Exploring in A Peak State & Appreciating the Process
Unsettled alumni Ryan Nichols is a Nashville-based sustainable building & design entrepreneur, an expert sailboat barista, and an avid mountaineer, who just returned from his second Unsettled: Sailing adventure in the British Virgin Islands. Also an alum from Marrakech, we were lucky to sit down with Ryan to pick his brain about what summiting some of the world’s highest peaks means to him, the value preparing for and experiencing new adventures has brought to his life, appreciating the process, and what it feels like to embrace the unknown in some of the most out-of-this-world corners of the planet.
Look no further for today’s peak inspiration…
What does it feel like to make it to the top of a difficult climb? Do you wish every human on earth could feel that way at least once in their lives?
Climbing has many disciplines, and the overall experience from one to another varies considerably. It is somewhat like comparing a 100 meter sprint to a long relay to a normal marathon to an ultra marathon. For me, mountaineering in more remote environments is the ultimate experience because it usually involves a lot of physical and mental preparation, commitment, physical exertion once you start the climb, and mental focus while climbing. The intense physical/mental aspect may play out for several days or more depending on what your objective is. I have arrived at summits both screaming with elation and so exhausted there was no energy left to spare in that moment. No two have been the same. It’s worth mentioning that most accidents occur coming down, so while the “hard” part might be over at the top, the dangerous part is typically nowhere near being done. Returning back to base camp is when you should really celebrate, but after a good climb we are typically stumbling back to the tent depleted mentally and physically. There is a period of processing after the fact that is very internal and much different than the hollywood vision of standing on a summit cheering.
While it would be disingenuous to discount the significance of summiting, a long climb puts you in a prolonged flow state that is hard to put into words. The approach hiking in before the climb gives you time to hit your mental reset, leave your other life behind, and focus on the goal ahead. Once you are actually climbing you are flowing in and out of periods of sharp mental focus where your and your partner’s life is literally depending on staying present and not making mistakes. Hitting a physical wall, and knowing you have no choice but to push past it, is daunting and exhilarating at the same time. Looking back and realizing you raised your mental and physical bar yet again, to a new level you didn’t know existed previously… that is when you see that you opened up some new doors and discovered part of yourself you didn’t know was there.
So do I wish every human could feel that feeling of internal discovery? Hell yeah. It can be done so many different ways. Climbing is what I found early on that combined my love of nature with my propensity for risk taking and high sensory seeking experiences. I would tell anyone there is no right or wrong way to have this experience, but I am biased towards thinking both the physical and mental component combined are key. Those thresholds are unique to each person, but finding yourself at the brink of each one simultaneously is exponentially more enlightening than pushing them one at a time in my opinion.
What do you get the most fulfillment from — planning for the climb, the climb itself, making it to the top, arriving back down?
Looking back it will always be the climb itself that stands out, but the process is equally as important. From that first phone call to your partner picking an objective, to the months of physical preparation, the mental visualization I often use to motivate to get off the couch and train, and even the recovery and processing after a particularly difficult or scary climb- all of this is part of the experience. A few years back I trained as hard as I ever had for what would be my third trip to Patagonia. I had an ambitious goal picked out and felt as ready as I ever had to do it. The week before I left I tore my ACL doing something completely stupid while skiing. Of course I was disappointed, but I couldn’t believe how easily I let go emotionally. I was prepared to have a rocky ride mentally while recovering, but for the most part I managed to stay focused on appreciating all the hours I put in at the gym, trail running, and getting psyched. Yeah, it was disappointing not getting to put all that hard work to the test, but I had 6 months or more of living in a motivated state and pushing myself physically. The climb is the icing on the cake. The longest part of the journey is all the preparation, and I was able to experience 100% of that. Summits are all well and good, but in an endeavor that has an incredibly high rate of failure (weather, conditions on the mountain, the route being too difficult/dangerous, etc), you have to appreciate the process fully or you will continually be disappointed.
Are you always up for an adventure?
Always. I want to be the first person people call when they have an idea.
What makes you feel the most alive? How do you know when you are feeling that way?
Exploring in a peak state. While I believe this can be achieved anywhere, getting out into a new environment certainly makes it more guaranteed. It could be a new country, a new mountain, or a new person or group of people. Breaking the routine and having all my senses turned up to 100 is as good as life gets.
How did 1 week off, way off, sailing in the BVI challenge you to rethink your routine?
My work week can be intense. When I have several projects happening simultaneously I average around 60 texts and 30 phone calls a day while trying to answer emails, meet clients, and manage workers on my sites. Being able to turn that off completely for a week is priceless. I’ve taken steps in the last year to try and create more time like this throughout the year versus my previous strategy which involved 10 or so months of nonstop work followed by several months running around the world exploring. I still plan on taking long trips too, but building in down time throughout the year has lowered my stress level significantly and increased my productivity and organization when I am working.
Inspired to sign up for your next adventure? Check out where we are living Unsettled this year.