THE PSYCHOLOGICAL UTILITY OF MOUNTAINEERING*
THE MAGNIFICENT EDIFICE of mountaineering literature contains little material on the psychology of climbing. This is not for lack of curiosity about motive. To the contrary, those climbers I've known tend to be fascinated with the subject, though the older ones have grown a little tired of the unrewarding nature of these discussions. Most of the accepted ideas about the impulse to climb are couched in the romantic language of conquest, adventure, closeness with nature, character-building, etc. But today's climbers know how inadequate these explanations are; how little of the inner reality they embrace.
Mallory's obiter dicta - 'Because it is there!' - is in fact the climber's cry of despair at the impossibility of coming up with an explanation, persuasive to himself or the non-dimbing community. This offhand response to a question following a lecture in Philadelphia during a money-raising 'tour, was, I imagine, spoken in a testy voice. A wire service reporter in that audience knew a good headline when he heard it. Ironically, but perhaps wisely, the world accepted this fatuous remark as something to fasten on to.
Mallory's mixture of prickliness and evasion is typical. Yet many of the better statements about why people dimb seem to have at their centre a psychological void, a lacuna of defensiveness. As if there is a moat around the castle of the ego that the climber is scared to cross for fear of losing the enchantment.
Probably the most common psychological observation about climbing is that it strives for 'the overcoming of the self, Nietzsche's phrase originally, in which the self is divided; one part strong, winning over the weaker aspects of the self. This is in many respects a fair description. But to find out why self-overcoming is necessary, we should turn to the ideas of that Viennese doctor and occasional hill-walker, Sigmund Freud. Though Freud himself wrote nothing directly on the subject, some of his disciples and interpreters have. They acknowledge what climbers know from experience is true: the thrill, the fantastic emotional charge, the sublime pleasure of climbing. These feelings are the core of pur avocation. They are also corroborated by some direct research on climber's psychology. (See the Himalayan Journal, Vol (1972-73) 'Psychopathology in Alpinism' by Zdzislaw Ryn.)
* Based on a presentation at Montagna Awentura 2000, Florence, 15-17 November 1991
The central question is, why climbers find this pleasure sometimes verging on ecstasy - in situations that in the average person inspires dread, panic, terror. At the point where most of the human race pulls back and runs, the climber rushes eagerly forward.
Freudians believe that the climber is not under-endowed with a capacity for fear. The difference lies in the psychological predisposition for coping with such feelings; a predisposition laid down in childhood. The helpless infant is awash with fears of inadequacy, fears of authority and punishment, terror at the animal world and ghouls and goblins, fear of hunger, of murderous rage - fears of every shade and stripe and in all directions. The sensations of fear are physically uncomfortable for any child, and emotionally stressful. For relief from this anxiety and discomfort, the child has three choices. One is simple avoidance of fearfilled situations and thoughts, and energetic suppression of such threats.
The second possibility is for the child to resolve the fear at its source and discover that it is groundless. Overcoming situations that formerly were overwhelmingly fearful is a keen source of pleasure. This pleasure comes from the sense of relief, the relief of never having to be so fearful in this context again. Whereupon the ego experiences the thrill of being. liberated, and a surge of triumph. Every one of us enjoyed hundreds of these triumphs on the path to maturity. But in all of us, too, there were fears, phobias, that could not be successfully resolved and put behind us when we grew up.
So we come to the third possibility. Here the individual attempts to compensate for those unresolved fears in an unexpected manner. The professional terminology for this activity is 'counter phobia' and is synonymous with 'overcompensation against fear'. In these situations, the fear-filled person paradoxically believes that his or her underlying anxiety is more effectively warded off by seeking, not avoiding, situations that provoke it.
Thus the over-compensator against fear tries to conquer his anxiety anew by putting himself in the path of danger, with the hope that he will re-experience the wonderful sensation of a child vanquishing a fear for the first time. This overcompensator against fear has an impossible dream: to banish in 'maturity the residue of apprehension and panic that he could not resolve in childhood. And of course, he continually fails. True, he gets the sensation of overcoming fear, but not the substance. The sensation passes. The fear's source remains, dooming him to successive repetitions of the counter-phobic act. Otto Fenichel, the great codifier of Freudian' thought, observed that: 'When we see that many people with counter-phobic attitudes nevertheless consciously feel a good deal of pleasure inspite of this failure, and avoid becoming aware of the anxiety still operative in them, we must admit that they are relatively well off.'
Everyone has counter-phobic possibilities. Life is impossible without it. No one entirely resolves and banishes all the fearcharged obstacles of childhood. Fenichel had a male patient who was an amateur authority on railroads. After some years of psychoanalysis it turned out that the origin of this enthusiasm and his knowledge lay in forgotten infantile fears of railway journeys. Another of Freud's disciples, Helena Deutsch, had a patient who crippled by phobias, was both isolated from others and sexually impotent. The only area where he was fear-free was in sports, which he pursued with a vengeance.
The climber-overcompensator against fear has a rich imagination. His mind vividly recreates terror-inducing images. In him, imagination is almost indistinguishable from reality, because like reality itself the fantasized dangers and enemies provoke unpleasant sensations of anxiety and discomfort. The only way to quell the imaginatively induced fear is to step out into the concrete i environment and vanquish it by courting danger and assuming unnatural risks. Fortunately the objective world, most of the time, is not as terrifying as the fantasy - providing another source of relief and delight. What he cannot get is final proof that his imagination played him false. So the next time the imagination conjures up a fearful image, he must tolerate the anxiety, or go forth and risk again in the real world.
Many sports are counter-phobic rituals in which mature men and women can relive fear and relish its conquest. Says Fenichel: 'The essential joy in sport is that one actively brings about in play certain tensions which were formerly feared, so that one may enjoy the fact that now one can overcome them. People for whom sport, or at least, certain kinds of sport (for example mountaineering) which are not a mere occasional relaxation, but a matter of significance in their lives, are true counter-phobic subjects'.
There is not a strict correspondence between the origins of a particular fear and the counter-phobic reaction to it. As a child I was more afraid of snakes, of being abandoned by my mother and punished by my father, of catching leprosy in public transport than I was afraid of heights. Perhaps my summit euphorias have come from the sensation of vanquishing all those old suppressed terrors with a single blow. And with each 'success' - even when that involves no more than saving one's skin from rock fall at the base - my Counter- phobic attitude becomes a stronger and a deeper part of my life.
Helena Deutsch believed that the underlying goal of counter-phobic behaviour is to free the psyche from its inner burden of apprehension, by displacing the inward knowledge of danger onto the outer world. In the climber's case, the fear of fear becomes transmuted into fear of the mountain. She wrote 'It is perfectly possible to convert neurotic into real anxiety and to create for oneself the pleasurable situation of a game instead of the painful situation of a phobia. Once the anxiety-object is located in the outside world, the need for mastery over it is directed either at some opponent in the game, or the element which has to be mastered, such as mountains, water, air.'
Overcompensation against fear is a tendency, not a fail-safe psychological technique. There is always uncertainty as to whether it will or won't make an appearance. When it does not, then primary dread crashes down upon the climber. Instead of running forward to vanquish it, he must flee. The mountain that he thought to invest with significance and the nobility of a worthy enemy is suddenly transformed. It becomes demonic, ugly, murderous.
The cyclicality of over-compensation against fear explains the times we and our companions are bold one day and timid the next, why we seem to go through phases of intense commitment followed by inexplicable periods of retirement. Why a good climbing friend can call up to suggest a great adventure and you suddenly feel irritated, cold, and turn him away. But most of the time, obviously, the hard cases have their over-compensation machinery in good shape. The proof is in the deed.
Climbers thus face a perpetual dilemma: either denying risk and danger, or exaggerating it - as phobia and counter-phobia contend for dominance. It is almost impossible for the climber to match so-called objective risk with just the right amount of apprehension - though that is what we all claim to be capable of.
If this theory is correct, there are some practical lessons to be drawn. First, a climber should try to be aware of the natural fluctuations in his capacity to over-compensate. Such awareness is an absolute pre-condition for a long career. It should not be taken for granted. Many years ago Rheinhold Messner travelled to one of the Himalayan peaks and after setting up base camp suddenly decided, without explanation, to pack up and return to Europe. This seemingly impulsive behaviour, squandering lots of money in the process, suggested to me a climber with great self-awareness.
Another danger is that the climber may become addicted to the thrill of over-compensation against fear. A good friend of mine, a reformed drug addict, depended on his counter-phobic 'highs' from hard climbing to drown feelings of anxiety and anguish from other sources - job, family, money etc. - and finding that a day's climbing sometimes did not have that effect, he'd slide into deep depression and a negligent attitude to safety on the rock. In exactly these circumstances, that climber fell to his death four years ago. The over-compensator against fear may be 'relatively well off, as Fenichel cheerfully remarked above, but he must not abuse the process.
When the counter-phobic tide is out, there is a risk that the climber will be harshly critical of himself and believe that the upswelling of fear and panic he feels is a weakness, a failure of will, a moral flaw - instead of a normal and transient event. My advice here is to go easy, in judging one's own and other climbers' lapses of keenness:
I suspect that over-compensation against fear was present at the dawn of climbing. The golden age of alpinism was also a time of the discovery of neurasthenia - an umbrella term for a wide range of complaints that today look distinctly psychosomatic. It was widely believed by doctors that the murky invalidism, mental alienation, hysteria, insomnia and apathy, lack of appe'tite of this syndrome were the product of industrial civilization. An oftprescribed remedy was vigorous outdoor exercise. Some of the early pioneers first visited the Alps for vague reasons of health and were cured when they discovered the thrill of over-compensation against fear.
The counter-phobe has an instrument that requires very careful handling. Remember, he knows no other method for coping with fear and anxiety. So he tirelessly hides from an awareness of what he is doing, sometimes cunningly, sometimes ingenuously. Climbers are creative when it comes to defending their obsession against interpretation.
This same defensiveness also explains why they often seem callous- or anyway ambiguous - about grieving for the loss of their friends. Such a death undermines the logic of counterphobia. So grief is difficult to feel without the accompaniment of a painful sense of guilt, which comes from the climber's refusal, ultimately, to draw the inferences that his friend's death calls for. At such moments climbing seems an affront to nature, an insult to life's preciousness, and it seems only right to break the chains, and leap out of the climbing obsession. I've rnany friends who've done just that. But for me those yearnings are transient. Sooner or later, my counter-phobia reasserts its control, and lures me with its rewards.
Is this over-compensation against fear the whole story? Far from it. Obviously climbers have a diversity of mental and emotional qualities that foster and motivate climbing. Yet I believe this concept offers one the better road maps to the climber's psyche.
A psychological explanation for the motivation to climb.