When asked what the best religion is, the Dalai Lama replied: “The best religion is what brings you closest to God.” Does that mean that you can find spirituality in anything, even in riding ghastly waves and fighting for the next move on narrow mountain ridges? I believe that, as long as you do it for the right reasons, yes, you can.
Over the last decades, extreme sports have stolen the spotlight. Unfortunately, this also strengthens many misconceptions, such as that those who participate do it just to show off. While surfing, rock climbing, trekking and kayaking are becoming more sought-after, there are still those who believe that they are far too dangerous.
Sure, you can take them to the extreme if you like, but that’s all up to you. Backcountry skiing, mountaineering, BASE jumping, whitewater kayaking, climbing with or without ropes do involve a certain level of risk. But we do it for the sheer beauty of it and we try to minimize the risks and learn to listen to the environment and ourselves.
Dean Potter BASe jumping in Yosemite – Photo credit: hcn.org / Drew Kelly
There are easier ways to die than free diving or wingsuit flying! This article is intended to explain why we choose the path less traveled and the reasoning behind our seemingly absurd actions. It is also meant to spark a self-awakening in surfers, climbers, mountaineers and all other extreme sports athletes who are still questioning themselves.
Extreme sports are not about defeating nature – they are about conquering one’s self
Rock climbing in Romania – Photo credit: Octavia Drughi
Do extreme athletes conquer nature or does nature conquer them? The answer is neither. How can you conquer a wave that is forever changing or a mountain that will still be there long after we’re gone? Does Mother Nature even know that she is in a competition? Frankly, I don’t think she gives a rat’s ass about our feeble endeavors! So why are we talking about conquests?
“We’re all equal before a wave.” (Laird Hamilton)
City dwellers who do not understand our pursuits might be inclined to believe that we are motivated by the risks, that we have some sort of death wish or feel the need to prove ourselves through crazy feats. I agree that challenging monstrous waves and risking deadly wipeouts, fighting for our lives to reach lonely summits, climb seemingly impossible cliff faces just to get to the top and come back down might seem a bit crazy from the outside.
Photo credit: Daniel Burka
Why climb Everest? “Because it’s there. […] Have we vanquished an enemy? None but ourselves.” (George Mallory)
No one’s pushing us to do it; we are the only ones in charge of our decisions. Sure, we love the thrill, but the reason we do it is to defeat the weaker version of ourselves, overcome our fears and become better people. We push ourselves to the limit so that we can learn what are limits are.
What is it so appealing about adventure sports?
We recently ran a survey about how surfers, from complete beginners to advanced, relate to the surf lifestyle. I was not surprised by the results. When asked what motivates them to go surfing, 42% replied that being able to push their limits is what gets them out there every time. Furthermore, 48% agreed that surfing helps them live in the moment, while 31% said that it helps them adopt a carefree attitude and let life flow.
"Surfing is my religion, if I have one." (Kelly Slater).
Eric Brymer, a researcher specialized in outdoor and adventure sports at Leeds Beckett in the UK, managed to debunk many misconceptions in his book, Phenomenology and the Extreme Sport Experience. To start with, Brymer defines extreme sports as any activity in which a mistake can lead to death. And I’m telling you, no one wants to make mistakes!
In his studies, Brymer discovered that extreme athletes feel closer to nature and have a higher sense of reality. It is not the risk that draws them to the sport, but rather the feeling of being there and then, being focused on their next move and living the moment without thinking of the outcome.
Alex Honnold free solo – Photo credit: National Geographic / Jimmy Chin
Quite ironically, those who participate in these so-called extreme sports don’t perceive them as deadly. Here’s what Alex Honnold, the most resonant name in the world of solo climbing today, had to say about his endeavors: “If risk is defined as anything with an uncertain outcome, I’m certainly taking risks, yeah. But I don’t think that I have a death wish. I’m not trying to go out and kill myself.”
Photo credit: Jarin Bontrager
Knowing the consequences of our errors makes us pay more attention to our surroundings and stay focused until we become one with the environment. We try to follow Bruce Lee’s advice: “You must be shapeless, formless, like water. When you pour water in a cup, it becomes the cup. When you pour water in a bottle, it becomes the bottle. When you pour water in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Water can drip and it can crash. Become like water my friend.”
Rock climbing in Romania – Photo credit: Octavia Drughi
Both body and mind are engaged, but the latter plays a far more important role. Amp up your mind game and the body will follow! How else can you train your mind if not by pushing your limits? Only this way can we come to understand our true potential.
Trusting your gut instincts
Photo credit: asoggetti
In big wave surfing, choosing the right moment to charge that hair-raising wave is a gut feeling. There’s no mathematical equation to tell you when is the right moment to go for it. The same goes for choosing the best time or route to go for the summit. Trusting your instincts also means being in the moment, completely focused, losing sense of time and space. Sounds like a spiritual awakening, doesn’t it?
Waterfall kayaking – Photo credit: Red Bull
Surfing is a solo activity. It’s the same with BASE jumping, whitewater kayaking or highlining. With rock climbing and mountaineering, even though you have a partner you trust your own life with, you’re the one pushing yourself to take another step. There’s no one helping you; the battle is all in your mind, which is all the more reason to trust your instincts and make your own decisions. But to be able to do so, you must first learn to know yourself and the surroundings.
How can adventure & outdoor sports connect you with nature?
Mountain climbing in Romania – Photo credit: Nelu Săcărea
In the same survey about the surf lifestyle, 66% of respondents said that surfing helps them feel more connected to nature. Regardless of whether you are charging behemoths at Nazaré in Portugal or are taking your first steps on the board, nature is waiting for you to return to your roots.
Photo credit: Kekai Ahsam
You are touching the waves, rocks, earth and snow with your bare hands, getting in contact with a force far greater than you. As human beings, we tend to take things for granted and consider ourselves the superior species. From time to time, we need a reality check to remind us how feeble we really are in the face of Mother Nature, and it is precisely this awareness that builds mutual respect.
Highline in Yosemite Valley – Photo credit: Leio McLaren
When we finally understand that we are all part of nature, with the same right to exist as the animals in the savannah, cats on our porch or mice in our attic, the lakes, rivers and mountains, that’s when we begin to truly connect with nature.
Photo credit: Derek Owens
After the rush is gone, the beauty of our surroundings is what lasts and what we take with us as a cherished memory. Through surfing and climbing, we are able to explore the last remaining untouched corners of our world and nature in its purest form. What others may call extreme sports are, for us, a spiritual journey of understanding our place in this universe and getting to know ourselves better. Through our connection with nature, we experience a spiritual awakening – we are learning who we are and why we are here.
*Cover photo credit: Andreas Fidler
Push past your limits. Go on a wave surfing camp, connect with nature and the force of the ocean, and work towards reaching your full potential!