/ ARTICLE: Playing with Fear
Mountaineering instructor Sally Lisle explains the importance of tuning into and understanding the inner-workings of body and mind.
Good read. I'd be lying if I said I didn't enjoy the dopamine hits, but I think a good dose of fear can be genuinely insightful to ones inner workings, if your open to such things, and is like to think that's the main reason I keep getting myself scared
Always loved risk.My main attraction towards climbing and mt biking.
That was a brilliant article Sally, well done.
The point you make about struggling on Left Wall the next day I can totally relate to but am going back to 1986 on North Stack Wall having repeated The Bells, The Bells! No psyche whatsoever and doing it again for photos was absolutely harrowing. Nearing the peg I called over to my photographer Bernard [Newman] to throw me a safety rope ... he missed. I probably should've died that day.
[Blatant plug] If you've not read Punk in the Gym I suggest you do and check out the section on North Stack ....
Thanks again for a great article.
Interesting article. I wonder if anyone has any insight as to how/why certain groups of individuals are more likely/willing to take risks? The obvious example I'm thinking of is young males - they're often cited as being the boldest (/stupidest?!), most willing to take risks (I don't know if there's any evidence to back this up, but it's definitely a commonly heard stereotype). I often hear older climbing partners talking about how they used to take risks that they wouldn't anymore.
Is there any reason chemically that this might be the case? Or is it a purely social thing (i.e. some evolutionary thing about trying to be the 'alpha' or whatever)? Do testosterone levels have an impact on the chemical changes mentioned in the article?
Or is that stereotype just b*****ks?
Interesting stuff but biochemistry is just the easily tested part of the puzzle. Psychologically or intellectually putting yourself into genuine danger opens up a whole objective perspective on life and self, asserts control over your life, puts all the everyday stresses in their place
Strange as I got older I became less fearful.
It happens to many climbers. Some time, as a result of bad bolting (a run-out that is supposed to be easy and you get to a section that gets worse and worse, and you search for something good that is supposed to be there, but none there is, getting pumped meanwhile) you can *get stuck* in a scary situation.
Then, as the article mentions this becomes a memory flashback and fear is established and one can go through a long period of scared climbing. It's a downward spiral.
For me the solution in the end was easier than i thought and it is all about the chemistry of fear: Avoid being stuck for a long time in scary situations. A clipstick helped very much. As soon as i felt the first signs of getting into the fear mode, secure, use the clipstick to clip the next bolt and then climb the "scary" section safely in toprope. Then "moving on" becomes your habit.
Now some people said that if you are a coward you cheat like this and real climbers with bawls don't use a clipstick, etc. My observation has been that spending a long time stuck and scared is the worst thing you can do and thus, this was bad advice. "Move on", either by cheating or abort and dont let fear grow in you.
Also what about fear-removing amphetamines (they have these in the army) or the EMDR rapid eye movement techinque that erases fear paths from the brain? Let us know..
My hunch is that rushing on speed isn't going to be very beneficial when you're scared, run out and trying to climb in balance. (Just my 2p)
A good read. Fear is such a big part of climbing - I've friends who don't climb any more because they got too scared; and it holds me back on many occasions. Mastering your fear is a fantastic experience; being debilitated by it feels awful. What I find most difficult is its unpredictability. I've had fearless days, where I've pushed myself, and days where even the easiest things filled me with dread. I've had days where fear spurred me on, and days where fear froze me to the spot. Gear, holds, tiredness, enthusiasm, partners, weather - all seem to have a part to play. But, despite reflection, my fear and my response to fear remains somehow basically unquantifiable to me. It's the wild card in the deck. The more I think about it, I think it's never something I've enjoyed. Mastering my fear feels fantastic - but fear itself is an albatross around my neck. Positive experiences extend my tolerance and comfort of "scary" situations, but the idea of enjoying fear still seems a little alien to me - to the point where I wonder: does anyone actually enjoy fear, or is it overcoming fear that is enjoyable? Perhaps they seem impossible to separate, but I feel there's a mental and emotional distinction.
> Positive experiences extend my tolerance and comfort of "scary" situations, but the idea of enjoying fear still seems a little alien to me - to the point where I wonder: does anyone actually enjoy fear, or is it overcoming fear that is enjoyable? Perhaps they seem impossible to separate, but I feel there's a mental and emotional distinction.
When I was pretty young (roughly between six and nine) I had a particular experience repeated several times which I found really scary and definitely carried a penalty if things had turned out differently - which they never did. (It wasn't sexual/abusive in any way whatsoever.) In retrospect, I realise that the fear gave me a frisson of pleasure. Not, you will probably say, a good reaction to have at such an early age - and I'd entirely agree. And not one which augured well in a life which had barely begun.
Long ago, fear has ceased to mean any more than useful feedback. If things get really bad, I just seem to go into the zone and cease to feel anything until the danger's over. Then just feel relieved/knackered.
Not perhaps very normal reactions. Not ones that I'm particularly proud of - or ashamed of. Just the way things seem to have evolved.
I'm definitely intrigued, Mick! Were you nicking penny sweets or skipping school or jumping off sea cliffs? No need to answer, but you know how to pique people's curiosity!
When I read scrambling guides or climb with novices or do things at heights, I realise that I'm "acclimatised" to certain kinds of fear because of climbing. But, being scared tends to leave me feeling ashamed rather than elated - to the point of ruining certain experiences, even if I eventually got over it and finished the climb, cleanly. Something to work on, I guess!
Anyway, it's a very timely article, because I'm sure many people will agree that the first climbs of a new year, back on the rock after the bitterest months of winter, are often the scariest!
It's just a rather odd story. It's only in the last few years that I've realised its significance.
When I was a kid, we used to visit the farm where my dad had grown up. Grandparents were about 80. The place was a bit run-down. When I walked round with my grand-dad, he'd take bricks out of the wall and produce half bottles of Bells whisky. He'd have a nip and replace. The well in the orchard was supposed to be bottomless. If you dropped in a brick you could hear breaking glass from about 15 feet down.
They didn't seem to be working the farm any more (the land was pretty crap). For some reason though, they had a goat. I loved animals (still do) and always wanted to see the goat. Problem was that goat was a real nasty bastard. I doubt it was mistreated. Just plain nasty. I was terrified of it - but still wanted to see it.
So off we'd go, my little mitt in my grand-dad's. In his other hand, he had a stick (he was wrecked with arthritis). The odd brick would be removed, along the way. (Note: not for Dutch courage.)
When we got to the goat, the mean bugger would stare at us with evil eyes, paw the ground, lower his head and get ready to charge. I was f*cking terrified. Granddad just stood his ground and stared it out. The stick was clenched in his swoollen knuckles. All three of us knew that, if the goat charged, something really horrible was going to happen. The goat never did charge. He always backed off.
At first I was simply terrified but then (I realise now, decades later) I also began to enjoy the experience. There was a frisson of terror/excitement/enjoyment. The only thing between me and a lot of damage courtesy of that ole goat was an arthritic, alcoholic, 80 year old dude.
I realise now that everyone, apart from me (and, I hope, my granny) was shit-scared of granddad. He was like some old school scary gunfighter. Yeah, he was physically f*cked but mentally he still had it. God knows what he'd done to earn that reputation.
One thing he had done was to put his life right on the line to save someone else's. And, oddly, I've done the same. My maternal granny was a heartachingly warm, lovely, almost saintly woman, whom I feel has influenced me massively. But my partner tells me that, if attacked, I come out with what she calls 'the eyes of stone'. They stop people dead in their tracks; it's like an electric current. It's as though I absorbed something from my maternal granny and something quite different from my paternal grandad.
Sorry - long story. But the frisson of fear/enjoyment has been like doing drugs. Early on, soloing and scary trad fed the habit. I don't think it's at all healthy. For me now, soloing and scary trad would be about an enjoyment of exercising control - what you mention.
I wouldn't be ashamed about fear - it is what it is, it's telling you stuff. In the end, if you do lots and lots of trad, things settle down. All of us find our level, what we're happy with, what we're not.
Thanks for the reply Mick! Great story, very evocative. I got a great sense of your Grandpop - a real character, for sure.
> I wonder if anyone has any insight as to how/why certain groups of individuals are more likely/willing to take risks? The obvious example I'm thinking of is young males - they're often cited as being the boldest (/stupidest?!), most willing to take risks (I don't know if there's any evidence to back this up, but it's definitely a commonly heard stereotype).
I suppose testosterone is the obvious reason. It seems like in many species males need to prove themselves better in order to win a mate so I assume it's probably related to that.
I also saw a documentary about dangerous sports and a guy there reckoned there was a genetic trait that base jumpers shared: something like they all had 11 copies of a certain gene. After reading this article I wonder if that is related to the amount of dopamine released in such persons?
Well written and fascinating subject matter. This is one of the best climbing articles I've come across in a long time. Slightly disappointing to learn that the answer to that almost mystical question, why do we climb, can be reduced to just two chemicals. But it makes perfect sense and the human answer will always be richer and more complicated than the biochemical one.
After reading this I found an interesting article about dopamine and the wider context beyond just climbing. It seems like dopamine, rather than money, is what really makes the world go round.
I was also wondering whether psychopaths would make good climbers. As I understand it the key thing about psychopaths is an underactive amygdala. So if they don't get stressed in dangerous/scary situations that could be a big advantage. But then they presumably wouldn't get the rush of adrenalin either so maybe climbing would just seem boring to them?
Interesting points and what you say about avoiding getting stuck makes sense. But isn't the use of a clipstick just avoiding what you're afraid of, ie. taking lead falls? It seem like the only way to get over that is to take more falls, probably lots of them.
There was a great little video someone posted a short while back on just this topic:
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