Friday, July 10, 2015

Flow or Die

Setting a pint of Coldsmoke in front of me right as I sit down, the bartender says, "This one's on the house, you look like you've had a hard day." Her voice is beautiful, and I savour the sound in my mind.

Apparently she had seen me coming for days.

I smile and say, "Thann…ks." It comes out slow. I'm trying to count the number of days I've just spent, battling with myself, my desires, and the elements.  I wanted to say, "27!", and blurt it out, like a survivor on TV.

But I never did. I was still in the zone, starring at my beer, totally spaced out and unable to ask a beautiful woman for her name.

Long exposure, or high doses, to flow states leave me stupid, and unable to make sentences in my head. It happens all the time on long expeditions, long days in the mountains, running, biking, climbing, skiing, etc...

Technically this is fine, because the brain is shutting down parts it doesn't need.

But sometimes it's embarrassing when I forget how to order off a menu, or why I'm standing in line, under bright lights, around people who smell nice.

But really, flow states are the most rewarding, addictive, and powerful experiences we can have. It's what I live for, and there are so many flow states to go through, so many transitions, lapses with time, and differences in power and effects.

A full force macro-flow state, where time might stop completely, and reaction and super human strength become required - these are often do or die moments. I've had them falling off a roof, surviving an avalanche, and being attacked by two english mastiffs.

In these experiences everything changed. Time changed, thought patterns changed, and the voice inside my head changed.

Make no mistake, finding flow is the most dangerous thing you can do.

When I fell off the roof I was 18 years old and working in Santa Cruz, Ca.  I knew I would be fine right away. I'd slipped on a piece of masking paper, and was speeding towards the edge of the building. Below the boss and the home owner were screaming, but my mind was calm. I was ready to take the plunge off the roof, there was no escaping it. I was backwards, with a giant paint bucket in my right hand, but knew if I could spin around, I'd land on my feet or my ass, and not on my head. There was no fear in my body, and I can remember thinking to myself, "would you please stop screaming down there, I'm the one falling off the building."

I landed on my feet, sort of, cracked my left wrist, and didn't spill any paint. The look on the land-lady's face - priceless.

The day I survived being swept in a deadly avalanche in Valdez, was another one of those experiences. It was like I knew how to survive, on a whole different level.

The Spring of 2000 was a dangerous year to be a skier in Valdez. In two short weeks there were so many avalanche burials and rescues it was hard to keep count. Twice, entire guided groups got swept, and many people, including guides, were seriously injured. Thankfully nobody died.

My friend Will and I had spent the night in a snow cave high on Mount Diamond, one of the tallest peaks in the area. Our reasoning for going up high during avalanche danger, was higher and steeper slopes were holding better snow, and most the avalanches were happening at lower elevations and lower angled slopes.

We planned to ski something big that day, maybe off the summit.  As we went higher, the danger became apparent and we turned around and were heading down. The slide happened on the final 2,000 foot slope, less than 30ยบ degrees steep.

Will went first, and I waited. There was no safe spot to watch from so I just stood there and waited. When I did approach the edge and start down, I triggered a class 3 avalanche. It was two to three feet deep and propagated a hundred meters to my right, and more than three hundred meters to my left.

The last thing I saw before going into survival mode, was Will in a death-tuck, and the lighting bolt crack of the avalanche propagating towards him, like he had pissed off Zeus. It was real life James Bond. The avalanche cracked over a quarter mile, and Will out ran the lighting bolt by less than ten feet, pushing his skinny telemark skis to the max, and dashing into the safety of an adjacent slope and the comfort of a dense forrest, just in time...

My ride was different. I was in the avalanche, as it had cracked about ten feet behind me. At first it started moving slowly, and there was a moment where I thought I had options. Then I realized the size of the avalanche, and at the bottom of the slope was a deep ravine and a two hundred foot drop into a tight chasm. I had to get out, there was no surviving this ride.

Flow creates action with no hesitation. I can remember everything that happened and everything I did to get myself out of the avalanche, I just don't know how I did it. My mind spoke in the most comforting and soothing way. I was able to produce complete images, that operated like thoughts.

I knew how deep the slide layer was, and the amount of force I would need to puncture through with my ski poles. I knew to choke up on my poles, grab both poles with both hands, and blast downward into the snow,  and pierce the hard icy layer underneath. Then I had to hold on for dear life, as the slide washed over my head.

When my ski detached,  I calmly reached down with one hand and grabbed it. It was like super-cognition. Like I knew my ski was about to release, because there was no way I could have reacted that fast. No way, right?

Not without flow.

The day my neighbour's english mastiffs attacked me, time stopped completely. I was skiing down the road next to my cabin when the attack happened. At first all I could do was back up and swing my ski poles at the two dogs, and yell at them. But as the attack continued, two things happened - the dogs narrowed their distance and my fear grew like a giant balloon.

The last moment before my blood would have been spilt, time stopped. And I mean - it stopped completely. One hand was above my head holding onto the ski pole, the other hand stretched out in front of me with the other ski pole. The two dogs had me cornered, one was flanked low on my left side and the other was taking point, inches in front of my face with his mouth open and his teeth out.

When time stopped, I wasn't thinking about whether I'd see my family again, I was visualizing how to kill two big dogs with my bare hands. Then I took a pin and popped the balloon of fear inside me, made peace with the world, and prepared for battle.

When I hit the go button, and time resumed, I dropped both of my ski poles and went for the kill. It was awesome, because dogs smell fear, and because I'd lost mine, both dogs retreated, and found me chasing them into their yard, yelling at the owner behind his door,,,,,, "IF I EVER SEE THOSE DOGS AGAIN, THEY'RE DEAD!"

My neighbour was a notorious boxing promoter in Anchorage, a scumbag under most opinions, and probably watching the whole attack. I never did see those dogs again.

So how does flow work, and what is it? I've read a couple books about the subject that I would recommend to anyone. Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi  detailing the psychology of  flow, and The Rise Of Superman, by Steven Kotler, exploring the potential of human performance in flow.

What I will say, is flow comes from the heart. It is heart-wave medicine, and flow is the reason I consider myself an artist, and have survived more than two decades as a mountaineer. Thanks for reading, now I am off for a run so I can get a cheap runner's high, (or some micro-flow.)

Thompson Pass, Valdez, AK.

Mount Diamond, largest peak center of photo.

Below the north face of Mount Diamond.

DG's cabin @ 19mile.


  1. I flippin love these stories and imagining these experiences. Your book on flow could be next.

    1. Thanks Mela,,,, I'll have to write that book soon if people keep talking about it…..