “shocked and saddened” to learn of the deaths of Nisbet and Perry. “Their deaths are a huge loss to the mountaineering community in Scotland.”

“He has introduced literally thousands of people to winter climbing and has given them terrific adventures”

Ben Hope is Scotland’s most northerly Munro. Munro is the name given to a mountain in Scotland above 3,000ft. Nisbet and Perry were working on establishing new winter routes on the mountain when they experienced difficulties in their descent and ultimately fell to their deaths. Andy Nisbet is considered the most successful mountaineer to come out of Scotland. He has established over 1,000 winter routes and is extremely well-respected within the climbing community. Mountain guide and author, Martin Moran, spoke highly of Nisbet. “Andy Nisbet is obsessive and fanatical, but he is also a delightful person, and he is an all-around mountaineer. He has also, for a lot of his career, been a full-time instructor. He has introduced literally thousands of people to winter climbing and has given them terrific adventures, including new routes.”

“Climbing in Scotland is still my favorite”

When interviewed about expeditions abroad, Nisbet replied, “Climbing in Scotland is still my favourite.” Though he is known for his contributions to the development of Scottish climbing, Nisbet has also contributed a fair amount to routes around the world. “Andy has made an enormous contribution to Scottish mountaineering, but it mustn’t be forgotten that he has also made a contribution to Himalayan mountaineering as well,” says Martin Moran.

“Equipment is improving all the time, so my grade is not dropping!”

Andy Nisbet was known for continuing to pursue new routes and high alpine ascents well into an age where most climbers retire. At age 65, he was still establishing new routes on Munros and climbing as strong as ever. In a video by Dave MacLeod at the Fort William Mountain Festival, Nisbet was quoted saying, “Equipment is improving all the time, so my grade is not dropping!” He mentioned wanting to continue climbing as long as is physically possible. “I hope I’ll be able to go to the hills for a long time… It’s hard to know whether climbing will outlast walking. I used to think I would still hill-walk when I stopped climbing, but actually, you can carry on climbing for possibly longer than hill-walking. It just depends on which parts of the body give up first!”

Andy Nisbet swinging hard. Photo: Masa Sakano.

Steve Perry was also a well-known and highly experienced mountaineer. He had completed an on-foot round of the Munros in addition to his numerous impressive summer and winter climbing ascents. Perry had recently partnered with Nisbet to develop new winter routes on Ben Hope.

The International climbing community is mourning the loss of both climbers today. Cameron McNeish tweeted, “Utterly devastated this morning at the news of the loss of Andy Nisbet and Steve Perry on Ben Hope. Both were gargantuan and inspiring figures in Scotland’s mountaineering scene. A massive loss to us all.

Cover Photo: Image copyright – Dave McGimpsey

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Athletes & Explorers

Feb 15, 2019

Flow State: The Reason Why Alex Honnold and Steph Davis are not Adrenaline Junkies.

“When you’re pushing the limits of ultimate human performance, the choice is stark: it’s flow or die.”

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WRITTEN BY

Brooke Hess

Recently, while watching Alex Honnold’s film, Free Solo, I began questioning the motives behind why he does what he does. I imagine that like me, you asked yourself, what is the driving force behind his compulsive need to risk his life? Why does he have such a passion for free soloing difficult routes, while the rest of us sit paralyzed in fear, simply watching in awe?

Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, the directors of the film (which has recently won a BAFTA and has been nominated for an Oscar), touched on Alex’s reasoning a little. For Alex, it is when he is climbing without a rope and is closest to death, that he actually feels most alive.

As an extreme sports athlete myself, with a background in whitewater kayaking, I can relate to this feeling. When I am kayaking a difficult and consequential rapid, my brain is 100% focused on the present moment. In the book, “The Rise of Superman” (if you haven’t read it, do so now), Steven Kotler discusses Flow State. Kotler describes it as being “so focused on the task at hand that everything else falls away. Action and awareness merge. Time flies. Self vanishes. Performance goes through the roof.” Dr. Ilona Boniwell, a European leader in positive psychology, says, “The State of Flow happens under very specific conditions – when we encounter a challenge that is testing for our skills, and yet our skills and capacities are such that it is just about possible to meet this challenge. So both the challenge and the skills are at high levels, stretching us almost to the limit.” Flow State is very difficult to achieve. The perfect balance between challenge and skill must be met, and the result is a very elusive zone, which is tricky to replicate. In Kotler’s book, he describes action and adventure sports as the only way to consistently trigger this flow state. Flow state is often triggered by a sense of being close to death, which, in return, triggers the maximum sensation of being alive. Kotler describes it simply, “When you’re pushing the limits of ultimate human performance, the choice is stark: it’s flow or die.”

I remember the first time I experienced Flow. I was running Itunda Falls on the Nile River. Itunda is known for being one of the biggest rapids on the Victoria White Nile stretch of whitewater and is a rapid that, if not executed correctly, could be fatal. I recall Flow State kicking in as soon as I entered the rapid. My mind went completely blank, and I experienced a hyper-focused state in which every paddle stroke I took, every drop of water that hit my face, every little bit of it was a slow-motion, full experience. I felt nervous before entering the rapid, but as soon as I dropped in, my nerves faded, and I relaxed into a calm state of execution. While in that Flow State, I was able to do exactly what I wanted to do, perfectly. I made zero mistakes and had a perfect line through the rapid. It was the first time in my life that I felt I had 100% fully experienced something – not only in a physical sense but also in a mental and emotional sense as well.

“My favourite state of being.”

In a collaboration between The Outdoor Journal and Mercedez-Benz, I recently had the opportunity to speak with one of their sponsored athletes – free solo climber and BASE jumper, Steph Davis. When asked about Flow, Davis described it as, “the feeling of taking a deep breath, letting it out and feeling totally good and at ease with nothing else in my mind and truly in the moment.”

When performing high-risk activities, like BASE jumping, Davis says her brain has no choice but to enter a hyper-focused Flow State. “With BASE jumping and wingsuit BASE, getting there is pretty much guaranteed because it seems like there’s no choice but to enter that state of pure focus when leaving the edge – although it’s a pretty short-lived experience because BASE jumping is over very quickly.”

Read Next: Steph Davis: Flow, Focus, and Feeling in Control

The film, Free Solo, suggests Alex’s ability to achieve Flow State. When I spoke with Alex Honnold about the topic (also in a collaboration courtesy of his sponsor, Rivian), he shared a similar sentiment towards free solo climbing. “I think that has always been a big part of the pleasure in free soloing is that it forces you into that state more than other kinds of climbing do.” Alex says that he can tap into the Flow State while climbing with ropes as well, but it is rare and doesn’t come as easily.

For Davis, Flow State while free solo climbing isn’t as much a result of being close to death, but rather a result of getting away from external influences. “For me, a big factor for reaching focus, or Flow, is getting away from outside energy – so free soloing inherently works really well because you are alone.” No matter how she achieves Flow State, Davis can’t seem to get enough of it. “It’s my favorite state of being.”

The Science

According to Kotler’s book, Flow State originates in the brain. The release of five mood-boosting chemicals – dopamine, endorphins, norepinephrine, serotonin, and anandamide – creates a high that athletes, just like Davis, “can’t seem to get enough of”. It’s a wonderful experience – Flow State. So wonderful, in fact, that when you achieve it, it can become addictive. Dr. Ilona Boniwell describes the addiction to Flow State well. “Even activities that are morally good or neutral, like mountain climbing, chess or Playstation, can become addictive, so much that life without them can feel static, boring and meaningless. A simple non-gambling game on your computer, like solitaire, which many people use to ‘switch off’ for a few minutes, can take over your life. This happens when, instead of being a choice, a Flow-inducing activity becomes a necessity.”

Searching for Perfection

This addiction to Flow is different from an addiction to adrenaline. An athlete addicted to Flow is not an ‘adrenaline junkie’. They are not searching for that adrenaline rush that comes when you do something risky – like bungee jumping or skydiving. They are searching for perfection in what they are doing. Honnold says he is searching for the feeling of effortlessness. “When climbing feels good, when it feels effortless, when it feels flowy. That’s Flow State. And that is the appeal of climbing in a lot of ways is to get into that state. To feel like you’re doing something well and that you’re performing well.”

“I really belonged there and I wasn’t just scraping through it”

Davis says when she has had experiences BASE jumping in which something almost went wrong and she “got lucky” – which may be a situation where an adrenaline rush could be triggered – she is usually unhappy with that experience. “For me, it’s not really seeking an adrenaline burst. It’s more seeking the ability to do something that maybe should be impossible, and yet doing it in a way that’s actually pretty reasonable… When I’ve had those moments where it just barely worked out, and I almost felt that I got lucky, I’m usually really dissatisfied with that experience. I prefer to feel like I’ve entered the situation in a very calculated way. I’ve really prepared. I’ve gone through Plan B, Plan C, Plan D scenarios. I’ve tried to really think through everything that could ever go wrong and feel like I have a plan for that. And then when it starts happening, I feel like I’m very in control of the situation because I chose to get into it feeling like I’m really ready for it. To me, those are always the most satisfying outcomes. When I either land from a jump or top out a climb and I feel like, ‘wow, you know, I really belonged there and I wasn’t just scrapping through it’.” A perfect balance of challenge and skill.

But for Steph, addiction to Flow is not the main reason she continues pursuing these high-risk activities. For her, it is simply a way of life. “I’m 46 now and I’ve been climbing since I was 18, so my entire adult life I’ve been doing these sports in various forms… it is honestly really hard for me to imagine not being out in the mountains and the desert and just doing these things that I love doing.”

Thanks to Rivian and Mercedes for the interviews.

Cover photo: Vincent Kleine for She’s Mercedes.

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