Rock Climbing and Addiction by Jennifer Bateman

Rock Climbing and Addiction: exploring the Links

The theory that rock climbing can help recovering addicts who have, for example, become dependent on substances such as alcohol or drugs has some scientific backing. However,what about rock climbing itself as a source or accelerator of addiction? There are some powerful anecdotes out there about climbers battling addictions and disorders, which are uncomfortably linked to their climbing activities.

Those who have spoken out about becoming addicted to rock climbing include Matt Samet, who was once the editor of the magazine Climbing. In a painstaking and provoking summary of what let him to become a climbing addict, Samet details how his desire to achieve his climbing goals helped him on the path to anorexia; from an early point in his climbing “career” he was on an extreme diet of three apples, and 20 saltines each day, washed down with nonfat cocoa in order to “stay skinny for rock climbing”. Samet’s weight plummeted from 165 to 125 pounds. He outlines how he often did his most dangerous climbs after shovelling down prescription drugs like Ativan and Valium washed down with whiskey from a flask to bury his anxieties about the impending climb. As Samet highlights, successful climbing is so dependent on mental as well as physical strength. As Samet states, “I was able, by soothing my nerves with benzos, to climb 30, 40, 50 feet above the ground in places I didn't belong, ropeless on walls of wafer-thin flakes that rang like china with each tentative knuckle rap”.

A symptom or a cause?

It is clear that rock climbing did not cause Samet’s mental health problems, however. The climbing enthusiast says he had anxiety problems before he really got into the sport. Nonetheless, the links between Samet’s rock climbing and his mental health issues raises a number of questions. They include whether addicts and rock climbers have something very fundamental in common and whether the experience of climbing offers something similar to dangerous and addictive drugs like heroin, cocaine and prescription drugs. Although there is a lack of scientific research in this specific area, some people have groped at some possible explanations of why rock climbing is such a mentally pleasurable experience for many. For example, some people have linked rock climbing to experiencing “flow” or being “in the zone”. “Flow” is definable as "Being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you're using your skills to the utmost," according to the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who was the first to start talking about “flow”.

Many see rock climbing a perfect example of an activity which allows a person to experience “flow”. This is because to feel “flow” you must have a clear objective which has an immediate outcome or reward at the end. In rock climbing, of course, the goal is the summit and the reward is the feeling of achievement at having reached it. The mentally demanding nature of climbing also makes it an ideal example of “flow”, as “flow” activities require high levels of concentration, so that the person escapes mentally from reality and becomes engrossed in their activity, and time ultimately flies.

Addicts and rock climbers: one and the same?

Now let us take a step back and assess what this “flow” state of mind really amounts to. Escapism? Forgetting one’s troubles? A feeling that your life is suddenly simple, and hinged on one single, immediately realisable goal? Are these not the feelings experienced by somebody on prescription pills for a condition like anxiety? Or even somebody on less socially acceptable drugs such as heroin? Is the idea of being completely engrossed in an “achievable” goal and able to ignore the other uncontrollable, chaotic aspects of life not one we associate with disorders like anorexia and bulimia? This is not to say that rock climbing is dangerous and addictive or that rock climbers and hard drug addicts are all one and the same. It probably does not not even indicate that rock climbers are more likely to be addicts or dealing with disorders than those practicing other sports. Perhaps rock climbing offers something which many of us, both addicts and non-addicts, are searching for, however, whether it be termed “flow”, escapism or the feeling of being in control.

It is also important to remember that in some cases climbing can also be a remedy against addiction. It has even offered a form of pleasure to addicts in recovery like Samet. He writes in his article that he has taken up some limited climbing activities, something which he says temporarily frees him of his symptoms.

- Jennifer Bateman.

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