But in this controlled environment, he says, what they learn is that they’re not going to die. T
hey learn that they can actually survive in extremely cold water for 5 to 10 minutes. They learn that they have time to think, to override panic, to solve problems and save themselves.
Practicing panic management is rare for most campers, but climbers—often unknowingly—do it all the time.
“Trad climbers [who rely on gear they place instead of existing bolts] have one up on hikers and backpackers,” says ranger Montopoli. “They’ve already experienced panic. They’ve climbed above their protection, freaked out, and fell—and were caught by the rope. The next time up, they realize that panicking won’t help, and they learn to consciously control their minds.”
Early in my climbing career, my partner and I used to simulate alpine climbing conditions by intentionally choosing to climb at night. We also purposefully climbed in snowstorms, actually waiting for “full conditions” before setting off into our local mountains. We even played a game we called Options, which entailed mimicking an injury—climbing a route with one hand or skiing on one leg. All of this was intended to teach us to be mentally prepared for life-threatening circumstances on big expeditions. And it’s worked. After some 30 expeditions, I can’t say I’ve never panicked, but I can say I’ve managed to keep a lid on it.
Montopoli warns that no one is immune to panic, not even himself. In the late 80’s, he was soloing the east ridge of Disappointment Peak, a craggy, castle-like mountain in the Tetons, and accidentally traversed out onto the sheer north face. The climbing was extremely exposed, and halfway up a fist crack, he began to panic. His first instinct was to push through. “But I knew my arms would pump out and I’d fall to my death,” he says. “So I backed down to a little ledge.”