Obsession (the good, stinky kind)

“This is not the best piece of gear,” he says.

This news is quite disappointing, as the next moves will take him from the relative security of the vertical, flaring cleft in the rock, into the overhanging, flaring cleft. Then the clock will start and he will have to move or quickly find a better piece of gear before his arms are used up and he falls.  He has made about 70 feet in the last hour. I could suggest that he retreat, but as a belayer it is my job to shut up and mind the rope. Besides, it would do no good anyway. He’s been talking about this route, the last in the series of hard routes in the Spires, for two weeks and I know what the weird, faint glow from his pupils indicates and where it originates. I pay out rope, then take it back up without looking, and the clock ticks.

Deep in the brain, just above the automatic stuff humming away to keep us breathing, upright and pointed in the right direction, lies the amygdala. It is an old, buried nodule of gray matter which forms the basis of our original selves. It connects directly to our noses and memory centers, and it generates our most vital, primitive emotions, like fear and aggression. We share its structure and function with almost everything that has a brain.

The amygdala drives a pretty generic set of behaviors: if something jumps you, run away, if something has you by the tail, turn around and bite, then run away. The amygdala doesn’t define a creature.  The cortical Pachinko machine set atop the amygdala characterizes the brain and thus the animal. Stimuli coming in from the outside or up from the inside, bounce around the cortical connections until the raw impulses form a story a creature can use to elaborate on the basic run/bite reflex.

For some animals – whitetail deer, conservative politicians and religious fundamentalists for example – the story serves the fear. Neurosis, phobia and avoidance result. For other animals, the story reworks the fear into an aggressive fascination. As a result, monkeys will follow a cobra, a badger will pursue and attack a coyote, and a climber will feel drawn to the climbs that make him wake in a cold sweat . This is obsession, and it is happening at the other end of the rope.

As he climbs well past the bad protection to a good stance, I can hear other climbers in the valley drinking beer and laughing just a few feet away. My stomach hurts and my palms are damp on the rope. I surreptitiously untie from the anchor. I’m sitting on a ledge, and I can decrease the length of the leader’s fall if I jump off, though the forces on the protection may be higher if I get it wrong. The risk has become worthwhile.

He tries to step out onto the last traverse to a bolt. He comes back to the stance. The process repeats itself five times. Another hour passes; I can’t imagine what his toes must feel like now, crammed in climbing shoes and perched on dime-sized crystals for all this time. Finally, he finds the right sequence of holds and steps out. He clips the bolt. It’s still a fight to make the anchors, but the stakes have gone down and he is able to move more quickly.

The route takes about twenty-five minutes to follow on top-rope.

As I reach the anchor I tell him, “Nice lead.”

He isn’t happy, he’s just done. His amygdala is switched off and he is through with the obsession. It is not a bad feeling, but it is different from relieved or satisfied or happy. Language just hasn’t bothered to find a word for it, because it isn’t normal.

Packing up at the base, I begin to think about the run-out on Nantucket Sleighride. It is such a good route.

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