Science Confirms What Skiers Already Knew: Time in the Mountains Shapes Who We Are

Mountains can be remote and challenging and can foster an "ethos of independence that can leave a specific imprint on personality."

Photo: Franz Faltermaier

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Nestled in the northwest of Italy, the Lys Valley is a long and narrow valley carved into the mountains by thousands of years of fluvial and glacial erosion. It’s 20 miles long and only a few hundred yards wide, on average.

The environment is a harsh one to live in. Some of the valley’s hamlets get little sunlight over the long and snowy winters. Then there’s the emphatic change of seasons: the snowmelt in the spring, the heavy rains, the hot summers, the rainy and misty falls—all interspersed with sunny days with no clouds.

Some locals call the Lys Valley—also known as the Gressoney Valley because of its highest municipality—La Vallée Noire (“the Black Valley”, in French due to its proximity to France and its multilingual culture). The valley, its topography, and climate have a magnetic power over the inhabitants—a force that influences their psychology and has shaped their cultural dynamics.

A recent study titled “Physical topography is associated with human personality,” published in Nature Human Behaviour corroborated my feelings and the anecdotal evidence I had collected over the years. And only now, in retrospect, can I see how much that environment has affected my personal development as well. According to the study, regional differences in personality are associated with a range of consequential outcomes. Something called the “frontier settlement theory “suggests that physical topography is a crucial factor shaping the psychological landscape of regions, meaning whole populations can have similar personality traits based on where they live. Specifically, the results of this study confirmed “mountainousness” as a meaningful predictor of personality when tested against controls.

Growing up in the Gressoney Valley was idyllic. I was free as a bird, and my only focus other than performing well at school was to become a better and faster skier. I was obsessed with the technical improvements required in GS and slalom, and I was having a go at downhill and Super G as well. But I never had a real passion for the latter.

Then, when I was introduced to powder skiing by a group of Swedish ski bums I started to explore the forests and glaciers of my village in search of cliffs and great hiking grounds. At 18, that coincided with the end of my racing career and the beginning of a new chapter as a ski instructor and philosophy student dreaming of becoming a mountain guide.

Only after several years of living elsewhere, research, and therapy, have I been able to discern the link between the Gressoney mountains—my mountains—and my behavior. And, I think, between any mountains and their people’s character.

The Black Valley is more than just dark. Luca, a local ski instructor, describes its peaks as the “Black and White Mountains” in both an attempt to differentiate them from the Dolomites (the white, limestone formations in the northeast of the country) and to show their complexity.

Because atop the valley, above 6,500 feet of elevation, something magical happens. The darkness gives space to heavenly light. A vast glacial massif expands for miles, spreads into nearby dales, and crosses the border into Swiss territory. It’s a rock-and-ice universe, where perennial snows, seracs, crevasses, and sharp ridges mix their shapes and colors into a baroque cathedral—one with the marble and plaster replaced by granite, snow, and ice.

It’s a place that inspired romantic poets and writers in the 19th century, but its core is not only one of passion. It’s also a realm of pure logic and rationality. This is a double-edged sword that can kill, as alpinists, skiers, and hikers know well. Even if passion brings them here, they must set aside feeling to carefully calculate risks and hazards when exploring these lands.

When I used to live here and climb those peaks and ridges, I saw life in black and white. My temperament was moody and stormy. I had an all-or-nothing, go-big-or-go-home approach to everything I did. There was no compromise.

To some extent, this remains true. But several years of exile have smoothed my personality; my temperament is much more even.

The research carried out in physical topography associated with human personality helped me understand more about my personal development in the different places I have lived over the years.

In the study, the team, led by Friedrich D. Götz of England’s University of Cambridge, analyzed a sample of more than three million individuals across 37,000 different ZIP codes in the United States. They focused on the ‘Big Five’ character traits and their connection to geographical clusters: agreeableness (the tendency to be trusting and altruistic), conscientiousness (to be responsible and organized), extraversion (to be sociable and outgoing), neuroticism (to be anxious, tense and emotionally unstable), and openness to experience (to be curious and unconventional).

Researchers have typically analyzed factors such as climate, natural resources, migrations, and socio-cultural legacies to understand how the environment influences this Big Five of traits. But on top of these, Götz’s team also took into consideration “mountainousness”—defined as both the “hilliness (slope, shape) and area elevation (altitude),” the study reads. That’s an essential factor to consider because mountains can be remote and challenging and can foster an “ethos of independence that can leave a specific imprint on personality,” the researchers found.

According to the results of the study, people living in mountainous terrain tend to exhibit less agreeableness, conscientiousness, extraversion, and neuroticism, and more openness to experiences than people living in non-mountainous terrain. That suggests that people living in the mountains are less trusting, less caring, and less forgiving than “flatlanders”—and are more rebellious, indifferent, and non-compliant (as well as less civic-minded and obedient).

But it’s not all dark. The harsh environment can make people more open to experiences and more likely to pursue goals. Plus, there’s a caveat: If people have moved to the mountains later in life, the study suggests they might either become more open and less neurotic upon moving there or—at least in part—have moved there because they are open and emotionally stable.

There’s also the explanation of the call of the mountains (in more scholarly terms, selective migration), which means the peaks attract personalities who do not fit in other environments, rather than mountains necessarily changing someone themselves. And, of course, specific historical and socio-cultural traditions of a community can impact its population over generations.

Thanks to the study, I now understand more about how I was shaped by the environment where I was raised—an environment earlier generations of my family chose to make their own. I also know that my mountains made me who I am and brought me where I am now. And that’s not someone with just darkness, but light—someone multifaceted and complex. And I will always be grateful to my mountains for that.

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