Turning the Mountain

This is a review of Maria Coffey’s important book, “Where the Mountain Casts Its Shadow” (2003).   She wrote of the effect on families and partners of climbers’ deaths, injuries, absences—and the hovering threat of these each time a climber goes out.  The issue is critical in all dangerous sports volunteered for (and in such chosen dangerous professions such as war correspondent where a balance has to be sought rationally between public service, and family responsibility).  Unfortunately, she walks us to the threshold of the issue, then does not cross it—but she has opened a discussion: if the cost to others is so high, why do men—and now more women—climb?

And why among others volunteering in dangerous professions, do human rights workers, war correspondents, etc. leave spouses and children behind?  This question may seem quite separate from the “pure” puzzling question of voluntary sport, since there is a public benefit to the professions one can think of—and there is also the issue of earning a living.  But suppose there is sometimes a psychological compulsion in both instances, such that clear thinking is obscured?  Or with work, such that the importance of the work disguises its occasional link to a psychological compulsion?   I think that if we explore the sport, as the canary in the coalmine, we may assist the dangerous professional commitments, because if there is an unknown, unconscious, or unexplored psychological driver, perhaps the first step in controlling it is understanding it.  I find it exists, and can be modified or controlled—by some, sometimes.

To return to the sport—to put the issue more graphically for emphasis: in dying on the mountains or cliffs, or suffering there, in indulging in the long, frequently exclusive absences of mountaineering, in knowingly exposing their partners and children to the threat of climbers’ injury or death—what do climbers make of this?

Through interviews with climbers and their partners and families, and by looking at her own involvement with lovers and friends who died—Coffey ends by accepting the usual climbers’ response.  That is, that climbing fulfills a personal need, even a compulsion, without which a climber would not be complete.  Thus the mantra she ultimately accepts is the one she attributes to climbers: “It’s a common argument: climbing is my calling, if you take that away, my spirit will die, I won’t be a complete person, and my children will suffer.” (p. 165)

More than that, she finds climbers who will say the risks in climbing make them feel more alive.  She quotes one putting it succinctly, referring to a first ascent where there seemed no risk: “That’s probably the least rewarding trip I’ve been on…Nothing happened…If you’re not putting your life at risk, then what’s the point of being alive?” (p. 154)

She concludes this is the gem in the suffering: that you have to risk death to feel more alive, you know then the value of being alive.  This is posed as justification for and explanation of why mountaineers climb—she even quotes a psychiatrist (one of several similarly interviewed) about 19th century mountaineers as a clear example of her point--they were wealthy, titled people who had everything they needed for a comfortable life (she might have added the advantaged early British climbers on Everest).   Thus the psychiatrist: “So what were they doing, climbing dangerous mountains?  They couldn’t just sit and enjoy what they had at home, they were moved to go out and explore.  There’s some instinctive thing in mankind, that such comfort is just not enough for the soul”.  (p. 9)

By the time the soul is invoked by way of clinical explanation, I must start to offer very different explanations for mountaineering than those of the psychologists Coffey cites.  My explanation also comes from psychology, but is based on a quarter century of my psychotherapy with survivors of human-induced trauma.  It does not rest on the generalizing ruminations of clinicians who do not cite case studies, and have nonetheless been asked to speculate.

To begin, I want to point out that in addition to social privilege, the post-World War I British expeditions were full of military who had seen combat.  Wade Davis, in his compelling book,  “Into the Silence—The Great War, Mallory, and the Conquest of Everest” (2012), mentions that 20 of the 24 climbers in the first three British expeditions had been in battle.   Davis researched and describes in episodic detail the horrifying battle history of each climber.  From my experience in therapy with combat veterans and civilian survivors of war and torture, there is no way the majority—or probably any—of these climbers could escape Post-Traumatic Stress symptoms, at great strength moreover.

We know that certain involuntary situations will produce PTSD: military draft into war; civilian life in battle zones, ghetto drug “war zones,” domestic violence, rape, muggings, certain military training, police beatings, and so on.  Trauma clinicians also know that prior traumatic experience can make people more susceptible to retraumatization—so for instance, a combat veteran who becomes a mountaineer exposed to danger climbing can more quickly re-experience the symptoms obtained in combat.  Further, I will argue below that certain self-destructive PTSD symptoms induce voluntarily undertaking dangerous sports such as climbing—that there is a circular cause and effect, from one trauma to likely voluntary exposure to more trauma, and so on.

My suggestion moreover, is that even if there are no significant traumas before climbing, soon enough traumas in climbing itself can produce the symptoms.  By “trauma” I mean what the American Psychiatric Association PTSD description means: near death or serious injury threat to one’s self, seeing or hearing others die or be injured--especially those close.  (See pp. 271-280 of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition, or DSM-5 Diagnostic Criteria Mobile App.).  So regardless of whether pre-climbing trauma induces one into a sport with serious danger and hardship, the sport itself can produce the symptoms.  While Mallory of Mt Everest fame had been a WW I combat veteran and subsequently had self-destructive trauma symptoms evident in various biographies, it’s not clear what induced the 22 year-old Sandy Irvine in 1924 to climb (and die) with him on Everest.  Irvine was an oarsman, too young for the war, perhaps induced to climb by hope of fame—but he almost surely would have had trauma symptoms had he survived the climb in which Mallory fell.  (Irvine did have some inclination to possible danger, displayed in a very public affair with another man’s wife.)

The importance of PTSD to climbing is this.  Out of 17 possible PTSD symptoms, there are several PTSD symptoms in particular that in interaction can drive the compulsion to experience danger; I think this particular cluster is to be found among the climbers in Coffey’s book.  One is withdrawal from other people—climbing is especially structured for this, both in the leaving of families and partners behind, and in the isolation of one climber from another on rock, snow, or ice—especially at altitude.  Another is emotional numbing, difficulty in feeling emotions.  A third is inclination to self-destruction.  A fourth is foreshortened future—the belief that one will not live long, or succeed in life.  And frequently accompanying PTSD itself is depression—which also bears on emotional numbing, and can further provoke foreshortened future (depression can underlie the boredom some climbers report in life before climbing).

There are also, moreover, other PTSD symptoms that interfere with alert climbing once it is undertaken, such as loss of concentration and difficulty remembering. And finally, it is possible for the traumatized to get some of the other 17 PTSD symptoms without getting the dangerous cluster I note above—but it is that cluster which seems behind repeated, voluntary walking the edge of danger.

Thus, finding a potentially self-destructive activity which stimulates feelings is what is sought—over and over, because each traumatic experience renews the need for a new setting and action to experience feeling finally dulled by the first trauma, in a context of isolation and a sense that a good future is doubtful.  And if you believe you will not live long—why not have the thrill of near-death?  and keep renewing it? This is why, I submit, some climbers call this an addiction.  The problem is expressed in other settings—war correspondents, for instance, who I have heard say, after a tale of losing a companion interpreter or photographer—that nonetheless there is nothing so greatly exciting as war.  If you have to experience threat of death in order to feel alive, you are in trouble.  You have lost track of responsibility to self and others—and the thrill of love, parenting, the arts, political activity, work and all the rest, or at least some of them.

What accounts for some climbers who eventually do leave climbing for family, work, and the rest?  Probably a less strong degree of PTSD, gradual attachment to particularly good partners, family, or work—or stepwise social activity that gradually moves away from the most dangerous and isolated situation to more social and safer atmosphere— and for some, sometimes directly by aid of psychotherapy.

Finally, what accounts for attraction lovers and spouses feel for the climbers even when these (mostly women) are upset by absences, injuries, deaths—and the threat of these?  If I am right, at least some of them will have previously acquired certain trauma symptoms, such as those women mountaineers Coffey mentions who feared or survived sexual assault or war, so that the self-destructive trauma symptoms might attract them to other climbers.  Or they may initially be attracted by what Coffey says seduced her: “sex, drugs, and rock and roll” so to speak—being on the arm of an audacious star in the climbing world, or at a party where a naked couple have sex in the bathtub while others use the toilet, or “alcohol, marijuana, hash, magic mushrooms….” (p. 30)—but at the same time there will be repeated tales of dangerous climbs. There are of course many varied other reasons for love—but whether by accident or caused by trauma, the issue for partners is, does trauma play a role in either choosing, or remaining in the climbing relationship?

As partners experience climbers going away climbing, or can even see these climbers from the base of a cliff, as stories and fantasies of danger occur, as movies show, as trips to base camps happen—what trauma clinicians know (and can experience) is that “secondary trauma” can occur.   To draw a picture: the non-climbing listener does not directly experience their own fall, and so does not have nightmares of their own accident—instead they have nightmares about the fall of the partner telling the tale or climbing in sight, and get their own symptoms that way, with stories or views of danger repeated.

And so we read in Coffey’s book—for partners, a life more solitary because the climber is absent, more dangerous through the danger of loss and grief; more emotionally stimulated with the excitement of a brief safe return and hearing the dangers of the last climb; and with more sense of foreshortened future (threatened loss of the relationship, co-parent, or more).   And overhead --the following shadow of depression.   This is the gist of part of her concluding remark about the death of her climbing lover, and its effect: 

“Learning of (his death) stripped away my desire to live for the future.  My life became the past and the present.  I lived from moment to painful moment, an intense, vivid, and extreme existence in which nothing mattered and anything was possible.  That intensity…was (his) legacy to me…knowing that the end can come suddenly without warning…death jolted me alive.” (p. 225)

Stranger, whatever it is that has kept you alive long enough to read these pages—do not waste the warning issued by Socrates: “The unexamined life is not worth living.”  If you take seriously a meaningful life, go beyond the question Coffey raised but did not answer, examine the unconscious part of that life mountaineering literature avoids.  But if not for yourself, then consider the following as another argument in favor of self-examination.  If you have to come close to death to feel alive—and keep doing that—then look in the eye people beyond Coffey’s fateful, desperate hope for meaningful life.  In Breashears and Salkelds’ “Last Climb”  (1999), the foreword ends with the following words by John Mallory, who was four years old when his father George Leigh Mallory disappeared on Mt. Everest in 1924:

“I would so much rather have known my father than to have grown up in the shadow of a legend, a hero, as some people perceive him to be.”

Gerald Gray

December 2016

NB:  I am compelled to mention possible traumatic effects on the public from which climbers are drawn, of the unattended background of a country very often at war—four wars in my lifetime, consuming at least thirty-four years, including those ongoing at this writing.  To this add the interim war-related traumas of such as the Cuban missile crisis, or the air attacks of 9/11.  Further add the school-related mass shootings, terrorist bombs, torture shown openly as official policy…The British climbing veterans of World War I may have thought they were escaping war in the mountains, but they were in fact connected to it by acting out its symptoms.  America now has many veterans of war….