Thursday 13 October 2011

Karina's machine mode

We finished our new route in the Peak District a day early, so I had time after all to make it to the Edinburgh Mountain Film Festival. That was the 9th EMFF and I was glad I didn’t miss it as it always provides a fresh dose of inspiration and an atmosphere. As a speaker or climber featured in a good few films, I’ve been to a lot of mountain festivals but I’d have to say Edinburgh is my favourite. A lot of that is down to Stevie Christie managing to strike the right note with the vibe, films, speakers etc. Well done again Stevie. 
On the Saturday evening session we listened to Karina Hollekim speak about the ups and downs of her career as a BASE jumper. If you haven’t heard of her, Karina is most famous for the film 20 seconds of joy in which we see her great enjoyment of jumping and then crushing disablement when her parachute didn’t open properly and her legs were broken so badly she was told she would never walk again. One gruelling recovery later, she can walk, and ski. Her talk was very much focused on the self-belief required to do what she did before (jump off cliffs) and the whole other level of self-belief required to get through her recovery. The message that self belief is the key ingredient to break personal barriers is one that we see a lot from speakers with a motivational story. Sometimes I’ve seen it presented that self belief is all that is necessary. But it’s fair to say that most would place it more as a crucial ingredient, but just one of quite a few more. That is certainly my feeling.
One statement in Karina’s talk stood out a mile for me. She was describing the moment sitting crouched in the dark at the foot of a signal tower waiting for the all clear to climb to do her very first BASE jump. Full of fear, she felt she couldn’t make herself do it. But when the call finally came through on the radio, she “got up, like a machine and started climbing up the ladder”. 
Machine mode neatly describes the state of mind needed to make the final decision to do almost anything bold and committing. Thinking as a human fades away, replaced by processing as a machine. I’m here, I’m ready, I want to do this, and I’m doing it now. The time for questions is passed, already processed. All that is left is to turn the decision into action. 
Simple huh? But this is the hardest thing for people do actually do. There is a block right at the point machine mode is needed. The fearful, doubting human thoughts refuse to be switched off, and nothing happens. Rationalisation follows, and the moment is gone.
I managed to ask Karina about this after her talk. Could anyone master this machine mode? I’ve often asked myself this. For some it seems to come naturally. For others it’s out of reach even if they are actually really trying. Karina’s answer was surprisingly direct. She thought you could either do it or you couldn’t. Reassuring I suppose, as if you can’t do it, at least you know it’s because it’s a genuinely hard thing to do.
I must say, I’m not sure whether I totally agree. I certainly agree that most people will never actually manage to master this mental skill. But that it’s beyond possibility I don’t know. I guess I’m naturally resistant to the idea of untrainable performance variables. My personal view is that there is more to it. 
I think a lot of it has to do with how much you actually want to do the thing. Even the most die hard egos crumble doing the most dangerous form of climbing - free soloing. People can do a handful of bold things for ego, attention or status. But it never lasts. To do bold things day in, day out, you need to genuinely love doing the raw activity. If that raw motivation for the activity isn’t there underneath, that might be the real reason for failure. And if you were doing something else that you really did want to do, machine mode would appear. Also, I sometimes feel that even when good motivation is there, it gets clouded by other motives that ultimately get in the way. 
Before concluding that you could never, do something like Karina has, I’d say at least try first of all to reconnect with the raw, basic things that make you want to do that thing, and see what happens.


  1. quick question: once you've manage to switch on this machine/flow mode.

    I can often enter this flow state where nothing else other than the climbing exists, however, the old ego kicks in and thoughts like 'I've almost done it' pop into my head; then its all over...

    How do you stay within the mode and how can you use there negitive thoughts to your advantage?

  2. Excellent post, Dave, thanks for that!
    I share the same question as Dan.
    I too am interested to hear your thought.
    Cheers, Masa