Flappers, Gobies, and the Perception of Pain

Climber hands
Pain isn’t absolute; it is increased or diminished by context. Photo: Leici Hendrix.

“If my hands felt this way because they were burned, it would be really upsetting,” she said. “But because they feel like this from climbing hard, I kind of like it. Is that weird?”

Just back from a long session at the climbing gym, my wife held out her hands, palm up, to display skin worn raw from the sandpapery texture of the plastic holds. The callus just below her knuckle had grown so pronounced that she could no longer squeeze her wedding ring over it. Her fingers were tattered and torn, but she presented them with pride.

I didn’t think it was weird. After all, what athlete hasn’t gotten a sense of satisfaction from the pain of hard work? We climbers nearly always return home with some abrasion or other: scraped knees and elbows and ankle bones, hands covered with gobies from being jammed into cracks, bloody flappers on our fingers were rough stone caught soft skin and didn’t let go…

While these injuries might sound bad to an outsider, they are no less than badges of honor, satisfying reminders that we have, for a time at least, embraced our physicality without holding back. Like the soreness from a hard bike ride up a canyon or long day spent skinning up and skiing down, these wounds are the result of passion and dedication, and the associated pain is transformed for it.

The same week my wife made her observation, I heard via Radiolab about a medical study from 1956 called “Relationship of Significance of Wound to Pain Experienced,” which found that soldiers wounded in battle tended to experience less severe pain than civilians who suffered comparable injuries. The reason, the study suggested, wasn’t that soldiers are tougher than everyone else, but that their injuries meant something different to them.

For a soldier in WWII, a gunshot wound might mean a trip home, a way back to the things he loved. For a civilian, the same wound carried little upside: would he be able to work? Would insurance cover the medical bills? How would the injury affect his family? Civilians with gunshot wounds experienced pain more profoundly, amplified as it was by mental anguish, and asked for more painkillers as a result.

“The pain that you feel when you’re hit by the bullet is not just about the bullet,” explains Robert Krulwich in the Radiolab episode titled “Placebo.” “It’s just as much about the story that comes with the bullet.”

Another example of this: have you ever noticed the way professional athletes respond to serious injury, like a torn ACL or badly sprained ankle? The pain visibly grips their bodies and contorts their faces as they lie on the field or the court. Clearly, it hurts like hell, but I think what we’re seeing is the reaction to the frightening implications of such an injury. “For many athletes, their sport is their identity. An injury that takes them out of the game can feel like the end of the world,” wrote a blogger on the topic.

The decades-old study and my wife’s observation went hand in hand. Pain, like so many of the things we experience, is as much in the mind as in the body. When we look at our pain from one angle, it is only pain, only a bad thing. When we come at it from another direction, it becomes a sign of dedication or a chance to grow. Taking control of our inner perception of things, rather than seeking merely to control things themselves, is among the biggest challenges we face in this life, but also, I think, among the most important.

 

Another Kind of Sport

Climber Anna Stohr bouldering at a competition in Colorado.
Who are we competing with when we climb? Anna Stohr at the 2011 Bouldering World Cup in Vail, CO.

On the way back from a day out bouldering, a story came on the radio about some classic pigskin rivalry that I don’t follow. When I got home, I surfed over to Google News and found a headline about an airport shooting with a subhead that read: “Analysis: Hawaii team’s flight for Utah State game could be delayed.” Ah yes, football season, I muttered to myself. It got me thinking about just how different climbing and football really are.

For instance, tens of millions of my countrymen and women spend large chunks of their free time watching other people play sports, rather than engaging in any physical activity themselves. The fantasy football industry alone has been valued at over $70 billion. Meanwhile, a first-place purse in a really big climbing competition might clock in at $5,000, and the number of rock climbers who have achieved household status can be counted on one hand.

To me, the disparity in climbing’s popularity and that of competitive sports like football isn’t so surprising. Team sports are all about drama and performance. The elements of the battle are visually evident. Players collide, snatch balls out of the air, arc hail-Mary passes towards uncertainty, spin and juke and leap over each other…

In climbing, the battle is more internal.

This is why climbing videographers must constantly work to amp things up, focusing on foot-swinging dynos and gut-clenching falls, setting it all to throbbing electronic soundtracks. When Hollywood gets its hands on climbing, it churns out absurdities like Cliffhanger and Vertical Limit, and zooms in on a ropeless Tom Cruise suspended in a reverse iron cross on a sandy desert tower. But climbing is a game played as much on the inner landscape as on the wall. If it is a battle against anything, it is against oneself. This can be hard to translate for mass consumption.

Yes, there are plenty of climbing competitions. I’ve taken part in a few. But the vibe at most of these events is so chill that the competitors cheer each other on instead of psyche each other out. Score is typically kept on the honor system. Climbing events that create the tension of head-to-head combat, like speed climbing, can often feel contrived. High-level competition, while serious, has yet to make it into the public eye or the Olympics, and high-level competitors rarely make magazine covers or command much screen-time in the vids.

I think climbing’s attitude might be a byproduct of its exploratory, if not a little anarchic, roots. It started with mountaineers whose mantra was “to the top, by any means necessary.” With twenty- or thirty-thousand-foot adversaries covered in snow and ice and wracked with avalanches and brutal storms, there was challenge aplenty without further regulation. And while mountaineers constantly seek to climb in better “style,” winning or losing on the mountain is a far more subjective matter than on the gridiron.

ABC’s Wide World of Sports opened with the phrase, “The thrill of victory… and the agony of defeat.” In the climbing sphere, quotes like Alex Lowe’s “The best climber in the world is the one having the most fun,” seem to resonate more strongly. Meanwhile, the modern climbing hero tends to be the first-ascentionist, or the bold free-soloist who risks everything, artfully and for no discernible reason, rather than the competitor festooned with medals. Many of us are happy to remain what Lionel Terray called “Conquistadors of the useless” — there’s a certain freedom in it.

Ultimately, climbing can and should be many things to many people. Right now, there are fledgling gym rats poised to change the way we think of climbing, and there are plenty of climbers who love competing above all else. But I tend think a lot of us out there love the climbing life precisely because there are no numbered jerseys, screaming coaches, or rulebooks. Because we each get to develop firsthand our own understanding of what climbing is over the course of years or, if we’re lucky, a lifetime. Who climb not in spite of but because no one cares whether we reach the top or don’t, and there’s no money in it in either case. Who climb not to beat anything but our own idea of what we can do, after all…