online chat rooms, cliff-side campgrounds — you hear the words, “I’m addicted to climbing.” Yet when most climbers speak of their climbing “addiction,” they don’t really mean a medical condition, like alcoholism or a tobacco addiction. Indeed, many lifelong climbers feel that there’s no such thing as a climbing addiction. Alpinist Jack Tackle, for example, says he doesn’t buy the addiction moniker. “I think instead it’s about passion. I think the real issue is what makes climbing so unique as a
n the mid-1990s, Mic Fairchild of Boulder, Colorado, soloed a dozen or more routes nearly every day in nearby Eldorado Canyon. “When I started climbing I was logging all my pitches, but when you climb 15 to 20 pitches a day it gets to be too much, so I started using an altimeter watch and tracking vertical mileage,” Fairchild explained. With his altimeter, Fairchild routinely measured days of 1,500 to 2,000 vertical feet. He peaked in 1998 with 98,000 vertical feet of technical climbing before Labor Day, when he was severely injured in a fall in Eldorado Canyon. Fairchild is certain he was — and remains — addicted to climbing. “Both physically and emotionally, I would have to say, yeah. The adrenal squeeze is something you get used to — especially all the soloing I did. I’d get up in the morning and say, ‘I have to solo Ruper today,’ and nothing else was going to happen until I did it.” After his accident, Fairchild suffered “raging depression.” He climbed again the day his doctor told him he could bear full weight on his legs, and last year, he says, “I had a good summer, back up to 1,500 feet a day, kind of like the old days.” Unhealthy? Not according to Fairchild. “It’s like the expression, ‘I can stop whenever I want to, but I don’t want to,’” he says. “I go to great places, meet interesting people. If that’s what addiction is, then I’m happy to have it.”
longtime editor of the Canadian Alpine Journal, says climbers can get habituated to climbing, “but to categorize it as addiction takes away from the experience of true addicts, who truly have no choice in what they do. For a junkie, other things that used to be pleasurable are taken over by the habit. For example, sex [for a drug addict] stops being pleasurable. For most climbers, that’s certainly not the case.” Rather, what “addicted” climbers probably have is a dependency, a strong impulse to climb that takes precedence over almost everything else in their lives. (See the sidebar “Do you have a climbing dependency?” on page 76 for a self-test.) Little research has been directed specifically at the psychology of climbing, but the phenomenon of exercise dependence is well documented among runners, weight lifters, cyclists, swimmers, dancers and other athletes. In clinical tests, die-hard runners who were asked to halt their workouts showed mood changes including pronounced anxiety, depression, irritability, sleeplessness and loss of appetite. Why do some climbers become dependent on the sport? One reason, says Ripperger, is that climbing is one of only a few sports that affects us in “every major life area: psychological, physical, social and spiritual [the adventurous and aesthetic experience].” Powter believes the psychological and social aspects of the sport are paramount in fostering a climbing dependency. First among these is the positive reinforcement one gets from non-climbing admirers (“You climbed Everest? That’s so cool!”) and, more important, from peers (“That dyno was sooo rad!”). For some with a climbing dependency, Powter adds, climbing is the most — or only — fulfilling aspect of their lives. “When these guys go out every day, it’s because they don’t have anything else in their lives,” he says.
"At a certain level, climbing is such a mind-saturating activity that you can't be without it." — Henry Barber
Addiction or passion? Similar to Fairchild, the population of climbers is permeated with athletes who believe they are addicted to the sport. Anywhere climbers gather — cheap restaurants,
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sport or athletic activity that, for serious climbers, it becomes a lifestyle.” Joe Ripperger M.D., a longtime climber and psychiatrist with a practice in Norman, Oklahoma, agrees with Tackle. A true addiction, he says, “is a mental disorder that involves destructive, pleasure-causing drugs, a physical dependence to these drugs and dishonest behavior. Even when climbing is done excessively these elements aren’t present. To say that climbing is addictive is to say that a workaholic is addicted to work, or a Buddhist monk is addicted to meditation.” Geoff Powter, a clinical psychologist and
Climbing as a drug Another reason climbers may develop a dependency is because exercise often produces vivid, drug-like senses of pleasure. Climbing causes the brain to release the feelgood chemical dopamine, stimulating the “reward pathways” in the brain. Some researchers speculate that it is, in part, the desire for repeated dopamine charges that leads people to keep drinking, taking drugs
he therapist looked at me with an expression of borderline shock. I had been talking about the personal turmoil I suffered while trying to both climb hard and maintain a long-term relationship. I wanted to spend maximum time on big walls and in the mountains, but my priorities and those of my significant other’s were pulling us apart. I told the therapist that when I climbed I felt energized, and when I couldn’t I felt depressed. “You sound just like my crack-addict patients,” said the therapist, during a lull. Me? An addict? I didn’t think so. But if there was a kernel of truth in what she said, was that necessarily a bad thing?