Why Climb? A Psychological Conundrum

words by Dylan de Castro
illustration by Andrew Sutherland

Featured in issue 40 (March–May 2012) of SA Mountain.

I’m thirty metres up, clinging to yet another crimper with sweat cascading from every pore of my body and what feels like neat vodka coursing through my veins.

My next clip is just out of reach and the only hold in sight is a lonesome ol’ sloper offering just as much purchase as the moss-strewn pinch beside it. Hesitation sets in; my left leg goes spastic and my eyes dart around like a mental patient in search of an escape – a ledge, a pocket, a concealed jug – anything but that friggin’ sloper that’s bound to send me hurtling toward that jagged spike of granite I was graciously resting on just a minute ago. But there’s nothing. It’s either that poor excuse for a hold, my only hope in hell of salvation, or a lethal whipper that’s sure to see me living out the rest of my days in a wheelchair . . .
This scene is by no means unique. Climbers face this scenario fairly often, not so? Risk and fear are very much intertwined with our experiences at being tied to the sharp end. For us, it is part and parcel of the sport; it’s the essence of our obsession. And save for the few seasoned die-hards who seem to defy the limits that regular climbers are bound by, it can get downright frightening – but we love it!
The average non-climbing person, by contrast, cringes at the mere thought of dangling from a cliff side with nothing but fresh air under their feet. To them, the pursuit of climbing seems like a death wish. Can we blame them? After all, climbing is dangerous, no matter how reliable we deem our skills and tools to be. Sure, technology has evolved in leaps and bounds since our forefathers began plodding up peaks in nailed boots with only a few lengths of hemp rope and a handful of battered pitons for protection. Modern equipment can hoist a small hatchback, protection is ‘bombproof’ and detailed topos allow us to better prepare ourselves for the climb ahead. Nevertheless, gear does fail and people do make mistakes. ‘Not me,’ you say. Ah, but don’t we all?
According to reports by the Mountain Club of South Africa, to date there have been 83 rock climbing accidents in the Western Cape – a figure contributing to eight per cent of the total number of mountain-related fatalities in the region – which just goes to show that things can and do go wrong in the hills. Then again, literature and legend are perhaps all we need to be reminded of the risks involved in our sport.
So why do we climb? What is it that lures us to this perilous pastime like moths to an open flame? Why do we continue to chalk-up and venture into the void in spite of the risks and very real dangers we may encounter along the way? Psychologists claim to know the answers to these questions, and although there may be some truth to their theories, I beg to differ.
Apparently, studies have discovered a strong link between risk-taking and arousal, the mechanisms of which are akin to that of a drug-rush, a ‘natural high’ if you will. As soon as we perceive danger, our adrenal glands shoot a surge of adrenalin through our body, our blood vessels contract, our heart rate goes ballistic and we feel a sense of exhilaration. Experts believe that while most people avoid this sensation at all costs, others – climbers – get hooked on it. Now you know as well as I do that as great as this ‘rush’ feels, there’s more to climbing than getting high (pun intended).
Other theories propose that climbing has a substantial impact on self-esteem. The process of encountering, challenging and overcoming risk enhances a climber’s trust in his competence and positively influences his perception of self, particularly in terms of competitiveness, perfectionism and overall life satisfaction. So, in a way, what these theories suggest is that we use climbing as a means to boost our ego, which, come to think of it, makes some sense. Ever notice how quickly a session at the wall or crag lifts the spirit? However, the same benefits can be derived from other activities like acing an exam or closing a big business deal, so this still doesn’t accurately explain why we climb.
As expected, there are also some researchers that cast us a disapproving frown. They regard our behaviour as hazardous in an attempt to foretell of our eventual fate, as if to say, ‘We told you so’ if things do go wrong, not only in the mountains but also in our everyday lives. Their theories propose that, regardless of skill levels, we climbers seek thrill and adventure and are therefore more susceptible to boredom and disinhibition. Furthermore, due to so-called ‘high levels of sensation-seeking’, we are more likely to underestimate risk and potential danger. What? Bollocks! Just like everybody else, we don’t cross a street without looking twice, and we sure as hell don’t underestimate the potential perils involved in scaling mountains. If anything, we’re more aware of our surroundings and overtly cautious of any threats they may pose to both ourselves and our partners, and we extend this awareness into our other day-to-day activities. Are we prone to boredom? Maybe, but isn’t everyone? Disinhibition? Give anyone a couple o’ dops and see what happens. Looking for adventure? You betcha!
Perhaps the difference between non-climbers and climbers is exactly that – we need adventure. We feel bogged down by the monotony of the nine to five grind and climbing offers us the antidote – freedom, spontaneity and excitement. It helps tip the scale in favour of preserving our sanity in this capitalist society. That said, gardeners and chess masters make similar claims, so employing a risky sport like rock climbing for the sake of mental wellbeing cannot be the main reason we climb.
It’s also possible that we’re not actually all that different to non-climbing folk. As one researcher puts it, risk-taking is engaging in any activity with an uncertain outcome, and just about everyone does it. Asking a gorgeous lass out on a date, giving a speech to a room full of people, confronting an abusive bonehead at the local pub – all entail uncertain outcomes which present varying degrees of risk. Some scientists, like Frank Farley, Ph.D., former president of the American Psychological Association, viewed risk-taking as a crucial catalyst for success. He claims that the energy that spurs us on to climb may be the same force that pushes people to embark on extraordinary feats like running for president, leading an environmental-rights movement or starting a company.
With so much speculation surrounding the psychological traits of rock climbers, it’s obvious that science has yet to provide a definitive explanation for our risk-taking behaviour. ‘Why climb?’ is a question that remains to be answered, and therein lies the irony, for in asking this question we may never arrive at the answer, because there isn’t one. We could break it down to basics and consider the fundamental objective of climbing, which is to reach the top of a pitch or mountain peak, but to say this would be like saying people play football to beat their opponent, or that they run a marathon to reach the finish line. Indeed, it is not the end, but rather the means that makes all the difference.
Skepticism aside, it may very well be our compulsion to ride the pulse of adrenalin, boost our ego and escape the hum-drum of everyday life that drives us skyward, but amongst these motives lies something deeper, something that strikes a different chord within the hearts of all who relish those precious moments spent on rock. Our experience of the sport and the way we perceive it is unique to each and every one of us, and our motivation to pursue it does not require validation or approval from anyone. Psychologists and non-climbers can argue that we’re a bunch of careless, narcissistic adrenalin junkies, but we know better. Perhaps this is why Mallory proclaimed that he wished to climb Everest simply ‘because it’s there,’ because he too knew that there was no other rational explanation for his undertaking, or at least one that regular folk could fathom. Or maybe he was just in it for the view. Either way, I bet he got a kick out of it, and that’s a good enough reason to climb in my books. How about you?

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