Now, what has a picture of myself atop Aiguille Purtscheller, taken during my recent climbing holyday in the French Alps, to do with the subject of this mini-series? And, more in general, with my pet subject of the nature of consciousness? Well, a lot, as it turns out. But this, as it is often the case, requires quite some explaining, as there are a number of different and apparently unrelated themes that converge in this article.
First of all, and very briefly, my own personal experience (hence the picture). I came to mountaineering relatively late in my life, at age 48. Up until then I never was a particularly sporty person, always fighting a few excess kilos and, especially, I was simply petrified, incapacitated by the fear of heights. A “karmic” chance encounter with one of the world’s top mountaineers changed everything in 2008, and since then this newly acquired passion has completely taken over – and literally transformed – my life. I started training, quite seriously, and for the first couple of years I put myself through hell in order to surmount my innate fear of heights. Over and above the many actual summits I reached during these last, momentous eight years, overcoming such major fear as an adult was for me an incredible adventure of the human spirit.
However, and here we start slowly approaching our subject, as I begun training it became quickly apparent that I was not improving as I should. After years of going out running or cycling three, four days a week, every week, my overall stamina have improved greatly, but my peak aerobic capacity is not significantly better today than it was when I was doing nothing. And, in terms of sheer muscle power, my training at the indoor climbing wall showed that I had a pretty low “ceiling” in terms of the technical difficulties I could negotiate, and my levels did not improve. Until recently, that is, but I’m getting ahead of myself.
Baffled – and intensely annoyed – by this lack of progress in my physical performance despite training, I looked up possible explanations and I quickly understood what was going on. It turns out that I belong to the roughly one in six who, because of genetics, will not improve regardless of what they do in training. This in itself was quite a discovery for me, as very few in the sports world seem to be aware of the solid research available. Readers interested in the fate of the so-called “low responders” can read this useful article.
I should simply have settled for this. After all, despite my “low responder” status I find myself today, at age 56, in what I consider an excellent overall physical form – certainly the best of my life. And – what’s really important – I can achieve most of my mountaineering goals.
However, when you are really passionate about something it’s only natural that you want to do it really well. Not being a world champion – that’s unrealistic – but improving, feeling that you are getting better. And, more in general, I don’t like the idea of “absolute” limitations. So I keep training, and I keep looking for something that I could change, something different I could do to help me break the “glass ceiling”.
And here my interest in consciousness studies came into play, particularly concerning the complex, powerful and poorly understood relationship between mind and body. Are these limitations to some extent self-imposed? Since thoughts have been clearly shown to influence inanimate matter and biological systems alike, isn’t there perhaps a form of meditation, or a psychological technique of some sort, which would allow me to overcome my limitations?
But, alas, we are looking here at a genetically determined condition. And genes are exactly the kind of “absolutes” that – whether I like or not – determine who we are and what we can and cannot do. Or, are they?
So, in my eternal restlessness and feeling that I had nothing to lose, I decided to try out an “evidence-based energy psychology technique” and…
You have to understand, dear reader, that in the world of climbing a number of factors contribute to determine the technical difficulty of a particular route. How sheer the face is, to begin with, from sloping slabs to vertical walls all the way to hard overhangs. The number, placement, nature and shape of both hand and foot holds, then, and the nature of the rock itself (certain kinds of stone give better grip). The combination of these factors determine how hard a route is, and that is expressed in grades. The French system I am most familiar with uses a number (from 3 to 9), a letter (a, b, c) and a + sign. 3a is where you start having to use your hands in order to climb, 5a/5b are the levels of traditional mountaineering (5c+ is what was once considered the hardest you could climb without resorting to aid climbing), and from 6a onwards one enters the world of modern sports climbing.
You also have to understand that, although these look like simple numbers and letters, the levels of difficulty they represent are immediately detectable – they really are ceilings. For all these years, I would climb comfortably at 5b, I had to put in a real effort at 5b+, 5c felt like my limit, and at a real stretch I could do a few moves of 5c+. Beyond that used to lie a vast universe of impossibilities (the hardest route in the world is currently rated at 9b…)
Yesterday, I climbed a 6b route.
I hope all this talk about my passion has not put you off, for what started as a “why not?” experiment turned for me into a little quest for knowledge and understanding. I discovered most interesting research and literature which go at the very core of our shared interest in human consciousness and its power to affect our environment… and ourselves!
In the next, and last, article of this mini-series I will introduce the “evidence-based energy psychology technique” I mysteriously alluded to, and review some of the extraordinary research. Until then, if you really, really are not bored out of your mind with my mountain thing, you can watch this 6 minute movie on one of my last summer’s climbs.