Climbing And The Persistent, If Irrational, Fear Of Falling

A curious experience in roped climbing (whether on auto-belay, top-roped climbing, or following a leader on a multi-pitch route) is the presence of instinctive fears that should have no rational basis for persistence. Like the fear of falling, for instance.  There you are, tied in with your faithful figure-eight knot into your climbing harness, which is snug around your waist, connected to your belayer who is clipped and locked into the belay loop. The knots are good, the gear works, your belayer has you; you cannot fall. And yet, as you step out to make a move that requires some balance, or that might not offer the best grip, you experience a sudden sickening sensation; you are afraid; you become aware of the number of feet you are off the ground; you feel your palms grow sweaty, your heart starts to beat a bit faster. You are in trouble.

You aren’t. But you feel it anyway. Old habits and instincts die hard. I’ve always been terrified by heights, by the sickening vertigo and nausea they induced in me. Overcoming that fear was one of the reasons for my taking up climbing a couple of years ago; I hoped that ‘controlled exposure’ to heights would help me become more familiar with these fears; I would never ‘master’ them but I could learn to work in their presence; perhaps working through some task or problem at hand even while I was afflicted by them. The good news is that these expectations have been borne out by my experiences. Very often, over the last couple of years, I have found myself in places (precarious belay ledges) and situations (negotiating narrow exposed traverses) that would previously have terrified me in incapacitating ways. But the fears are always there, anchored in instincts and reflexes that have hardened over the years.

And so, even when I’m indoors, inside a comfortable climbing gym, tied and clipped in, with nowhere to go in the case of a slip but slowly, smoothly down, riding a rope all the way, when my body senses, even if for only for a micro-instant, that slight absence of security or solidity that signals the earth opening up under my feet, I retreat (or rather, am forced back) to an older me. This particular instinctive reaction will, of course, become familiar in its own way; I will learn to anticipate it, welcome it, live with it. As I never fail to notice during my indoor climbing sessions, when I start climbing for the day, such reactions are at their most visceral, and are attenuated as I continue to climb. Some of the intensity of my instinctive responses then will be tempered, by greater experience; as my body learns that these falls do not end in anything more bothersome than some swinging through air, or a painful bump against an exposed hold (I’m not counting falls taken by lead climbers which can result in serious injuries.)

Of course, by the time I get to that stage, I will have discovered newer fears to work through. And hopefully, improved my climbing.

That Alex Honnold MRI In ‘Free Solo’

One of the most commented on segments of Jimmy Chin and Chai Vasarelyhi‘s ‘Free Solo‘–the film that details Alex Honnold‘s incredible free solo climb of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park–is that of the MRI of Honnold’s brain. This MRI is performed in an attempt to solve the mystery of how Honnold is able to calmly scale a three thousand feet cliff without any ropes or aids, without apparently suffering the terror that would afflict most human beings engaged in any task that approximated Honnold’s feat. We learn that Honnold’s amygdala–the part of the brain supposedly activated by our fear–just doesn’t light up all that much in his case. See? He’s just built differently from us.

But we were also given some psychological insight, of course: Honnold himself is asked how he does it and he offers some interesting introspective takes on it on fear, risk, consequences, and existential choices; other climbers–like Tommy Caldwell and Jimmy Chin–also chime in. And those around Honnold offer us some explanations of his behavior and attempt to determine its psychological foundations.

Such explanations do not satisfy all–especially those who find MRI scans more convincing than verbal reasons for human behavior:

Unfortunately, Free Solo suffers when Vasarhelyi and Chin psychologize Honnold or attempt to explain his drive for death-defying climbs. It’s understandable why the filmmakers would want to examine Honnold’s psyche, given that his Spock-like demeanor and curiously casual approach to soloing does raise certain questions about his mental stability or lack thereof. Yet every “answer” they ascribe to him (or he ascribes to himself) feels pat and unconvincing. Honnold mentions his father, who was emotionally unavailable to Honnold’s mother but also spurred his son’s interest in climbing. He describes his “dark soul” as a child and his “bottomless pit of self-loathing.” There’s some talk about being a loner in school. Yet none of those explanations are as persuasive as an MRI diagnosis that simply concludes he requires more stimulus than most people. Similarly, Free Solo’s fixation on how soloing affects Honnold’s relationship with his girlfriend feels transported from a more banal film altogether. At best, this material is uninteresting filler, and at worst, it’s a distraction

Now, I hate to have to break the news but ‘pat psychologizing is what we do all the time, every single day of our lives. In fact, if we didn’t indulge in it, we wouldn’t know how to live with each other. Think about our language of everyday social, political, and ethical interaction–replete with wants, desires, beliefs, motivations, the whole gamut of psychological attitudes. We use this language all the time to predict and anticipate the reactions of others; we do not go around conducting MRIs to find out what our fellow humans want or desire or believe; we observe their behavior, we ask them questions, we correlate their behavior with their verbal pronouncements for further refinement and we muddle right along. In courts of law, when we want to know why someone did something, we ask them or other human beings to explain their behavior; we don’t cut open skulls or run scans to elicit reasons–though some neuroscientists want to do just that. All of which is to say that there is nothing ‘pat’ about the psychologizing in ‘Free Solo’; we make this assessment at the risk of being similarly dismissive of most of our daily conversation and our best tool for dealing with other humans.

But the attitudes expressed in the review above are not outliers. ‘Pop psychology,’ ‘psychobabble,’ ‘amateur psychologizing’–these are all apparently Bad Things; we should look for more Scientific Explanations. A laudable sentiment, but one which is too caught up in reductionist fantasies to be anything more than grossly misleading. In the realm of human behavior, psychological explanations are useful, elegant, and successful; and it is neuroscientific ones that have a long way to go:

The fundamental problem…is the urge to ‘reduce’ psychology to neuroscience, to reduce mind to brain, to eliminate psychological explanations and language in favor of neuroscientific ones, which will introduce precise scientific language in place of imprecise psychological descriptions.  This urge to eliminate one level of explanation in favor of a ‘better, lower, more basic, more fundamental’ one is to put it bluntly, scientistic hubris….It results in explanations and theories that rest on unstable foundations: optimistic correlations and glib assumptions are the least of it. Worst of all, it contributes to a blindness: what is visible at the level of psychology is not visible at the level of neuroscience. Knowledge should enlighten, not render us myopic.

The urge to rely on neuroscientific explanations is easy to understand: human beings are complicated creatures; we are creatures of biology, culture, and psychology; to understand what makes us tick is hard.  Some pat neuroscientific explanations seem quite tempting. But what at cost? What, if anything, have we learned about Honnold from his MRI that is genuinely useful–especially since that MRI rests upon a series of as yet unconfirmed assumptions?  That ‘pat psychologizing’ that Honnold and those around him indulge in is far more enlightening; they place Honnold’s behavior in the domain of human relationships and motivations, far more comprehensible for us as human beings, and far more amenable to utilization in our future interactions with our fellow human beings.

Climbing The Grand Teton (And Finding Myself At The Top)

In August 2012, my wife and I went on a road-trip through parts of the American southwest and west: New Mexico, Utah, Colorado, Wyoming, and South Dakota were our most prominent destinations. We camped and hiked in several national parks; I made note of some of those experiences here.  Among the national parks we hiked in was Grand Teton National Park; there, we went on a day hike up to Surprise Lake. The views, as promised, were spectacular; we sat by the shores of an alpine lake and gazed at the surrounding peaks and glacial cirques, awed and humbled by the stunning setting for our well-earned picnic lunch. (My wife, by some measure the more enterprising of the two of us, even partook of what seemed like a bone-chilling dip in the waters of Surprise Lake.)

On the way back to the parking lot, we met climbers returning from their ascent of the Grand Teton. I stopped to ask how their climbing had gone; I was curious and envious in equal measure. I knew the views they must have enjoyed would have been even more spectacular than ours; and of course, mountaineers and climbers have always enthralled me with their feats. The climbers enthusiastically responded; they had made it to the summit in good time, and were now headed back to the parking lot for some well-earned rest. When I enquired further about their experience up on the peak, they replied that it had been a ‘totally doable climb; you’ve got to have a head for exposure, of course.’  On hearing this, I turned to my wife and said, “Yeah, that’s why I’ll never climb the Grand.”

I’m scared of heights and have been for as long as I can remember. Even the mention of exposure up on the mountains was enough to send a little chill through my heart. I wanted to see what the views from the summit of the Grand were like; I knew that up on its ridges and faces, I would encounter a spectacular alpine landscape. But it felt beyond my reach; quite simply, I did not have the mental wherewithal to venture into that domain.

This past August, I climbed the Grand Teton in the company of my guide, Chris Brown, (of Jackson Hole Mountain Guides) and another climber, Kirk Nelson. We ascended via the Pownall-Gilkey route, one made easier by the presence of roped slings on its most challenging pitch. There was some exposure but none of it paralyzed me; I had started to accept my unease at being exposed to precipitous cliffs as an inseparable part of the climbing experience.  When I made it to the summit, I was visibly overcome with emotion; at that moment, the feeling of having managed to work through one of the most persistent fears present in my being was among the most powerful I had experienced in a very long time. For I knew that at that moment, I had, in a manner of speaking, found entrance to a new world, one in which I would not be limited by a fear that would hold me back from venturing forth to explore its offerings. I had not imagined that this task was one I was capable of undertaking, but there, on that summit, I had proof of its successful accomplishment.  It was, as the cliche goes, a transformative experience; I saw myself in a whole new light.

Our self-discovery is not merely a matter of introspection; very often, if not always, it requires acts that change, by active construction, the person we are. And could become.


Summits As Virtuous Constraint

This past summer, on July 8th, as noted in a post here, I climbed Long’s Peak in Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park. A minute or so after I stepped on to the summit, grabbed a quick sip of water, and removed my helmet, I shook my guide Rob Smith‘s hand, and thanked him profusely. I was close to being ecstatic. I had risen at midnight, picked up Rob at one am, and started hiking by 2AM. On the approach to the base of the North Face–from where we would pick up the Cables Route–I had been half-asleep, somehow willing myself to keep up with Rob as he motored along. As dawn  broke, and as the imposing massif of Long’s rose up above, I was feeling the effects of having gained some 3000 feet of elevation on an empty stomach and little sleep. The climbing and scrambling sections of the North Face were mercifully easier than that long, rock-and-boulder strewn approach march, and of course, they required more attention to technical detail, which induced its own alertness. Along with these physical sensations was a sense of foreboding and anticipation; I was keeping an eye on the weather for I did not want to be disappointed again. I had made plans to climb Long’s in the summer of 2017 and had been thwarted then–before we could even set foot on the trail. Then, the forecast had made Rob and I change our  plans the night before. Since then, my mind, overcome with disappointment, had immediately begun a downward spiral in the course of which I had kept track of all the summits I had been denied by bad weather conditions: Stok Kangri in 2011, Cotopaxi in 2018, Mt. Washington in 2016 and 2017. I had begun to believe I was jinxed in the mountains, that these twists of fortune only happened to those who were insufficiently prepared, who did not belong in the mountains. Doubt had crept into my mind that when my guides had suggested turning back on each of those routes, they had done so because they did not trust me to ascend successfully.

So when I stepped on the summit, a spell broke. Suddenly, I was reassured that I belonged here. I had been told that ‘Long’s Peak will be still here when you come back next summer’ but I hadn’t taken it to heart. Now, I did.  I had not ‘conquered’ anything, except, of course, for my own doubts and insecurities. And in this state of mind, it had become clear to me too, all over again, that a summit was not a thing to be conquered. Rather, as I saw it in the clear light of that Colorado morning, a summit was a virtuous constraint, one that clarified and organized my life, driving me onwards. The mountains were not a domain in which I went to find success for myself, to find targets to pick off, to rack up ‘kills’ and ‘hits’ and notches on my belt. They were instead, where I could go to accept failure, to reconcile myself to its inevitable presence, in some shape or form, in my life; they would teach me acceptance and forbearance and some measure of stoicism in the face of forces much, much greater than myself. My summit failures had kept on bringing me back to the mountains; they had induced me to train harder, to keep hoping. Yes, I had despaired too, but not entirely. After all, wasn’t I here, in the mountains, all over again?


Acknowledging Prayers Offered On Our Behalf

On 30th July, I hiked up to Corbet High Camp–operated by Jackson Hole Mountain Guides–in Wyoming’s Teton range in the Grand Teton National Park–to begin an attempt to scale the Grand Teton on August 1st. There, at high camp, my climbing partner and I met another pair of climbers, young lads from Louisiana, headed up the Grand the very next morning; we would be sharing camp with them for the afternoon and evening. We chatted and exchanged pleasantries; many notes of excited and nervous anticipation made the rounds; we each confessed to the peculiar state of excitement and apprehension that seemed to possess us. Later, as time for dinner approached, the older of the two lads asked us if we would mind if he offered a ‘mountain blessing’ before mealtime. We said we had no problem with him doing so.

And so our new friend took off his hat and bent his knee in prayer. He asked his Lord and God for protection on this mountain; to aid him with good luck as he attempted to climb the mountain with his cousin; to bless all those he had met today and made friends with and who would also be climbing the mountain; to lay his protective hand over all of them alike. As he spoke, we laid down our spoons and forks and waited; when he had finished speaking, we all thanked him. (I cannot, in this text, recapture my friend’s distinctive Louisiana accent, but it was present, and it added a little touch of the South to the Western alpine setting.)

I’m an atheist; I do not pray. But I was unambiguously grateful for the prayer that had been offered on my behalf; my thanks were sincere. They were so not because I expected benedictions to now flow my way but rather, because I was deeply appreciative of the gesture of kindness that had just been directed at me. I did not doubt the sincerity of the faith of that young man from Louisiana; he believed all right. And if he did, and had the relationship to his faith that I thought he did, then his asking for blessings to be sent my way which would protect me on the mountain and return me safely to my family were an expression of genuine concern and friendship on his part. Up there on that mountainous perch, the majestic Middle Teton and its enormous snowfields clearly visible, I was conscious of my own insignificance in the face of nature’s grandeur and might; my friend’s blessing was a fortification of my humanity in the face of such natural power, it was a reminder that when we climb mountains we always seek to return to those who love and care for us, that friendships and companionship are ever more important on the mountains, that I would need the help of the others to get up and down safely. Acknowledging the sincerity and warmth and these diverse messages of that blessing, the gesture it made, was the only right thing to do. Even for a non-believer.

Climbing The Bastille Crack In El Dorado Canyon

The Bastille Crack in El Dorado Canyon, Colorado is a bonafide classic Colorado climb. Climbing it today–guided by Adam Fisher of Colorado Mountain School–was an absolute pleasure. Five pitches of crack climbing, funky moves, great exposure.

Long’s Peak Ascent Via Cables Route

Long’s Peak summit via Cables Route, July 8th. I began climbing last year; this made for a great beginner’s route. Elementary climbing for a few pitches (max 5.4), 6-mile approach (especially hard when you are half asleep), some funky scrambling on our descent through the Keyhole Route, and 5000 feet of vertical gain all added up to a great day. I went with Rob Smith of Colorado Mountain School; we were on the trail at 2AM, on the summit at 8, and back at the car by 1pm.