David Pickford is a widely published and critically acclaimed feature writer. His work has appeared in an extensive range of editorial publications and other media in both Britain and the United States, including the BBC, The Guardian, Esquire, Alpinist magazine, Climb magazine, The Alpine Journal, UKClimbing.com and Summit magazine.
David is the editor-in-chief of Britain’s leading climbing and mountaineering publication, Climb magazine, for which he writes regular editorials and features.
Below you will find some examples of David’s recent writing. If you would like to commission a feature, please get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org
A Letter From The Free World
‘There were riot police everywhere, tear gas, rubber bullets. Protestors stoning the cops. I remember this girl who’d just been hit with a truncheon, her blonde hair matted with blood. It was total chaos.’
On a foggy morning in 2008, over coffee on the Boulevard Saint-Michel, I was listening to my dad talking about the civil unrest of May 1968 in Paris, where he was studying at the time. I was in the city for a few hours, on my way to Madagascar and another climbing adventure.
In early January this year violence returned to the French capital in hyper-modern form. Just across the Seine from where we’d been talking, two gunmen burst into the offices of Charlie Hebdo on Rue Nicolas-Appert in the 3rd Arrondissement, killing twelve people including its editor, the renowned cartoonist Stéphane ‘Charb’ Charbonnier, in response to the magazine’s mockery of Islam.
The attack was arguably the most striking example in modern history of the collision between extremist ideology and the single most important element of any advanced democracy: the existence of free speech within a plural and tolerant society. At the same time, the fact that the attackers shot and killed a Muslim police officer, Ahmed Merabet, shows the extent of the divide between Islamic extremists and the rest of the world’s Muslim population.
In comparison to the creation of the satirical cartoons championed by Charlie Hebdo, climbing seems like an apolitical act. Yet this is because we see it from the privileged position of living in a society in which climbing is possible at all. There are no climbers in North Korea or Somalia not just because there’s not much rock there, but because the difficulties of basic existence in those places means that sport is a luxury to which there is no public access – because there is no functioning society. The freedom to go climbing, in this sense, is a political freedom as much as it is a physical one.
The correlation between the right to offend politically or religiously in a free, pluralist society and maintaining the right to take physical risks in climbing – risks that many people might consider foolish or unnecessary – is a striking one. If you’re reading this, you’ll already know that to live the climbing life it’s essential to entertain risk in some form, at some level. This doesn’t, of course, have to be the risk of a serac collapsing on top of you halfway up an alpine face; the risks of climbing come in many guises. But where some see risk, others see opportunity.
Climbing is of interest to the non-climbing public because it is perceived as somewhere between the eccentric and the incomprehensible, as shown by the enthusiasm of the response to Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson’s recent ascent of Dawn Wall (see page 6). And just as Charlie Hebdo pushes the boundaries of acceptable offence, climbers tend to push the boundaries of acceptable risk.
However different political cartoons may be from scaling rocks and mountains, both depend on one thing for their most basic survival: a society that says ‘We think that’s a bit crazy, but okay, go for it. You’re free and welcome to do that here.’
The freedom to participate in sport more widely is significantly dependent on living in an open, tolerant society within a functional economy. The fact that the Taleban sought to ban all sport when it controlled large areas of Afghanistan in the late 1990s shows the link between sport and a free society: when the latter disappears, the existence of the former is threatened, like all other basic freedoms. In Iran, a theocracy, women who participate in self-organised sports like climbing can be arrested and detained by the religious police for not being accompanied by a male member of their immediate family.
Getting on the plane to Antananarivo that night in Paris seven years ago, I thought about my dad’s stories of May ‘68; of how fragile that bridge is between order and chaos, between the actual and the possible, between civilization and anarchy. And of how fortunate I was to live in an era where the former, just about, holds sway over the latter.
An act of violence against free speech can only strengthen the desire for free speech itself. The Charlie Hebdo attack has highlighted the vital importance an inclusive society, whilst undermining the ideology behind the violence itself. Guns, ultimately, are not as powerful as the demand for freedom.
It is worth remembering that the very existence of climbing and of climbing culture depends on almost everything that radical Islam seeks to destroy: openness, opportunity, a secular meritocracy, equality between men and women, and between people of widely different opinions and beliefs. And the idea that what really matters is what you do in this world – not what you imagine might exist in the next one.
If that’s true, then the value of a climbing adventure, as with satire, depends on how much we’re prepared, like Charlie Hebdo, to risk going against the grain of the acceptable and into the realm of the subversive, the recalcitrant and the radical.
I hope you’ll enjoy this special issue of Climb dedicated to the magic of adventures in the mountains: a letter from the free world.
- Climb magazine, February 2015
The Skilful Climber
On a cold spring day of fast-moving clouds, a nine year boy is riding his bicycle along an English country lane. Enchanted by the wind in his hair and the freedom of cycling, he doesn’t notice the flat rear tyre until it forces him to swerve off the road and into the long grass. He’s miles from home, and wonders what to do.
Faced with the choice of either pushing the bike home or fixing the tyre, he decides to try and repair it. He doesn’t know how, but this doesn’t deter him. After a while, he manages to get the wheel off the bike. Just as he’s wondering what to do next, a man cycles down the lane towards him.
‘Sorry, could you help me out’ the boy asks the man. ‘I’ve got a flat tyre.’
The man doesn’t answer back, but nods his head and smiles as he stops beside the boy. He reaches into the saddlebag of his own bike and pulls out the tools the boy doesn’t have – tyre levers, a pump, and a spare tube.
Momentarily confused, the boy simply says ‘Thanks a lot’. The man smiles again as he nods at the boy, pointing to his ears and mouth whilst shaking his head. The boy suddenly understands what the man wants to explain to him through these gestures: that he can neither hear nor speak.
Quickly and carefully the man changes the tyre on the boy’s bike, showing the boy the best way to do it, using the tyre levers together, working the bead off the rim, and inflating the new inner tube a little before fitting it. The boy is awestruck at the man’s seemingly effortless skill. And in less than ten minutes the boy is back on the road, cycling off into the white spring day and the unknown path of his life.
I never knew the man’s name, or what he did, or where he lived. Whilst anyone with an iota of mechanical competence can show a kid how to change a bike tyre, there’s something about that encounter that’s stayed with me. It was the way he showed me how to perform the simple repair: he never hurried, but the tyre was fixed quickly. Although the man was hard of hearing and speech, he articulated what it means to do something with skill in a way that a nine year old remembered forever.
Performing with skill is what we strive for in climbing. It seems logical, then, to say the best climbers are those who climb at the very limit of their ability, maximising all the potential of their skill.
But are they? Perhaps not, actually. I’d like to suggest that the genuinely skilful climber isn’t the one who concentrates purely on achieving their personal best as an athlete or on having the biggest, baddest adventure they can have. Instead, it seems to me that the truly skilful climber is the one who’s as keen to help out others as to do their own thing, just like the man who showed me how to change a bike tyre twenty-five years ago. His skill as a mechanic was self-evident, but his greater skill was in that selfless, spontaneous act of being in a position to help someone out, and then doing so.
When I spoke to Yuji Hirayama in last month’s Climb interview, he talked about how he wanted to help Hans Florine in his quest to set The Nose speed record on El Cap because Hans had supported him on his 1997 near-onsight of the Salathé Wall. That, it seems to me, is a really skilful climbing partnership.
In my previous editor’s note, I talked about how the idea of ‘a search for balance’ is important in the climbing life, because climbing is an inherently selfish activity. To borrow Melanie McDonaugh’s searing critique of ‘mindfulness classes’ in a recent issue of The Spectator, it is ‘Mainly About Me’.
But how to counterbalance selfish behaviour in a sport which places individual attainment above all else? Part of it, probably quite a large part of it, could be about being an attentive belayer, a good partner, and a trusted friend to the people you climb with.
I’ve been lucky enough to climb a lot of very good routes on five continents. Nonetheless, some of my best climbing experiences have been holding the ropes of friends. Hanging a thousand feet above the baobab trees on the vast, blank face of Tough Enough in Madagascar, for the second day, as James McHaffie sent the crux pitch. Or hiking to the summit of Djupfjord Wall in Norway’s Lofoten Islands for the third time to help Malin Holmberg complete our new route, The Lady Of The Lake. Or yelling encouragement to Matty Rawlinson as he led the last hard pitch of Moonlight Buttress in Zion – one of the best routes in North America – on our one-day free ascent. And on each of those climbs we had a laugh whilst doing something challenging. There were no Facebook updates or Instagram uploads. We were just out climbing, doing what we love doing.
Alex Lowe said that ‘the best climber is the one having the most fun.’ He’s right, because climbing becomes dramatically more enjoyable as soon as you reach the point that it’s not all about you and your routes, but also about helping out your mates with theirs. This is the path of the truly skilful climber, a path I was guided towards three decades ago by a deaf man I met out cycling on a country lane.
- Climb magazine, January 2015
Faster Than Gravity
I slam the biscuit-beige Austin Metro into fourth and floor it. As the engine howls in protest, Leo Houlding, who’s leaning out of the passenger window and smoking something, glances across at the speedo. With the rev counter hovering at the red line, I direct the unfortunate piece of British engineering down the causeway about as rapidly as its seventy-two horsepower can carry it. I’m high on teenage adrenaline, low on blood sugar, and don’t know a thing about driving. So I don’t see the van ahead indicating right as I overtake a line of slower traffic. With the sun’s glare in the windscreen, we pass the van at speed a second before it begins to make the turn. Leo breathes out, shaking his head as he reaches for the lighter.
That was the summer of 1998. I’d just passed my driving test, and Leo and I were late for the beach party at the first of a series of legendary deep water soloing festivals that were organised on the south coast around the turn of the millennium. Leo and I got lucky that day, but luck doesn’t last forever. Leo had recently climbed El Niño in Yosemite with Patch Hammond in breathtaking style, and was perhaps the best trad climber in Britain at the time. A few years later, though, Leo got a wake-up call that bold climbing could bite even the most talented climbers hard; he took a long fall high on Cerro Torre, smashing his ankle and putting himself out of the game for a year.
My ill-judged manoeuvre on a Dorset road and Leo’s bone-breaking tumble high on a Patagonian wall might seem to have little in common, but in reality they are intrinsically linked. Illuminating the parallels between climbing and driving, they show how young male climbers take similar risks behind the wheel as they do on the crags.
The same year that Leo had his accident in Patagonia, 2002, I had my own wake-up call with driving: barrelling around a fast corner in the rain on a Somerset B-road, I hit some standing water, lost control, and planted the bonnet of my 1987 Escort RS Turbo into the back of an oncoming truck. I wrote the car off, got away rather lightly with concussion and a fractured jaw, and became a whole lot safer behind the wheel afterwards.
Speed and distance, line and control, fear and fascination: these are the hidden links between driving and climbing. So it’s no coincidence that more than a few climbers, myself included, are also irremediable petrol-heads.
Perhaps the connection has to do with a dream of mastering the impossible. If you watch Aryton Senna’s unbelievable first lap around Donington Park in the 1993 British Grand Prix, in which he overtakes 4 cars in torrential rain to gain pole position, then the footage of Adam Ondra’s recent onsight of Il Domani (9a), arguably the most impressive piece of sport climbing in history, the link between motorsport and climbing becomes clearer. Both clips show supreme control of the near-impossible, one at 150mph with marginal traction and the other upside-down in a huge limestone cave. Both have low odds of success: a crash or a fall seems far more likely. The positive outcomes of both scenes are purely down to immense talent, fitness, will power, and perfect timing mixed with a little bit of magic.
Johnny Dawes once told me that high speed cornering in a racing car is ‘an unresolved work of art in a physical form.’ Whether or not you agree, the dynamics of balance and precision in climbing and the sense of speed and control in driving clearly share a certain amount of common ground.
These days, knowing more about danger than I did when I was seventeen, I save fast driving for the racetrack and bold climbing for when there’s good gear below me. But the fascination remains.
French rock master Patrick Edlinger, one of the world’s most influential climbers of the 1980s, drove a Lancia Delta Integrale for a while, the legendary supercar that dominated Group B rallying in the 80s. Britain’s Jerry Moffatt, who’s had lots of fast cars himself, remembers Edlinger driving him around the Verdon’s loop road: ‘[I realised] he was a great driver, and after warming up the engine [he] went absolutely flat out! However at no time did I feel scared… he had an aura of total confidence and control.’
Confidence and control: they’re exactly what you need to drive a fast car to the limit, and also exactly what you need to climb well. In fact, the more you explore the manifold links between climbing and speed, the clearer they become. In opposition to the binary logic of winning or losing in team games, motorsport – and other ‘speed sports’ like skiing and cycling- are attractive to climbers because they all present a similar set of highly individual challenges to those of the vertical world. They involve many of the same risks. And they share a broadly similar context of individual freedom, a belief in personal responsibility, and a strong sense of existential reward.
I started climbing when I was a teenager, I think, because I realised that I profoundly believed in those things, and wanted to do something with my life that celebrated their value. They’re also the reasons I go skiing every winter, ride my mountain bike on rest days, and will always have a passion for fast cars.
– Climb magazine, October 2014
Out Of Town
Last October, on a night flight back from Australia, I woke up suddenly and stared down at the world. We were high over the Deccan plateau, India’s great central plain. Through nine thousand metres of crystal darkness, lights of unknown towns and villages glimmered like low-burning storm lanterns. Far to the south, the unmistakable sprawl of Bangalore spread flickering lines of yellow and white into the black land. And somewhere down there, along the shadowed roads beyond those lights, lay something less visible: the dream of a journey. Nine years ago, I rode an Enfield motorcycle around India, stopping in two of the subcontinent’s best climbing areas, Badami and Hampi, along the way. Climbing was just one component of a bigger, more complicated adventure. I hardly needed reminding of it, but the trip confirmed my belief that climbing trips do not become great climbing trips just because you do some really good climbing, but because you make a journey in which climbing is simply part of a greater voyage of discovery.
For most of the world’s active climbers, the interplay between climbing and travel is a constant, informative, necessary dynamic that enhances our lives beyond measure. When I was thirteen, I distinctly remember hearing Chris Bonington’s observation that ‘climbing is an incredible vehicle for visiting interesting places’. Chris was talking about his successful trip to China in 1981 to make the first ascent of Kongur Tagh with Al Rouse, Pete Boardman and Joe Tasker, but the principle can apply to almost any climbing journey.
Climbing has thrown me into so many wild, beautiful and bizarre places I’ve lost count of them
all. But certain moments stand out: the electric blue stripe of the Caribbean emerging above the jungle near the top of the four hundred foot overhanging wall of La Costanera, one of Cuba’s best crags; watching a double-rainbow rising over Madagascar’s Andringitra National Park from Tsaranoro Atsimo with the wall plunging into darkness below; being interrogated by a blind-drunk policeman and an officious Russian soldier in a cell in Batken, Kyrgyzstan, as my friends outside bribed their colleagues with bottles of bootleg vodka. The list of these kinds of encounters in faraway places could go on, but it’s the journeys of discovery in our own back yard that climbing reveals, in the end, that are often the most vivid and valuable of all.
I was reminded of this yesterday evening at Shipwreck Cove, a recently discovered tidal crag at Rhossili in South Wales. A big surf was thundering on the deserted three-mile beach and the cries of gulls filled the air as we climbed. Why else, if it were not for climbing, would I spend precious hours on a Wednesday evening lingering here in a near-gale?
On another, more recent flight back to England after a trip to Spain, I was reading the introduction to About This Life, Barry Lopez’s extraordinary 1998 memoir. In it, he describes being asked by a fellow passenger on a transatlantic flight what advice he might give his teenage daughter who wishes to become a writer. Lopez offers the man some characteristically brilliant, original advice:
‘Tell her to read whatever interests her, and protect her if someone declares what she’s reading to be trash’ he says. ‘And if she wishes to write well’ he continues, ‘she will have to become someone. She will have to discover her beliefs and then speak to us from within those beliefs. And finally… tell [her] to get out of town, and help her do that.’
As I read this passage, I wondered what advice I might have given to this man had his daughter wanted to become a climber instead of a writer. I smiled as I realised that I would have given him a virtually identical answer to Lopez. All you need to do is substitute the words ‘read’, ‘write’, and ‘reading’, for ‘climb’ and ‘climbing’ and the gist becomes clear.
If the possible parallels between climbing and writing are as rich as this comparison suggests, then they are surely distilled by the final point that Lopez makes: ‘tell her to get out of town.’ Because travel, in the end, is the only way you can really understand why the world is the way it is, and possibly why you are the way you are.
Lopez concludes his introduction by saying that what he would like to achieve as a writer is to contribute to ‘a literature of hope’. In my view, all the very best climbing and travel writing rises into this ambitious, elusive genre. Removed from the tediously one-dimensional narratives of conquest that characterise many expedition reports, the best accounts of climbing show how ascent is a mystical pattern containing far more than the mere physical process of climbing. In the same way, the best travel writing acknowledges that going from A to B is a route to understanding something as well as a physical journey.
From the wild glory of the Scottish Highlands to the world class sandstone of South Africa, and from exotic bouldering in Zimbabwe to granite sport climbing in southwest Norway, there’s much in this action-packed edition to inspire you to get out of town this summer. Enjoy the issue.
– Climb magazine, August 2014
Bring On The Wall
In spring 2008, David Pickford travelled to the Tsaranoro Massif in southern Madagascar, one of the most challenging big wall climbing areas on the planet.
We had been driving for sixteen hours straight when it started to rain. Huge thunderheads were building in the east and the night air crackled with electricity. We pulled over to tie tarpaulins over the luggage on roof of the jeep.
“Good idea” our driver murmured in heavily accented French, and a wry smile spread across his face.
“To stop bandits!”
The four of us burst into laughter at the thought of a few tarpaulins fending off raiders, although we were more concerned about our crucial supplies of climbing rope and equipment getting soaked by the storm than the possibility of kidnap. Satisfied with the job, our driver lit another cigarette and started the engine. The rain drummed on the roof of the jeep like a jackhammer. As we rolled off into the night, a ten-second burst of sheet lightning illuminated the wild country to the west, and along the horizon to the south we could see the jagged shadow of a mountain range.
“It’s over there!” Jack pointed into the maelstrom, as the lightning continued to spit fire across the jungle.
I couldn’t have expected a more dramatic first sight of the place that has become known to climbers across the world as ‘The Yosemite of Africa’.
The climbing world is like a medieval court: messages of derring-do are relayed from distant lands, then passed around and discussed before the next quest. The idea of an exploratory rock climbing expedition to the mountains of southern Madagascar came about in early 2008, after Jack Geldard and myself heard about the potential for establishing new routes there. We recruited James McCaffie – one of Britain’s top climbers – and another friend, Stephen Horne, to make up a team of four. Preparations lasted several months, and we arrived on Madagascar at the beginning of April. We had one month to complete our main objectives: we wanted to establish a completely new climb, and attempt the uncompleted project route called Tough Enough? on a sheer fifteen-hundred foot monolith called Karimbony. This climb already had an almost mythical status among some of the world’s best rock climbers. When completed, it would surely be the world’s hardest big-wall free climb. No other route on the planet had so many pitches of exceptionally sustained and challenging rock climbing as the awesome West Face of Karimbony.
We arrived at Tsaranoro just before midnight, after a twenty-hour journey south from the capital, Antananarivo. The electric storm that had lit the final part of our journey had passed, and I lay in my sleeping bag and looked up at the shadow of the Tsaranoro Massif, towering thousands of feet above us. The stars were so bright it seemed they would burn holes in my mosquito net. It felt incredible to be here at last, in the heart of one of the world’s most exciting rock climbing areas.
After making ascents of some established routes to acclimatise to the subtropical heat, we went in search of an unclimbed cliff where we could create our new route. After a day of trekking around the massif, cutting new trails and scoping the crags with binoculars, we found a perfect, natural climbing line on a cliff called Lemur Wall (so named because the endemic Madagascan primates, the Lemurs, populate the jungle at the base). It stretched up for around six hundred feet, following a striking yellow streak in the black granite. We felt like skiers looking down a slope of pristine champagne powder: this one was going to be awesome.
During our first day on the route, Jack and I established the first pitch, with a view to free climbing it after we had practised the moves. This initial section of the wall seemed to be the hardest, involving some very difficult climbing on microscopic holds. We tried to free climb it the next day, but failed due to the mercilessly rough rock and hot conditions. That night at base camp, I suggested that we needed an alternative approach to the main challenge of the line, in case we couldn’t free climb the desperately hard first pitch.
Back up at our advance base camp under the wall, I looked at the rock on either side of the very difficult first section with an open-minded approach. The wall to the left seemed even more blank and impossible than what we’d been trying to climb. Jack and I looked up at it, and defeat seemed to stare back us. But then I had a brainwave.
To the right, a gigantic vine hung down the side of an overhanging gully. If we climbed it, I worked out that we could probably make a traverse out to a point just above the ‘impossible’ lower section of the wall. I made the leap of faith and grabbed the vine, swinging out on it and then climbing, Tarzan-style, to a tiny ledge about forty feet up. Amazingly, it didn’t snap, much to Jack’s disappointment. (Climbers have a natural tendency towards schadenfreude in tricky situations).
I soon realised that this lucky ‘tarzan vine’ was our key to free climbing the entire route. We made a belay at the tiny ledge, and I set off on the second pitch: a spectacular traverse that swooped out across the wall to re-gain the yellow streak. It was getting dark by the time we’d completed it, so we abseiled off and returned to base camp by headtorch.
The following day Jack lead off up what would become the hardest section of the whole route, a huge pitch that took the upper part of the yellow streak. Despite the threat of a huge fall from the most difficult section, he locked into ‘the zone’ and free climbed through this crucial impasse. The final pitch was a relative breeze, and we knew the line was ours. The first climbers to pioneer a route are obliged to give it a name for the record; we had to find a title that fitted in with the febrile theme of the wall. The easier companion route to the left was called Ebola, after a particularly virulent tropical virus. Because of the compelling streak in the black granite that had originally drawn us to the line, we decided on Yellow Fever. We had created the hardest climb on Lemur Wall, and the whole experience of devising the route was certainly one of the more memorable challenges either of us had faced, in twenty years of climbing.
Flushed with success from our new route, James McHaffie and I turned our attention to the project known as Tough Enough? on the West Face of Karimbony, the awe-inspiring granite monolith that dominates the right hand side of the Tsaranoro Massif. This huge, featureless expanse of rock gleams in the morning sun, as if god had taken a cheese slice to a colossal chunk of marzipan.
On first acquaintance, it is hard to imagine how it would be possible to free climb the west face at all. No consistent line leads up it. Spidery flakes and tiny cracks spiral through the bright green lichen, heading nowhere. There is barely a single ledge anywhere on the wall big enough to balance on without a handhold. Many of the holds are just minute crystals of granite, sometimes only a few millimetres wide. Tough Enough?, in short, is the definition of futuristic free climbing.
The climb consists of ten separate ‘pitches’, and we began our attempts on the lower four pitches of the wall. I made the first free ascent of the introductory pitch quickly, on my first attempt. Later that day, James worked on the very difficult third pitch, whilst I practised the similarly tricky one below it. At nightfall, we abseiled back to the base of the wall, and made the familiar return to base camp through the jungle by headtorch. The following day James and I succeeded in free climbing the two hard pitches we’d rehearsed the previous afternoon. We were in high spirits, and managed to climb the fourth pitch afterwards, just before it got dark.
After a rest day, we hiked up to the top of Karimbony top approach the upper pitches from above. Abseiling over the edge of the West Face gives a major overdose of exposure: sliding down our ropes from the flat summit plateau, we instantly became a pair of puppets on a piece of string, with over a thousand feet of sheer, blank granite between us and the ground. James managed to free climb the ninth pitch of Tough Enough? – the most difficult section of the entire route – late that afternoon, after a huge fall ended his first attempt high on the headwall.
With only a few days left of our expedition and the possibility of free climbing the entire face looking unlikely, we decided to enjoy climbing a few of the established routes around the Massif. We both almost fell asleep with exhaustion on the summit that evening: the physical and psychological strain of Tough Enough? was beginning to take its toll. We coiled our ropes and stuffed our climbing gear into our Karrimor Alpiniste packs, and stumbled down to the fixed ropes above Lemur Wall in the falling dusk. The solitary lights of base camp began to float up through the darkness. Stopping for a rest on a huge boulder on the way down, we looked back in silence at the shadowy form of Karimbony. At the end of our adventures on the world’s hardest wall, we felt lucky to have been part of the conception of such a magnificent climb, and one that would remain on the radar of the world’s most talented climbers for years to come. For my own part, I had been as captivated by the extraordinary landscape of this island as by the exceptional climbing in the Tsaranoro Massif. And, as our departure date grew closer, I had already begun to plan my return to the magic mountains of Madagascar.
A few weeks after our expedition left Madagascar in May 2008, big-wall legend Arnaud Petit arrived in Tsaranoro with a team of ace French free climbers. They free climbed several other sections of ‘Tough Enough?’, returning to Madagascar again in September to finally free climb all ten pitches of the world’s hardest wall.
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.
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 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).
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?
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)
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.
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 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.
How To Focus And Win
Haruki Murakami is a man who knows a thing or two about success. Japan’s most celebrated living writer recently revealed his taste for running marathons in What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. In a key scene in the book, Murakami recalls running his first non-stop triple marathon (sixty-two miles in one push), aged forty-seven, around Lake Saroma in Hokkaido. He experiences a remarkable breakthrough at the forty-seventh mile, becoming certain that he will finish the race and moving from a state of exhaustion into one of physical energy and psychic clarity. He describes having a cathartic feeling that “[now] I didn’t have to think anymore. All I had to do was go with the flow and I’d get there automatically. If I gave myself up to it, some sort of power would naturally push me forward.”
Over the past decade, the ‘flow state’ Murakami is talking about has become a buzz phrase among athletes, coaches, and sports psychologists. Ever since the ancient Greeks established the Olympic Games in the 8th Century BC, sportsmen and women have consistently talked about experiences of flow as a key aspect of their best performances. Today, this mysterious state is a well-documented phenomenon. Athletes have used phrases like “in the zone”, “on autopilot”, or “totally psyched” to describe their best performances. What they are describing is a specific state of complete engagement in an athletic task, when the mind becomes so intensely focused that even the most difficult aspects of the challenge can suddenly seem effortless.
As a climber, I am always looking for new ways of improving my performance. I’ve employed various training strategies, and used psychological techniques like visualisation (a process where you visually imagine a successful performance before you begin any actual activity) for my hardest climbs. These traditional weapons in the professional sportsperson’s arsenal are all useful in various ways, but none have improved my performance as much as understanding flow, and recognising the ways in which I can generate it when I need it most – on the sharp end of a long rope.
In 2009, I made the first ascent of a difficult route on the sea cliffs of Pembrokeshire in Wales. The weather and rock conditions were poor the day I made the actual climb. I remember focusing so hard on the route that when I reached the easier ground at the end of the crux section it surprised me, because I had been concentrating so hard on the movement of climbing. You sometimes can only recognise that you’ve experienced flow by the feeling of ‘coming back to earth’ when it passes. In this respect, a flow state is similar to the transcendental experience that religious people and mystics claim to have when they engage in deep mediation. Flow is similar to meditation practice in the respect of being a condition of complete engagement, in which a person becomes focused on a task or challenge to the exclusion of all other thoughts or actions. But flow is not just a useful way of understanding the route to high achievement in sport; it can take place at any point in our lives where we are fully engaged and completely absorbed in what we are doing.
In his exceptional book Finding Flow – The Psychology Of Engagement With Everyday Life the American psychologist and pioneer of flow theory Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi writes that “when high challenges are matched with high skills, then the deep involvement that sets flow apart from ordinary life is likely to occur.” Following this elegant logic, flow can occur when we’re engaged in a challenge at work as easily as it can when we’re doing sport or something creative.
The condition of “deep involvement” Csikszentmihalyi talks about seems to be common to all flow experiences, regardless of the activity from which they arise. So we don’t have to run marathons or climb cliffs to experience flow: we could be deeply involved in less arduous but still challenging tasks, like cooking, gardening, or reading, and could become so absorbed in what we are doing that a flow state unexpectedly arises. One of the commonly-observed consequences of flow is that time is transformed in the space during which it occurs – so the period can seem much longer or shorter than it actually was. How many times have you gone to make a coffee during a tricky, interesting everyday task and been astonished when you’ve looked at the clock? An altered perception of time is a sure sign of the occurrence of flow.
A useful way of understanding flow in relation to ordinary experience is to look at its carbon-opposite: the neuropsychiatric condition of Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), which now affects upwards of fifty million people across the developed world according to the World Health Organisation. Its causes are numerous, but its major symptoms are universal: inattention, disorganization, procrastination, forgetfulness, lethargy, and a consistent inability to fully engage with any task or challenge. ADD is generally caused by a person’s attention being constantly distracted by conflicting stimuli over a prolonged period of time. In our increasingly globalised, linked-up, wired-up world, ADD is becoming more common as our lives become increasingly full of simultaneously presented tasks, products, and sources of media. Whilst a solution to the rise in people affected by the disorder remains elusive, research has clearly shown that individuals who pursue sport or creative activities are massively less likely to be affected by it than the general population.
Against this background, the pursuit of flow seems like a useful occupation, enabling us to consistently succeed at both work and play. Flow often occurs during the most difficult challenges in our lives, and the flow experience is a natural result of what the visionary modernist poet Wallace Stevens called ‘the fascination of what’s difficult’. Arguably, this is the most powerful of all our human instincts – the instinct to explore, to create, and to break new ground.
The late American big-wall climber Todd Skinner once said that “you learn more by spending half a day doing something difficult than by spending a year doing something easy”. The choice between leading a dynamic life – in which flow will be a major component – or one of static routine may also be that simple. When we find flow in sport, or at work, or in an everyday situation, difficult tasks suddenly become easy and natural. In this respect, flow theory is a methodology of excellence that can be applied to almost every human circumstance.
At another level, the flow concept is a modern way of understanding very old. There is a strong current of eastern spiritual thought concerned with how an individual can reach a higher level of consciousness through meditation practice. But could the experience of flow in sport could be a different route to a similar condition of heightened awareness? In the Buddhist concept of Nirvana, an individual may attain a state of ‘luminous consciousness’ through meditation. According to the Zen notion of Beginner’s Mind, if we maintain complete open-mindedness (as a beginner would when trying something new) then numerous possibilities appear, making difficult challenges far more approachable.
There is a point in any discussion of flow where ideas about the spiritual nature of intense concentration take over, and about the way we might change as a result. Mystics attempt to transcend their previous consciousness through deep meditation, and top athletes try to better their previous performances by focusing intensely on a sporting challenge. Both may experience flow in their journey to achieve these significant goals, and perhaps change considerably along the way. It is clear that experiencing flow improves our performance, deepens our understanding, and heightens our perceptions. What is equally obvious is that the experience emerges from powerful inner motivation rather than externally-driven ambition. Haruki Murakami brilliantly sums up this very personal quest for flow in What I Talk About When I Talk About Running: “the only person I have to beat is myself, the way I used to be.”
- Esquire magazine, 2010