Last year, Dr Trish Jackman and her colleagues published a fascinating systematic review in the International Review of Sport and Exercise Psychology that focused upon the psychology of mountaineering. Scrutinising 69 published works across more than five decades, the study provides us with the most comprehensive analysis to date on the psychology of mountaineering and importantly, identifies a number of key research questions that still need to be addressed. We caught up with Trish during lockdown to ask her a few questions...
Can I start by asking how you became interested in the psychology of mountaineering?
I have been a researcher in optimal experiences, such as flow, for almost a decade and have also been heavily involved in sport (mainly camogie) myself for many years. From a research perspective, I have a great curiosity to learn more about people’s experiences in different sport and exercise activities. More specifically, I am really interested in understanding the types of experiences that people have when they are challenging themselves and pushing towards the upper level of their ability. Although I am not a mountaineer, I take part in endurance activities, such as long-distance walking and running. As I started to get more involved in these activities and engaged in discussions with colleagues who had already published studies on mountaineering from psychological and sociological perspectives, I began to think about the challenge of mountaineering and how the psychology of this activity would differ from other more “traditional” pursuits. Although there was quite a lot of published studies in the area, this body of work had never been synthesised. Therefore, we felt that it would be beneficial to bring together the knowledge that did exist in the field at this point.
Camogie is an Irish stick-and-ball team sport played by women. First impressions would suggest it looks somewhat more challenging than mountaineering...
Were you surprised to find so much published research in the field?
I definitely was! As we started to delve more into the literature, it was really interesting to see the different ways in which mountaineering had been studied from a psychological perspective. One of the understandable difficulties with research in mountaineering is getting access to participants as a researcher during mountaineering. For obvious reasons, it is not possible to undertake research once participants reach certain altitude levels, but it was fascinating to see the amount of data that had, for example, been captured at Mount Everest Base Camp.
An ascent to even modest altitudes can result in changes in brain function. Together with changes in psychology, a review by neurosurgeon Mark Willson highlighted impairment in, "arithmetic, memory, language perception, learning, cognitive flexibility and psychomotor skills..."
Two themes emerge from your systematic review - the personality traits of mountaineers and the psychological experiences they encounter. You write about the “big 5 personality traits” - can you tell us about them and how they feature in mountaineers?
The big five personality traits make up what is considered to be the most accepted taxonomy of personality traits in psychology at present. Within this taxonomy, the five traits are: agreeableness; conscientiousness; extraversion; neuroticism; and openness to experience. Although the sample sizes differed and the findings weren’t always equivocal, there was some evidence that mountaineers tend to be more conscientious, extraverted, and open to experiences compared to non-mountaineering samples. These findings would suggest that mountaineers tend to be very disciplined and careful, outgoing, and inventive/curious. While this information is useful to know, these studies have only used cross-sectional designs, so researchers haven’t sought to understand, for example, how such traits actually affect the ways in which mountaineers think, feel, and behave when they are on the mountain.
Writing about her systematic review Dr Jackman says, "There were so many fascinating studies, but I have huge admiration for Dr Shaunna Burke's ethnographic studies on Mount Everest. Shaunna has summited Mount Everest on 3 occasions, so it was fantastic to work with Shaunna on this review. The ethnographic studies involved observations and interviews over the course of 2-month expeditions on Mount Everest ... provided a fascinating insight into the experience of mountaineering on the world's highest mountain"
Were there any other traits that were particularly common in mountaineers?
The most studied personality trait was sensation seeking. Although the sample sizes were usually quite small, mountaineers consistently reported higher levels of sensation seeking versus non-athletes or low risk sport athletes. Now while this might appear at first glance to suggest that mountaineers are more likely to take risks than the groups, no research has yet examined how sensations affects how mountaineers behave. Indeed, the findings from interview studies with elite mountaineers highlighted the extensive measures mountaineers take before and during expeditions to mitigate risk.
When asked about motivation, one of Shaunna Burke's Mt Everest interviewees said, "When I climb I like being able to feel like I can complete tasks successfully. I set goals for myself and then I like to visualize arriving at my goal. I will admit that I also like the risk involved and I am a bit of an adrenaline junkie. I enjoy the danger element, combined with the outdoors". Shaunna’s study can be found here
Turning to the psychological experience of mountaineers, your study highlights many of the “positives” - for example, feelings of happiness, sense of agency and an appreciation for life - but what “negatives” did you encounter? Did any patterns emerge? Did these impact upon mental health?
As someone who researches largely from a positive psychology perspective, it was pleasing to see that researchers had sought to understand positive aspects of the experience of mountaineering. However, there were a number of findings that highlighted some potential downsides of mountaineering from a psychological perspective. First, there was evidence that neuropsychological functioning is compromised at very high and extreme altitudes, which highlights the importance of monitoring mountaineers’ responses at these altitude levels and using appropriate acclimatisation procedures. Second, some mental health symptoms – including depression – were found to increase as expeditions continued, but the evidence in this area was limited to a very small number of studies. Finally, there was evidence that mountaineers tend to suppress emotions while on expeditions. Although this strategy helped some mountaineers in traumatic situations to re-focus their attention towards rescue efforts, once the mountaineers had returned home after their expeditions, some reported experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder.
Recently we reported on the BMC Incident and Near Miss Reporting Project. Reflecting on this, Dr Jackman wrote, "One clear finding that came through in the qualitative studies was the importance of learning through experience, both in terms of how to prepare and also when faced with making difficult decisions during an expedition. Indeed, the decision to turn back was viewed as a more difficult decision than the decision to continue, but the experience to "know" when it was right to turn around during a summit attempt was key"
Finally, your study will provide a lot of inspiration for future researchers. Where do you see future research heading? Can you offer any advice?
The review has highlighted a number of areas that could benefit from more research. Somewhat surprisingly, there has been relatively little research on group dynamics in mountaineering. Given the importance of working together effectively, both for performance and safety, developing a greater understanding of group processes could be very valuable. Further research examining coping strategies that can promote better decision making in mountaineers would also contribute greater understanding to this area. Moving forward, we suggest that researchers interested in the personality of mountaineers should move away from conducting studies that only collect data at a single point in time and move towards collecting data that allows examination of the effects of these personality traits on how mountaineers think, feel, and behave.
Dr Trish Jackman is a Lecturer in Sport and Exercise Psychology at the University of Lincoln. Dr Jackman is the leader of Lincoln Sport and Exercise Psychology Research and has published 20 studies in leading academic journals in sport and exercise psychology. Her research focuses on optimal experience in sport and exercise. This work seeks to understand the positive, rewarding experiences that athletes and exercisers have when they are performing towards the upper level of their ability, and clusters around themes such as flow and clutch states, performance under pressure, goal setting, and self-regulation.
The Birmingham Medical Research Expeditionary Society (BMRES) and the British Mountain Medicine Society (BMMS) have joined forces to organise the 2021 Altitude Research Conference. The face-to-face event will take place in Birmingham on the 11th September. Speakers will include Peter Bartsch, Jo Bradwell and Chris Imray. There will also be presentations from members of the UK's leading research groups as well as ample opportunity for researchers, young and old, to present posters and short talks about their work.
Further details can be found here.
If you would like to find out more about mountain medicine why not join the British Mountain Medicine Society? See this link for details.