The Angry Corrie 36: Apr-May 98

TAC 36 Index

Frozen Zen

TAC only rarely reprints previously published articles: time and column inches are too short for that, and new stuff is forever hammering at the door. But these thoughts of Ken Crocket, a version of which were first published in the 1995 SMC Journal, will hopefully provoke a greater response from TAC readers than they did the first time round. Anyone with similar or related experiences should write to TAC itself - or, of course, request that their letter be forwarded to Ken unopened if confidentiality is sought.

The following account describes an ascent of Good Friday Route on Ben Nevis, made during the winter of 1984. The route, normally a pleasant Grade III, is not of interest here, but served as a vehicle for an unusual, if not somewhat bizarre, happening. The story is true, and I would very much like to hear from anyone who has experienced a similar "state". My two fellow climbers were Bob Richardson and Alastair Walker.

All three of us began soloing the route, front-pointing up the straightforward initial gully. This led to a barrier, which forced me on to a right traverse on steeper ground. After a few moves on this, sense prevailed, and the other two tied on and threw me a rope end so that I could continue leading the small bulge. The situation had concentrated my mind: the first of, I believe, three significant factors. I pulled over this bulge, which was the crux of the day, and higher up found, and tied on to, a rocky outcrop. Bob and Alastair came up and climbed on through, belaying at the foot of the final pitch, which was probably the final section of Observatory Wall, further right of the normal finish to Good Friday Route.

While I was belayed at the rock, with the other two further on, the mist swept in. I was alone for some time with nothing in sight but my immediate surroundings, the slope below hidden by a bulge, the mist hiding sights elsewhere. This isolation, I feel, was the second significant factor, again concentrating my thoughts.

Finally the shout came and I untied and set off, leapfrogging my partners and leading up the final pitch. This was snow leading to a well-defined snow runnel of about 40m. It was narrow, straight, and filled with perfect snow-ice. I climbed up for about 10m, chortling all the while about the quality of the snow, pulled over a slight steepening, then began the runnel section, about 25m of a very uniform nature, not hard, but not easy either. The climbing was a delight, crampons and axes going into the snow cleanly first time with a neat, crispy sound, very secure. I was told later that I suddenly fell silent, though I continued to climb with the same rhythm as before: one axe in, second axe in, one foot up, second foot up, and so on. Near the top of the runnel the slope steepened slightly and the snow became less than perfect, forcing a change of pace. At this point, for want of a better description, I "woke up", gave myself a shake, and realised I had been in some sort of a trance, or hypnotic state.

I finished the pitch and tied onto the cairn, bringing up the other two. Other than me falling silent, they had noticed nothing out of the ordinary. As for me, I had a very pleasant, peaceful feeling, not tiredness, more of a calmness. There was no recollection of the section climbed while in the "trance"; it had been done in an altered state of consciousness.

Some time later, while a Research Assistant, I came across the report of a Commonwealth Conference in Jordanhill College, Glasgow. One of the papers rekindled my interest in the event. It was entitled Hypnosis - Some States of Altered Consciousness and their Application in Sport. The author was Dr Peter Weston, a Medical Practitioner working in Edinburgh, who used hypnosis as a therapeutic tool for athletes. His paper defined hypnosis as "an altered state of consciousness in which the mind is much more receptive to suggestions." Or (he continued), "it is a state of hyperconcentration in which the power of criticism is either reduced or eliminated. Without the power of criticism, the subject allows suggestions to go straight into the unconscious, to be stored there for use afterwards in an automatic way."

Before providing more definitions, I shall briefly describe an earlier similar "trance", though one which took place in more mundane circumstances. Several years prior to the event described above, I was watching modern dance on television. I was sitting on the floor, cross-legged, and enjoying two dancers performing to some piece of appropriately modern music. The figures were swirling to the music, and I became focused concentrating on them. After some time, I became aware of having emerged from some sort of a light trance state. As with the climbing later, I had been in a high state of concentration.

Dr Weston's paper described five stages of altered consciousness. Such states are induced by a subject increasing their concentration, and reducing their global awareness. The five states are:

  1. No Sensory Selection - where there is no sensory selection and the subject is not concentrating on anything in particular.
  2. Normal Sensory Selection - in this situation the subject is engaged in routine work of a fairly uninteresting nature.
  3. Augmented Sensory Selection - present when the subject is concentrating on a very complicated or interesting task.
  4. Hyperselection - occurs when the subject's attention is on one regular monotonous stimulus; this may be auditory, visual, tactile, or mental, and will produce a light or medium state of altered consciousness.
  5. Total Sensory Selection - in this state the subject has continued to concentrate on the stimulus, has become completely oblivious of everything except the stimulus, and has entered the deepest state of altered consciousness. This level of sensory selection is attainable by only a very small number of people.

As for sports therapy, Dr Weston has, for example, allowed athletes to perform well by overcoming various fears, phobias, injuries, etc using hypnosis. Autogenic Training also has a place, though this is not the place to go into detail. I wrote to Weston two years after the climbing event, describing my experiences. He very kindly replied, saying that it sounded as if I had "... experienced total sensory selection while climbing in a routine monotonous fashion." As soon as the gradient and texture of the snow altered, he continued, I then "... went up into a state of augmented sensory selection."

Weston's reply continued by pointing out the obvious danger of using the state of total sensory selection while doing something dangerous, in that if you are already tired you may go to sleep when you no longer have any control over your functions. He likened this to the experience while motorway driving at the same speed, being aware only of the regular white dots passing by. "It is important," he continued, "when taking part in something potentially dangerous, to avoid monotony by altering pace or keeping your actions irregular."

One recollection I have is of a walking companion who was following me along a trail. He had been staring at my boot heels for some time when he suddenly realised that he had somehow "slowed down", and had fallen behind for no obvious reason. I wonder whether this has happened to other walkers?

In conclusion, I should add that I had been practising yoga for some time before and during these two experiences, that I had definitely not been tired during either, but had certainly been concentrating wonderfully hard. I'm sure that I'm not alone in this experience, and would welcome any similar stories.

Ed. - Two personal thoughts/experiences before the readers chip in. I quite often - and increasingly with age - have an odd experience when walking along a quiet street or canal towpath or cycleway. This can be described as suddenly "coming to" (or "waking up", as Ken has it), and feeling like I've been walking that particular stretch of ground for an inordinately long time. Say I had turned into a (usually very familiar) street, which takes a minute to walk along at normal pace. When lapsing into this state, the feeling is of having been walking the street for ten or fifteen minutes, ie out of all proportion to the situation on the ground. It's a pleasant feeling - indeed one which I would happily trigger if I knew how - and usually coincides with drifting into deep non-specific thought. I've rarely known this feeling on a hill, perhaps because rougher ground "breaks up" the necessary concentration. But, significantly, one upland site I can recall is on the final approach to Ben Cleuch from the Ben Ever col, from the point where the steep slope levels off and the summit rocks appear ahead. This stretch (which I've walked many times) takes four or five minutes, but has at least once felt much longer.

The other instance is completely sedentary, but, for me, much more common. Although it gives the opposite feeling in terms of time spent, there is a near-identical sense of having lost one's normal awareness. I play chess to a reasonable standard, league and tournament games which can last anything up to four hours. League games are less concentration-friendly: a smaller venue, and with neighbouring games needing monitored from a team-situation point of view. But weekend congresses are held in large halls where the other hundred or so games are, to all intents, homogeneous and anonymous. I suspect that almost any weekend player will be able to offer the experience of having played a four-hour game (during which they might have shifted from their chair only once or twice, if that), but of the game having felt nothing like as long as that. Quite how long such a game actually feels is difficult to ascertain; but, for me, the sense is of something short and condensed, not at all a burden or a bore. It can feel laughable and giddying to realise that Ben Nevis could have been climbed and descended during that time. (Likewise a feeling when writing. I rarely write with the radio on or with a tape playing, finding it too intrusive. But, if really absorbed and "into" a piece of work, I can suddenly be "awoken" by the clunk of the cassette player's autostop as a tape ends with nothing of its forty-five minutes of music having made it into my consciousness.)

The concentration factor obviously features heavily in chess, the more so because games routinely involve two naggingly stressful "time controls", ie the need to reach a certain move, say move 36, within a set limit, and to then finish the entire game within a further period. As the clocks tick and potential defeat-by-technicality approaches, any normal sense of the passage of time vanishes, such that panic sets in and seconds, even minutes, telescope together and rocket past. To be a spectator in a congress hall as the control approaches is to see players physically shaking as the adrenalin kicks in with no physical outlet or release. For most chessplayers, this is one of the most concentrated and locally-stressful things we'll ever do (and we pay to be allowed to do it!), and any normal sense of time/place is shredded in the process. Perhaps this is akin to what Ken felt in his runnel and on his dance floor. I only know I get a huge kick out of it, and am always eager to go back for more.

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