Posts Tagged ‘rock climbing’

Climbing the Matterhorn is safer than crossing a street in Manhattan

February 15, 2015

The following is from the wonderful book: Flow, the Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.

[Consider] activities that involve serious risks, activities that to an outsider would seem to be much more potentially dangerous than the affairs of normal life. People who practice hang gliding, spelunking, rock climbing, race-car driving, deep-sea diving, and many similar sports for fun are purposefully placing themselves in situations that lack the safety nets of civilized life.

It is usual to explain the motivation of those who enjoy dangerous activities as some sort of pathological need: they are trying to exorcise a deep-seated fear , they are compensating, they are compulsively reenacting an Oedipal fixation, they are “sensation seekers.” While such motives may be occasionally involved, what is most striking, when one actually speaks to specialists in risk, is how their enjoyment derives not from the danger itself, but from their ability to minimize it. So rather than a pathological thrill that comes from courting disaster , the positive emotion they enjoy is the perfectly healthy feeling of being able to control potentially dangerous forces.

The important thing to realize here is that activities … are so constructed as to allow the practitioner to develop sufficient skills to reduce the margin of error to as close to zero as possible. Rock climbers, for instance, recognize two sets of dangers: “objective” and “subjective” ones. The first kind are the unpredictable physical events that might confront a person on the mountain: a sudden storm, an avalanche, a falling rock, a drastic drop in temperature. One can prepare oneself against these threats, but they can never be completely foreseen. Subjective dangers are those that arise from the climber’s lack of skill—including the inability to estimate correctly the difficulty of a climb in relation to one’s ability.

The whole point of climbing is to avoid objective dangers as much as possible, and to eliminate subjective dangers entirely by rigorous discipline and sound preparation. As a result, climbers genuinely believe that climbing the Matterhorn is safer than crossing a street in Manhattan, where the objective dangers— taxi drivers, bicycle messengers, buses, muggers— are far less predictable than those on the mountain, and where personal skills have less chance to ensure the pedestrian’s safety.