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The Psychophysiology of a Rock Climber


Submitted by onlycrack on 2007-04-24 | Last Modified on 2007-04-25

Rating: 12345   Go Login to rate this article.   Votes: 5 | Comments: 5 | Views: 16213

by Myles Moser


The physiological and psychological effects on a rock climber are more extreme on the body and the mind, then most activities. The mental and physical aspects of climbing can be affected in many different ways. Many things can change radically to repress the progress of a climber, yet some how they manage to progress forward. By providing the relationship of the psychophysiology of a climber as well as the effects that they feel while facing great disadvantages will prove the sever reality, which rock climbers face.

When climbing one is competing against gravity, time, fatigue, and the mind. Everything is against those who wish to master stone. Yet that is one thing, which separates climbers mentally from the rest of us. They wish to master the stone, not destroy or mane it. Not taking destroy and mane too literally; the rest of us, want to win. Athletes and those who compete in everyday life have egos, which must be satisfied. By wanting this satisfaction, one might use “aggression which can be misused to injure an opponent just to win a game or better oneself in life” (DeVincenzi 16). Athletes and others can be seen as ego-oriented as just described, where as climbers are task-oriented. This means that climbers climb “to intrinsically increase their level of physical competence through task mastery. Task mastery is accomplished through individual practice” (DeVincenzi 16), with this practice comes the physical and mental battles that climbers must over come.

Rock climbers from the average to the elite carry certain physiological traits, which help propel them against the factors trying to hold them back. These key traits being, “energy expenditure, isometric muscular contractions” (Billat et al. 22), muscular strength and capacity, as well as balance. The factors that pose a front for climbers are the sustained contractions of the forearms in addition to other muscles, as well as the elevation of the arms above the head. Other elements that can directly affect are the weather and altitude.

By breaking down these key traits into deeper analysis, they will show how they aid the climber, yet slowly deteriorate the climber. For example, isometric muscular contraction when defined means, “Muscle contraction without movement at the joint” (May 378). This would occur during a biceps curl, when movement is stopped and held. The contracted muscles would be in a sustained position, just as it happens while climbing. When grasping a hold, the arm muscles contract and the joints become stationary. The downside of this is the constant contraction, which causes fatigue. The same occurs with balance. A climber must maintain a somewhat squatted position while making his or her way up the stone. The climber must constantly maintain muscle control of the abdominals, pectorals, quadriceps, obloquies, biceps, as well as the other six-hundred skeletal muscles. The balance needed is much like the isometric muscle contraction because it requires slow movement, which can replicate an almost stationary joint. These movements almost double the rate of fatigue because the whole body must perform, not just one muscular area.

An equally important trait of rock climbers is the ability to control the energy, which they use while climbing. The control that climbers carry may be due to the “Task-oriented” trait, which sets them apart from the rest. The need for climbers to “intrinsically increase their level of physical competence” (DeVincenzi 16) may directly affect there mental state. By effecting there state of mind to become better at the task at hand, they in away have ultimate control of there body. For example, if one was playing football, a cornerback’s job is to defend the receiver at all costs. This means when the ball is thrown; the cornerback must follow the receiver. The cornerback has no choice, but too run. What this forces among the cornerback is a lack of control of the energy, which must be used. Where as a climber is performing for self-congratulation, they have the ability to decide how much energy they wish to use, as well as the ability to slow down or speed up there pace of motion.

Although rock climbers have the ability to choose how they spend there energy and at what pace they wish to climb, one thing they cannot control is the weather. The weather and its freak conditions cannot only physical harm a climber but mentally it can tear one down. Extreme cold can lead to diminished muscular performance, but the combination of heat and dehydration poses a more significant risk. The body is about sixty percent water. This fluid acts a lubricant for all joints in the skeletal makeup. The cartilage in the body, which is also including the joints, is composed mainly of water. “As cartilage surfaces glide over one another, some exposed cells become worn and peel away. New cartilage normally is produced to replace the damaged cells. [But] due to the lack of blood vessels in cartilage, water is needed to transport the nutrients required for maintenance and repair” (Batmanghelidj).Ultimately what dehydration can cause is damage and a delay in repair, resulting in joint pain. This joint pain poses just as great of a threat as muscular fatigue for it effects the isometric muscular contractions.

If the heat does not begin to wear the climber down the cold will. The consequences of being caught in bad weather are the psychological effects that it will pose. The cold slowly begins to chip away at the climbers “morale [which] will rapidly drop until the point [where the climber loses] all interest in the route, [his or her] partner or life itself, often leading to a total loss of interest in the climb” (Kirkpatrick). Becoming cold also allows the climber to be aware of his or her own vulnerability. Once a climber begins to believe that he is vulnerable, doubts begin to set inn. Once doubt is set in place, the climber begins to lose faith in his own personal judgment and his own strengths. When the climber has fallen to deep, in thought he becomes frozen (figuratively speaking). A deep frozen body and mind does not operate properly, this can often lead to errors in judgment, such as failing to navigate correctly, belay safely or thinking problems through properly.

Another psychological aspect that can affect a climber is the thought of fear. When climbing, the climber has everything to worry about; the thought of the rope breaking, the last anchor placement, the height, and a fall occurring runs through most minds. The trick for climbers is the self-congratulatory method. The use of this creates a mental state, which allows them to power through. When completing a “dicey” section, it has been said that climbers will talk to themselves. In away, creating there own mental audience, which never taunts or belittles when a mistake is made. Instead, the self-appraisal encourages and produces cleaner technique. The idea that a motivational climate will maximize the teaching of a skill is completely true. This method has been said to “increase self esteem, mental competitiveness against the body, perfectionism, life satisfaction, sensation seeking” (Yosemite Wildlife Preservation 6), and a “feeling of competence” (DeVincenzi 16). This has also proven to help climbers in a pre-climb sate of mind where they have been found to have low anxiety levels. This is found before, during, after a climb and in every day life. They are found to be more laid back, yet have a tendency to under estimate risk due to there sensation seeking state of mind.

The high risk factor is one of the main reasons why people rock climb. The climbers enjoy and love the rush they get when putting their life on the line. All the things, which could possibly go wrong, are a thrill to them. They find fear attractive in a sense. When world-renowned climber John Middendorf was asked about fear he said, “In general fear can be manipulated, to either stifle a person, or allow that person to channel the fear into different strengths (like kicking in the adrenal glands) (Pei).” The adrenalin high that climbers get, can be compared to lifting weights. Weight lifters enjoy the burning sensation, where as the climber enjoys the adrenal rush. The unique part of climbers is that they can control the adrenalin expenditures by maintaining a collective mindset. This is accomplished through staying focused on only what is in front, remaining calm and trusting personal ability. This allows the climber to go longer without fatiguing, but once the mind shifts to far, it becomes a physiological battle all the way to the top.

The physical battle, which climbers will face, is the body itself. Once a climber has allowed the mind to become too afraid, the body opens the adrenal glands to pull a climber through the rough. The problem with this is the body becomes extremely weary after the use of all the adrenalin. Once this happens, the climber begins to breath quicker and with shorter breaths. Another disadvantage of climbers is most are at high altitudes, which forces them to breath even faster. This is happening because the body is trying to supplement the heart with enough oxygen. While the lungs try to supply the heart, the heart is trying to pump arterial blood through the body. The main area where this oxygenated blood is being absorbed is in the high stressed muscles. A problem that starts to occur in these muscles is lactic acid begins to form. This is due to the lack of oxygen that the muscles should be receiving from the arterial blood. In return, this causes the heart rate of the climber to rise, for the heart is trying to compensate for low levels of oxygen. While the body continues through its cycle, the blood that is carried away from the muscles is now blood lactate. The downside of this is that blood lactate has trace amounts of lactic acid. This process ultimately starts poisoning the body and fatiguing it rapidly. What can occur is lactic acidosis, which is “high levels of lactic acid in the blood, which is potentially fatal” (Fandeck et al. 403). Now that the heart rate is high and the muscles are beginning to absorb lactic acid instead of oxygen, the climber will find he is worried, tired and extremely soar. Often times this can lead to a severe fall or causing the body as well as the mind to completely give up and fold. Once this occurs, the only choice is retreat.

Climbers must endure many feats. They must power through the unpredictable situations of weather. They must control there physical abilities as well as there mental battles for they will overcome the climber. Rock climbing is a sport where one becomes an individual player, who must make all the right choices or accept failure. Failure will try to attack the climber, but for this sport, one must overcome. The body can only take so much pain, but the mind controls the body and the climber controls the mind.

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5 Comments CommentAdd a Comment

 old_duffer
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 2007-04-25
No a bad article. Google brought this up as part of my morning news since I set it up with Rockclimbing as a tag. While climbers may not give a hoot while cruising rc.com about spelling; the fact that a world wide audience can now read what you write points out that you should do your best work....always!. Next time use a spell checker and have someone proof read your work for proper word choice and vocabulary. Do your best....don't guess. Good research and interesting article!
 chronicle
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 2007-07-17
1 out of 5 stars It would be much better if the author knew the difference between "their" and "there". I had to rate it poorly because of vocabulary and grammatical errors.
 woodworker
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 2010-06-24
you people are too critical. good article.
 wrtmac
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 2012-08-17
I think the content is excellent and rating it poorly because of a few misspelled words is nothing more than your inability to recognize the writers experience in this sport. Take your heads out of your asses and realize that bad content is much worse than bad spelling and advice from an inexperienced climber is a waste of my time.
 gethighonarock
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 2012-12-25
Decent, but reads more like a paper to me. Would be more interesting if real climbers of all ages and levels were interviewed about their thoughts on the aspects brought up.

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