There’s nothing quite like the feeling of finally ’scending a climb that I have worked on for some time. The rush I get when my hands touch the top of the route can certainly be linked to an adrenaline surge, the feelings of victory rushing through me in that moment. But that’s not what drives me. What matters is that I feel so incredibly present and engaged with the world around me. The rock provides the way to the top but it is up to me, the climber, to figure out what the way is. To “’scend,” a climber must not just work with the rock but must also become absorbed by it. For me, this feeling resonates as a deep connection to all of nature.
Yet research in psychology typically sees participation in extreme sports as linked to a general affinity for risky behavior, coupled with a lack of thought for consequences. Those of us who pursue such sports are likened to drug addicts and gamblers because psychologists tend to concentrate on the brain chemistry produced by these types of activities, which is remarkably similar to that of addicts.
Yet such analysis ignores the lived experience of so many extreme athletes. Psychologist Eric Brymer, a whitewater rafter, has taken on the task of defining what may be the other motivations for engaging in these sports. Brymer became interested in this topic after noticing the inconsistencies between what the athletes he encounters in his sports community say about their experiences and inspiration, and what outsiders imagine them to be.
The stereotype of the extreme athlete is that of an aggressive young guy, hell-bent on conquering nature. In reality, the people who participate in these sports come from a wide range of backgrounds and vary considerably in terms of gender and age. In his work, Brymer looked at older athletes, interviewing 15 men and women between the ages of 30 and 75. What he found is that these people often feel empowered more by humbling emotions than by dominant ones. Instead of feeling larger than life, they feel small and vulnerable. Like me, this emotion stirs in them the sensation that they are one with nature. As these athletes work in unity with the natural environment, humanity’s dependence on and responsibility to the earth becomes markedly clear.
Psychologists also study ways to motivate people to become engaged in issues of environmental sustainability. One of the more important contributing factors for engagement is whether an individual holds an anthropocentric or a biocentric worldview. Anthropocentrism is the idea that human beings have more value than other types of life, and that the natural world is only useful in the ways in which it may be used and exploited by humankind. Biocentrism takes the opposite stance, bestowing all types of life with intrinsic value separate from how they may serve humanity.
Holding an aspect of one’s personal identity in the natural world is strongly linked to a biocentric worldview. People tie their identities to nature in many different ways. Fishers, bird watchers, gardeners, and geologists all fashion a large part of their self-perception from the natural environments within which they work and recreate. Because almost all extreme sports take place in the outdoors, it follows that participants would also feel a strong affinity for nature.
The list of extreme sports athletes who speak out about environmental issues is further testament to the ways in which these activities connect one to nature. Climbers Doug Thomkins and Yvon Chouinard, backcountry snowboarder Jeremy Jones, and big-wave surfer Laird Hamilton are only a few examples of those who both work and play to experience and preserve nature. These people devote huge portions of their lives to spending time in the outdoors. Furthermore, their experience of nature is intense and often puts their lives in danger. It makes perfect sense, then, that the preservation of these places is important to them. It is heartening that certain psychological research now backs up the strong connection that these sports foster with the natural world.
As someone who loves both nature and rock climbing, I have always felt a clear connection between the two. I climb because it gets me outside, and when I climb I end up feeling closer to nature. Research such as Brymer’s is exciting because it validates my own experience. In addition, it has the potential to change the larger conversation about extreme sports—making it clear that they foster freedom and connection and sometimes even spirituality. The shift in rhetoric opens up new ways of viewing these sports that highlight both their true diversity and their naturalistic tendencies.