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Last fall, I came up with what seemed at the time like a good idea: I convinced my friend Melanie that she and I should enter a backcountry ski mountaineering race. The Grand Traverse is a 40-mile slog from Crested Butte to Aspen, Colorado, and it required us to race as a team. Neither of us had ever done a ski race, but we’d always been compatible partners on mountain bikes, so I figured we’d be well-matched on the skin track, too.
I was wrong. On our first long training day together, Mel dropped me repeatedly. As she disappeared out of sight on our last climb, I began a downwards spiral: How much would I hold us back on race day? Why had I come up with this stupid idea? Why wasn’t she waiting? When I finally caught up, Mel asked, “Are you bonking?” I opened my mouth to respond and—oh, no—tears began rolling down my cheeks.
I was awash in saline and shame. Crying was a behavior I associated with beginnerdom, noob status, something I did most often in the years I was learning to mountain bike. But—dammit, now Mel’s brow was furrowed with motherly concern—I couldn’t stop the waterworks. “I think you need to eat something,” she offered.
She was right: sugar improved my mood, and at the bottom of the final descent we joked about my meltdown. In the days that followed, though, I became more curious than embarrassed. I wasn’t actually crying out of pain or discomfort, so what emotions was I reacting to? And was there anything positive to be derived from the tears—or were they just a liability in an outdoor setting?
A friend once dubbed what happened to me a “sports cry,” and in the years I’ve been using the term since, I’ve found no need to explain it: even the most accomplished athletes have shed tears in the field. Pro climber Emily Harrington, the first woman to free-climb El Capitan’s Golden Gate route in under 24 hours, calls it her “default” reaction when she’s frustrated or scared. Pro skier Cody Townsend tells me he’s “definitely” done it, for “multiple reasons.”
My initial theory about sports cries was that they were a result of fatigue and glycogen depletion. While researchers haven’t studied those variables directly, Ad Vingerhoets, psychology professor and author of Why Only Humans Weep: Unraveling the Mystery of Tears, tells me they do know that sleep deprivation lowers the threshold for crying, meaning it takes less to make us boohoo. But while being physically tired may make us more likely to cry, most tears are triggered by emotions—and the emotions underlying our mid-adventure meltdowns are often the same ones that trigger them in day-to-day life.
While children most often cry in response to physical pain or discomfort, Vingerhoets explains, adults rarely do. The most common emotions that cause tears throughout our lifespan, he says, are feelings of powerlessness and frustration, followed by loss and separation from loved ones. Both sets of feelings were present that day on the mountain with Mel: I felt powerless and frustrated that I was moving so slowly, but I also felt the primal panic of being left behind.
Townsend also identified similar feelings during one of his more memorable sports cries, which happened during a shoot, when he miscalculated his takeoff on an 80-foot cliff jump and blew his knee. Afterwards, as he was being evacuated alone in the helicopter, he contemplated the severity of his injury as well as the fact that he was flying away from his friends, and started “bawling.” “You feel like an island in those moments,” he says. “Like you fucked up and put yourself in this position… and now you’re alone.”
Crying might be one of the more vulnerable things we do, writes Amy Blume-Marcovici: “It is a time when our body reveals our inner world to those outside of us, whether we want it to or not.”
While Townsend tends to cry only during what he calls “outlier” moments, it’s more workaday for Harrington. “It’s just one of those things that happens to me when I have strong emotions,” she says. For her, crying feels helpful, like a catharsis.
Actually, some research says that crying isn’t inherently therapeutic or cathartic. In one recent study, performed by Vingerhoets and some colleagues, just 50 percent of people reported feeling better after crying, while 40 percent reported feeling no different and 10 percent felt worse. The major factor that determines whether people report feeling better or worse after they cry is how others react—crying in a supportive environment can make people feel better; an unsupportive response makes them feel worse.
For Harrington, who started climbing at age ten, the male-dominated culture of climbing didn’t feel like one that was receptive to her tears. When she was younger, she says, she often felt embarrassed and ashamed about breaking down on the wall. “I used to feel like it was this distinctively female trait,” she says. “I just felt like everyone thought I was weak.” The tears didn’t have the cathartic effect they do now; they only added to the frustration of the moment, and afterwards, she would spend the rest of the day feeling bad about the outburst. But as she matured, she realized that the way she handled her emotions wasn’t wrong or bad; it was something that worked for her. That self-acceptance transformed the tears from a “hurdle,” as she puts it, to a “tool.” Now, she says, “crying is sort of my process.”
Women do cry more often than men, though researchers aren’t exactly sure why. It could be hormones—lower testosterone is generally related to a lower threshold for crying—but it could be social factors, too. Vingerhoets theorizes that women may feel helpless or powerless more quickly in conflict situations, for example; and they may also expose themselves to what he calls “emotional stimuli” more often.
Of course, there are practical reasons that crying or any other major outburst isn’t always helpful in outdoor sports—strong emotions can impede decision-making and become a safety issue. Townsend says there have been times he’s wanted to cry on ski mountaineering missions but didn’t, in order to get out of a dangerous situation safely. Harrington keeps it productive by allowing herself to feel the emotions, cry, and then move on. To her, it’s similar to any strong display of emotion, like shouting after you fall—the feeling is the same even if the expression is different. “I think it’s OK as long as you don’t carry it with you throughout the day,” she says. “As soon as you touch the ground it should be over.”
Despite its potential drawbacks, there are other reasons crying might have value in outdoor culture—it can help us connect more deeply with others. Researchers think emotional crying is a behavior we evolved to help us create social coherence, by signaling that we need help or care. In one study, Vingerhoets and other researchers compared normal criers with people who never cry, and found that the normal criers were more empathetic, and reported feeling more connected to and supported by others.
For Townsend, tears have facilitated bonding experiences on at least two separate occasions. On one trip, a friend had an anxiety attack and started crying; eliciting Townsend to put his hand on his back and sit next to him for about 20 minutes. Afterwards, the friend told him that was the best response he could have provided. Tears have helped him share positive emotions too: In 2019, while en route to skiing the Messner Couloir on Denali, Townsend caught a view back to base camp at 19,000 feet. Overwhelmed by the beauty, he started crying. His companions were also swept up in the experience, and eventually the group was laughing tearfully together, “in a really joyful fun way, not in a making fun of you way,” he recalls. Both experiences, he says, felt deeply meaningful.
Because it’s so rarely in our control, crying might be one of the more vulnerable things we do, writes Amy Blume-Marcovici, in the book, When Therapists Cry: Reflections on Therapists’ Tears in Therapy: “It is a time when our body reveals our inner world to those outside of us, whether we want it to or not.” That’s probably because crying is the outcome of a sudden physiological shift in our bodies, when our sympathetic system—the one responsible for our fight or flight response—cedes control to our parasympathetic system, which powers our rest or digest response. While going into rest-or-digest mode on a mountain might seem counterproductive, in the magazine Psychotherapy Networker, psychologist Jay Efran suggests that rather than thinking of tears as a breakdown, “we optimistically consider it a potential breakthrough. By backing away from an overwhelming issue, the system can husband its resources and regroup for a fresh assault.” Either way, he notes that we often don’t cry at the height of a crisis but rather when we think it’s safe to finally relax. That sense of safety can come from a caring gesture or the presence of a trusted figure—like a friend who’s willing to sit with us when we’re having a panic attack, or gently suggest that we eat some calories.
Despite the rough start to our training, on race day Mel and I proved to be a good pair. The race began at midnight, and for six hours we schussed together as a unit through the inky darkness. But as the sun began to rise, we found ourselves pushing as hard as we could to make it to Star Pass, the high point of the race, by the crucial 7 A.M. cutoff. At the top, just before the brief descent to the pass, I spotted a course marshal checking off racers. After a frantic transition, we skied around a small contour and the marshal reappeared. Now she was holding two ski poles over her head in the shape of an X.
A painful lump formed in my throat. We’d missed the cutoff by minutes. The tears welled up, and I didn’t bother holding them back this time. I let myself have a good cry on the ridge, at 12,330 feet.
But as the tears flowed and dampened my goggles, I felt less bereft. The race had always been a big, ambitious goal. We had tried our best and pushed ourselves farther than we’d ever gone on skis. That was something to be proud of.
“For me, tears represent that discomfort of pushing my limits constantly,” Harrington says. “They’re the result of me always taking on big challenges, putting myself out there, being open to failure.” We should fail more often, she thinks: these are the times we grow.
After a few minutes, I pulled myself together. A storm was coming in and it was time to get off the mountain. By the time we began skiing back down the way we came, my eyes were dry, and I felt a surprising sense of peace.