Is This Your Brain on Adventure?

In June of 2009 I had a pivotal experience on Liberty Ridge on a trip guided by IMG guides Mark Allen and Jeff Ward. We barely survived summiting in 60 + MPH winds, wandering along steep cliffs and crevasses in a whiteout to spend the night in a moat (ice cave) 120′ below the surface of the glacier. Over the course of the trip I realized my own comfort level was off a bit compared to “normal” people, including sleeping 6″ overhanging the edge of a 75 degree ice slope:

The camp is basically a couple of tent platforms on a 45 degrees slope, beautiful and exposed; with very little room to move around. Blue-bagging will be a challenge here; but we all do our duties. We cook dinner, and I try to eat as much as I can. Little that I knew at the time, I would not have another meal in 30 hours. We settle again for the night, I am glad I am sleeping on the uphill side; Ann is in the middle and Rick just over the edge. His position does nothing to prevent him to quickly fall sleep and soundly snore throughout the short night. Thankfully I am well equipped with drugs and earplugs. Jeff announces start time for 2:00am. – Dodging Bullets on Liberty Ridge – Claudio Argento – Alpine Lines Blog


I also realized my own comfort level on Alpine Mixed terrain of steep slopey blocks of rock and ice and mud, and shallow (AI 2-3) ice. My climbing friends all say this is not normal. I normally don’t think about this too much, and just take it for granted, but today I received a notification for an article on Outside Online Magazine about the differences in brain chemistry or physiology for abnormal risk takers, quoted here:

There are three major emotional ingredients to risk taking … all driven by individual brain chemistry. One is desire for adventure (“sensation seeking”), in what’s known as the reward pathway of the brain, the mysterious mechanisms where happiness juices flow; high-risk takers may simply get a bigger bang than other people, leading them to seek more intense experiences. Another is a relative disregard for harm, meaning, basically, that they’re not as afraid of negative consequences as regular folks. The third is impulsivity, or acting on your desires without fully thinking them through. — What distinguishes an everyday adventurer from an extreme or foolhardy one lies in the interplay of these factors. Mountaineers may be adventurous and well able to handle stress, but they tend not to be impulsive, often carefully planning their expeditions for months. – This Is Your Brain on Adventure – Outside Magazine

While on my Seven Summits Quest, I have had all 10 fingers nearly to the wooden stage, been stopped dead in my tracks unable to breath, been struck by the static discharge of close lightning, been up all night gasping for breath, had nearly non-stop diarrhea for days, spent the night in a tent with a puking partner, twisted my ankle with a 16 mile hike out, frost-nipped my face so I stopped shaving, lost and blackened toenails, endured bleeding blisters, nearly exploded gall bladder. Yet I persist on this pursuit, and have plans for more summits in the coming years.

While training Mixed Climbing (dry tooling) in Ouray last week, I managed to pop off a very vertical (read: overhanging) cliff face and swung out inverted (upside down) about 60′ from the ground, and as I swung out, still hanging onto my ice tools, silent, I thought to myself “I don’t seem to be sliding out of my loosely-worn harness. Good. So if I can tap the wall when I come back in, maybe I can straighten up and sit right.” It worked and I managed to come back into the wall on a shelf and shake it out. Picture below is just after I tapped my right foot, flagging my left foot as I swung back upright at the end of the pendulum. I had fallen from the left wall under the ice curtain.


Was/am I in denial? Are you in denial? If you’re going to consider the Seven Summits, please consider the risk with an open mind. People die every year on almost every one of the Seven Summits, even the so-called easy ones. I was saddened to hear about some recent deaths on Elbrus, for climbers I met during the Elbrus Race 2010:

Rescuers have found a body of a Ukrainian climber, Maryna Khytriakova, at the height of 4,700 meters on Mount Elbrus – Ukrainian female climber found dead on Elbrus – Kyiv Post

Anyone who climbs for a long time will eventually have lists of friends and acquaintances who were crippled, maimed or killed while climbing. Denali and Everest are particularly notorious among the Seven Summits for annual deaths. Aconcagua has many deaths as well, though not being so much in the headlines. Do yourself a favor and think, consider where you are on these lists, where you could be, and plan appropriately.

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