How to control your worst fears like a free solo rock climber
At 9.28am on Saturday, June 3 2017, American rock climber Alex Honnold hauled himself over the final rocky lip of the 3,000-foot granite wall -- known as El Captain -- and climbed straight into the record books. He had ‘free soloed” the ascent in a record 3 hours and 56 minutes. Without ropes. Just a bag of chalk and his sticky shoes.
The climbing world sucked in air in amazement at the same time as Honnold did to get his breath back as he stood, perched, on a sandy ledge overlooking Yosemite National Park. Renowned free climber Tommy Caldwell labelled Honnold’s “free solo” climb as the “moon landing of free soloing.”
What Honnold had just achieved was remarkable as a free soloist and is the reason why he is recognised as the world’s best free-solo climber. In climbing terms afree climber uses no ropes to assist in their ascent of a climb, they are only attached to ropes in case they fall.Free soloing, on the other hand, is just you and the wall. One mistake and see you later, off you plummet back to earth.
Even The Good Die Young
Before this record two other climbers had mentioned theymight tackle this thought-of- impossible ascent, but both had died in accidents.
In 2007,Michael Reardon, a world renowned Southern Californian free solo rock climber was swept away by a rogue wave off an island near the southwest coast of Ireland. His photographer who had been with him on the day said, “it was just another day of climbing,” as he then watched in horror as the rogue wave swept Reardon from the ledge he was standing on. His body was never recovered. In 2005 Reardon put himself firmly on the climbing legends board when he completed a solo ascent of Romantic Warrior, a climbing route in the California Needles, in less than two hours. Previously it had taken climbers equipped with safety gear and ropes over half a day to summit.
Pioneering rock climber Dean Potter had set the record for the fastest ascent of Half Dome, an iconic monolith in Yosemite, in 2015.A few weeks later he was dead when he crashed in a wingsuit Base jump accident in the same National park. Leaping from Taft Point, 3,000ft above the valley floor, his body was found 50 yards from his jump partner, Graham Hunt, who also died.
In the 2017 climbing season onEverest, six mountaineers died, including Australian climber Frank Marchetti, who perished trying to scale the world’s tallest peak when he collapsed and died from altitude sickness. World-famous Swiss climber, Ueli Steck, fell to his death in April, while acclimatising for an attempt on Everest. He had made his name climbing all 82 Alpine peaks over 4,000m in 62 days, and had summited Everest twice in 2012 and 2015. He also climbed the North Face of the Eiger in Switzerland in two hours 22 minutes, where previously this had taken experts days to achieve.
Why and How?
In his paper, called “Risk taking in Extreme Sports: A phenomenological perspective” Eric Brymer interviewed 15 extreme sports participants to understand why they took risks with their lives. As participation rates in extreme sports have grown exponentially, Brymer’s conclusions were interesting after studying these thrill-seekers; they did not see themselves as risk takers, per se, due to the fact they diligently planned to the infinite detail absolutely everything they were about to do.
There is a perceived misconception about the relationship between extreme sports and risk taking, where the most likely outcome of a mismanaged mistake or accident is death. Non-participants complain about a need for the so-called adrenaline rush being a form of madness, yet extreme sports change people who participate in them. One of Brymer’s interviewees, JM, a male mountaineer in his early 40s, believes we face risks in our lives every day:
“I don’t feel like I’m putting my life in any greater danger going on an adventure whether it’s climbing Mt Everest or walking across the desert. But I do when I get out on the road. So, we face risks in our lives every day and I don’t really draw a big distinction. I do feel safer when I’m in the natural world. I do feel safer when I’m on the Arctic Ocean or in the Himalaya than I do out in the home environment when I’m driving around.”
Safety Is Paramount
The majority of the participants felt the same way, with not one stating they participated due to a desire for risk. To them, safety is of paramount importance, where you ensure you are learning everything about the constraints of the activity to be confident about participating. They saw ‘extreme’ as something which is dangerous, a word not in their vocabulary. As climbers, Base jumpers or whichever extreme sport they were into, danger never came into it. It had no reason whatsoever for why they did it. They all agreed that it was more about learning about themselves, pushing their own personal boundaries. The layperson merely sees extreme sports as people who are drawn to intense experiences and are willing to take risks to have them.
In 1996, Michael Bane wrote a book called Over The Edge: A regular guy’s odyssey in extreme sports. Bane was a couch potato, who decided to see how far he could test himself mentally and physically. He swam from Alcatraz Island, ran through Death Valley, mountain biked the Rocky Mountains and climbed Mt. Denali. With every adventure, he made sure he was taught by the best people or had the best guides. He learnt that participants follow particular rules, with many years of training, where they learn everything possible about the sport. It certainly was not gung-ho. To Bane, this was the essence of the extreme sports experience. In his book, he spoke of the research on extreme sports experiences:
‘Much of the early research on risk concentrates on a phrase I am coming to hate, thrill seeking. I am not sure what this means, and it doesn’t seem to me that the researchers are that far ahead.’
One of Brymer’s male BASE-jumpers put it this way, when talking about his sport, saying jumpers need:
“. . . good intellectual grasp of all of the technology they’re using and the environment they’re going in to and the situation that they’re putting themselves in and their own physical and mental limitations and that’s how you get to be a successful adventurer otherwise you get to be hurt or dead and that’s not where the satisfaction is, being hurt of dead.”
It Takes Discipline
In his paper, The Psychology of Extreme Sports: Addicts, not loonies Joachim Isaksen discusses the way that extreme sports participants are portrayed, both by the population and the media, in a negative way. There is a perception that people engaged in these kinds of sports are unbalanced and do not care for their families and friends. Yet we have heard from the BASE-jumper and the mountaineer that this is truly not the case. Many are fully aware of the constraints involved, while some obtained formal qualifications to understand their sport in-depth. If you want to understand how to get better, you have to realise that undertaking an extreme sport takes great discipline, and this was the general consensus in the extreme sport community; it takes major dedication and focus.
Isaksen argues that participants train hard for the events they are in; they ensure they can work out all possible outcomes and survive. Alex Honnold actually walked away from his first attempt at El Capitan, as he didn’t feel the conditions were right. He didn’t just wake up one morning and think, ‘right, today I’ll solo up that cliff face.’ Honnold spent over a year in the U.S. China, Morocco and Europe training for the attempt. There is a certain appeal of rock climbing for some; it can be brutal, it can be elegant, and it can be a phenomenal challenge and a puzzle. But you must know when to say, ‘not today.’
This sheer sense of no fear in Honnold, a super sensation seeker, has baffled both his fans, his peers and the scientific community. What is the motivation that drives people toward taking extreme risks? Was it to do with the brain? So Honnold underwent functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) at the Medical University of South Carolina, which was reported by online science magazine Nautilus. The fMRI would detect Honnold’s brain activity by tracing blood flows, and in particular, they would observe his amygdala, the part of the brain that triggers fear.
Honnold’s Brain Amazes
The amygdala is where the brain responds instantly and subconsciously to threats that are perceived via our senses. It is often referred to as the brain’s fear centre. Perhaps you are on your phone on a train station, sending a text to your mate and you head towards the platform edge, just as a train is about to fly past. As you look up, before you have even realised what you are doing, you would have taken a step back to safety. Your amygdala also sends information to your brain, which may become translated as fear. The outcome can often result in sweaty palms, for example, which is a natural, built-in stress response to threatening situations.
There was a discussion that perhaps Honnold did not have an active amygdala, (which means people generally don’t experience fear), which would account for his death-defying fearless climbs, but what they found with Honnold was astounding. When Honnold was exposed to some disturbing images, pictures even the staff analysing his brain were unhappy to look at, nothing happened; there was no reaction to the stimuli.
When neuroscientist Jane E. Joseph told him that the images were used widely in the field for inducing responses, Honnold said, “Because, I can’t say for sure, but I was like,whatever,” he told Nautilus science magazine. This could be perceived that high sensation seekers may require more stimulation than other people. However, Joseph also used a high-sensation-seeking male rock climber as a control subject, and his amygdala went off like fireworks; Honnold’s was as dead as a dodo. It seems apparent this extreme climber just does not recognise fear as we do.
In an interview with National Geographic Honnold was quite candid about life and death:
“I have the same healthy hope of survival as everybody else. I don’t want to die. At least not yet. I think I just have more acceptance that I will die at some point. I understand that, but I don’t want to baby myself along the way. I want to live in a certain way, which requires taking a higher degree of risk, and that’s acceptable to me.”
Even The Pros Have Off Days
Honnold admits there are times when fear does encroach on his climbing, explaining that he has often been only 200 feet off the ground (low by his standards) and wondered what the hell he was doing and climbed back down. We all have those moments where it’s just not the right time, and it’s knowing when to back off and call it quits, regroup and plan your attack another time.
No one is saying you need to climb a 3,000ft wall with just your trainers on and some chalk in your pocket, but researchers recently announced they believe they have discovered a way to remove fear from the brain. With one in 14 people fearful of ‘something’, the team believes there is no longer a requirement for phobias to be confronted, which is as unpleasant as it can get for many people. The team believe they can unconsciously remove the fear from the brain by monitoring brain activity and using AI image recognition.
It may well be the case, which before pitching that all-important presentation to the Board, you can have your fear of public speaking, or stress, relieved as a treatment. It’s certainly a nice thought, but we are not sure it will ever become a reality.
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