What Scaling Mountains Taught Me About Mindfulness

Steph Davis likes to go back again and again to the same climbs. Every time, they’re subtly di erent.

Climbing is a balance between being in the moment, with all the details you’ve got to pay attention to, and looking ahead, guring out what you’re going to do next. It’s a very tactile experience. You’re focused on how the holds feel when you grab them with your ngers, and you’re always looking for footholds—picking which ones to use next and adjusting your body position to reach them.

Climbing can be really slow. There are moments when you’re just holding on. Maybe your arms are really tired, so you’re holding on with one hand while you shake the other one out. At the same time, you’re looking up and thinking, where am I going to go next? A little to the left, a little to the right?

If it’s a climb you haven’t done before, you learn as you go. But if it’s a climb you have done before, it’s di erent. Then it’s more about breathing. You know exactly where you’re going, so you don’t have such a busy mind, worrying about navi- gation. You’re just breathing and moving and noticing your experience: Oh, I don’t feel as tired today as I sometimes do on this climb, or Wow, I feel way more tired this time!

Your relationship with the elements is a big part of climbing. You’re not going to go climbing if it’s pouring rain, and you don’t want to be too hot, so you wouldn’t climb in certain places in the middle of the summer. Paying close attention to the elements, to your ever-changing experience, is part of what makes climbing interesting.

I regularly have to abandon climbs. That’s part of it—nothing is guaranteed. In the mountains the weather is unpre- dictable. You start on a long climb and you don’t know what’s going to happen. You just can’t know what it will be like as you near the summit. Training is very important to me.

If I say to people that I’m in a training phase, though, they assume I’m training to take on a particular climb. But to me, the point of training and getting better at climbing is simply to enjoy climbing more. I don’t see climbing as a goal- oriented activity. If I like a particular climb, I’ll do it many times. The more you repeat it, the more the experience changes.

Often when you do something for the rst time, you’re so overwhelmed by the newness, you can’t experience the thing for what it really is. Your experience
may just be overcoming the fear. But when you go back a second time, your body knows that you can do it, and a lot of the fear is gone. Then you experience something totally di erent from the rst time you did the climb. And on the third, fourth, and fth times, you experience more things still. It’s like doing yoga. I do the same poses every day, but it’s always di erent. If you only do something once and it’s over and done with, you never experience the subtler levels.