A Simple State of Mind: Climbing with Daniel Joll, NZ Alpinist of the Year
By Nick Allen 4/10/2018 10:04 am

Summit of Punta Herron, Patagonia. From left: Alastair McDowell, Caleb Jennings and Dan Joll - Credit, NZ Alpine Team

Daniel Joll finds peace on some of the world’s most challenging and dangerous alpine routes. As a founding member of the New Zealand Alpine Team and a world-leading alpinist, Dan finds that “climbing is a very nice way to have a peaceful mind."

Dan is quick to add that maintaining a peaceful mind is easier said than done. He likes to give an example. Most of us don’t think much of jumping up on the kitchen table or standing on the edge of a bench. “But what if the bench was 1,000m off the ground,” Dan asks, “could you do the same thing then?” 

Many of us couldn’t. Our minds would be a screaming tangle of worst-case scenarios, leaving us paralyzed with a fear of falling. For an elite climber, however, this response is not an option. Even in the most dangerous scenarios, climbers must maintain complete focus and a peaceful mind. “And that’s the skill of a really good mountaineer,” Dan continues. “You do it 10,000 times in the course of five days, where any wrong step or movement and you’ll be dead.” 

Loosing complete focus

As a climber edges towards the limits of their experience, ability or endurance, they risk entering “the zone.” According to Dan, the zone is the place you’re most likely to lose focus, where the mind becomes gripped with either fear or a dangerously flippancy.  

Rappeling down a gendarme on the Southwest Pillar of Lobouche, Nepal - Credit, NZ Alpine Team

For example, Dan recently spent three days completing a highly technical traverse of a ridge in Chamonix, France. On the third day, Dan and his team had to down-climb a loose and challenging ridge. He was tired, began rushing and made several poor footing choices. Fortunately, he was able to catch himself each time.

Upon reflection, Dan realised that he was focused on keeping up with the others, rather than focusing on safely down-climbing. In his exhaustion, he had become flippant. “I was annoyed at myself for letting it happen,” Dan commented.

Finding a simple focusDan Joll, climbing the Stove Leg Cracks on the Nose, Yosemite - Credit, NZ Alpine Team

According to Dan, climbing is all about being completely in the moment. To navigate the distracting dangers of flippancy and fear, Dan draws on the past. He explains: “I cope with this kind of fear and mental fatigue by ensuring I have a large bank of positive experiences and trying experiences to draw down on.” 

Mentally referencing the positive and negative lessons learned in similar situations, the past provides him with the direction he needs and frees him to focus entirely on the present. From experience, Dan knows that “you build up those lessons over a long period of time. You build them up by taking baby steps.” The countless hours spent practicing in a more controlled environment allow him to remain entirely focused on the complex and difficult routes he is famous for completing. That’s why it is so important to consistently engage in the correct types of training.

While Dan regularly takes on ambitious climbing objectives, he also maintains a peaceful mind by seeking to enjoy each moment in the mountains. The mountains are his source of inspiration: “The end goal is to enjoy [being outside], not to die, and to challenge yourself.” Refusing to focus on the summit, or on keeping up with everyone else, Dan adds, “It’s irrelevant where anyone else is at.” 

“To be completely concentrated on what you do, 
that is simplicity” -- Shunryu Suzuki

Through it all, Dan reinforces the importance of mental and physical rest. “It’s pretty hard to head out and do something that’s actually dangerous… if you are not feeling both mentally and physically fresh.” For Dan, rest revolves around eating well and spending time with his family. At this time of the year, you’ll find Dan resting with his kids, picking mushrooms and berries in the mountains of Chamonix.  

Dan's favourite meals: Expedition | Mixed Berry Breakfast  and ***Expedition | Moroccan Style Wild Venison .

We at Radix Nutrition admire Dan’s passion for the mountains and for training up the next generation of climbers. That’s why we are proud to support and feed Dan and the New Zealand Alpine Team as their Official Nutrition Partner.

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Words: Nick Allen

Images: Dan Joll and the NZ Alpine Team