Neuroscience, squirrels, and belay safety

Have you ever had the experience of walking into a room to say . . . grab your climbing shoes to go climbing at Bliss Bouldering and Climbing Complex . . . only to get into said room and completely forget why you were there? Of course you have. We all have.

Why is that? I mean, if you are like me (a climber), climbing is on your mind the majority of the day. I wake up thinking about climbing, drive to work thinking about climbing, and go to sleep thinking about climbing (at which time I become a solid 5.15 free solo climber in some epically rad places!). So how could I forget that I wanted my climbing shoes?

It’s not for lack of brain power. According to Paul Reber, professor of psychology at Northwestern University, the human brain has about 2.5 petabytes (1000 megabytes) of memory (that would hold about 3 million hours of climbing videos!).

The real problem is that your brain has experienced a pattern interrupt. You are walking into the room to pick up those shoes in a place that you know they should be. You’ve done it a thousand times. So consciously, your mind is on auto pilot. Then something interrupts you (squirrel!), like your significant other asking you if you made plans for your upcoming anniversary (uh, excuse me, I’m kinda in climbing mode here). This interruption in the auto pilot function of the old noodle breaks the trance, forces you to focus on something else, and before you know it, you’re looking around trying to remember why you walked into that room in the first place.

So why are we talking about neuroscience (which I know almost nothing about by the way . . . obviously) in a climbing blog?  Well a few days ago I was walking the floor of the gym watching all of you awesome people work different routes when I notice a a person lead-belaying another.  Something looked out of place from the back, so I kept watching for a moment, then decided to take a closer look.  Thank God I did.  The belayer was feeding and taking rope fine, but they had completely forgotten to load the rope into a belay devise!  Ya, that’s right.  They were just feeding free rope!  Luckily the climber was only at the second clip.  I asked this person to kindly come down and revealed what could have been a very costly mistake to the two of them. I reminded both of them why it is SO important that we go through our checks each time before we get on the wall.

Now before you get all Judas Priest judgmental on those two, allow me to enlighten you with a story of Lynn Hill.  For you younger whipper snappers who don’t know, Lynn is one of the original total bad ass climbers from the 70’s (if you want to know more about her, you’ll have to do that seeking thing on the inter web using the goggles . . . or something like that).  Anyway, suffice it to say, that she was no noob to the sport.  However, during one particular climb in France in 1989, according to her own report, she was busy tying her knot when she got distracted by something.  Her partner apparently did not double check her (I mean, this is Lynn Hill!  I’m not telling her how to do her business), and when she loaded the rope 75 feet in the air, it unraveled and she took a ground fall!  Luckily she hit a number of tree branches on the way down and survived (albeit with a number of broken and dislocated bones.)

In fact, it’s often the more experienced climbers that make these critical mistakes.  You all remember the first few times you climbed I’m sure?  I think I must have checked my rope, my knot, my harness and the wind direction at least a dozen times before leaving the ground the first few times.  And then I learned to ‘trust my equipment’.  Suddenly I was fearless (relatively speaking that is).  The problem of course with being fearless is that we aren’t nearly as careful.  That, in climbing, is where poo poo happens.

So please.  Please, please, please, get in the habit of going over all your checks each and every climb with your partner.  Check footwear, harness, buckles, knot, belay devise and orientation, tie in points, and readiness to climb (on belay; belay on etc). If your climbing partner is too cool to do that, find a new partner (take the hint: he or she is not trustworthy). 

Because you never know when a squirrel might run across your path.

Climb hard, climb safe and . . . 

Follow your Bliss,


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