Three Points of Contact : A Paean to the Mountain Scramble

A walk in the mountains usually involves following some kind of path: more or less clearly defined, marked on a map, inscribed into the surface of the earth, trodden by countless thousands before us. In this most human of inventions, objectively connecting two points in space, the drive to overcome separation becomes a shaping of the world. Compacting movement into structure, like many products of our demiurgic impulse to structure our world it has the contradictory quality of simultaneously enabling and delimiting motion.

The utility of the path as an instrument of leisure comes in part from the fact that it provides a place of safe passage, allowing us to ‘tune out’; to let our surroundings wash over us: a moving vantage point from which to take in the landscape around us, as the body falls into a rhythm, compliant with the beat of pretrodden contours. When the contours cluster and the path dissolves, things become rather different.

I was taught the basics of rock-climbing in my early teens. For a few years I took to carting a pair of old rock shoes around the limestone escarpments of North Yorkshire on the off-chance of some ad hoc bouldering to enliven an evening wander, but an aversion to expensive hardware and the clannishness of the climbing world meant that, in the long term, any appetite I’d developed for hanging off the side of mountains was going to require an outlet less demanding on both scores.

When, one November afternoon in the late 90s, I found myself in the rooftops of the Cumbrian fells on a vertiginous ascent known as Jack’s Rake, clinging in a state of abject terror to the face of a spectacular precipice, two thousand feet above the valley floor, with the dark, wet mists of winter swirling around, I was sold.

Not quite rock-climbing, not quite fell-walking, scrambling inhabits a peculiar territory somewhere between the two, where the airy solitude of a mountain walk meets the adrenaline of free climbing. The discipline, if you can call it that, is broadly defined simply as anything that requires the use of the hands to traverse otherwise impassable rock terrain: three points of contact, mostly in wild, untamed landscapes, miles from civilisation. There is no ‘aim’, as such, other than to get from point A to point B, and it remains I think one of the few alpine pursuits that have managed to avoid being co-opted into a competitive sport.

Although of all mountain activities it’s the one that requires possibly the least technical expertise, it is, almost by definition, one of the most dangerous, undertaken without safety gear, open to anyone, regardless of experience, and often involving drops as high if not higher than many roped climbing ascents. Many of the UK’s ‘classic’ scrambles — Striding Edge and Swirral Edge on Helvellyn, Sharp Edge, the rocky blade slung from the roof of Blencathra in the north, the terrifying traverse of Crib Goch in Snowdonia — entail negotiation of razor-sharp arêtes with a lethal abyss of hundreds of feet either side, where an exhilarating clamber across precipitous terrain becomes a problem-solving activity conducted at altitude, in which mistakes can be costly and a wrong move can have life-changing consequences.

I doubt there is a climber alive who hasn’t at one time or another found themselves cragfast, hundreds of feet up, no way out of a seemingly hopeless predicament, with all apparent means of progress or escape exhausted. It’s a sickening sensation: to glance down and see the world dropping away beneath your feet; the horrifying clatter of loose scree tumbling into the void, the rush of panic welling inside – and with all this, paralysis, all the physical strength in the world as nothing against the psychological effects of exposure.

The salient issue in these circumstances is not the technical complexity of the situation, but rather how this sensory onslaught that arrives with the realisation that everything — literally, everything — pivots on a still point, is marshalled.

No matter how hopeless the situation, it may always be reasonably assumed that onward progress is possible. Calling to mind the millions who have tackled the same route and lived to climb another day, while batting off nagging thoughts of the few who didn’t, a curious mixture of analytical and intuitive skills comes into play.

The situation must be broken down into its component parts — physical and psychological — various ways of approaching and resolving them considered, and the most appropriate course of action decided on from the information available. It’s a matter of precision, strategy even, back-of-the-envelope risk assessment and projection of where the physics of a risky move might lead; carefully studying the environs for signs of polished stone that signify the success of others, testing for loose rock and dodgy holds, face pressed up close, searching for the hollow sound that belies the faux ami that could bring everything to a horrible conclusion.

Analytical aptitude, creative thinking, perseverance and the ability to keep a level head all play their part. But the machinations of the internal gyroscopy that kicks in when inner forces take control pay no regard to reason. Moving upwards, against every inbuilt survival instinct — rock to rock, hold to hold, with racing heartbeat thumping through the silence — is more, and in every sense, a question of reliance. Trusting — oneself; one’s surroundings — but also connection, or rather, re-connection: re + liance.

With the feeling of cold stone on the palms, and the rush of panic, the drama of the mountain landscape ceases to be a (mere) backdrop. We enter back ‘into’ it, re-establishing a natural, primal, long-forgotten assemblage. Trust, then, and a kind of ‘reconstitution’ — a reliance on and with forces buried deep or banished altogether in our day-to-day lives.

There is no tangible product to all this; nothing physical, at the end, to call a ‘result’ — just the memory of the experience, and of the achievement. It’s for this reason that Wordsworth and his associates believed it regressive to live out our lives in the sanctuary of what we nowadays call our ‘comfort zone’. Only by venturing outside, to experience the ‘beauty and fear’ of the natural landscape, can we be jolted out of our normal rhythms and feel things denied to us in the banality of our daily routines: these ‘spots of time’, where moments of intimacy are experienced, internalised, and worked into our sense of being.

Trust in oneself is not, after all, something that just happens. It’s something that requires a continuous therapeutic process. An inner restorative is needed, a place where memory connects us to those ‘existential peaks’, where we felt the narrative of our ‘self’ fall into place. Such peaks are almost always, in some way or another, experiences of reliance. Joyce’s ‘epiphanies’; Emerson’s ‘moments’; Maffesoli’s ‘eternal instant’; Buber’s ‘real, filled present’ — those moments lived, as T.S. Eliot put it, at “the still point of the turning world”.


The Science of Hiking

A journey on foot is an integrative, mind-body activity. As the legs move, the mind wanders. By being forced to focus on realities close at hand, such as negotiating uneven or perilous ground, the brain is freed from having to concern itself with the background worries that otherwise assail it in the course of daily life. As everyday problems fade into irrelevance, the brain enters new territory; attuned to the rhythms of the land underfoot, the mind is free to wander in its own imagined terrains.

For the Romantics, and many other writers and artists since, time spent in nature was for this reason essential to mental wellbeing, and indeed lay at the very heart of the creative process. What the Romantics knew perfectly well, however, has now become a key focus of scientific research. With more than 50% of the world’s population now living in cities, a recent upsurge in interest in the implications of our increasing alienation from the natural world has led to an increased understanding of the importance of time spent in nature in terms of its impact on our psychological wellbeing.

A spate of studies have looked in particular at an apparent link between the rapid and widespread urbanisation that has occurred across the world over the last half-century and a marked rise in instances of mental illness over the same period. The exact cause of this correlation is still unknown, but one theory holds that a decline in the amount of contact we have with the natural world may have something to do with it.

This was the hypothesis of a 2015 study led by Gregory Bratman of Stanford University’s Center for Conservation Biology, who sought to establish what exactly it is that might connect reduced contact with nature to the development of psychological disorders. One explanation, Bratman suggests, could be the impact of nature exposure on ‘rumination’, a maladaptive pattern of self-referential thought focused on negative aspects of the self, known to be a risk factor for depression and other forms of mental illness.

In their study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences last summer, Bratman and his colleagues divided a cohort of 38 city-dwellers into two groups, and asked each group to take a 90-minute walk — one through a grassy area near the Stanford University campus, the other along a busy main road in downtown Palo Alto. Brain scans conducted on those who walked through the natural setting showed reduced neural activity in the specific area of the brain responsible for self-focused behavioural withdrawal associated with the development of mental illness. Those who walked through the urban setting showed no such effects, leading the authors to conclude that even a brief excursion in verdant surroundings substantially decreases obsessive, negative thoughts.

Bratman’s study follows in a tradition of scholarship rooted in a school of thought known as Attention Restoration Theory (ART). Pioneered in the 1980s by Rachel and Stephen Kaplan in their book The Experience of Nature: A Psychological Perspective, ART suggests that exposure to nature has specific effects on our executive attentional system, which can become worn down due to the demands made of it by urban life.

Permanent background noise, compulsive and increasingly compulsory engagement with technology, the demands of multi-tasking and the necessity of constantly having to respond to sudden, disruptive stimuli place a severe strain on our cognitive functions. By contrast, natural environments, according to Attention Restoration Theory, are rich in characteristics necessary for the brain to replenish itself.

This hypothesis has been found to hold true in a slew of studies since the 1980s. A well-known experiment by Terry Hartig and colleagues, for example, comparing the attentional capacity of wilderness vacationers, urban vacationers and non-vacationers before and after their respective holidays, found that the wilderness group showed significant improvements in attentional capacity, measured through proof-reading tests. In another study, Hartig et al. divided a cohort of participants into three groups, all of which completed attention-depleting tasks and then spent 40 minutes walking in a natural setting, walking in an urban setting, or listening to music and reading magazines. Again, participants in the nature walk group significantly outperformed the others at the proof-reading task, affirming a substantial recovery in directed attention.

Similar studies have found that interactions with nature lead to improved performance on Attention Network Tasks and backwards digit span tests used to assess working memory, the cognitive system responsible for temporary storage and manipulation of information. Even looking at images of nature has been shown to have such effects. This kind of ‘passive’ interaction with nature, as opposed to more active engagement in the form of hiking, was the subject of an oft-cited piece of research by Carolyn Tennessen and Bernadine Cimprich, which found that college students whose dormitories looked out onto more pastoral vistas scored better on a range of attentional measures than those with views of less bucolic landscapes.

Exposure to nature thus seems to be effective in replenishing lower-level modules of the executive attentional system. But there is a growing body of evidence to suggest that it may also have an impact on higher-level tasks, such as creative problem solving.

In a 2012 study, psychologists David L. Strayer and Ruth and Paul Atchley sent a group of participants on a four-day wilderness hike, completely cut off from technology, and subsequently asked them to carry out tasks requiring creative thinking and complex problem solving. The study found that participants’ performance on these tasks improved by 50%, leading the authors to conclude that “[t]here is a real, measurable cognitive advantage to be realized if we spend time truly immersed in a natural setting”.

This improvement of higher-order cognitive skills derives, the authors of the latter study argue, from “an increase in exposure to natural stimuli that are both emotionally positive and low-arousing and a corresponding decrease in exposure to attention demanding technology, which regularly requires that we attend to sudden events, switch amongst tasks, maintain task goals, and inhibit irrelevant actions or cognitions.”

Whereas the stimuli we encounter in nature, as University of Michigan professor Marc Berman explains, “modestly grab attention in a bottom-up fashion, allowing top-down directed-attention abilities a chance to replenish”, urban environments are “filled with stimulation that captures attention dramatically and additionally requires directed attention (e.g., to avoid being hit by a car), making them less restorative.”

The efficacy of exercise per se on cognitive function and emotional wellbeing is fairly well-established, but the full extent of the role of nature exposure in particular, and the mechanisms by which it affects us, is only now beginning to be understood in all its complexity. A hike in the countryside is rich in unique characteristics that will do more for the human brain than any amount of time on a treadmill ever can – that much is clear – and in a rapidly urbanising world, the findings of ongoing research in this field will almost inevitably have ever more profound and far-reaching implications.

Foot People

In the 1993 republication of The Death and Life of Great American Cities, the world’s most famous urban planner, Jane Jacobs, argues that there are two kinds of people in the world: “foot people” and “car people”. The former are those who tend to organise their lives around pedestrian travel, who “prefer doing their workaday errands on foot, or feel they would like to if they lived in a place where they could”, the latter those who prefer “hopping into the car to do errands, or would like to if they had a car.”

I’ve always been a ‘foot person’. Partly this is because I’ve always been a countryside person. I grew up in a small rural community in the north of England. The nearest shop was a mile’s walk away, which in the Yorkshire winters was no easy undertaking, but for me it was the norm – and as a devoted nicotine enthusiast, it was a walk that I would be compelled to make, regardless of the weather. It was what I grew up with. As a teenager I held down several jobs in various local pubs, and would walk a couple of miles to work every day, and back each night. The nearest bus-stop was a mile’s walk from my home; if I wanted to travel further afield, that was a mile I would have to walk.

Having walked everywhere during one’s formative years engenders a frame of reference when it comes to space and distance unlike that of someone accustomed to driving everywhere, or having everything right there on their doorstep – just as an American’s conception of what constitutes a ‘long’ car journey inevitably differs from that of a Brit, raised on a tiny island where a three-hour trip up the M6 is an event.

Since the city became an inevitability, perhaps unsurprisingly I’ve always found that small ones suited me best. Partly out of necessity and partly out of choice I’ve always chosen where I live based on the potential for getting where I need to be, day to day, without having to own a car. Unlike many neighbourhoods in, say, the United States, built specifically for cars and thus with little connectivity, the older urban areas in England were designed and built before the mass production of the motor-car and are thus generally very walkable, and there is no excuse not to use that feature to its full advantage.

There is a psychological, emotional and creative aspect to walking in the hills, however, which can’t be approximated by urban wanderings. Harvard physician Paul Dudley White, known to history as the ‘father of American cardiology’, believed that a brisk, five mile walk every day is as good a remedy for a restless mind as anything the worlds of medicine and psychology have to offer. Dr. White well understood the physiological benefits of walking, but like many others before and since he was also a firm believer in the positive effects of the outdoors on our intellectual, creative and emotional faculties.

For the English Romantics, through whose influence wandering the countryside à pied became a popular leisure pursuit in England in the late 1700s, time spent in nature was not only a source of literary inspiration (in + spirare – ‘to breathe in’), but fundamental to the creative process. William Godwin “made whole books” as he walked. Across the Channel, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who spent much of his youth wandering the hills of Central Europe, found in the natural world a clarity of thought that eluded him amid the bustle of urban life. “Cities”, Rousseau concluded, were “the abyss of the human species”.

Not all have shared Rousseau’s distaste for the metropolis of course – many literary notables, from Charles Dickens to Will Self, have remarked on the restorative effects of peregrinations through the urban jungle – but it’s in rural environs that most who have written on the subject claim to have reaped the medicinal rewards of a good walk. George Orwell, Thomas De Quincey, Friedrich Nietzsche, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Søren Kierkegaard, Thomas Mann, Vladimir Nabokov, and of course Henry David Thoreau all extolled the virtues of getting out into the natural world. The physicist Werner Heisenberg was a keen hiker, as were Paul Dirac, Otto Frisch and Lise Meitner, all of whom reported having come to key scientific discoveries while walking in the countryside.

* * *

This was intended to be a post saying a few words by way of introducing this blog and explaining something of what it’s likely to be about, but on reflection there are actually a number of distinct aspects to what I want to do with this site, each of which, if only in the interests of keeping these posts to a manageable length, should perhaps have its own prefatory remarks. So, to be continued….


“As a single footstep will not make a path on the earth, so a single thought will not make a pathway in the mind. To make a deep physical path, we walk again and again. To make a deep mental path, we must think over and over the kind of thoughts we wish to dominate our lives.”

– Henry David Thoreau

“The dull man goes straight forward; he has so many furlongs to traverse. He observes if he meets any of his acquaintance; he enquires respecting their health and their family. He glances perhaps the shops as he passes; he admires the fashion of a buckle, and the metal of a tea-urn. If he experience any flights of fancy, they are of a short extent….

On the other hand the man of talent gives full scope to his imagination…. His whole soul is employed. He enters into nice calculations; he digests sagacious reasonings. In imagination he declaims or describes, impressed with the deepest sympathy, or elevated to the loftiest rapture…. He passes through a thousand imaginary scenes, tries his courage, tasks his ingenuity, and thus becomes gradually prepared to meet almost any of the many-coloured events of human life. ….

If he observe the passengers, he reads their countenances, conjectures their past history, and forms a superficial notion of their wisdom or folly, their virtue or vice, their satisfaction or misery. If he observe the scenes that occur, it is with the eye of a connoisseur or an artist. Every object is capable of suggesting to him a volume of reflections.”

– William Godwin

“When I stay in one place I can hardly think at all; my body has to be on the move to set my mind going.”

– Jean-Jacques Rousseau