alex honnold rock climbing fitness

Risks and Rocks: The Mentality Behind Mountain Sports

most dangerous sports in the world

Rock climber and former Climbing Magazine editor Matt Samet knows his sport is dangerous. Until last year, he was the only climber to have successfully scaled Primate, a 90-foot route on Seal Rock in the Flatirons above Boulder, Col. With protective gear that was likely to tear under impact of a fall at the hardest sections, Samet climbed the most difficult part, 60 feet above the ground and over a giant boulder that he jokingly named “The Pillow.”

In the past two decades, climbing’s popularity has increased, resulting in an influx of climbing gyms in Chicago and elsewhere. But injury rates are on the rise too. The number of patients treated in U.S. emergency rooms rose 63 percent since 1990, according to the Center for Injury Research and Policy of the Research Institute at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio.

Samet respects the dangers, but climbing creates a healing kind of fear compared to the agoraphobia and anxiety he suffers from. For years, he said he used prescription benzodiazepines to treat his condition and that led to a benzo addiction. Now, instead of using drugs, Samet relies on rock climbing near his home in Boulder, Col., for relief.

“It [rock climbing] is a fear that one can understand because you have a reason to be anxious or frightened at that point: you don’t want to fall,” said Samet. “It makes sense in a way that’s not chaotic. So in a way that’s the cure for the angst I feel in modern society.”

Whether climbers hit the Himalayas or a rock wall in the gym, rock climbing offers a rush.

That may be why drug use is often connected psychologically to rock climbing through a parallel personality dimension. Researchers call the personality trait that drug users and rock climbers have in common sensation seeking, according to Michael Bardo, a professor of psychology at the University of Kentucky Director and Director of the Center for Drug Abuse Research Translation. Sensation seekers are more likely to partake in high-risk activities, he said. Experts say that sensation-seekers’ brain function reinforces risky behavior.

Bardo works at a research center that views risk-taking as a predictor of drug use. Bardo said that high-risk takers tend to have a greater release of dopamine [a chemical neurotransmitter that helps control the brain’s pleasure and reward centers] than low risk takers.

“The current thought is that the brain of risk-taker is under-aroused and thus the stimulating event is an attempt to overcome this under arousal,” said Bardo.

Not all researchers agree that rock climbers should be classified as risk-takers. Dr. Eric Brymer, psychologist and researcher at Queensland University of Technology, in Australia, said that non-participants have typically associated risk taking and extreme sports in the same way that drug taking and risk taking have been linked. But his research suggests that risk taking and extreme sports are not necessarily tied together, Brymer said.

“Most athletes spend years training and learning to ensure that risks are not taken,” he said. “I would not classify extreme sport athletes as risk takers.”

Colorado climber Ben Spannuth agrees that a significant amount of training, discipline and reflection are necessary for rock climbing. The sport demands almost daily practice to get into a rhythm of feeling comfortable and moving well across the rock, he said.

“When I feel challenged everything seems to drown out except the immediately upcoming series of holds and how I’m going to move through them,” said Spannuth. “To be honest, the majority of the time I spend climbing is actually spent hanging on a rope thinking about what movement the holds are going to create.”

alex honnold rock climbing fitness

Immediacy and challenge as well as discipline and training are important to rock climber Alex Honnold, famous for free-soloing, a form of climbing done without any ropes or protection.

“I only set projects a few months out,” said Honnold. “I don’t have a big plan, I just go climbing all the time.”

The part of rock climbing that is so physical plays a role in brain chemistry. Physical activity increases dopamine release in the pleasure pathway, said Bardo. Experts note that other physically demanding sports such as running, football and tennis also stimulate pleasure sensations.

“Any novel or stimulating events release dopamine in pleasure pathways of the brain,” said Bardo. “Rock climbing is certainly novel and stimulating.”

Honnold, a Sacramento, Calif., native who spent 16 years learning his sport, said he would not classify the stimulation he finds in free-soloing as a surge of adrenaline. An intense rush while soloing would indicate a problem and safety concern.

“I wouldn’t say I get a rush,” said Honnold. “I would say I get a deep satisfaction. Doing something challenging and doing it well is one of the best feelings in the world. Skydiving is a rush. Or dropping in on a big line on skis. But climbing is so slow and demanding that’s it’s not the same kind of rush”.

Spannuth said that this aspect of challenge and problem solving, combined with physical activity has a positive effect on lifestyle. The action portion helps relieve stress, and much of the benefit comes from his love of the sport. Climbing certainly isn’t the only sport people enjoy, said Spannuth. But activities that contain physical challenges combined with problem solving and social components seem more likely to have these effects for him than something like forcing a mandatory run on the treadmill for 30 minutes each day.

“In my mind, it’s far from a workout when I head to the climbing gym or to climb outside,” said Spannuth. “Furthermore, climbing has additional mental health benefits by getting people outside.”

Mountaineer Billi Bierling, who works for Elizabeth Hawley of the Himalayan Chronicler, said she too enjoys the physical challenge and outdoor aspect of climbing mountains. She said she feels privileged to take long treks up mountains, such as Everest and Makalu, because she gets to witness views that most people never see.

“When I come back from an expedition, of course my body feels tired, but I feel good because I’ve been outside for the last seven weeks and I haven’t had to deal with an office,” said Bierling. “For me, that is an expedition. For a lot of people, it’s the summit, but for me the summit is a bonus.”

These days, athletes aren’t only risking their lives climbing mountains, but jumping off of them as well. Recently, BASE jumping has taken off. Extreme athletes, such as Nasr Al Niyadi and Omar Al Hegelan, jump from fixed objects, often mountains, and use a parachute to break their fall.

A recent study published in the New Zealand Medical Journal found that 35 BASE jumpers observed suffered an injury in at least one of the 9,914 total jumps they had collectively made, resulting in an estimated 0.4 percent injury rate. Professional football has a 6.9 percent chance of injury per player per game, according to the National Football League Players Association’s injury report, “Dangers of the Game of Football.”

Honnold said that flying sports, including paragliding, speed wings and BASE jumping, have a growing presence in the mountains. He also said that the increase in climbing gyms is bringing new talent into the sport. These gyms make climbing more accessible, especially in cities without mountains, and allow athletes to build strength and technique for outdoor climbing.

“I don’t know where the sport is heading,” he said. “Except for the obvious: harder and faster.”

As mountain sports increase in both popularity and risk-level, Bardo pointed out that risk-taking should not be viewed as a fully negative personality trait.

“If you look at this type of behavior in animal species [such as monkeys], risk-takers are often the best at locating new sources of food, water and mates,” said Bardo. “On the downside, they are also most likely to fall victim to predators.”

photo courtesy of Andrew Burr

Abigail Wise
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  1. “Most athletes spend years training and learning to ensure that risks are not taken,” he said. “I would not classify extreme sport athletes as risk takers.” ~Bardo

    The ones who get really good at extreme sports are all risk takers, even if they try to tell you they aren’t; at least every one I’ve ever known is. The joy is in pushing the envelope. Isn’t that the definition of risk?

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