Go With the Flow

If you follow outdoor sports at all, you’re probably familiar with the term “flow state”. If not, I copied and pasted the following Wikipedia definition of it for you because I’m lazy and the internet is right here:

“In positive psychology, flow, also known as the zone, is the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity.”

Personally, I define it as a breathless “holy shit” zen moment. Sidebar: this is probably why I’m not allowed to edit articles on Wikipedia anymore but whatever. The term “flow state” was coined by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi (whose book, Flow, I recently purchased but haven’t yet read). The idea of flow state is especially interesting because it applies not only to mountain athletes or weekend warriors on adrenaline highs but also to our domestic desk jockey brethren. (more about flow in daily life here)

Almost every time I climb, I experience some level of flow. However, my very first experience happened a couple months ago during one of my first times climbing and, at the time, I didn’t even know that this feeling was a thing and it had a name. Months later, it is still the most powerful experience I’ve had in my 26 years on this planet. Seriously, it’s crazy. I’ll try my best to explain what it felt like but first, here’s a classic Michelle-style backstory.

I’m not a great rock climber and I was even worse when I first started. At the time, the only climbing partner I had relocated to Moab, Utah (about 3-4hrs south of me). I grabbed a non-climbing friend and headed down one weekend.

Saturday was pretty frustrating. I led a couple climbs, which boosted my confidence while simultaneously making my palms sweat and shooting bolts of panic-induced adrenaline through my veins. We also tackled our first 10b route (on Wall Street, Lacto Mangulation, if you’re interested) but it was messy and painful. Sore and dejected from the day before, we hit the road the next morning to Arches National Park to climb Owl Rock. I wasn’t in a good mood until I saw the ancient sandstone garden we’d be climbing in.

If you’ve never seen a gigantic sandstone tower, you are missing out. The sheer epic beauty of these towering columns of fiery sandstone are incredible. Add the sweeping views of the surrounding valley, a touch of the La Sal mountains in the background, and you’ve got yourself the coolest view you will never be able to properly describe to others. It’s what I picture when people ask me why I moved from California to Utah, even though “because of rocks and stuff” sounds like a pathetic answer. But whatever, it’s beautiful, trust me. Or Google it.

This was not only my first tower, this was also my first trad climbing experience (definition here). This made for two huge milestones to tackle in one day, especially considering these critical pieces of information:

  1. I’m terrified of heights. Not being dramatic. I freak out every time I’m on a route, indoor or outdoor. I’m usually okay as long as I don’t look past my feet. (This past weekend in Red Rocks, I puked from pure terror during a climb. Fun times, mini-story here)
  2. I sucked at climbing. Well, I still suck at climbing but less so now than when I climbed Owl Rock. I mean, I thought a 10b was a death sentence. Bitch, please. We’re just getting started.

The day was sunny but there were ominous rain-blackened thunderheads rolling towards us on the horizon. Not looking good. Sandstone is not something you climb in the rain or when it’s wet after the storm passes. It crumbles, bolts rip out of the rock, cams and nuts slip out leaving you unprotected in case of a fall. We would have to climb quickly and efficiently if we were going to get off the tower before the rain caught up with us. I shielded my eyes and contemplated the gloomy promise of a bad time rumbling steadily towards us. Was I really doing this right now? I turned my back on the doubt creeping in, pulled my shoes on and wiggled into my harness.

Before starting, my climbing partner told me,"Don't fall. Not if you're tired. Not if you're scared. Do. Not. Fall." The spire loomed over me as I quieted the doubts, sore muscles, and bruised limbs scraped raw by too many brushes with sandstone. I was told to clean the route but leave anything I couldn't safely pull. Mentally, I told myself I wouldn't get off that tower until I had pulled every last piece of pro.

As I started up the route my heart was already racing from my fear of heights, the wind whipping across the desert as a storm rolled in. My foot was jammed in a crack for lack anything more secure while my hands were fumbling with the cam I was trying to pull from the crack. I felt sick and could taste the panic in the back of my throat. But 100ft up, in the midst of this sheer primordial terror, max physical exertion, and mental focus, feeling my precarious hold slowly give way beneath me... it happened. The magical flow state moment.

This moment was the perfect balance between controlled fear, mental clarity, and physical power. Time didn't just slow, it stopped. My heart no longer pounded in my chest, the wind silenced its howling, and I heard every grain of sand fall as I slowly worked to free the cam set deep in the crack. I felt my foot slipping further down the widening crack and I felt the sandstone scrape off what was left of the skin on my shoulders but didn't register the fear or the pain. I was weightless, focused, and uncharacteristically calm. Every muscle screamed in protest but I was deaf to everything except the methodical scraping of metal on sandstone. The instant the cam popped free, the wind howled at full volume, my tortured shoulder screamed, and my pulse roared in my ears. But it was too late, I had already tasted it, that pure unadulterated zen. I had discovered flow.

Months later, I still can't get that moment out of my head. In fact, I think about it so often, I’m worried the memory will wear down like an old VHS tape, leaving nothing but a grainy picture and faded sound in its wake. To me, flow was experiencing life in its most raw form. It felt like the entire realm of human consciousness compressed into one tiny speck in time, one microscopic pinpoint on the map of the universe. Just a moment but “holy shit”, what a moment. The air is cold and there’s snow on the ground but it’s still as vivid as it was that day on the tower when the warm wind whipped through my hair. I can’t un-know that feeling and I’ve been chasing it ever since.