Chasing The High, published in The Climber, July 2018
Words and photos by Derek Cheng
Do you remember the life-affirming buzz of clipping the chains on your first lead? That time the uncrackable boulder problem flowered into a harmony of movement? Or when the perplexing puzzle of crack-climbing all clicked, and was no longer unbearably, soul-destroyingly awful?
We pursue climbing with such fervour because it delivers enriching experiences and intense doses of euphoria, perhaps more than any other activity except falling in love. On Mushrooms. On a tufa-blessed island in Greece. What is it that makes climbing such a potent high, compelling some of us to give up financial and geographical stability and pursue an activity that yields nothing tangible?
I was a relatively ancient 28 when I first flew to South America on a one-way ticket to Patagonian granite, snowy Andean peaks, and Cuban limestone. It was the first time I was exposed to dirtbag life and the freedom of chasing rock and ice in wild, remote places. It was revelatory. As soon as I came home, I started saving for the next fix, which I thought would be the last hurrah before the lust for dirtbaggery would fade, replaced by responsible hankerings for a family, puppies in sweaters, or a home with a white picket fence.
But that never eventuated and I’m still chasing the high, urged on by vivid memories of The Climbing Life. The view of dusk folding her violet wing over the granite peaks of the High Sierra in California after a multi-peak traverse. Aiding through the gulp-inducing exposure on El Cap’s Salathe headwall. Power-screaming to the final jug of an overhanging, orange-streaked, beachside wall of limestone … the list is as endless as the places and thrills still yet to be explored.
This article intended to dive into what happens to the brain while climbing, which has been shown to help depression, likened to meditation, and even compared to the kind of mind-blowing awe that accompanies profound shifts in neural networks. But any claims about what the brain does during a climb are yet to be rooted in any real science, according to Dr Ashlee Hendy, an avid climber and neuroscientist at Melbourne’s Deakin University who specialises in exercise science. While there is undoubtedly anecdotal evidence of the positive benefits of climbing, she says, we still lack the technology to scan the brain of someone as they climb.
The anecdotal trail led me to psychologist Dr Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and his seminal 1990 book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. Flow, he says, is the state of being so immersed in an activity that it makes time and the ego melt away. “Thoughts, intentions, feelings, and all the senses are focused on the same goal. Experience is in harmony,” Csikszentmihalyi writes. “We feel a sense of exhilaration, a deep sense of enjoyment that becomes a landmark in memory for what life should be like.”
Csikszentmihalyi interviewed people from all walks of life, including athletes, artists, musicians and chess masters. Among the flow-junkies he quotes are climbers, one of whom says: “You look back on awe at the self, at what you’ve done. It just blows your mind. It leads to ecstasy, to self-fulfillment.” Says another: “It’s a Zen feeling, like meditation or concentration … It’s like an egoless thing, in a way. Somehow the right thing is done without you ever thinking about it or doing anything at all. . . . It just happens.”
And yet we have all had terrible climbing experiences when things haven’t clicked, or fear has crippled the experience. Flow, Csikszentmihalyi says, can happen when the perfect amount of challenge tests your skill set. If it’s too easy, you succumb to boredom. If it’s too much, you’re consumed with anxiety. But if the challenge stretches you to the limits of your ability, conditions are ripe for flow. Climbing also ticks the key boxes for Csikszentmihalyi’s flow triggers: intense focus on the present moment, clear goals, immediate feedback, high consequences, rich environments, and total, physical awareness. (He cites more triggers for group flow.)
Csikszentmihalyi says a key ingredient is transient hypofrontality—a less active pre-frontal cortex, which is the heart of higher cognitive abilities. It collects data and assesses risk, conducts analysis and makes plans. This also makes it the home of self-criticism and self-doubt, which are impediments to flow. (There is also anecdotal evidence that micro-dosing produces a similar effect.)
This idea is reinforced in journalist Steven Kotler’s book The Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance, which collates more recent research. “Parts of it [the pre-frontal cortex] are temporarily deactivating,” says psychology professor Arne Dietrich in Kotler’s book. “It’s an efficiency exchange. We’re trading energy usually used for higher cognitive functions for heightened attention and awareness.”
In the flow state, the intuitive parts of the brain take the wheel. Alpha waves (the brain’s basic resting state) and theta waves (also present in states of deep meditation, or just before falling asleep) are more active, instead of beta waves (associated with concentration, learning, but also fear and stress). But, according to psychology professor Dr Leslie Sherlin, it’s more about fluid brain control, rather than, say, being in a theta-only state.
“Elite performers can produce the right brain wave at the right time, vary its intensity as needed, then smoothly transition to the next step,” Sherlin says in The Rise of Superman.
Kotler proposes that flow has enabled giant leaps in performance in extreme sports through a relatively short period of time. His book looks at, among other things, the free-soloing feats of Alex Honnold and the speed-climbing exploits of Dean Potter, who talks about yielding to The Voice in his head that intuitively guides him. (The book preceded Potter’s tragic death in a wing-suiting accident.)
“When I’m really in tune with it, really deep in the zone, I get to a place where I disappear completely … when time slows down, my senses are unbelievably heightened, and I feel that oneness,” Potter told Kotler. “And that’s why I climb. I crave these experiences.”
That’s not to say that higher cognitive functions such as analysis and risk-assessment have to dampen flow. They are even necessary in climbing, such as when onsighting, when problem-solving often happens in real-time and can either open the door to sending, or slam it shut.
Hazel Findlay, in an interview for Australia- and UK-based The Flow Centre, says climbing is unique because there are often resting positions where you have a chance to think and strategise. “So you look at the rock ahead, and problem-solve your way through it—even before you do it. I think one of the keys to climbing well is to, in that restful position, consciously have a plan and problem-solve. But then, as soon as you start climbing, try and switch into that unconscious state that we’re talking about. Really let your body take control and use your subconscious mind. But you have to remember what your conscious mind was telling you to do.”
Cameron Norsworthy, co-founder of The Flow Centre and who has worked closely with Findlay, says flow doesn’t have a monopoly on high performance. But he adds that it is rare to be flow-free and climb at the limit of your potential. Climbers, he says, can also be in flow while onsighting or red-pointing, when the climber has already done much of the problem-solving and is focusing on executing the moves. “Which one is better for flow? It depends on the individual and how they best get into flow.”
Success can be accompanied by a profound sense of joy and achievement. Kotler looks at different research (though, again, there is no climbing-specific data) and claims that there are five neurochemicals associated with flow. They are norepinephrine (which mobilises the brain and body for action), dopamine (which ramps up motivation), and anandamide, serotonin and endorphins (which are all associated with feelings of bliss).
Norsworthy, however, questions this specific cocktail. “One person might need more norepinephrine than another, or a different balance between neurochemicals in order to perform really well.” He instead cites cortico-muscular coherence. Neurons can fire erratically and the messaging to the central and peripheral nervous system can be muddled—but in flow, everything runs like a well-oil machine.
He points to a 2016 paper called How to Measure the Psychological “Flow”? A Neuroscience Perspective, by neurophysiologist Dr Guy Cheron, who references several studies that use electromyographic (EMG) signals to monitor muscles and an electroencephalogram (EEG) to monitor brain activity. Reaching a flow state, according to the paper, sees the harmonious meeting of sensory input, corresponding motor movements, and an appropriate resting state (one that, for example, has the knowledge of how to read the rock, and then move accordingly).
Norsworthy says climbing is especially flow-worthy because it demands total focus. “The constant struggle, mental and physical, draws us away from our normal waking consciousness. You can walk into a gym and be self-conscious, but halfway up the wall, reaching a difficult point when you reach the crux, all your self-consciousness can disappear because the task demands it.”
Climbing, he adds, also pushes you to keep improving. “It keeps us wanting to do more so that we can feel flow again. And in order to experience it at an equal or greater intensity, we keep seeking more difficult routes to hit that sweet spot. It creates this growth principle that continuously pushes our abilities, keeping us hooked on that next climb.”
Other conditions that can enhance flow include novelty, unpredictability, and complexity. Some risk—and associated fear—also helps, because it releases norepinephrine. But too much, as any trad climber can attest, and the experience just crumbles into a stressful fight for survival, regardless of whether there is any real threat. I recall a trad line on Mount Taranaki after a year away from climbing, where topping out didn’t bring any satisfaction or joy. Only profound relief.
These flow conditions provide a key to climbing’s unique, multi-layered tremendousness. Concentrating on one discipline can bring great joy, but if bouldering or sport-climbing don’t get you high enough, there’s always trad-climbing and multi-pitching, aid-climbing and big-walling, alpine climbing, free-soloing, and questing up lines of rock and ice with sharp, metal points extending from your hands and toes. There are always new skills to master, new limits to push, different manifestations of fear to master. Even within each discipline lies an infinity of varying challenges—from slabs to overhangs to dihedrals to ring-locks to squeeze chimneys (yikes!).
Another unique feature of climbing is that you don’t have to be the best of the best to unlock the climbing goodness. Success is best measured against what lies within, rather than comparing yourself to your mates (although this, of course, happens too, even though we try to avoid it). And although the hardest sends are undoubtedly memorable, it’s overcoming a challenge–especially ones that seemed doubtful at the time–that really enhances the experience. One of my most vivid moments of climbing joy was onsighting Mari (17) at Arapiles, a grade that is easy for me now, but which lay at the edge of what seemed possible at the time. I battled through the dreaded pump at the crux, and then topped out from frigid shade into divine sunshine, triggering a potent rush that left me beaming for hours.
Another was my first experience of climbing a new line on a virgin face. The third pitch of Ka-Kaa (21), in Morocco’s Anti-Atlas range, was full of thin, questionable gear and tenuous, technical moves. On the fifth pitch, a piece of rock exploded when I pulled on a cam to test the placement, but I managed to catch it in my hand and toss it harmlessly to the ground before gathering my composure, and then climbing through an intimidating roof.
And every time I’ve ventured into the world of ice-climbing, the unique bold, cold, no-fall adrenaline and breathtaking landscapes almost always deliver a feeling of being reborn, redeemed, revived.
Novelty. Unpredictability. Abundant complexity. Challenges at the edge of your ability. Success that can unravel a new perspective on what you’re capable of, and see continual improvement. Toss in landscapes that push the boundaries of sublime beauty, and sharing the experience with someone in your special tribe. Stir into a smooth, powerful potion.
Next year I will turn 40, but I have as much climbing-wanderlust as when I was 27. For mountains bathed in blue with the first kiss of dawn. For lactic acid battles on black-streaked, overhanging sandstone that glows at dusk. For movement that feels so fluid and rhythmic that you seem to be gliding. Because in the end, to quote Jack Kerouac, “You won’t remember the time you spent working in the office or mowing your lawn.”
Or, as civil rights leader Howard Thurman said: “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs most is more people who have come alive.”