Climbers are a different breed. To begin, they climb terrifying mountain faces day in and day out. They sleep in caves, in the back of cars, and hanging… suspended from the side of those terrifying faces they are climbing. A high level of fitness and unshakeable mental fortitude are not optional even for the casual climber. Climbing also appears to be the ultimate getaway to peak experience, a flow state, as gripping to the side of a cliff side hundreds of feet above the earths surface undoubtedly demands a deeper sense of being. And this latter gateway is why I wanted to speak to Cedar Wright.
Wright is a prolific climber with a storied career who has done just about all you can do in the world of climbing. And if he hasn’t quite done “it” yet, well, the chances are he will soon. From his early days at Yosemite’s Camp 4, Wright was committed to the pursuit of the climb. Eventually, this pursuit evolved to include sharing these experiences with the world through a camera lens, making films like the Sufferfest series, films that make a mere mortal like myself cringe out of fear as he and Alex Honnold climb (even rope-free at times) up daunting faces that leave absolutely no room for error.
What I learned in speaking with Wright is that climbing, unlike other adventure sports, requires an unparalleled focus and presence. Whereas in faster sports it is easy to turn it on for a run or even a couple hours while filming or competing, climbing is slower. It requires brute strength and discipline and leaves a lot of time for contemplation. Climbing the way the top athletes go about it produces philosophers as much as high level athletes — and Wright is the archetype.
In our conversation, the climber and philosopher weighed in on: developing the climber’s mind; his newest obsession paragliding; his friend, the late Dean Potter; and how progressing in climbing doesn’t have to mean defying death every time you go out.
JP Schlick: In his book Rise of Superman, Steven Kotler argues that action and adventure sport athletes have the ability to get into a deeper more embodied state of flow than any other group of people. To make his case, he cites the progression in climbing specifically and discusses how fast the sport has progressed relative to other sports, like, say, traditional track and field style sports. The first climbs on some of the biggest walls were made in the past century and now those same climbs are being free soloed.
This mental state of flow is a really big part of that and that’s where I want to start the conversation. But first, how did you get introduced to climbing?
Cedar Wright: I first discovered climbing in northern California, in Humboldt, while I was going to school getting my degree in English. I saw people climbing the sea cliffs there and it just looked like the coolest thing I’d ever seen. I immediately was like, “Man, I’ve got to do that.”
I started reaching out to people and found a guy who was a climber. He took me out on my first climb and pretty much the course of my life was forever changed once I discovered climbing.
From those first days, did you make it a point to pursue climbing as a career? Or did you pursue climbing just to climb and it kind of became a career?
Yeah, initially I was just kind of captured by the climbing. I was just obsessed with it. It was the first thing in my life where I really impulsively had to do it.
I loved it, I wanted to do it all the time. To the point where I was willing to, after I graduated from college, move into my truck and work as little as possible so that I could climb full time and stay camped next to the different climbing areas. I spent a lot of time in Yosemite during that era, just dedicating all of my time and energy to climbing.
You were working in Yosemite, right?
Yeah, I got a job on Yosemite Search and Rescue eventually. Working there you got a little tent cabin in the back of Camp 4, which is the climbers campground, in exchange for just being on call for when there was a rescue or a search or, sometimes, a body recovery — we would come out for that, but that gave me a lot of free time to climb. That’s when I really started to perfect my craft as a climber.
Would you define yourself in those years as the quintessential dirtbag climber?
I would say I was pretty much, at that point, a full on dirtbag. Yeah, definitely.
Leading up to being on Search and Rescue, I was just sleeping in a cave behind Camp 4, climbing as much as I could, also staying in my truck in Joshua Tree quite a bit. It was a very simple existence dedicated completely to climbing. I think that’s kind of the essence of being a dirtbag. You love climbing so much that you’re willing to forgo modern comforts and conveniences, even a conventional sense of success or what you should do with your life, in order to climb full time. You love climbing so much that you prioritize that above all else.
I definitely see that, in climbing specifically. People are really willing to just live as minimally as possible just so they can climb all the time.
Yeah. I think, also, with climbing, it’s just a time consuming sport. If you want to climb a giant wall, that takes all day, or even can take multiple days. If you want to be really good at climbing big walls like that, then that means you’d need to do that hundreds of times in order to get good at it. To be really good at climbing, it really does require all of your time.
It also requires incredibly intense focus. Have you always had that kind of focus? Or was that something you had to learn?
As someone who was always interested in art and writing and creative endeavors, I always kind of had this tendency to turn off my thinking mind and just be in the moment with what I was doing. I just had a natural propensity to just be in the moment. Certainly through climbing I learned a whole other level of that. You get to this point in climbing, and you don’t get there all the time, but you can be in these points where it’s actually kind of life or death.
Especially during a moment like that, by necessity, you have to breathe, relax, focus, and make it happen. When you get into a mind state like that, it’s very illuminating. When you have an experience like that, you definitely carry it away with you and apply it in other aspects of your life, but you also apply it to your climbing as you grow as a climber.
I watched your Sufferfest films and they were mind blowing to me. You say that you sometimes get in life or death situations — everything that you were doing in there, for me, as a non-climber, is life or death.
Yeah, interesting. That’s just being an expert at something. It’s like taking something that most people would look at as a life or death situation and to you it’s just a fun time. You have such control over that risk and you have such a level of expertise at what you’re doing that you feel like it’s life or death a lot less often. You know?
Do you apply the same sort of sense of presence and focus — and this is a big part of what Kotler talks about in Rise — getting into a state of flow to other parts of your life? Before you found climbing. was there something that gave you that same ability to really just be very present and totally immerse yourself in?
Interestingly, the first place where I found that was through meditation. I toyed around with different styles and approaches to meditation. I tried mantra meditations and just sitting and being with yourself and breathing. I think, really, the flow state is essentially, in my mind, a meditative state. The interesting thing is that with climbing I think it just naturally forces you into that state.
It just requires that state to have any meaningful achievements in climbing. It’s inherently a slow sport. You’re taking in all of this information, assessing all of these different risks, and trying to figure out these really abstract movements in order to move up the rock. That’s not taking place in your thinking brain. That’s taking place, I guess, in your subconscious. It’s happening. It’s not like you’re empirically calculating it all out or intellectually reasoning every move. It’s more like you’re in an almost trance-like state just figuring it out.
You’re in the moment because you have to be with climbing. Whereas in meditation you learn to put yourself in the moment.
I think that’s one of the reasons I love climbing. It really just requires that view. Certainly, I think there’s a lot of different levels of flow. You have these days where everything is clicking, you just feel at one with the rock, so to speak. And there’s a level of flow state in any climb, I think. There’s just so much going on, so much information you’re taking in that you have no choice but to go with the flow.
Do you still meditate?
I do — somewhat regularly. Nothing too serious, but I do some basic relaxation meditation. I also do just some really basic stuff before I go to sleep sometimes, where I do a basic concentrating on my breathing and then focusing my energy on relaxing, working my way from my head to my toes, relaxing everything — relax my ears, relax my eyes, relax my cheeks, relax my neck. I find that’s a really great way to relieve stress and sleep better and stay sane.
In climbing, a lot of times I use that same basic technique, which is that I basically breathe into it and relax. Climbing, you’re going to find yourself in a situation where you’re in a relatively restful position — it’s what we call the resting climbing. You’re still hanging from your arms, you’re still getting pumped, but this is where you need to get it back mentally and physically. I find there’s nothing that works as well as just deep conscious breathing and relaxation. If you’re really trying to lower your heart rate and relax your body and your mind as much as you can.
A lot of times you’ll be at this rest and now you’ve got to do the hardest part of the climb. By totally zen-ing out for a second before you go for it, your heart rate gets lower, your mind state becomes more relaxed. That, obviously, really helps with performance. With climbing it’s all about keeping your heart rate down. It’s interesting.
Very interesting. When did you first decide that you wanted to start free soloing? Was the act of getting rid of the ropes just a way to get deeper into that state a little bit? Does it kind of force you to really get deep into that restive state? What was the motivation?
Honestly, with soloing the main motivation was just the freedom and ease and efficiency that you can climb a rock with. It’s just faster and more free and you’re not relying on anyone but yourself. To me, that’s the real appeal of it. There’s certainly a flow state with it, and a few times I’ve definitely had to — when I’ve maybe pushed a little further than I should have — really tap into something “other-worldly” there for a second, where you really had no choice but to fully perform.
For the most part with soloing, it’s actually because you don’t want to push too close to the edge; a lot of times it’s more just about fun and relaxation and enjoying the movement and the freedom. I actually think the real full-on crazy flow stuff happens more on a rope when you’re actually trying to push your body to the absolute limit of what you personally are capable of. I think a lot of interesting flow stuff happens there for climbers, for sure.
Then, of course, there’s different types of climbing. There’s redpoint climbing where people are trying to basically repeat a certain amount of choreographed moves. Because it’s your absolute limit, everything has to be perfectly efficient. Everything has to be perfect in order for you to do that last move. That’s an interesting type of flow or choreography… more like doing the dance perfectly.
Then you also have on-sight climbing, which is where you have never been on the climb and you have no real information about it. You’re going into this completely foreign territory trying to read the terrain and make sense of what you need to do to move upwards. A lot of times, it’s not obvious at all what you need to do, it’s very technical movement with your hands and your feet and your body positions. As your whole body is engaged, your mind or your subconscious mind is engaged in trying to figure out what you should possibly do with all of that to make it work.
That’s a really interesting state to be in, to be in this highly athletic, intuitive mind frame where you’re trying to read the terrain and climb to the top without falling. It’s pretty fascinating.
I think the mental fortitude that it requires, not only physically conditioning yourself to do that, but then to mentally withstand it is incredible. I heard an interview a little while back with Alex Honnold. He was talking about one of the bigger climbs he had soloed in Yosemite. He mentioned that somewhere towards the top of the climb he came out of the “zone,” like you were describing, and just really had to pull it together.
What is that like? What are your strategies and what do you do to pull that together?
Yeah, even with the best climbers in the world today, like Alex, you can’t maintain that state all the time, especially when you’re trying to maintain it for hours at a time. It’s natural to have moments where you’re questioning what you’re doing or you have doubts about what the next move is going to be. Where you’re starting to feel the fatigue and you get off your game — so to speak — for a moment. I think the beauty of someone like Alex is that’s very rare for him. He’s able to usually snap right back into it.
For me, personally, it all comes back to the breath and relaxation. It’s all about getting back to a relaxed mind state. At the cost of safe climbing, you can get into this mentality where you’re just looking up, thinking about everything ahead of you, instead of being on the climb in the moment and thinking about the next move and really reacting to the climbing. It’s easy to be too many moves ahead.
I see a lot in speed climbing actually. A fast climber is a climber who isn’t looking up ahead of him much, he’s just climbing the rock in front of him. With slow climbers, it’s not that they’re climbing slow — it’s they’re stopping a lot and thinking about the climbing ahead. They’re constantly kind of in a state of questioning what’s ahead, and maybe being afraid of what’s ahead. They’re stopping, they’re looking up, they’re like, Oh, that looks hard up there.
When they stop and look up, all this time goes by. You do that 100 times on a big wall and you’re not very fast. The fast climber, the speed climber, is the one who just climbs. It’s not necessarily climbing much faster than another climber, they’re just questioning themselves less.
That makes total sense. I think again, it’s that state of presence. A lot of what we know about flow states is derived from the book called Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. In it, he talks about how flow requires this autotelic personality and a lot of what he talks about is how setting goals and working towards them drives people into a flow state.
Do you set goals? Do you typically have a goal for the day, the week, or the year? How do you set goals?
I always try to have something that I’m stoked about that I’m working towards. Basically it’s all very organic. I just love climbing and I get excited about a particular climb that I want to do. Then I want to see it through and accomplish it. Or a specific goal, or a specific formation, or a specific place that I want to go. I don’t know what he says about obsession but I think in people who are getting in the flow, probably, have a level of obsession with what they’re doing that allows that, in a sense.
They need to always be moving forward. They need to have the next goal. It all just kind of happens for me, even the goal forming. I get excited about a certain area. Right now I’m pretty excited about hard wide crack climbing and beta moves. I start seeking out the hard wide cracks and I tick them off. I go from one to the next. It’s all very organic for me.
I know some people are definitely even more goal-oriented than I am. I guess I’m, in some ways, more experience-oriented, if that makes sense. I guess my goal is to have different experiences. I get excited about certain places, I want to go to that climbing area and really experience the area. Then usually the climbing there is classic climbs that you’ve got to do. I want to, of course, go and do all those classic climbs. It usually starts there, with going to an area and doing some of the time-honored climbs. Then from there that gives you a feel for the area and you see things that capture your imagination, then you make goals.
I think there’s a lot of variation in how people approach all this stuff and how they get into that mode. Of course, I do think there’s this thing called the “flow state,” but we tend to try to define things or give things labels — I think it’s even maybe more complex than just calling it a “flow state.” I think there’s a lot of different nuances. There’s more to it than we could ever know really… finger pointing at the moon doesn’t get you to the moon.
No, I agree with that. With the actual term “flow” and “flow state,” it is kind of this catchall term. I wish there was something better for it because it feels like it’s over used and it’s not used in the right context a lot.
When Csikszentmihalyi first coined the term he was trying to describe the “optimal human experience.” Kind of like this experience that we all have in our most meaningful moments. He coined the phrase flow based on the people he was interviewing — they most frequently referred to it as just flowing through a task, just flowing through the motions. So he just coined it: “flow.”
It reminds me of Malcolm Gladwell a little bit. He’s all, “There’s this thing called a tipping point.” You’re like, “Well, okay, I see what you’re getting at but it’s all very much like trying to boil down all this super complex events or states, or whatever, into some sort of catch word, essentially.” It’s fine, you can call it the flow. I think there’s an element of truth to it, but my intuition tells me that it’s much more complex and deeper than just calling it the flow.
There’s probably all different types of flow states, if you want to call it that. There’s all different types of states that people get into. You might even discover that you could take two high performance athletes in any sport and you might discover that their mind state has similarities but differences. They could be approaching the same challenge in some fundamentally different ways and having similar results. I would tend to think that there’s an element of that.
Of course probably both those athletes are able to relax and focus on the task at hand and they’re not very distracted, but the actual mind state that they’re in, or the actual experience that they’re having could be different for two people who are both very accomplished at what they do. I would imagine. I’m sure there’s similarities, of course. There definitely has to be, but we’re all very unique and complex and different in many ways too. You know?
Yes, definitely. You can see that just based on how people prepare for their sport. Some people need to be in this really heightened and fired up state and some people just really need to go into their quiet place and just get into it that way.
Totally, yeah. I think some people feed off of competition and even anger. Some people are more just getting at peace with themselves. It’s interesting. Both of those approaches could lead to a similar performance level or result. Who knows? I do tend to think that the flow state is a… I know, for myself, that it’s a real thing. It’s not one thing, per se, but it is this general experience of all these things happening at once and how you react to them. It is, certainly for me personally, when I feel like I am the most in a meditative state I tend to perform better for sure.
Then you’re not thinking about what’s happening. It’s like there’s this whole other subconscious mechanism that’s just taking it all in and reacting. It’s not like this conscious activity anymore, it’s just kind of happening.
It is a fascinating place. Just stepping aside from any of the labels that we want to give it, just that feeling that we’re talking about, it comes with this — like you mentioned before — this level of obsession. I think that however you get into that state that it’s something that’s shared across high level athletes and in riskier sports, be it climbing or skiing or surfing, there is this level of obsession and compulsion to progress your sport but also to just get into that state on a regular basis.
How often do you require to get into that state? How often do you try to go out and climb and be there? What does your regimen look like?
Nowadays, I’m climbing three to four days a week. Each one of those days I’m trying to push myself, push my own personal level and trying to achieve my own little goals that I’ve set for myself. Recently I’ve been getting into paragliding, for about the last four months — it’s been really interesting. I’ve been climbing for over 20 years now; it’s just a different experience. I haven’t really felt this way about a sport since climbing, where I’m completely in love with the sport.
It’s really interesting to have that experience all over again and to have that hunger. When I’m not paragliding, I’m watching paragliding videos and reading paragliding books and just trying to take in as much information as I can and be the best pilot that I can be. It really reminds me of my early years in climbing where it was just all I could think about, where it was all I wanted to do.
Obviously my relationship with climbing has changed. It’s still all I want to do and I still love climbing but I’ve kind of watched all the videos and read all the books. It’s interesting to go back to that more beginner’s mind obsession with something, which is where I’ve been going to with paragliding recently.
At it’s very root, it just comes down to whether you love it or you’re obsessed. It’s a fine line between love and obsession but you need a little bit of both of those really. You need the desire to force yourself there all the time, every day. That’s how people get really good at things. Without that desire or that obsession, you can’t have that high level of performance.
We see that a lot with all high level athletes, they feel this need to always push it. It seems like with climbing a lot of times there’s progression in climbing but it kind of goes horizontal and it goes to these other activities that are somewhat related. A lot of climbers, they go to BASE jumping. Right?
They go into other sports, they go into paragliding. With climbing, in order to progress, to feel like you’re doing something totally new, the risks are seemingly very high and you’re at a very high level in climbing, as high as you can get. To go and pursue another sport, is that just because it allows you to get to a place where climbing couldn’t let you get to at this point?
I think it’s also just, like I said, that I’ve been climbing for 20 years. Having that whole learning experience again, that’s part of the fun. Of course I’m still learning and still pushing myself as a climber, but it’s more subtle — the progression is slower. When you first start climbing, every time you go out there’s this really measurable level of progression. With any sport as you get towards the outer limits of your potential, things get more gradual and more subtle. There’s plateaus and there’s setbacks. Then there’s breakthroughs. That’s just how that stuff is.
I think that’s part of the attraction, for sure. Just getting back to that quick progression in the sport is a big part of learning something new. Plus, it’s paragliding — you’re flying through the air. There’s a basic elemental force. It’s also, I would say, complimentary: climbing is probably one of the most athletic and physical extreme sports that there is; paragliding is more of a flow sport in the sense that it’s really about reacting to the air and figuring out what thermals are.
I don’t know if you’ve ever had an injury or if you’ve ever, say, been on a busy travel schedule, or you’ve just been in a place where you can’t go and climb and you can’t go and paraglide. A time when you can’t really, physically, get into that space, that meditative space, that flow space. A time when you’re kind of locked out of it. I don’t know if you’ve ever encountered this, but most athletes do at some point in their career. If you have, how do you deal with that? What is your mental state during those times?
The other thing I guess you would probably say, we were talking about obsession, the compulsion to do something, and how that leads to performance, basically that’s an addictive personality in a sense. Right?
You’re kind of addicted to that experience. You’re addicted to the feeling that it gives you. You’re addicted to the endorphins that it gives you, the whole thing. When you don’t get that you’re essentially going through withdrawal. I’ve definitely found myself in hotel rooms doing pull-ups on the door jamb because my fitness is important to me and I just have that need to be pushing myself. I’ve definitely found myself in that situation. I tend to try to find something to fill the void, so to speak.
If I can’t climb, maybe I’ll go for a run and I’ll do some core exercises in my hotel room. Even an hour of exercise. A lot of us are addicted to exercise. Even an hour of exercise at least kind of feeds the beast a little bit so you’re not totally freaking out when it’s raining for a week and you can’t climb or you have a bunch of obligations to your sponsors that you have to fulfill that don’t allow you to climb as much as you want to for a week or two. You make do, you deal. Then you fiend for that next time that you get that fix.
I think it’s even more apparent in paragliding. I would say paragliding is even more the addictive than climbing. Maybe it’s something to do with air sports. You definitely long for the next fix. It’s interesting.
There was a study done on surfers, big wave surfers, maybe a decade ago, asking them the same questions about the nature of the sport. A lot of the professional surfers that were interviewed said that it wasn’t really up to them whether or not they surfed — they had to surf. It wasn’t a choice, it was something that they were compelled to do or else they weren’t going to be a functioning person. In Rise a lot of the athletes talk about when they can’t get into that space they’re just completely out of it, they’re totally bumps on a log.
With a lot of my friends, we’re not in the professional ranks in any of these sports, but we’ve done them for a while and now we’re faced with having to go and find a career path and maybe enter the job market and the “real world,” whatever that is. You know?
To step away from it, it’s really difficult, it’s really hard to be functioning person a times. Like you said, that hour of exercise is great but it’s only somewhat feeding the beast.
I know, yeah, it’s just keeping you from blowing your brains out, basically.
I think that a lot of extreme sport athletes would probably be drug addicts if they weren’t doing what they do. Certain people just need this certain level of intensity and being on the outer limits to feel happy and to feel fulfilled. A lot of people are happy just to have a safe and mundane and normal existence, that’s totally fulfilling for them. Then there are these people who really need to be at the extremes, to be pushing their minds and bodies in order to be happy. When they can’t it gets tough.
When people transition from, say, a professional career to the harsh realities of having to work nine to five, that can be really difficult. I can say, on the other side of it, I’ve seen in the climbing world, because in climbing there’s no substitute for really hard work and most great climbs, especially first ascents, were achieved through a lot of hard work—that does transfer over. I have seen people take that obsession for climbing and for pushing themselves and for having high level achievement and then applying that into their careers later in life and having successful businesses or being very successful in other aspects of their life.
A lot of it has to do with how you channel it, how you balance your life. Any professional athlete has some sort of shelf life. How they transition, a lot hinges on their personality and also their ability to still find something that feeds that beast. I think with climbers, a lot, people just continue to climb and they continue to love it. They continue to climb even into their 40s and 50s and even 60s. That’s enough for them.
You see other folks in other sports feel like once they’re not the best they don’t find that fulfillment anymore. It just depends on the personality and on so many things, so many different things.
That brings me to this last piece of the puzzle. In The Rise of Superman, Kotler talk about the “dark side of flow,” it’s this back-end experience. After you do something or you’ve had this experience, whether it’s a first ascent or a hard climb that really took everything that you had, there’s a phase afterwards, there’s a consolidation phase but there’s also this coming down.
In climbing we call it the “post send” or “the post climb depression,” it’s a real thing. Especially when you really stay obsessed and work super hard for something for a long time and then you do it. At first there’s this moment of rapture and just being totally stoked. That quickly dissipates and you’re like, “Huh.” Now you’ve lost that thing that was driving you forward, you lost that thing that you were obsessed over. Now there’s that moment of emptiness and almost depression that can follow a really hard climb or something that was really meaningful to you like that. That’s a real thing in climbing, I know, for a lot of people.
Is that something that lasts for a day, a couple days, a week, or does that go on until you do something again that’s on that same level? I’m sure it varies person to person but what is the extreme?
I think it depends on the climb and depends on the climber, definitely. There’s one surefire way to make that go away, is to move on to the next goal. It’s almost like having the goal, having this thing driving you forward, is more important than the achievement of the goal. Of course, obviously, the end result of accomplishing a goal is really a wonderful thing, and that’s part of the addictive nature of it. I think the best way is just that you need to set another goal for yourself, have another objective or something that’s driving you forward.
A lot of times that post send depression just comes from you no longer having a purpose. You know what I mean?
You had this very distinct, focused purpose and now it’s over, it’s done, you did it. Now what? Luckily, in climbing, there’s always something else to test yourself against. There’s always a new area to visit, always a new climb. I think that’s maybe why, in climbing, you get what we call lifers a lot, people who climb well into their old age. I think because there’s always something new to challenge you, always something new to experience.
Even as you age and you’re no longer able to perform at the level you used to, you just test yourself at the current level you’re at against a logical or applicable challenge. There’s always something. There’s just so many rocks and so many climbs and so many places. There’s so much to do within the sport. I think we’re lucky in that way. I see a lot of people find a lot of fulfillment and happiness in this sport.
Of course you’re also outside and interacting with the environment in some of the most beautiful places on earth and I think climbers are lucky in that way. In climbing, it’s not always the same climb — every climb is different, unique and special. Every experience is singular and unique that you have. Even as you, say, perform at a lower level you can have that thing, that same unknown. It’s a great sport, I think it’s the best sport in the world. Personally.
You make a strong argument. Getting back to goals and getting out of that post climb depression and setting new goals. When you’re at the highest level, and we’ve seen this at the highest levels of all sports but in climbing in particular, these new goals can be very risky. To satisfy that urge and to find that purpose will often lead people to take on activities and risks that do have very high consequences.
Your friend Dean Potter was a very prolific climber, prolific slackliner — from what I gather he really set the bar for what was possible with that. Then with BASE jumping and wingsuit flying it just seems like when you get to a certain level in order to satisfy that need it seems like the risks that are required are almost too high. Do you feel it needs to go there?
No, I don’t think so. It just depends. In climbing, there are just so many aspects of climbing. In the pure sport climbing realm of people who are just trying to pull harder moves there’s never really any true danger unless they just make a dumb mistake. It’s actually a relatively safe sport. If you’re just trying to push pure difficulty there’s no real danger to your life.
I think someone like Dean is a unique case. He was definitely addicted to that being at the very, very edge of things and pushing right to where you’re staring death in the eye. I personally have never been like that. I have a higher comfort for risk than your average person, for sure, but at the same time I have a desire to be an old man. I don’t know, I think it just depends.
We all want to push ourselves and go to the next level. In climbing, honestly, the better you get, in a lot of ways, the safer it becomes because you just have all these ways, you’re better at placing gear, you’re better at reading the terrain, you’re less likely to fall, you’re more likely to make a smart decision because you have all this experience.
Unfortunately, the problem with wingsuit proximity flying is it’s a sport that gets more dangerous the better you get, essentially. The better you get, the closer you want to fly to things. Everything’s happening at 120 miles and hour. In climbing you can make an error or mistake and it doesn’t have to be catastrophic. It could even just be inconsequential in a sense. You made a mistake but then you corrected the mistake. Even in paragliding usually accidents happen in a cascade of events. It’s not like one bad decision, it’s a series of bad decisions.
Unfortunately wingsuit proximity flying, it’s literally one mistake and you’re dead. That’s a high level of consequence. That’s why I never got into BASE jumping. To me it seems that whole risk to reward, the reward seemed high but the risk just seemed even higher.
Even with climbing, at least with certain genres of climbing, it seems like you’re right — the better you get the safer it is. But a lot of the top climbers don’t stick to that genre of climbing. A lot of climbers, they ditch the gear, they ditch the rope. They’ll even go to climb buildings, skyscrapers, without gear. In every sport, we see this, with skiing and snowboarding, yeah, the better you get, the safer you are if you decide to just play it safe.
Most of those athletes don’t just decide to play it safe. In snowboarding, Jeremy Jones is going to the Himalayas and camping out in Alaska. It just seems like that is the nature of the sport, not to be kept in those confines.
Yeah, to a certain extent, for sure. We all want to go out and take it to the next level in some way, with what we’re doing. Sometimes that could involve more risk, for sure. That’s just the way it is. At the same time, the other side of that is that where your layman, or your outsider, perceives that the risk is increasing really all that’s actually happening is the skill level’s increasing. More extreme appearing activities are happening at a similar level of actual risk, if you were to look at the sheer odds of things.
A lot of these guys in the climbing world — Alex Honnold — solo harder because he got better. When you’re talking about “when I fall, I die,” then you’re just not going to fall. In a sense there’s zero risk, it’s just knowing what you’re capable of. It’s interesting — it’s personality to personality. I would say that there’s also that level of hype in the extreme sports world where things get hyped up as being super dangerous. What people don’t see is that actually this person has been putting in thousands and thousands and thousands of hours into this moment.
It’s being hyped up as being this completely dangerous thing but actually what you’re witnessing is an incredibly skilled thing. To use the example of a guy tightrope walking 1,000 feet above the ground, to your average viewer that seems completely death defying. To the guy walking the tightrope, he’s just like, “I’m never going to fall off this thing and even if I did I would catch the line and it’s perfectly safe for me. It just seems extreme.”
It’s this acceptable level of risk. I see your point at the same time but I think a lot of it is hype and that perceived risk for the layman. They look at that stuff and it looks like you’re just a crazy person. You know? Maybe you are.
In climbing in particular, I get butterflies watching it on my computer screen. Watching some of your films in particular. I’ve climbed a little bit before, mostly just in gyms with friends. I’ve never really done too much. I know that for me when I’m doing it, it’s way different than when I’m watching it. And I know that’s true with snowboarding too, and skiing. I have a lot of friends who ride at very high levels so I’m definitely able to relate to that.
Yeah, you know what I mean. You see someone jump off a cliff and you’re like, “That’s so extreme.” But that guys got it so dialed he just stomps it. You know what I mean?
Yeah, he stomps it every time.
He jumps until he breaks his back or something. Or you get the Jesus Knucklehead who lawndarted from 200 feet. You get these people, you also get people who are just hungry for glory and don’t take the necessary steps of increasing their skill. They’re just more willing to just take the stupid risk for the glory. There’s that element too but that’s not flow. That’s just being a dumb ass. And being a dumb ass who’s willing to risk his life, that can get you pretty far too. [Laughs.]
You knew Dean Potter probably as long as anybody did as a peer in the sport climbing. Is that safe to say?
Yeah, I definitely knew Dean for a very long time. Since my early 20s.
Like you said, he was a bit of a different person. He was always trying to push it at the extreme. Like we were talking about before, these extreme feats, they are associated with a very defined and definite chemical release in the brain. It becomes an addiction. Over the course of time, either with Dean or with other climbers who you’ve associated with, or even yourself, do you notice a change in the personality? Do you notice any sort of change over the years when they keep pushing it?
The story about Dean, where he was jumping into a cave and his chute didn’t open and he grabbed a vine or something. He had this very profound experience.
Totally — he actually grabbed a rope and he slid down the rope for 600 feet or something, or 300 feet. Burned his hands all the way through to the bone.
An insane story.
I don’t know if there’s anything that changes about the person though. People change. Basically they tend to mellow with age.
I actually think Dean was starting to mellow out in some ways. In Dean’s case, maybe it was just his BASE jumping addiction was just fatal. In some ways I think the BASE jumping is almost too much of mainline of adrenaline to your system in a lot of ways.
That feeling of euphoria and that rush that you get from something like BASE jumping, you hardly ever get that out of climbing. You have to work really, really hard to get it. With BASE jumping, it becomes an easy way to get that feeling, in a sense. It’s a surefire way and you can get it over and over again, it’s repeatable. You jump off the cliff, you get the rush. That was awesome and then you go do it again.
I don’t know. Do people change over time? Sometimes, sometimes they do. It seems like more often than not though the seed of who they are stays the same. You know what I mean?
Right, the foundation stays.
Usually. You see people — I’ve definitely seen it in climbing — where people, they pushed it right to the limit and then they kind of were like, “You know what? I’m good. I’ve gotten enough out of this. I don’t need anymore out of this. I’m ready for something different.” Not everybody’s a lifer.
In BASE jumping, my buddy Chris McNamara and my buddy Jake Whittaker had all these rad accomplishments as wingsuit pilots and then they just kind of looked around — all their friends were dying, they quit and they got out alive. They pushed it for a while and then they reeled it in and now they’re doing other stuff. Everyone’s different. You don’t have to quit a sport to reel it in, but maybe in BASE jumping you do.
You never know. It’s interesting, we’re all unique. Every personality’s different and that obviously is really reflected in a person’s accomplishments and their approach to a sport. The level of risk that they take, the frequency of the risks that they take. There’s a lot to it.
Talking about doing other stuff how did filmmaking come about for you? Does that sort of satisfy a need for you that you felt was missing? Do you also get in that meditative state with filmmaking?
Definitely. It’s interesting, actually film editing is, in my mind, at least the way I approach it, it’s very much a flow state. You’re putting all these moving pictures together in some sort of coherent way to tell this story. There’s a million different ways to do that. It’s very experimental and intuitive, at least for me when I’m doing it. I’ve always been a creative person. I’ve always had that need to pour myself into something and lose myself in something. I’ve always just seen the value and the reward in that.
Initially, I was writing a lot and that was a really creative endeavor. For a long time I would just love to sit at the base of rock climbs and sketch little sketches of the formations. I always enjoyed amusing myself in something. When I found filmmaking, there was just so much to it. From the creativity of filming and shooting and finding different angles and learning to manipulate your image, to the post production and telling the story, to edit.
It’s just a great way to immerse yourself in something. It’s also, for me personally, been a great way to tell the stories of people I find interesting or expose people that I think the world should see. Or maybe entertain or make people laugh or inspire them. There’s a lot of value in all that for me personally. I definitely love it. It’s become a wonderfully mutualistic thing to my climbing career. Yeah, I love it, I love making movies.
I totally agree that the process of editing. I think, it is really a creative process. I think that just the visual aspect of editing film just takes it up a notch from just the pen and paper. It’s really an awesome way to lose yourself in that place that we’ve been talking about.
Totally. Sometimes it’s like the lose your mind place because you’ve been watching the same scene for months on end, you’re like, “Oh my god. Is this any good?”
Oh yeah, you can loose perspective.
Yeah, totally. You’re dealing with words, you’re dealing with music, you’re dealing with visuals, you’re dealing with all these different components and putting them together. There’s a million different ways you can do it. It’s a really unique multifaceted art form, editing. I have tremendous respect for the good editors out there. I think it’s a little bit of an unsung art form.
Would that ever satisfy your need that you feel for, say, climbing? Is there any crossover there?
There’s crossover but no, I always have to have something like climbing, something more visceral and in the moment and pure and simple. It’s just such a simple thing. You’re like, “I want to climb to the top of that.” That process is just such a liberating feeling. It’s just so much fun. The bottom line is climbing is a lot of fun. Of course filmmaking certainly compliments it and it’s become a wonderful outlet.
You can’t climb all the time, you need to rest. Also it’s not the most intellectually challenging sport. It’s definitely intellectual, but it’s not on the same level of creative intellectualism that you get from filmmaking. It’s wonderful to have that outlet and something different than climbing. Something besides just climbing. Having a little more depth in life, I think for me personally, is important. I’ve always been someone that has lots of interests and like to do lots of things. As long as I don’t end up crippled or dead, I’m going to be climbing.
For more from Cedar Wright, head on over to his website. Also, don’t forget to Like him on Facebook, as well as follow him on Instagram. And keep up with his adventures for North Face on his athlete page.
Several photos and the trailer courtesy of Wright are from he and Alex Honnold’s Sufferfest excursions. Buy Sufferfest 1 & 2 on Vimeo on Demand.
Don’t forget to catch up with the Flow States series, for which Wright interviewed: