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A Rock Climber Reads Flight Psychology

Submitted by fjielgeit on 2005-03-30 | Last Modified on 2006-12-10

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My avocation is rock climbing, vocation is aeronautics. Leafing through a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) safety bulletin on flight psychology and risk management, I thought, "these principles relate to me as an alpinist." If I can use them, other rock craftsmen might want to take a gander. I’ll read anything to improve my game and keep me safe up there. The author(s) describe thinking hazards pilots (read: rock climbers) can fall into. Some of this issues will be obvious, others more subtle.

Peer pressure. The best stone masters use positive peer pressure as a means to improve, to challenge one another to sketchier boulder problems, harder pitches, or higher crags. Peer pressure can also be negative. On the bottom of Donner Lake, California, near the Tahoe basin, there is a plane -- now a tomb -- containing the bones of a great ski racer, mountaineer and pilot.

In the late 1950's, Dick would impress his fans or tourists by flying under the Old Donner Summit Bridge, then barrel roll over the lake. He did it one too many times. A stall did him in (in a stall, aerodynamic “lift” is lost when air flow over the wings disappear, at low altitude a crash is inevitable).

I've seen this trait crop up at the crags. At Lovers Leap many years back, a superb young climber I’ll call Speedy Gonzales tried to catch up with Yosemite legend TM Herbert and show his skill. On the next route over from TM –- Hospital Corner I think, and two pitches below -- Speedy’s hurry to shoot up the rock caused him to pitch off and scream earthward for a hundred feet. He never met TM and TM never knew the youth cracked up, went to the hospital.

There was little wrong with Mr. Gonzales’ mind set; it was the combination of factors of climbing too fast and no pro that hurt him. As rock climbers, we are taught to think in linear and non-linear ways. Translation: Climbing is a logical, sequential activity, repeat basic techniques with a high level of skill and concentration over and over on plumb line terrain (linear). If we tell ourselves we cannot do a certain move or pitch (whether excuse or the truth), we probably won’t be able to do it. Now put the shoe on the other foot. We can do amazing things on occasion, like the times we climbed outside of ourselves, reaching stupendous heights way beyond our norm because we listened to some other voice in our heads or we had to in order to survive (non-linear approach).

My first 5.10 lead in 1977 was minutes after I broke three ribs when my rope mate crashed onto my back as I hunched into the wall trying to avoid this event. DK couldn’t do the crux, sliced his fingers when they ripped out of the crack. My turn a hundred feet off the deck. My first red point, no beta.

There are times we must think radically due to injury or weather or time of day, then adapt, adjust, or ad lib as needed. Elite rock climbers have huge inner encyclopedias of experience and knowledge to draw from. They can rearrange their mind set when the mountain gods throw rocks at them, or human bodies, or an electric storm. Average rock climbers who think they are aces, who climb in the same optimal conditions, could have problems coping when the unexpected happens. Unlike super climbers, weekend warriors with a crisis may be in a mental fog trying to come up with appropriate solutions.

A climber's mind set can expand without setting foot on stone. A good way is to keep reading magazines, and study –- practice -– the lessons at home. Read a new rope trick, practice in a big tree. Then do it blind folded. Got a new belay device? Throw a bag of rocks out of that same tree and catch this dead weight. Mind set can also be destructive . . .

I was at Bald Rock Dome in the Southern Sierra Mountains of California. We were camping next to a group and I recognized a one time hot (HOT!) climber who had let himself get totally out of shape and fat (FAT!). Big boy hadn’t set foot to stone in a year. Around the campfire, Hot Shot kept the embers glowing with tales of past glory. A novice would have thought he invented the sport. The next morning he was climbing next to us on a dicey 5.10 trad route. Hot Shot had a top rope on the first pitch that had a dog leg right traverse about thirty feet up. Problem: because of the lay of the land (an uphill gulley just right and below route), and where the lead climber had put his first tcu, (way above the scoliotic gash), any fall on that traverse would be a pendulum smack to the ground. I mentioned this crack up potential. “No problem!”

Hot Shot hoisted a pack full of cameras (his weight now over two hundred and fifty pounds). Up, up he huffed then slipped. With a loose rope from above, he rocketed right into the earth. Belayer was jerked off his stance, eyes as big as flying saucers, a mouth as round as that in the painting The Scream by Munch, holding on with everything he had. The sound of ankle bones snapping shook us all up.

Get-there-itis is number three. Haste makes waste, my mom used to say. For the pilot, when the urge to land is postponed by the need to fly more miles, impatience may impair judgment which can create tunnel vision. Pilot fixes attention on the airport, other options or instruments are ignored. Seen any climbers like this?

In psychology, there is a concept called Figure Ground. You may remember this from college Psych 101, the black and white picture of the woman wearing a hat with a plume? Those new to this way of thinking train their sight on black or white and miss the outline of the dame, the scene blurs together. Take this exercise into the cockpit or on the rocks. In flight, the ability to visualize the big picture, know where you are in time and space, scan avionic dials, listen to engine(s), change focus to another particular issue and see it in clear detail (figure ground), let's not forget peripheral vision. All these vital avian aspects requiring attention are perceptual awareness. Good climbers (especially instructors) are this kind of person. No ADHD here (Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder). The antidote for get-there-itis? Patience and a disciplined but flexible mind that is not distracted, mesmerized, frustrated.

Duck-under syndrome. The FAA has exact rules for a pilot flying VFR (Visual Flight Rules) that must be followed. These mandates begin with visibility minimums such as, when flying the pilot cannot come closer to a cloud than 2,000 feet horizontal and stay a thousand feet above or 500 feet below. Reason? White out conditions and aviators is a bad mix (vertigo, loss of horizon and death spirals). Duck under a cloud on a landing approach and this may be a place to practice dead reckoning. Climbers don’t have FAA to worry about, just the same we need an inner Doppler Radar to warn us off certain climbs.

Willy and I did a high Sierra rock climb on a day we expected rain. We picked a line with a sure and quick exit just in case. We got a true alpine start (5AM). The storm snuck up on the other side of the peak about noon. When the first lightening bolt hit the citadel above our heads and shot 30,000 volts into our hands (jammed into the crack, electricity follows path of least resistance I.e. the crack), we knew Thor was in the thunderhead. Hail the size of golf balls rung our helmets like gongs as we got to tree line and ducked under a boulder for cover. Can’t do too much about such storms except train by going through them, surviving and learning so our encyclopedia of experience has more pages in it for the next go-around (when to avoid, eh?).

Scud running. The author(s) define scud running as going beyond the performance maximums of pilot (skill) and plane (structural strength). The premiere aerobatic pilots know and respect their limits, and that of the plane. Donner Lake Dick was a scud runner. The best pilots and climbers push the envelope sometimes, but they all know when to stop, most of the time. I'd rather admit defeat and alter climb plans than fall prey to peer pressure, mind set, get-there-itis, duck-under, scud running, or . . .

Getting behind the aircraft. Many pilots are afraid of their airplane. Put another way, their aircraft is better than their flying ability. I taught skiing for many years. One of the most common student learning problems we instructors saw was poor skiers on performance skis. These people, non-aggressive and timid, were always behind their boards. The skis wanting to race down the mountain when the skier could barely snowplow turn!

My wife is good with horses. We once had three mounts to ride, only Lynlee could handle the Arabian stallion. His name? Flash, and for good reason. Lyn had tight reins on that steed. She was in command, on top of that stud, and Flash knew it. This gal is an Amelia Earhart in a saddle. A soft touch, firm hands, an assertive but kind voice. When I learn to fly, this is the type of sagey rudder jockey I want to emulate. This is the type of climber my mentor Joel Moore instilled in me.

Loss of positional or situational awareness. This topic has been alluded to, and could occur in many of the preceding errors in judgment. I once ascended the east face of Mt. Whitney in the Sierra Nevada mountains of California, a strenuous all day assault (East Face Route, IV, 5.7). The route topped out on the 14,500-foot summit where my comrade and I were to spend the night. Weather conditions were fantastic, warm air rising off the Owens Valley, hang gliders circled in thermals at our elevation, a lone glider soaring at twenty thousand feet. Military jets from China Lake Naval Air Base roared past. But there was a dilemma, all the way up, we saw a party of four below, moving slow.

The closer we got to the summit, the sooner we would face sunset and the freezing night air. We were prepared for a bivouac, the quad were not, wearing nothing more than t-shirts, shorts, and boots. We could tell they had no concept of the time or their precarious situation. They had lost their bearings -- situational awareness -- due to a combination of factors such as fatigue (Mountain Sickness), underestimating the length and difficulty of the face, exaggerating their own ability, plus, finding out later after we helped them survive, there was a beginner with them.

Peer pressure kept them going up. Group mind set had no recollection of the danger scud running was leading them into. They were in way over their heads, at the end of the rope getting further neck tied with every stumble, beyond the point of no return. They failed to read the hazard warning, including the rail sounds in one guy’s chest (High Altitude Pulmonary Edema). Question - ever thought about taking a Wilderness First Responder course?

Operating without adequate fuel reserves was one of the issues that put these four alpinists in trouble. They ran out of food and water early in the day. Also, they did not plan for contingencies such as spending the night nearly three miles up in the atmosphere. The author of the FAA advisory warns, an airplane low on aviation fuel puts the pilot into a precarious situation that could have been avoided with good flight planning. Good climb planning.

The last faux pas, Inspect Aircraft Appropriately, has a direct bearing on our sport. How many climbers fail to check their rope after the previous climb only to get up a pitch the next day and see the white nylon rupture? “I guess we were too impatient to get to the bar to stop and look at our perlon.”

Concluding the advisory, the author(s) explained five critical pilot attitudes. Anti-authority. This pilot cannot stand to be told what to do, they know better. How such an arrogant airhead could make it through flight school, then en route talk to and follow directions (or not) from the tower is beyond me. Good or bad, our climbing community has its share of these types.

Invulnerable. The Superman syndrome. Indestructible? Big boy at Bald Rock thought he was made of quartz monzonite and he went full throttle into the ground. Nobody is invincible, but I do like what pro climber, Todd Skinner, has said about his belayer, he better be made of granite.

Macho is the visible manifestation of the antiauthority and invulnerable persona. The Mt. Whitney leader fit this M.O. Look where it got him. The Right Stuff or Top Gun wunderkindts are real, they do it, but they're the best to begin with, earning thousands of flight hours with eagle eyed instructors watching their every move. They practice emergency situations. Imagine a non military pilot who is antiauthority, invincible, a Rambo wannabe scud runner and impulsive at the controls. You want to fly with him? Envision such a climber. The line in the Top Gun movie by the skipper to Maverick is spot on: "Your ego is writing checks your body can't cash."

Impulsive. Impatience coupled with poor judgment in a tense situation, where level headed decision making is needed, could be devastating to a climber (bad maneuver, airborne), or pilot-plane-and-passenger (critical wrong choice, crash and burn). Impulsive is not the same as instinctive.

On the Apollo 12 Moon launch (Sept. 1969), Captain's Conrad, Gordon, and Bean's Saturn rocket was hit by lightening just after launch, their essential computers went off line. Ground Control said to flip a certain switch to revive the ship, which veterans Conrad and Gordon knew nothing about. Panic and make an impulsive decision? They were way past the Hazards Ahead sign, rifling out of the atmosphere at fifteen hundred feet per second and 4 G's. Conrad's hand was on the abort handle. Rookie rocketeer Al Bean, instinctively hit the right breaker and all power was restored. An amazing story of steely eyed courage under fire.

Astronauts perform exact tasks in extreme situations as if these times are normal. They're conditioned not to react to stress (impulse), rather, quickly and calmly make right responses (instinct). (A note here, some would argue that instinct goes to the core of human personality and is not a trained response, rather is an automatic reaction. For this essay, let’s just say that with enough training, a no-thinking correct response is pseudo-instinct). What would you do if high up on an alpine route in the Bugaboos you were hit with rock fall? I hope not the next attitude . . .

Resignation. For some pilots in desperately anxious times, loose all hope too soon may lead to their last act. Back to my Mt. Whitney rock climbing tale, the weakest member of the quorum thought about dying. This was her inner default mechanism, to play the fatalist. Potentially resigned pilots may have the technical know how to fly, be current, but when the chips are down and so appears their bird, logic is no better than a dead stick. Krakauer’s tragic Everest book (Into Thin Air) paints not a few clients in this light. Of course for expedition leaders John Fisher (Mountain Madness) and Rob Hall (Adventure Consultants), their resignation was well founded, ultimate reality.

Back to you and I. Which of these characteristics fits? How about your partner? The old radio program intro, rings true: “Who knows what lurks in the heart of men . . . The Shadow knows!” These personality traits hiding in our shadow, could be antecedent to accident. How to avoid these traps in thinking and behaving?

Black Canyon of the Gunnison, at the campground beginning to the Cruise Gulley 4th class descent for the start of routes, there is a sign that reads in part Hazards head, proceed with caution. This is good symbolism and a reminder. Of course we are going to go. But it is not a bad idea to assess our ability and shape, then think before we lace up verapes and set foot to stone.

By Fjielgeit, AKA Al Ert (alert)

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