True Rock Climbing Facts

Here at The Stone Mind, one of our core missions is to shine the unwavering light of scientific research into the darkest corners of the climbing universe. We wish to show things that perhaps would not be evident to the untrained eye. Here, we’ve used the most current sociological methods and also recent exciting developments in big data mining to create new insights and bring them to you in the form of these handy infographics…

What are we doing at the climbing gym?

happening-at-climbing-gymIn a five-year longitudinal study following over 10,000 climbers who frequent the gym one or more times per week, and whose ages, genders, and socioeconomic status run the gamut, we found that the most common climbing gym activity, by a large margin, is socializing, and that a wide variety of non-climbing activities account for the lion’s share of the average individual’s time.

Relative likelihood of dropping a piece of climbing gear

climbing-gear-drop-chancesAdding nuance to Murphy’s Law, which states “Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong,” we present this near-perfect linear relationship between the critical nature of a piece of climbing gear and the likelihood that said piece of gear will be dropped. Therefore, if you will need to perform many rappels, you are likely to drop your belay device. If you are facing a long section of technical ice on your summit bid, chances are good that you’ll bobble one or both ice tools. On the other hand, virtually no one will ever drop their Nipple Portable Bluetooth™ Speaker.

Trends in climbing fashion over time

climbing-fashion-trends-chartThe style trends of the modern climber have changed considerably since the 1970s, but as this chart shows, certain items (Spandex pants, headbands or bandanas, and tank tops, for example) are making a strong return to favor. For those who want to stay ahead of the fashion curve, these figures also indicate it might be time to get those work pants and rugby shirts out at the crag again.

When In Doubt, Go Higher

Looking out from the Lost Canyon Trail, Zion. Photo: Justin Roth / The Stone Mind

“When in doubt, go higher.” It’s the tagline for a classic outdoor publication called the Mountain Gazette. I worked at the paper briefly, once upon a time.

“…Go higher.” It’s a fun little phrase, though, if not one apt to get you into trouble. (“When in doubt, go down” might have better served many an unfortunate climber or backcountry skier, alas.) Still there’s something to it. It resonates with a certain type of person.

When I was young, I unintentionally lived by this dictum. I went too high up the giant conical pine trees in our front yard and came down covered in insoluble sap. No more than six years old, I chossaneered up short, exfoliating shale cliffs in the ravine by my house in what felt like Honoldian feats of soloing.

“When in doubt, go higher” was knocking around my head this weekend as my wife and I plodded up Zion National Park’s steep Hidden Canyon Trail. What makes going up so damned appealing, I wondered?

I’ve been reading a book called The Story of the Human Body: Evolution, Health, and Disease, by Daniel Lieberman, which offers evolutionary explanations for many of our traits, from skeletal structure to mental issues and food tastes. The book, in theory points towards a possible answer to the above question.

Maybe many of us feel an unconscious pull towards higher ground for the same reason that bodies of water are almost universally attractive: at some point, they might well have been instrumental to our survival.

According to The Story of the Human Body, our evolutionary ancestors of 5-8 million years ago—our last common ancestor (LCA) with chimps, its believed—lived most of their lives at height. The LCA, a primate, sought out high perches for sleeping as a means of protection from predators. Most modern monkeys and apes sleep in trees, and chimps even build comfy nests there. Gelada baboons spends their nights like big-wallers, dozing on cliff faces.

Human ancestors not only sought shelter high above the earth, but they found sustenance there, too. Sub-Saharan Africa, where the LCA lived, was a warm and wet place around 10 million years ago. Rainforests there would have been abundant sources of nutrient-rich fruits.

But between 10 and five million years ago, a cooling climate caused the rain forests to recede. In their place grew up woodland habitats where ripe fruits became, as Lieberman puts it, “less abundant, more dispersed, and more seasonal.” To cope, the LCA started walking more and more on two legs, venturing out in search of additional sustenance.

Obviously, we humans still walk on two legs and no longer live in trees. But like many old, seemingly outdated biological traits picked up along the evolutionary way, a love of getting up off the ground has stuck with us. One might call it a vestige of a former life.

So then maybe “When in doubt, go higher” is a phrase born subconsciously from an ancient pull towards a vantage point that offered some comfort in a wild and dangerous world. Go higher for a view of any large carnivores lurking on the horizon. Go higher for those pulpy fruits that fuel a hungry metabolism…

Go higher for a sense of peace and freedom that many of us to this day seek on the cliffs and mountains, despite the enormous changes that have made the modern world all but indistinguishable from the one our ancestors navigated millions of years ago.

The Secret to Great Tasting Beer

The Taipan Wall at sunset - The Stone Mind

This is the story of the best beer I’ve ever had. It wasn’t a fancy beer, by any means. In fact, I think it was the sort you could buy in any grocery store or gas station in that part of Australia. But in the years since I imbibed this particular brewski, it has remained in my memory while a thousand other beers, many of more prestigious pedigree, have come and gone. You’ve probably had a similar experience—maybe not with beer, but with whatever aprés-climb beverage you prefer—and I guess now there’s even a scientific explanation for the whole phenomenon.

*   *   *

The hike from the Stapylton Campground to the Taipan Wall starts with a steep climb up a long stone slab. You follow a winding dirt path, dodge a few grazing kangaroos (not really… but possibly), navigate some tightly vegetated corridors, and arrive drenched in sweat 30 minutes later at one of the most epic pieces of stone ever bolted. The boldly streaked orange face rises with steady overhang 200 feet into the air and shrinks horizontally into the distance as if without end. The routes themselves are mostly questing and run-out. As such, they require great technical skill to ascend, or, barring that, preternatural endurance. An iron constitution, common amongst the local climbing populace, is also handy here.

On my visit I had only middling technique and a constitution of a more malleable sort (perhaps copper or tin?), not to mention a boulderer’s endurance. Luckily, my belayer, who I’d met in the campground, was trustworthy, encouraging, and loaned me his No. 2 Camalot that would end up keeping me off the deck on the first of many long falls I’d take during my early encounters with the great wall of Taipan.

All told, my first day was a long one, what with the early morning approach, the sandbagged routes, the many hours of exertion with minimal provisions (thanks to a tight budget and poor planning), and the return to the car at dusk. Back at the parking lot, one of my new Aussie compatriots, glowing from a hard-fought last-go-best-go send, handed me a cold one. I pried it open with a lighter and stood in the dark next to his van with the small crew of down-under rock jocks.

The chilled bottle glass soothed my fingertips, worn raw from the grit of the stone. My exhausted shoulder quivered as I lifted the beer to my lips. But when the malty ambrosia flooded my dehydrated mouth, a radiating warmth cascaded down through my body. I was divided: should I guzzle the whole thing in an effusive paroxysm of gustatory joy? Or would it be better to nurse it, to better savor each effervescent sip? I chose the latter, growing mellower and mellower as the bottle drained into my empty stomach, until finally the world faded into mellow satisfaction and I was left starting up into the shimmering mist of stars, phasing into existence above our heads.

You’ve probably guessed it by now, but it was the exertion, the tribulations, yes even the acute pain of a long day spent grappling with a soaring wall of stone that resulted in a transubstantiation of a lowly beer into a Hero Beer—the type of beer that you taste on a nigh-molecular level rather than just swill down perfunctorily.

Though this phenomenon has been long known to outdoors people, there appears to be some new science to back it up. In a recent study on the effects of pain on the experience of pleasure, a team asked participants to hold their hands in a bucket of ice water for as long as they could, then gave them a cookie (on a side note: where do I sign up for these studies?). Not only did those who held their hand in the bucket indicate enjoying the cookie more, but follow-up studies showed that “pain increases the intensity of a range of different tastes and reduces people’s threshold for detecting different flavours.” Of course, we don’t need a study to tell us that food and drink taste better after a gnarly outing, but it’s interesting to know that there’s more to it than just being hungry and thirsty.

The same study pointed out that the pain of physical exertion can cause our bodies to produce opioids responsible for feelings of euphoria, that pain focuses our attention and “brings us in touch with our immediate sensory experience of the world,” and that pain helps to create bonds between individuals who’ve experienced it together. These findings point to so many of the things we love about climbing (transcendence, immediacy, camaraderie), and remind us that the absence of pain does not, in fact, equal pleasure. Pain, at lest a certain type of it, can actually be a key to pleasure—at least to the deep, resonant pleasure that climbers experience during and after an experience lovingly known as a “sufferfest.”

This study also leads us to reconsider so-called “alpinist’s amnesia,” which leads many a battered, malnourished, and frostbitten mountaineer to return to the peaks that flogged them. Maybe it’s not that they forget the pain, but that they actually crave its side-effects, among them a heightened sense of reality.

Plus, it makes even a cheap beer taste amazing.

Watch and Learn: The Importance of Observation in Improving Climbing Technique

climbers_watching

When my wife Kristin started going regularly to the climbing gym by her office around eight months ago, she was a beginner in every sense: strength, technique, and confidence. Up until then, when we went bouldering together I’d use the following criteria to help her find a problem to work on: I had to be able to do the problem in my approach shoes or sandals, sans chalk, and without at any point showing signs of exertion.

This past weekend, Kristin nearly finished a powerful V4 in the gym, opting to back off the scary final move rather than risk an out-of-control fall. Around the new year, she climbed a two V3s outside, pushing through the dicey top-outs that would have been non-starters just months previous. I told Kristin how impressed I was with her progress, particularly her technique and footwork, which has developed at least as fast as her strength.

“Well, I’ve been watching you and your friends climb for years,” she said, as if just observing more experienced climbers could account for her progress. At first I dismissed the comment, but maybe there’s something to it.

When a beginner asks how to become a better climber, the most common answer is, “Just get out and climb.” This response seems glib at first, as if denying the value of specific training for climbing. In part it’s an attitude that harkens back to the adventurous roots of climbing, the focus on self-reliance and toughness, nature and soul. It wasn’t so long ago that climbers like Tony Yaniro were berated for training for specific routes or problems; to the old guard it seemed out of keeping with the spirit of things.

But I also think “Just climb” is an acknowledgment of the fact that climbing is a very complex activity, involving a limitless combination of body movements over a surface, from slab to vertical to overhanging. Different rock types and formations create a vast array of features and varying coefficients of friction. Climbers of different shapes, sizes, and strengths all must solve the puzzle of the rock differently. Strength is useful, yes, but there are many more important lessons to learn.

To be able to climb well and smoothly, according to the book Performance Rock Climbing, by Dale Goddard and Udo Neumann, climbers must build a library of “engrams”—scripts for movement etched in the brain through physical practice. “Even when climbing a route for the first time,” Goddard and Neumann write, “a vast library of engrams allows you to recognize the moves that a particular arrangement of holds requires.”

How better to add engrams to your library, then, than to climb as many different types of rock and experience as many different movements as possible? In light of this, “Just get out and climb” doesn’t seem so glib. It might actually be the fastest route to improvement!

Interestingly, studies suggest that physical practice isn’t the only way to learn. Watching activates very similar pathways in the brain as does doing, which is what Kristin must have been picking up on. A 2009 paper by Scott T. Grafton, M.D., showed that the same regions of the brain are activated while performing an action and watching someone else perform it. “When we watch a video of a dancer, motor areas of the brain might activate automatically and unconsciously—even though our bodies are not actually moving—to find familiar patterns that we can use to interpret what we are watching. In other words, some sort of resonance takes place between the circuits for observing and for doing.” The study also showed that experienced dancers’ brains lit up more when watching familiar dances, suggesting that the connection between observation and action strengthens with experience.

Watching and then doing and then watching and then doing—could it be a kind of feedback loop that allows for a more rapid development of body awareness, of mental and physical connections between the way a movement feels and looks, and the results it yields on the rock? In a video recording his climbs at the 2014 Hueco Rock Rodeo, Sean McColl explained that he selected certain problems because he had access to footage of himself sending them in the past. Being able to watch himself climb a problem successfully likely helped Sean refamiliarize himself with the movements faster, reactivating brain pathways that had lain dormant without requiring him to actually get on the problem.

What I take from all this is that climbing with climbers better than yourself is one way to improve, and not just because their sick skillz inspire you to try harder. Plus, now you don’t have to feel guilty about spending so much time watching climbing videos—you might actually be upping your game in the process.