Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Mountain Anxiety - The hoods of our jackets

Mountains, even the small examples we have here in the British Isles, can be dangerous places. Until you actually experience how quickly the weather can change on a mountain, you probably can't quite grasp just how fast and dramatically it can go from clear sunny weather to chilling horizontal hale.

There are reasons why these mountains can make people anxious and I suppose this is, in part what brings visitors onto the mountains time and again. They are wild, they can be barren and even when we are properly prepared, they are dangerous places.

Obvious right?!.well you'd hope so!

I suppose the below is a discussion on flirtation with the understanding of the above and where anxiety fits in.

On my first visit to Snowdon in my adult life, I remember getting vertigo just above the railway bridge, at the top of the [almost] scree slope, the steepest section of the Llanberis path. For the purposes of this post, vertigo is just anxiety focused around height. I was keeping myself well to the left of the path on the way up, to keep as far from the drop as possible. I pushed on as luckily it wasn't a desperate fear. We summited the mountain and that is the first I remember of mountain anxiety.

Since then I have seldom felt uncomforable at height, as I have built up progressively, on slightly more difficult paths, with more and more precipitous drops, each time. I suppose it is simply down to conditioning - The more you experience something the more you become comfortable.

Two things have brought these thoughts about mountain anxiety forward -

1. My older brother started rock climbing at university. I am jealous. I would like to start doing the same and then transfer it from the wall onto the rock faces of real mountains. I have been considering taking this next step for a while, though it is just another activity to fit into the already crowded life. Then there is also the other aspect, the progression of hiking into the winter aspect of mountaineering, crampon and ice axe required. I have wondered, whether in taking these further steps, I am likely to experience anxiety. I expect so.

2. I have recently been part of a few friend's first forays into the mountains. It was the first time in a while I have experienced mountain anxiety (indirectly) and it seems to have all come at once. One friend, bit of an animal, talks about his vertigo here and it was awesome to be alongside him as he mastered himself to overcome. The other experience came from a friend who became uncomfortable in high winds.

Naturally, we feel exposed, we feel miles from anything we would regard as comfort. And in the mountain environment, everything seems to exacerbate these issues. Tiredness, warmth (or lack of), then the weather. Mist, rain, hail, snow and wind. Each acts independently, but conspire to increase anxiety. Then the most unlikely of culprits and one that you may only have considered an aid - the hoods of our jackets. I have thought about before but tested the other day.

Hoods are an interesting one, because they present us with a far reaching opposite to that which the mountains naturally bring. Confinement. Humans are rediculous huh?! You present them with an exposed, open space and they get scared of the exposure. You present them with confinement and the same happens. Humans feel very comfortable existing in finite conditions, finding a middle ground of comfort. A home, not confined, but not hugely expansive, protected from the extremes of the elements and conditions within our control. This it seems is what modern life is about, seeking the best ways to find those most comfortable conditions. A heated house, with water on tap, equipment for any eventuality.

How ironic that in pushing for these finite conditions, we are irreversibly pushing our planet towards a state of incomprehensible extremes.

So I found that having a hood up, on a mountain, for me actually increased the feelings of insecurity. This might become a huge post if we discuss these things at length, but in discussiont the other day, my mountain colleagues and I thought about a few points.

Peripheral vision - loss of peripheral vision, if even partly is not going to be a positive. Being an animal, this is one thing we rely upon for our protection is our sight, part of our survival awareness I suppose. To be unsighted is to be apprehensive, even if just by a small amount.

Feeling of being enclosed. Even if we are not, to feel that we are enclosed has an affect on our interpretations. Our head is where most of our awareness is centred, so to confine our head is paramount when it comes to experience. It is like when you put on a tight full face helmet for the first time, it is by no means a comfortable experience, or put yourself down a caving hole, where you can't move or lift your head. [I suppose this combines, both the confinement and unsighted points and you wonder why you'd be uncomfortable]

Created atmosphere - So, yes, it is windy, but with a hood up, your perception of wind is scewed. It seems weird, but this is how I felt. As soon as I took my hood off the other day, my grasp of my immediate environment became much clearer and the ominous atmosphere that I felt, faded away. I enjoyed it much more, despite being pounded by sideway rain/hail and getting a numb face. Up until a point this is quite fun!

Maybe these above points, are just my feelings, I don't know. I'd be interested to hear what others have to say.

This weekend I plan on heading to Snowdonia again. I am taking my rock climbing brother. He hasn't done 'real' rock climbing yet, and hasn't spent any time in the mountains so I will be interested to see him experience some proper heights and see whether mountain anxiety makes an apperance for him.

I just find it so interesting that people have such different relationships with mountains. It is fantastic to share these things with people. I look forward to again feeling mountain anxiety. If you're experiencing mountain anxiety - it normally means you'll be pushing yourself, your skills, your appreciation and invariably this leads to having a darn good time, and if not - then at least some good old life experience.

And next time you have your hood up, take a minute and put it down. See if you can understand what I mean!


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