Mallory’s classic reply, ‘because it’s there’ when asked why he wanted to climb Everest, belies the truth behind the psychological benefits that some high-risk climbers, such as traditional climbers and mountaineers gain from their risk-taking sport.
The pandemic locked us away from our favourite outdoor sports. At the same time, it provided researchers at Bangor University the opportunity to study how not being able to go alpine-standard mountaineering or traditional climbing affected devotees of those sports.
The findings showed a loss of far greater than an enjoyment of the great outdoors.
Though they may not consciously be aware of why they choose to head for the mountains and crags, for certain individuals, taking part in high-risk sport actually helps them to manage their emotions.
Part of the appeal of climbing and mountaineering is the opportunity to overcome challenges, which can be mental and emotional as well as physical. Achieving those challenges is why climbers and mountaineers in particular, need to head back to the hills for more.
Research by sports psychologists Dr Marley Willegers and Prof Tim Woodman at the University’s Institute for the Psychology of Elite Performance showed that the value of these experiences for mental health was great, but it was not sustained for long periods of time.
“Typically in our society, risk-taking is seen as a negative and something that should be pushed aside. But people who take part in certain high-risk sports are not ‘sensation-seeking’ and don’t crave the adrenaline rush. There’s something else taking place.
“People who feel that they have little control over their daily lives, who feel like a ‘pawn’, can be drawn to high-risk sports where they are able to exercise control over strong emotions, such as fear, and take actions that dictate whether they succeed or die. The benefits of this emotional control in high-risk situations are then transferred back into daily life.
“It follows therefore, that the longer these individuals spend away from their activity, the more difficult they find it to exercise control over their emotions in society.
“This is borne out by our findings which showed that, when compared to low-risk sporting participants, only mountaineers and traditional climbers experience an increased difficulty managing their emotions and sense of control over their lives in the time after participation. In other words, the emotional difficulty mountaineers and traditional climbers experience in domestic society pulls them back to the high-risk climbing domain to once again feel a sense of control.”