It was fantastic to be sponsored by the Behavioural and Social Science Research Network through the ESRC early researchers award at Manchester University on 14 February 2019.
The agenda included eminent academics and practitioners from the world of extreme environments:
0910-0925: Conference opening (Prof Emma Barrett)
0925-1000: Bravery and heroism in polar exploration (Dr Max Jones)
1000-1040: Psychological resilience and selection of astronauts (Professor Gro Sandal)
1055-1140: Challenge and threat in high-risk environments (Professor Marc Jones & Professor Andy
1140-1200: Methods for monitoring stress and coping in extreme environments (Dr Nathan Smith)
1300-1345: Flash presentations:
- Olivia Brown (Lancaster University, UK) – Monitoring changes in cohesion over time in expedition teams: the role of daily events and team composition
- Dr Jeremy Sutton (Ulster University, UK) – Identification of the psychological and physiological factors that enable endurance performance success in trained ultra-marathoners
- Jennifer Pickett (Vrije University, Belgium) – Stressors, salutogenesis and coping mechanisms of commercial fishing in Alaska: Factors affecting fishermen at sea
- Paula Reid – Understanding the mindsets, beliefs, motivations and behaviours of experienced serial adventurers: An interpretative phenomenological analysis
- Borja Martinez Gonzalez (University of Kent, UK) – Sleep patterns during a winter mountain ultra-marathon
1345-1445: ESRC supported early career research presentations:
- Dr Joanne Bower (De Montfort University, UK) – Prevalence, course, and severity of emotional symptoms at 2 Antarctic stations during winterover
- Dr Jenny Hall (York St John University, UK) – Women mountaineers: A study of affect, sensoria and emotion
- Dr Adam Bibby (Oxford Brookes University, UK) – Psychological monitoring during an 8 day Tour du Mont Blanc trek in undergraduate students
1510-1545: Conflict resolution in extreme environments (Anders Kjaergaard & Jesper Corneliussen)
1545-1620: Health care and self-care in humanitarian emergencies (Dr Amy Hughes)
1620-1655: Trauma, adversity, personality and growth (Dr Laura Blackie)
Here is the paper I presented:
Women mountaineers: Study of affect, sensoria and emotion
The starting point for my research began with a personal interest and participation in mountaineering. It led me to ask how do women experience mountaineering and what motivates them to take such risks in extreme vertical worlds of rock, snow, and ice in the twenty-first century?
In particular, I asked what their sensory and emotional experiences were like and if/how these were impacted upon by political, economic and social influences? These questions led to an exploration of how women create unique spaces and practices or mountaincraft in the masculine world of professional mountaineering.
To do this I recruited eight professional female mountaineers and spent a day out with each of them mountaineering in winter in the Scottish and Welsh Mountains. The women were all based in the UK, white middle class, mountaineers (25 – 75) who had achieved a professional status that enabled them to work leading clients in winter conditions in the UK and for some overseas in the greater ranges.
Research regarding professional women mountaineers is virtually absent and mainstream literature is limited meaning that female mountaineers in the UK have not achieved the prominence of their male counterparts, even though some of the UK’s female mountaineers are the best mountaineers in the world, such as the late Alison Hargreaves (Frohlick 2006). It is not then surprising to learn that professional female mountain leaders are under-represented with only 5% of the total number of British Mountain Guides holding the qualification being women. These women are rare and their experiences make for an intriguing line of research.
To collect data I used experimental go-along’s to co-produce a day mountaineering using the technique of mobile video ethnography by wearing body-mounted Go Pro cameras to record our experiences in tandem. I triangulated this with a post day out interview, field notes and images.
Methodologically I conducted a review of female mountaineering literature from the earliest accounts to the present day using a feminist affective lens to explore emotional and sentient experiences. To analyse the empirical findings I drew upon Jacque Derrida’s deconstructionism to explore the dichotomy between producing spaces of perceived freedom in contrast to securing place in a community. This produced a thesis of two distinct halves one that explores the gendered nature of mountaineering and one that explores how individual practices are produced and influenced. It is the latter I aim to concentrate on here.
A major finding of the research focused on how women establish their own particular forms of mountaincraft that enables them to access vital sensations of wellbeing. Achieving a sense of wellbeing was facilitated through experiencing feelings of mastery, confidence and bodily power, one of the mediums for producing this was through being silent. Accessing silence space was identified in the research participants mountaineering as ontological and it is through, in part, the processes of silence that mountains become places of mountaineering. This is because extreme environments such as mountains require a silencing of voice (internal and external) enabling a rebalancing of sensory knowledge to allow the body to connect with a wider milieu of senses to produce the actions of survival. I found the research participants used silence in a variety of ways by developing silent pedagogies to attune their companions and own senses to risk. Such attunement enabled them to feel a sense of control and thus the ability to manage the emotion of fear.
One such silent space was soloing mountaineering. Through the historical literature review I traced a tradition of women conducting solo mountain climbing from early accounts such as Eileen Healey pioneering routes in the Himalaya in the 1950s, to Alison Hargreaves, Catherine Destivelle and Steph Davis in the 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s through the empirical research I found this to be a prevalent practice within contemporary female mountaineering. Soloing is a form of mountaineering and climbing that does not use any form of protection. Epitomised by Alex Honnold who recently achieved fame through his Oscar-nominated and BAFTA award-winning film Free Solo where he ascends one of the hardest routes on El Capitan in Yosemite USA – Freerider.
The West is a culture fearful of silence where normative practices associate silence as disagreeable because silence has no place in a fully confessional culture (MacKendrick 2001). Silence and being silent, have many negative associations linked to educative disciplinary practices that enforce silence, as well as the kinds of silencing that marginalise others. It is therefore difficult to secure such space (Zembylas and Michaelides 2004).
Silence for mountaineers is, I argue, an ontological state of being that is critical to survival, producing knowledge of oneself, the terrain, weather and companions in order that physical danger can be detected and avoided, opening the body to be absorbed in the full milieu of the senses. Silent pauses are essential for reflecting on how the body is connecting to terrain and in atmospheres so that the forces being exerted on it can be successfully negotiated. Silence allows the body to feel subtle changes and attune to dangers and refine movement to save energy, minimise risk and avert fear. In this way, mountaineers embody extreme atmospheric conditions and terrain through environmental silencing. The silencing of verbal communication forces a deeper connection with the mountain space. Mountaineers value their sensory capacities, knowing that in order to assimilate the events of a journey they must periodically be silent to craft ways to move and this is foundational to mountaincraft. The act of mountaineering is a sensory muscular skill requiring a continual process of internal silent decision-making, building ‘…its substance out of layers of sensory impact…’ (Stewart 2007, p. 113). Catherine Destivelle noted how essential the role of hearing plays in rock climbing listening to the noise of tiny grains of sand on her shoes indicated potential danger through slipping (Destivelle 2015).
To be free of language it is not, therefore, the mere absence of speech or perceived as a lack of communication, but rather a quietening of everyday noise so that other forms of sensorial communication can be experienced, a pedagogy of the senses is formed and where mountaincraft evolves. Silence and silencing facilitate two key outcomes the ability to manage fear enabling engagement in risk and access to a state of alterity, flow and wellbeing. I now turn to the words of one research participant to illustrate her experience of silence through soloing and her struggle with accessing spaces of silence.
Lorrie described a day where she went out to climb solo and expressed how:
I have had some incredible experiences where it is just you and the activity and I feel a sense of flow, a sense of being at one, you do not worry […] fear does not come into it, as long as I am in the mood the movement just flows […] it is that thing of being totally in the now […] it feels like the right thing, where your mind and body are all in the same place wanting the same thing for you.
Soloing was a preferred technique for disconnecting from the ‘…voice of society…’ (Lyng 2004, p. 362) to create a place to dwell in silent alterity. Or as Destivelle puts it to ‘relive the perfect osmosis with rocks and go back to an instinctive … animal way of climbing…’ (Destivelle 2015, p. 88) Research participant Lorrie expressed how:
…I suppose because it is rich, you can go out for a solo day out in the hills and it is that sense of self-sufficiency, and full belief in yourself. There is no ego involved because it involves no one else and you are not doing it for any other reason than for yourself.
Silence enabled her to control emotions to manage life or death decision-making and engage in a high level of calculated risk-taking. Lorrie had constructed a highly controlled space free of competition, being judged, guilt, failure and responsibility. This form of silence required the absolute physical disconnect from other people and she alludes here how ego (or societal pressures to conform) can be so disruptive Illustrated in this next example. Over two day period Lorrie went out soloing to build her skills and confidence on winter rock, snow and ice routes. On the first day, she had great success but failed to repeat these sensations on the following day explaining that:
It is a very good feeling, I had on a particular day a few winters ago, where I soloed a number of ice routes and I slowly climb[ed] harder and harder routes. It felt amazing. I then went back [the next] day to do the same and then [thought I] do not think I should do this. I did one route and then walked back out. I felt like it had gone past the point of being about me and was becoming an addictive kind of thing that felt [like] I might be pushing my limits.
Lorrie attributed the change on the second day to sharing her experiences with her peers, in doing so she had disrupted the ability to disengage from everyday concerns:
‘… I was trying to recreate that the second day and it just felt like there was something wrong. It is quite a sharp realisation that it is not the right thing’.
I asked her why it felt wrong, what had changed?
…when it did not feel right on the second day, I felt like I was doing it for some other reasons. I had mentioned it to a couple of people when I got back after the first day. [I think] because it was something that was known, it felt like I was doing it to prove something, even though I did not think I was. Perhaps, [sharing my experience of the first day], was starting to have an influence, and [that is] dangerous. So I questioned should I do it, as it did not feel right.
Sharing with her peer group (male and female mountaineers) inhibited Lorrie’s ability to achieve sensations of flow/wellbeing and importantly manage fear. Emotions such as competition and guilt changed her perceptions of what was safe and not safe and her peers’ opinions, inhibited her sense of confidence. Invariably comments from peers are underpinned by a drive to push harder of one-up-man-ship to try more ambitious routes to secure greater legitimacy. Lorrie had lost control of the silent space to self-determine how she should mountaineer. She needed a space free of emotional connections to others to enable her body to achieve the crucial sensations of control, self-sufficiency to manage fear. Demonstrating how silent spaces, where sensations, of flow, are experienced are so easily ruptured. The need to achieve legitimacy produced a tension that was disruptive to those crucial silent spaces. Soloing was symbolic of a different way in which women use silence to achieve sensations of wellbeing but were also used to prove legitimacy.
To conclude, through Lorrie’s experiences I have aimed to explore the ontological nature of silence in mountaineering and mountaincraft. I have merely touched the surface in terms of understanding the value of those silent practices that enable mountaineers to engage in risk. Giving one example of how mountaineers reclaim a silence of the senses so they can attune to risk, where a body becomes so practised and well-rehearsed in its ability to subconsciously recall the actions of survival that it is able to instinctively avoid disaster by drawing upon the body’s muscular intelligence to control fear. Thus, silence allows a mountaineer to ‘…give up the position on the safe side of knowledge and engage in the inexpressible and unknowable…’ (Zembylas and Michaelides 2004, p. 193). Silence in mountaineering is a space of learning, adaptation, control and mastery and is used in a variety of modes to control self and others in situations of risk. This illustrates how mountaincraft is more than just the acquisition of hard technical skills and technologies, it embraces a much broader arena that encompasses sensory knowledge enabling a mountaineer to know risk – silence is a crucial space for achieving this. However, the silent space of soloing is also a mechanism for achieving legitimacy as Destivelle reflected that soloing for her was, in part, a way to avoid the accusation that ’…it was my climbing partner, male of course, who did all the work…’ (Destivelle 2015, p. 186).
Finally, a woman’s space to be a mountaineer is finely tuned, very vulnerable, restricted, hard to replicate, easily disrupted and accessed by very few. Silence is one tool she uses to fleetingly dwell in the precious space of alterity and be wholly other. It is a no-mans land.
Destivelle, C. (2015) Rock Queen. Westmorland, Hayloft Publishing Ltd.
Frohlick, S. (2006) Wanting children and wanting K2: The incommensurability of motherhood and mountaineering in Britain and North America in the late twentieth century. Gender, Place and Culture, 13 (5), pp. 477 – 490.
Lyng, S. (2004) Crime, edgework and corporeal transaction. Theoretical Criminology. London, Sage Publications, 8 (3), pp. 359 – 375.
MacKendrick, K. (2001) Immemorial silence. USA, State University of New York Press.
Stewart, K. (2007) Ordinary affects. Durham, NC, and London, Duke University Press.
Zembylas, M. Michaelides, P., E. (2004) The sound of silence in pedagogy. Educational Theory 54 (2), pp. 193 – 210.
Leave a Reply