Climbing in a Flow State on The Grand Teton

Move after move, far above my last piece of gear, stemming off a thick sheet of rime ice, I felt like I couldn’t fall. Climbing 5.4 off the ground is no accomplishment on its own; but in some of the most adverse climbing conditions I’ve ever faced. And at 13,000′ and going on 12 hours of climbing, it’s something I wanted to look into. I’m no 5.12 climber or experienced mountaineer, but why was I making every move with pure confidence? I attribute it all to being in a flow state.

Flow is something most adventure and action sport athletes are very familiar with. Flow is that “in the zone” feeling when time seems to slow down, every decision you make seems to follow the next, you almost feel like you’re on autopilot and can’t make a mistake. If you’ve ever felt this way, in anything you’ve done, you’re not alone. 

This topic isn’t coming out of nowhere, but rather something I’ve become increasingly interested in since starting a book titled, “The Rise of Superman.” The author, Steve Kotler, dives deep into how flow is the key to unlocking the ultimate human performance. Rather than trying to summarize the book and where our true limits are, I’d rather give an example. The books dives into these incredible feats and accomplishments like Danny Way’s Great Wall of China jump, Laird Hamilton surfing monster waves, and many others like the Red Bull Air Force. Each one of these instances, flow has guided these athletes to unprecedented levels. And though any of my accomplishments are not even in the same stratosphere as the ones mentioned above, I can relate to their experience when it comes to flow.

We’d be on the move since 1:30AM, struggling with the altitude above 12,000′, it was time to start the technical climbing portion of the Owen Spalding Route up to the summit of the Grand Teton. In dry conditions, this 5.4 can be soloed with minimal effort. Unfortunately, we didn’t have dry conditions. Instead, our July ascent was met with snow filling the entire route and ice in all the shaded areas. But the route still needed to be climbed, and I was on the sharp end of the rope.

With over 2,000 feet of exposure below, the fear of falling disappeared. From the start of the first pitch, to the summit of the Teton, I became hyper focused when I needed to be. Climbing the route, the holds became obvious, and every foot placement was met with confidence of my full weight. The obvious path up the route was filled with +1″ of hard ice and would make even the strongest climbers question their foot and hand placements. But there was this inner dialog in my head that I followed, an intuition. I had never been up the route before, and conditions made climbing 5.4 more like 5.10.  But I was drawn upward and moved with fluidity.

Even on Owen’s Chimney, one of the easiest sections to solo when dry, was completely filled in with ice. Move by move, even stepping on ice, felt secure. As the hours flew by on our ascent, time felt stopped while I was climbing. The outside world, the exposure, the altitude, everything besides climbing vanished. I was truly in the zone. And maybe it was all those factors are what drove me into the flow state. A truly altered state of consciousness that some how made me comfortable with possibility that any misstep could lead to a catastrophic mistake. 

Of course, looking back, it seems dangerous and irresponsible. That the push to the summit in those conditions wasn’t worth it. But in the moment, it wasn’t dangerous. And at no moment did it feel irresponsible. There was no adrenaline. There was no rush. It was just a something I couldn’t describe at the time, and didn’t realize it was happening until we were back at the lower saddle. It was an unforgettable experience, and one that was impossible without flow. 

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