Against the loss of alpine control

The sixth sense being in the mountains

There are currently two tendencies in mountain sports: one towards specialization (e.g. trad climbing) and one towards mass sports (e.g. sport climbing). Route planning tools, mantras and apps should help to ensure that this takes place under the most controlled conditions possible. But in special disciplines and when it generally becomes more complex, difficult, faster and sometimes “sketchy”, these tools alone do not prevent from the loss of alpine control. And they do not contribute to the understanding of how decisions are made in extreme mountaineering. Then “the sixth sense” is required. But what is it? How do you develop this “feeling on the mountain”? And what limits does our gut feeling have?

Words by Jan Mersch

Mountaineering requires decisions

Risks require decisions. Decision research in psychology is not interested in the probability of occurrence or the impact of risks, but in dealing with them. Especially in more demanding mountaineering, intuitive decision-making plays an important role. Because information is often not completely available, our own constitution and mood play a major role and well-known set of rules only help as a cross-check from a certain level on.

The sixth sense is often forgotten

Humans have five basic physiological channels: seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting and feeling. (One could also list a sense of balance, a sense of pain, a sense of temperature, a sense of body depth, and a sense of orientation.)

In mountaineering, all these senses are activated: the “feeling” of the rock surface, temperature, humidity and wind on the skin, the visual impression of an icefall or a wind indication in the ridge area, the acoustic signal of a hollow windslab layer in the snowpack.

If you add one more to the five basics, you speak of the “sixth sense ” or “intuition”. Because we can gain insights into facts and carry out actions without consciously applying the mind and drawing rule- and knowledge-based conclusions. 

A few examples of the necessary “feeling on the mountain”:

  • a consistent recognized line in an alpine climbing tour
  • the quick selection of the right anchor
  • Millimeter details when setting the feet whilst climbing
  • constant adjustment of the climbing method (frontal, lateral, backwards) 
  • Rapid placements of the ice axes
  • permanent adaptation to changing conditions in brisk freeriding
  • deviating from the “basecamp majority” but ultimately correct prognosis to spare crampons before the ascent
  • adapting timing and pace to the mountain guide guest in the Watzmann east face 
  • the coherent choice of the ascent track in freshly snow-covered terrain

Archive Mersch Photo “Clean granite cracks require “spontaneous ideas” or sufficient strength”.

The sixth sense has different facets

Intuitive decisions can be categorized by answering two questions:

  1. Does intuition refer to the present or the future?
  2. Do we use intuition to react or to actively control what is happening?

Graphic Sojer “Intuition Model”: The Four Forms of Intuition”

Figure 1: Categories of Intuition

Figure 1 shows which categories of intuition arise depending on how the questions are answered:

  • “Spontaneous idea”: the quick choice of the right anchor device
  • “Presence of mind”: Acting in rapid freeriding
  • “Ability to innovate and forecast”: Don’t take crampons on the alpine tour
  • “Step-by-step problem solving”: Line planning an alpine climbing route

So, the sixth sense has many facets!

Archive Mersch Photo Climbing in the sandstone walls of Elbsandstein high above the last secure ring requires „innovative and predictive ability“

Archive Mersch Photo To find the correct line of climbing in alpine terrain needs „stepwise problem solving“

Experts decide intuitively: the decision theory NDM

The decision-theoretical approaches from “Naturalistic Decision Making” (NDM) try to show the experience-based mechanisms of action between the abdomen and the brain. Various “experts” such as jet pilots, chess grandmasters, emergency surgeons, firefighters or mountain guides were asked about past critical decision-making situations.

In summary, these studies come to the following conclusions:

  • The quality of the expert decisions considered regarding safety and efficacy is very high
  • When comparing with rule-based methods or checklists from classical risk management, no similarities or resemblances can be found. Such methods are hardly implemented in the at risk actual applied expert decision. 

The RPD model describes intuitive decisions

To describe in more detail how intuitive expert decisions are made, the NDM approach refers to the recognition primed decision (RPD) model.

Recognition is given central importance and defined by four aspects (see Figure 2).

Graphic Sojer “RPD Model”: The Sequence of Unconscious Intuition Decisions”.

Figure 2: The RPD (Recognition-Primed-Decision) Model

The recognition is part of a (only model!) process system, which is partially or completely run through depending on the situation. A situation is classified as “typical” or “not typical” and may be recognized. Considering expectations and plausible goals, this “automatically” results in possibilities for action, which are evaluated in a mental simulation and then modified or directly executed if necessary.

The RPD model thus also describes decisions by feeling as ultimately rational. Even if they are not perceived as such by those affected.

Feelings based on recognition are indications of intuition

The risk experts interviewed in the NDM approach report feelings and perceptions in all the events described and refer to the senses already mentioned: 

  • “It made the hair on my neck stand up”
  • “I clearly had the feeling that the snow was relatively stable after all”
  •  “Even if my partner was now visibly tense: I was very calm, because it was immediately clear to me how to approach the last rope length”

In these situations, an assessment and decision takes place, which is perceived as a feeling – but it’s based on the recognition of known patterns. In psychology, both together are regarded as an indication of intuition.

Graphic Sojer “Parallel World”. One feels easy in relative demanding terrain next to another being scared in a safe route, shows us the big differences in emotional worlds of climbers.

Figure 3: Different emotional worlds in alpine climbing

Factbox: Personality, brain and social research

  • Before and while we think, hormone-based processes take place. Therefore, women do not decide differently than men, but: the release of testosterone (increasingly produced in the male body), for example, inhibits the rational parts of a decision. Men decide quickly and – possibly – talk about it later. Women are more likely to gather different ideas first and try to get a full overview. 
  • The social framework plays a role in mountaineering: German alpinists certainly do not have the longest wall times, they get through relatively quickly or turn around. Russian expeditions, on the other hand, acted quite painless in the 90s. If needed, they bivouacked themselves for weeks through the highest walls.
  • During life, our personality and thus also our decisions change greatly. In the beginning, the view is blurred and we go into the mountains with a feeling of invulnerability. That is also justified – because only those who dare to take a step across the border can make progress as an alpinist. An older person lives with a different hormonal basis, can take recourse to a wealth of experience and thus more intuitive parts of the decision-making process. 
  • Groups are more resistant to change in their decisions, their behavior. An individual in a group can only very difficult oppose the group opinion. He gets attributed with the role of the deviant and disturber. A group also polarizes more: it decides either riskier or more reserved than the individual.
  • Decisions to turn around are evaluated differently in society: people and cultures that are more closely connected to nature are more likely to understand turning around on a tour. At the “top of society” reversal is seen rather negatively (experience from manager seminars): The “perseverance of the alpinists” is considered an ideal concept. But those who fail in conquering the useless are more likely to reap incomprehension – although renunciation also has many positives: we gain valuable experience that helps us to become old and experienced mountaineers.  A “culture of failure” and a conscious handling of critical events is crucial for the development of intuition.

You become an expert through an extreme amount of experience and a lot of self-reflection

You become an expert through many years of extensive experience, coupled with a lot of feedback and, above all, self-reflection. This is an absolute requirement, as Nils Bohr (1885-1962) had already recognized: “An expert is a person who has made all the mistakes that can be made in a very narrow field.”

However, a few questions arise: How many negative experiences can you afford when mountaineering? Are 10 years of mountaineering with at least 100 days of season enough to be an expert?  Is an old mountaineer an experienced mountaineer or has he just always been lucky?

The term expert is therefore difficult to grasp (not only in mountaineering) and cannot be derived from status or sporting achievements. Not every extreme mountaineer, solo climber or all 8000m conqueror is automatically an expert. Nevertheless, it is clear: experts exist and it takes many years of experience, many days in the mountains and many relevant (positive and negative) experiences. These experiences must be renewed, reflected, expanded and stored every time, otherwise the patterns in the decision-making situation cannot be recognized and retrieved. Or delicate events are filed incorrectly.


Intuition is our autopilot in the mountains: if well developed, it helps us to recognize dangers and avoid them or simply finding the best way. It can seem almost playful and easy to us when we are on the road in a good flow. Nevertheless, we do not just let ourselves be carried away but always know what we are doing.  And it does not mean that as an expert certain rules (rope ends secured), standard routines (partner check) and cross checks (SnowCard) should be left out.

So, it makes sense for practical reasons to train your intuition:

  • Gut decisions are quick.
  • If our gut feeling fits, we perceive decisions as coherent and natural and we feel ourselves more.
  • It’s fun to rely on your instincts and, for example, to look for a route without constantly unfolding the map, reading the guide or even trying to use the GPS.
  • Complex situations or questions can sometimes even be answered intuitively well, because concrete information is simply missing, and we do not always know 100% what we can/ want to achieve (and risk) today (see the example “Do not pack crampons”).

Ultimately, with well-reflected and trained intuition, we are traveling easier, faster and safer instead of ignoring and banishing them from our mountaineering everyday life.

At the end of the day, we are usually happy, full of experiences and often a bit humble, because on closer inspection of our mountaineering activities we realize again and again that we know nothing – but somehow, still can do a lot.

About the author

Jan Mersch, 51, psychologist, mountain guide and alpine expert, lives with his wife and children in Chiemgau,

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