When mountaineering becomes an addiction

Snow ridge on Kokodak Dome
The mountain calls and we come

Do you feel the same way as me? When I surf around on Facebook, I’m constantly being offered some kind of sweater or T-shirt with the inscription “mountain addict” in sponsored posts. The reason is obvious: because of my posts, Mark Zuckerberg and co. have recognized my passion for mountains and sorted me into the appropriate pigeonhole. Scientists at the Medical University of Innsbruck in Austria have found out that “mountain addiction” is not just a cheap advertising slogan, but a real phenomenon. “Our approach was that one can also experience feelings of reward and happiness when climbing mountains just as one does when playing games, for example. We asked ourselves how great the addiction potential is in mountain sports,” psychiatrist and neurologist Katharina Hüfner tells me.

The 46-year-old professor led the study at the University of Innsbruck. For this purpose, a survey was launched in the German-speaking mountain scene. People who describe themselves as “regular” or even “extreme” mountaineers were invited. 335 people took part. 88 of them – a quarter of the respondents – were subsequently classified as mountain addicts.

Deliberately putting yourself in danger

Sunset on the 7000er Kokodak Dome
Sunset on the 7000er Kokodak Dome – more of the same, says my soul.

To do this, they had to show addictive characteristics: “For example, if you neglect everything else for mountaineering. When you keep going even though you can’t really do it anymore and you know the potential dangers. If you feel withdrawal symptoms when you don’t climb mountains,” Hüfner explains. The scientist clarifies that the result does not mean that one in four mountaineers is now addicted. “The question was whether mountain addiction exists at all, not how common it is. Our survey was not representative. After all, it was based on a self-assessment by the participants.”

The study found that mountain addicts tended toward “sensation seeking”, that is, the search for ever-new experiences with intense impressions, and an increased willingness to take risks. “Many indicated that they deliberately put themselves in danger,” Hüfner says. She doesn’t find that surprising. “People who do a lot on the mountain are more likely to take risks. But what may seem dangerous to one person is everyday life to another.”

Chicken or egg?

But the study also had some surprising results, she says: “What surprised me most was how many of the mountain addicts named their own psychiatric illnesses. Depression, anxiety, eating disorders, alcohol dependence or even illegal drug abuse. You actually assume that people who go to the mountains are insanely healthy.” This, however, begs the question of chicken or egg. Which came first? “Psychological proneness to addiction could lead to excessive mountaineering, or psychiatric problems could occur as a result of the burden of exercise addiction,” the study says. “Both are possible,” says Katharina Hüfner. The question of cause and effect now needs to be investigated further, she adds. 

On to the mountains!

Always upwards

And what is her advice to us mountain maniacs? Should we now give our beloved mountains a wide berth? No, Hüfner waves it off. “I would stick to the fact that mountain sports are very helpful for treating and preventing mental and physical illnesses and should be used.” And should we now mothball the sweaters and T-shirts with the words “mountain addict”? “After all, there is only a potential for addiction, because mountain climbing is such fun. Something that isn’t fun and doesn’t give you a kick isn’t addictive. Otherwise you could also become addicted to doing the housework,” says Katharina Hüfner and laughs.

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