Who's There?

© Dave Pickford
Planet Fear
The following feature is a guest article from Dave Pickford, editor-in-chief of planetFear. It is part of the new series on called Adventure Talks, in which leading climbers and outdoor athletes discuss some of the most challenging questions arising from extreme sports. wish planetFear the best of luck with their re-launch and look forward to their continuing enrichment of the broad tapestry of climbing media.

Planetfear Press Release:

The adventure sports website is being re-launched at the end of July. PlanetFear 3.0 will be driven by the latest web programming technology, enabling a host of exciting new features including video streaming, stunning photo galleries, blogs by high profile climbers and adventure athletes that can be instantly updated via text message, podcasts, and a completely new section with detailed information on conditions and from local experts around the world. PlanetFear will continue to publish outstanding features on a range of extreme sports, from climbing to mountain biking, and from adventure racing to backcountry skiing.

For more than a century, mountaineers and adventurers have been aware that unusual phenomena can take place when the body is subject to conditions of exceptional physical hardship. The combined effects of altitude, malnourishment, exposure to extreme temperatures, and sleep deprivation can generate types of brain activity that are most often associated with illnesses such as schizophrenia, or the use of hallucinogenic drugs such as lysergic acid (LSD). Reports of extra-sensory perception, out-of-body experiences, ghostly doubles, synaesthesia (a condition in which senses merge to the effect of 'seeing' sounds or 'hearing' shapes), disembodied voices, and spectral visions are frequent in mountaineering literature. Adventure and expedition racers, too, are aware of these visions, which most often occur at night under intense fatigue, and have given them a no-nonsense name - 'sleepmonsters'.

Today, living in an age of science, most will correctly attribute such phenomena to the extreme environmental and physiological factors outlined above. You don't need to be an expert psychologist to deduce that goblins and little green men don't hold much sway in this argument. In fact, the Franciscan friar and scholastic philosopher William of Ockham (1288 – 1345) might have been able to tell us why mountaineers and adventure athletes see weird things in the night back in the fourteenth century, when he developed a radical concept of sceptical logic now known as Occam's Razor – 'entity should not be multiplied without necessity'. This was a revolutionary idea and at the centre of one of the most dramatic intellectual debates of medieval Europe. For the purposes of this argument, Occam's Razor would indicate that although that nocturnal apparition on the mountain could be a 'real' ghoul or monster, it is highly likely not to be, and you should look carefully for a proper explanation for its existence before deciding that it is. Ockham's deduction on the subject would run approximately thus: climb mountain, get cold, get hungry, don't sleep, see gremlin – QED.

The magnetic allure of the Himalaya: looking east from the high Khumbu towards Kanchenjunga (8586m) and Jannu (7710m)
© Dave Pickford

But the conclusion isn't always that simple. For climbers and adventurers of the past, who were often influenced by the superstitions of a pre-scientific age still dominated by Christian thought, it was often impossible to discredit supernatural activity when an 'inexplicable' event took place in the mountains. The Romantic concept of the Sublime was also highly instrumental in this process, and it strongly affected some of the key figures in the history of alpine climbing.

In 1865, at the centre of what is sometimes called the Golden Age of alpinism in Europe, Edward Whymper saw brocken spectres (enlarged projections of a person's shadow on the cloud) whilst descending the Matterhorn, following the deaths of four of his companions in the famous accident after the first ascent. He afterwards recounted the effect with the supernatural sensibilities that took hold of him as it appeared:

“...lo! A mighty arch appeared, rising above the Lyskamm high into the sky. Pale, colourless, and noiseless... this unearthly apparition seemed like a vision from another world, and almost appalled we watched with amazement the development of two vast crosses, one on either side... The spectral forms remained motionless. It was a fearful and wonderful sight, unique in my experience, and impressive beyond description, coming at such a moment.” (from “Descent of the Matterhorn” in Scrambles Amongst The Alps)

Whymper - in a heightened emotional state after the climb on which four of his comrades perished - understandably found it difficult to perceive a natural optical effect in scientific terms, but saw it as laden with supernatural meaning. Whymper, in fact, didn't experience any visual hallucination as such, but he perceived a visual effect common to the high mountains in an extra-sensory manner, as a result of his experiences in that environment. This might confirm a link between the experience of wild places and a strong spiritual awareness, a subject which is extensively discussed in relation to indigenous peoples across the world by Jay Griffiths in her groundbreaking book Wild (Penguin, 2006).

That wider connection between wilderness experiences and spiritual understanding predates the existence of mountaineering by at least two thousand years: many Buddhist ascetics such as Jetsun Milarepa (c.1052 – 1135 AD), the great Tibetan yogi and poet, spent years living in caves in the high Himalaya in the pursuit of mediation and nirvana, a state of enlightenment free from worldly suffering and desire. Many colourful myths and legends surround Milarepa's life, including a tale in which he catapults himself to the summit of Mount Kailash (the mountain in Tibet held most sacred by Buddhists and Hindus).

The roof of the world has been the focal point of the lives of generations of mountaineers
© Dave Pickford

However, a particular anecdote concerning Milarepa's meditation in the cave of Drakar Taso, near Pelgyeling Gompa in Tibet, lends force to the argument about the relationship between mountaineering and out-of-body experiences, extra-sensory perception, and related phenomena. It is well documented by various Tibetan texts that whilst meditating in Drakar Taso, Milarepa subsisted for long periods on nettle tea along, and wore nothing but a thin shirt, even in winter (when the temperature in the region plummets to more than minus thirty degrees centigrade). The length of these mediations remains unknown. In practise, it seems unlikely they would have lasted more than a few days. However, it is clear from all available sources that Milarepa had an extraordinary ability to regulate his own temperature, by practicing a form of yoga that allegedly generates body heat. Did the extreme temperatures, fasting, and sleep deprivation Milarepa endured (hardships familiar to the modern, alpine-style mountaineer) lead to unusual phenomena such as out-of-body experiences and extra-sensory perception? Did his experience of such phenomena then contribute strongly to his creativity, and his influence as a writer, thinker, and mystic?

A stupa on the plains of high Tibet in midwinter when temperatures often plummet to more than minus thirty degrees Celcius
© Dave Pickford

Peter Matthiessen, one of the most interesting wilderness writers of the twentieth century, describes his own experience of synaesthesia and spiritual awakening in the remote Inner Dolpo region of northwestern Nepal in the classic account of his journey there in autumn 1973, The Snow Leopard:

“These rocks and mountains, all this matter, the snow itself, the air - the earth is ringing. All is moving, full of power, full of light.”

Although not a climber himself, Matthiessen's sense of the transformative power of the high mountain environment is curiously similar to that conveyed in the writings of notable mountaineers. Rheinhold Messner, one of the most prolific and successful Himalayan climbers of all time, observed some of the effects detailed in my opening paragraph on his landmark 1982 solo ascent, without oxygen, of Everest's North Ridge.

“Is that someone talking nearby? Is somebody there? Again I hear only my own heart and breathing. And yet here they are again... I jump frequently because I believe I hear voices. Perhaps it is Mallory and Irvine [the two English climbers who perished hereabouts on their remarkable 1924 attempt on the mountain – ed] With my knowledge of the circumstances surrounding their disappearance, now each noise brings a vision alive in me... I gaze at the second step and already two beings rear up in me, release phantoms; in the driving mist everything seems so near, ghostly.” (from The Crystal Horizon)

At the other end of the scale, desert travellers have also encountered unusual psychological phenomena, induced by extreme heat
© Dave Pickford

Brooding clouds herald a gathering storm over the 1200-metre bulk of the Russian Tower, Ak Su Valley, Kyrgyzstan.
© Dave Pickford
Messner's sense of spectral company high on Everest has been echoed by other climbers, including Britain's Stephen Venables (who made the first British ascent of the mountain without oxygen). This experience of extra sensory perception involving a ghostly 'other' seems quite common to climbers pushing the sport's boundaries in the Greater Ranges. In October 2007, Russian climbers Valery Babanov and Sergey Kofanov made an extremely impressive alpine-style ascent of the West Pillar of Jannu in the Nepal Himalaya. In his recent article in Alpinist 24, Babanov powerfully recounts his experience of returning to the glacier in the dark after their epic climb:

“One o'clock in the morning. I feel as though I'm watching ourselves from the outside: two worn out and tortured beings, barely able to move their feet, float along the glacier like ghosts... Music has been playing in my head for several hours... I think someone is walking beside us.”

Babanov's out-of-body experience, although remarkable, is by no means unique in mountaineering circles. The legendary Polish climber Voytech Kurtyka and his Austrian partner Robert Schauer had a similar experience during their epic descent off Gasherbrum IV in 1986, after the first ascent of The Shining Wall.

The fact that Babanov and Kofanov had only eaten a few muesli bars in the previous three days, and that they'd been on the move for nineteen hours strait when they reached the glacier (compounding the fatigue of ten consecutive days on the mountain) are the most likely contributing factors to those supernatural experiences at the end of their Jannu climb.

That evidence, although persuasive in confirming the causes of mountain ghost-sightings, still doesn't answer the question of why climbers and adventure athletes encounter phantoms and hear strange voices in the night. For a more specific explanation of the neurological causes of such phenomena, we might turn to the groundbreaking research done in September 2006 by Shahar Arzy and colleagues of the University Hospital, Geneva, Switzerland:

“[We] reproduced an effect strongly reminiscent of the doppelgänger phenomenon via the electromagnetic stimulation of a patient's brain. Focal electrical stimulation to a patient's left temporo-parietal junction [the part of the brain where the temporal lobe and parietal lobe meet– ed] was applied while she lay flat on a bed. The patient immediately felt the presence of another person in her "extrapersonal space." Other than epilepsy, for which the patient was being treated, she was psychologically fit.”

Dr. Arzy has suggested that the left temporo-parietal junction of the brain evokes the sensation of self image - body location, position, posture etc. When it is disturbed, the sensation of self-attribution is broken and may be replaced by the sensation of a foreign presence or copy of oneself nearby. The Swiss psychologist Olaf Blanke has also suggested that the right temporo-parietal junction is important for the spatial location of the self, and that when these normal processes go awry, an out-of-body experience may arise.

Icicles in a cave in the French Alps in deep midwinter.
© Dave Pickford

Did Milarepa, mediating and fasting in his cave in the depths of the Tibetan winter, effect this region of his brain in a manner which enabled him to regulate his body temperature and fend off hypothermia? Did the brocken spectres Whymper saw on the Matterhorn in 1865 induce a reaction in his temporo-parietal junction, spurred on by fatigue and anxiety, which lead him to perceive them as supernatural visions? What exactly happened in Messner's head, alone up there on the north ridge of Everest in 1983? And what about the brain chemistry of Kurtyka and Schauer, descending Gasherbrum IV after surviving those famished, storm-bound days at almost 8000 metres? And Babanov and Kofanov, accompanied by that spectral being on the glacier after their epic 2007 climb of Jannu's West Pillar: what caused it to appear within their exhausted minds?

Clearly, any serious field research on this subject would involve a highly ambitious and risky data-collection project: monitoring the brain activity of mountaineers and adventurers as they stretch the limits of endurance in the most hostile environments imaginable. It is of course possible these conditions could be simulated in a laboratory. But due to the unconventional nature of the subject of enquiry, it is unlikely that an experiment which attempted to artificially generate such extreme conditions would produce any meaningful results.

It seems likely, then, that a detailed medical study of the combined effects of altitude, fatigue, exposure, and sleep-deprivation on the temporo-parietal junction regions of the brain could produce some extremely interesting results, and would provide a formidable challenge to a combined team of psychologists and neuroscientists. It is also clear that the psychological disturbances affecting mountaineers and adventurers at the limits of their endurance remain fundamentally mysterious in their nature and origin. Like the most penetrating ghosts of fiction, they hover at the very edge of our senses, disappearing as effortlessly as they arrive.

Morning light on Makalu (8462m), the world’s fifth highest mountain, in the Nepal Himalaya.
© Dave Pickford

Further Reading:

"Transient High Altitude Neurological Disorder: An Origin in the Temporoparietal Cortex" (High Altitude Medicine & Biology)

"Why Have Revelations Occured on Mountains? Linking Mystical Experiences and Cognitive Neuroscience" (Medical Hypothesis Vol 25, Issue 5)

"Out of Body Experience and Arousal" - (Neurology, Issue 10, Vol 68)

More information

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15 Jul, 2008
15 Jul, 2008
I haven't read it yet, but I think those photos are the best I can remember seeing in any of your articles. They're the shit.
16 Jul, 2008
These sorts of experiences are also known to fact when crossing the Bay of Biscay in a moderate gale with a very rough sea, at night, after 5 days at sea and 24hrs awake I distinctly heard the Treorchy Male Voice Choir...just the wind. It might have been a 'micro-sleep' but the way I perceived it at the time it was a hallucination. Shortly afterwards another member of the crew hallucinated a fully rigged sailing vessel and talked about it so I owned up too! There then followed an interesting discussion about what we were experiencing and how it was well known amongst yachtsmen, something I didn't realise until then. Cold, fatigue, apprehension (crossing shipping lanes at night in bad weather, 18 hours after inexplicably not being struck by vast lightning bolts) and lack of sleep. Sounds like similar experiences to those described in this article.
17 Jul, 2008
No mention of the local one You mean the Yeti-Wock? YETI-WOCKY (with apologies to Lewis Carroll) ‘Twas winter, and the mountaineers Did stamp and stumble through the hills: All frozen were the classic lines, The Tower Ridge all clear. Beware the Yeti-Wock, my son! The Bheinn will bark, the claws may catch! Beware the dinner plate and shun The falling rock, the careless foot. He took his trusty axe in hand And risked the manxome foe, So rested he at Minus Three, And stood awhile in thought. There as in numptish thought he stood, The Yeti-Wock with eyes of flame, Came cramponing through Minus Two And murmured as he came! One, two! One, two! And through and through He thrust his axe and nailed the route, He staked his claim and with a name He came abseiling home. And has thou slain the Yeti-Wock? Come to my arms, you mountaineer! O bright clear day! The white neve! He chortled in his joy. ‘Twas winter, and the mountaineers Did stamp and stumble through the hills: All frozen were the classic lines, The Tower Ridge all clear.
23 Jul, 2008
"It is also clear that the psychological disturbances affecting mountaineers and adventurers at the limits of their endurance remain fundamentally mysterious in their nature and origin" Mysterious only in that they are not fully understood - there's nothing supernatural going on.
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