This Is What Happens When You're Forced to Unplug

I'm as addicted to my phone as anyone. Could three weeks in Madagascar without service provide some sort of lasting digital renewal?

Sasha DiGiulian and Edu Marin get ready to climb Mora Mora (5.14b, 8c) on the remote massif domes of Tsaranoro in Madagascar. (Francois Leabeau/Red Bull Conten)
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When was the last time you went a day, maybe even a week, without your phone?

Before this month, I would’ve had to think hard to answer that question. I use Instagram daily. I post a photo every day, whether to communicate where I am, share my mood, or bring back a fond memory. It’s crucial brand building.

Late last year, I noticed a new habit: When my alarm clock went off in the morning, my thumbs would automatically migrate to Instagram or Twitter. Minutes after my alarm, I was already adjusting brightness and contrast filters on a photo or scrolling through a feed of others’ photos, windows into their lives.

This New Year’s Eve, I made a resolution to myself: One day a week I would unplug from my phone and the internet for a full 24 hours. It shouldn’t have been hard, yet I found myself dumbfounded when choosing which day to dedicate to this cleansing. During the week, my emails piled up. On weekends, I wanted to make plans with friends. My resolution fell through the cracks, week after week.

Then, involuntarily, I went three weeks without my phone on a big-wall climbing project in Madagascar.

The climb, Mora Mora, an 8c in Tsaranoro Valley, is situated in the heart of the island. Here, life is as the route is called in English—slow and steady.

Upon landing, my phone read “no service.” Having traveled around the world with an international cell plan, I figured it would just be a matter of time before the phone got online with the local provider. I turned the device off, reset it, and waited. During this time, my climbing partner and I boarded a bus to ride 16 hours toward Mora Mora. My phone never found service.

At home, my phone is how I tell time. Yet as we spent days on the wall, from sunrise to sunset, I learned to gauge the time by the sun’s relation to the wall. All we were doing was eating, sleeping, hiking, and climbing. Our focus was on what exactly we were doing each moment. The specific hours became less important.

Free from any sort of electronic device, I didn’t stress about posting on social media or responding to emails, and I didn’t fall prey to any sort of FOMO. On the portaledge, we lay in our sleeping bags and counted shooting stars or listened to animal noises thousands of feet below as we sipped whiskey.

When I got back from Madagascar, I bought a watch to preserve some of this independence. Now I don’t use the phone as my alarm clock, and I don’t have to check it constantly to tell the time, though it is still my connection to work and friends. It’s a baby step, but hey, it’s a start.

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