Published on October 19th, 20120
Why I climb
By Andreas Husby Christensen.
If there is one thing that stands out, that separates climbing from any other sport I’ve tried, its flow.
Flow can be defined as a mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. Nowhere else have I been able to be in flow so frequently. The reasons for this are probably many and more than I can account for, but the things I would bring up here would be the following: It is only you; your performance in the wall is dependent solely on yourself. There are no teammates, there are no others you are dependent on, and there are no distractions. You are often high up, removed from the physical distractions most other athletes have to face. Climbing is also a sport where you easily can place yourself in the optimal threshold between difficulty and mastery that researchers of flow have pointed out is essential.
The final reason for the ease of flow that I get when climbing is the element of risk. I am a bit hesitant to use the word, due to the negative connotations it holds for non-climbers, but I struggle to come up with something better. This aside, the element of risk in climbing is something that I think helps you into flow, when you are in the wall. Your brain sees the danger through primal eyes, and while you may know intellectually that your equipment makes you “safe”, this isn’t necessarily readily available to your primal brain when you are in the wall. This appearance of danger I think, makes your brain take the activity much more seriously than if you were running after a ball. And this is the final element (easily available to my brain at least) that I think facilitates flow while climbing.
On a recent climbing trip, I was in flow almost every second I was climbing for two straight days. The level of challenge in the routes I did there was perfect for me, leaning a bit more towards too hard than too easy.
Our first real climb in that weekend was a multi-pitch. About mid-way through the ascent, I climbed myself into a corner; I got to a point where I felt like I was too far above and to the right of the bolt to just let go, I couldn’t reach or see the next hold (even after stretching/feeling tentatively), and I was unable to climb down to let myself fall from a safe spot. I had a serious case of both disco-legs and jazz-hands, and my brain was starting to go into agonizing detail about where and how I’d hurt myself if I fell. I won’t lie, I was as scared as I ever have been climbing, but forcing myself to block all that out, all the thoughts, my aches, my fading strength and just launch myself with everything I had, around the corner of the arête, up into uncharted territory was an incredible feeling. This was made a hundred times better by actually catching the next hold and continuing my climb, so high on adrenaline and endorphins that I might as well have been hovering.
Which naturally leads us to the two elements that I feel contribute strongly to the enjoyment of climbing: Challenge and Mastery.
On challenge, whether it is climbing above the bolt for someone new to lead, pushing yourself to just go that next hold even if it is scary, taking a fall by choice even though you don’t really want to, or if you have climbed yourself into a corner, but you man/woman up, yell “fuck it!” inside your mind, and just go for it with every fiber of your being. The feeling is amazing, the knowledge that you pushed past your barriers, your fears, your inhibitions. Even if you failed, you still managed to push yourself that extra mile.
When it comes to mastery, despite the fact that there are some factors that can inhibit mastery for a new climber (not being strong or tall in an area where the routes are quite hard can impede your sense of mastery), the feeling of mastery is usually quite easy to achieve in climbing. Every climber has different levels of fears and skills, and in climbing, mastery depends on the individual alone. There are (usually) so many different difficulties for routes, that finding something slightly harder than your previous accomplishment is easy. I’d venture there are few sports where the difficulty of the task can ramp up so seamlessly.
In any level of climbing, these factors are here and in the end, that is what makes climbing so awesome: It is all relative!
A total newbie can get the same feelings of accomplishment from climbing higher than they thought they dared; as I can get when I finally manage the route I’ve been working on a while; as a very experienced climber can get from getting past that crux that has mocked them for ages; as a professional can get from FA’ing one of the worlds hardest routes. And this is the long and short of why climbing is such an attractive activity.
Like water flowing up
Graceful and sly
Up she goes while gravity slumbers
-Andreas Husby Christensen