Nina Caprez: make it or break it!
Nina is a world-class rock climber who approaches life in a simple way based on having fun, being authentic and giving back. In this conversation we talk about fear, compassion, recovery and physical health.
8 min read
Nina Caprez was the first pro climber coming up to my mind when I decided to start these series of conversations about mental wellbeing with outdoor athletes. It must have been the idea I shaped through years of reading content and news about her: approachable, committed, authentic and fun. Of course, she said yes right away.
In this conversation we go straight to the grain and talk about key moments of her life, mindset, values and the relationship between rock climbing and who she is today.
With these series I aim to uncover the mental skills and thinking patterns developed by different athletes and outdoors people, because I really believe that the outdoors teaches us a great deal about ourselves. I’m really stocked to open the Mental Walls interviews with Nina. Enjoy, learn and share!
When and why did you start rock climbing? What made you embrace this sport and stay motivated through all these years until now?
I started climbing by the age of 13 during a youth camp of the Swiss Alpine Club. I got addicted right away… This mixture of excitement, fear, unknown and climbing towards the sky made me feel good. Since then it has been the red line in my life.
What was your mental health awareness and/or education like while you grew up?
I grew up in a mountain valley in Switzerland. We had an old house, sheep, ducks and a dog. Surrounded by our farmers and cows, I picked up apples when walking to school. I played a lot in the forest, building tree cabins and being the princess of my own world of imagination.
Has this now changed?
Well, I somehow grew up in a healthy bubble in this valley. But as soon as I started travelling I realised that the world works differently and that we also had our issues in this tight valley.
I still have this sensibility towards nature, colours, smells… the things mother nature gives us and how precious they are. I’ve always been a very simple person and I don’t need much to be happy.
I was sorry to know that you lost your dad earlier in your life. How did this impact your personal and climbing life? Was climbing a medium for easing the pain or, on the contrary, it was hard to find the motivation to do it?
I lost my dad by the age of 2 and a half, so consciously I don’t have many memories. The lack of a strong male presence had a huge influence on my entire life. I struggle with authority, I feel tight as soon as I feel that my independence goes away and I certainly have a weird image of men in general. Loving a man has never been as pure and sincere as loving a female person in my life (believe me, I’m not homosexual! 😉 ) Things I’m working on…
Climbing-wise it might have had a positive influence: I was taught from really young to be responsible for my life, acts, decisions… I always assumed the responsibility for what I did in life. I’ve never been in the role of the victims and maybe I have a special connection with death. It’s something I’m not afraid of at all.
Beth Rodden recently spoke about her need to rebuild her relationship with climbing after her divorce. Have you had any similar experiences?
Well, when Cedric and I broke up in 2014 I had to rebuild and nourish my real friendships. Climbing-wise I felt insecure right before our rupture but then I simply followed my heart and took my path, which made me feel more satisfied.
In February 2016 you fell seriously sick when a parasite infected your body during a climbing trip in Turkey. This took you to hospital, heavily impacting your body and forcing you to stop "normal" life for a few months. How did this affect your mindset?
It had a big influence all over. I feel more compassion for weak people now and I became kinder. Having a healthy body is a big gift now, while before I wasn’t able to see this. This illness was the key to detach from performance, numbers, etc. Now I only climb what makes sense to me regardless of what other people think is good or less good.
What role did climbing play on your recovery towards a healthy, "functioning" life?
Well, to be honest, when I was very ill, unable to move around, the only thing I had in mind was to be in the mountains...being able to sleep somewhere out there in my warm sleeping bag and watching the sky full of stars. My wish was not to climb hard again, simply to be in the middle of the mountains.
This wish was my motivation to gain a fit body again. I also have to say, that our community is simply amazing. I got sooooo many messages from people all over the world. I realised how much the community gave me back and at some point I wanted it also for them. I wanted to shine again, to dance on rocks and to show that life is a big gift, and that we should enjoy every single moment of it.
Being a professional climber and having experienced the loss of physical ability, how did you face the times where you didn’t perform the way you expected? Did you fear never be able to physically perform the way you did prior to falling sick?
I’m not afraid of what or where life brings me. I’m confident. Everything has a reason. If we fully live the moment, we have this sensibility to adapt, changing things...
How did you deal with the worry of falling ill again when travelling to “less safe” countries?
I’m not afraid of all. I know that I got this parasite because I was fragile in life. I found myself in the longest “self-questioning period” ever and this illness was a sign. Today I deeply feel guilty it happened to me at this point in life.
In your blog you talk about "getting more familiar with that other Nina, the one that breaks down sometimes" and how you learned to manage the different "voices" within you. What do you think about the pressures we put onto ourselves to be perceived as strong, independent and successful, especially now with social media?
It’s a personal choice. In the past, I refused to be weak, to show vulnerability, to be human. Since then I know that I also struggle a lot and that it’s ok. It’s up to me to show as much as I want through social media, my blog, etc.
I figured out for myself the public image I wanna show and the things I wanna keep private. I feel very balanced with that system and don’t feel pressure or so.
In your interview at the Enormocast Podcast in 2015 you talk about how you don't fear the massive run-outs in grades you feel comfortable. It's like you intentionally switch off the bad thoughts and worries to just focus and trust your capabilities. Is this how you manage fear in tricky situations, in and outside of climbing?
Like I told you before, I’m not a person which feels irrational fear. Climbing between bolts, run-outs, etc. are not real fears to me. That feeling is an alarm; it fully opens all my senses and that’s why I feel so alive while climbing. Rational fears are when you live in the middle of a war, or something similar.
Life and climbing values and ethics are an integral part of your vision. What would you say are the values and mental skills that rock climbing has given to you and have shaped the way you approach life?
Of course! Trust: in your partner and in yourself. Respect: towards nature, partners and yourself. Believing in the good side of things and being positive: I can turn every single situation into positive. Learning: we never ever know everything. The more you’re open, the more you will be able to learn and you feel enriched in life.
We've seen you joining the "Rolling Rock" by the ClimbAID initiative, which "aspires to achieve impact on individual and social level" through bouldering in refugee camps in Lebanon. What's your view on how rock climbing and similar activities can positively impact people's physical and mental wellness?
Because during climbing we can share those values and this means a lot to refugees, for example. It’s an easy way to be focused and to work together, to fail in a “soft way” and to try again in a way that may lead to success.
Last year you spent a few weeks in the big wall with legend Lynn Hill, commemorating 25 years from the free ascent of The Nose. What did you take from that experience? What did you learn from her way to approach challenges?
The time I spent with Lynn was one of the best schools in life. When you’re around her, you feel like a better person and that’s what I also wanna give to people around me. Lynn is this kind of person who daydreams and that’s inspiring. On top of that, she has this beautiful self-irony which makes her just adorable.
What would be your personal tip for people to climb their own mental walls?
Simplement essayer… ça passe ou ça casse! (Simply try… make it or break it!)