Why Ordinary Men Attempt Extraordinary Feats
Many of us may classify driving in heavy traffic as an adventure. Consequently, we may view mountain climbers, sky divers, and kayakers as thrill-seekers or adrenaline junkies. But before we pull the ripcord on those who jump from perfectly good airplanes, let's consider their passion for adventure may be valid. After all, don't adventure seekers deserve just as fair a shake as journalists reporting live from combat zones or astronauts who travel into space?
Adventure is something instilled in each of us - from the time we learn to ride a bicycle or climb a tree to the first time we board a plane. We all assume risks. Some of us make conscious decisions to minimize those risks, but some of us seem drawn to the ‘edge’. Why? The answer might surprise us. What drives the adventurous heart to walk a tight rope for survival is rarely a conscious desire to push the envelope, but something much, much deeper.
Jim Wickwire was the first American to summit Mt. Everest. In his memoir, Addicted to Danger, he said that he developed his love for climbing after reading Annapurna by Maurice Herzog. And although Herzog’s reason for summiting the formidable Annapurna was simple - “it was there,” - Wickwire’s reason seemed far more complex. Despite supporting five young children, he described a relentless coercion to mountaineer. Even after a nasty fall he said he "wanted more" while also claiming a “heightened attraction to danger.” ‘More’ is what he got! He nearly died on Rainier and though he successfully climbed McKinley and K2, he saw the lives of friends and strangers alike, indiscriminately snuffed out by peril and disaster.
Wickwire had begun mountaineering with a dis-belief in immortality, but as he became a more experienced climber, he found freedom from “the paralyzing fear of utter extinction. Had he become less afraid of death, or just more comfortable with life?
Exposure to death obviously heightened Wickwire’s awareness, but his awareness of what? The possibility of death is a reality for any extremist, but perhaps those who participate are actually looking for life in the face of death. And the act elicits repetition until the search proves successful. Therefore, we might assume the danger associated with searching isn’t always well calculated. This is a fallacy. Risk-takers are not by definition the same thing as risk-seekers. The level of risk assumed for an adventure is usually commensurate with training and experience. This means risk-takers are actually risk-managers. The risk itself is a stepping stone toward an ultimate goal -- unless you are a dare devil. And in that case, “why” is an irrelevant question. The answer is “just because.” Freud believed that dare-devils are driven by nothing more than the simple desire to feel “more alive.” There is a more poignant way to feel alive for risk-managers. Learn, train, survive. Improvise, adapt, and overcome. It's adventure laced with skill rather than the blink luck of tempting fate and winning.
“Hendri” Coetzee was a mixed bag of risk psychology. He honed his white water skills to the point of national recognition, but he also spiked them with reckless behavior. Reporting in Outside Magazine (March 2011) ” Grayson Schaffer tried to explain Coetzee’s thrill-seeking drive. Coetzee grew up among explosions because his father served in Special Forces during the Angolan Bush War. One could surmise that Coetzee turned to the river for solace while never realizing he was trying to emulate his father's bravery. Kayaking became his career. While Schaffer described Coetzee as “an obsessive chronicler of his adventures,” friends described him as having “more balls than brains.” He soloed Murchison Falls on the Victoria Nile, a 40 meter drop which pumps 6 million cubic meters over the falls each second. As Coetzee paddled, mostly alone, he described his adventures as “euphoric.”
Coetzee wrote in one of his memoirs, “It is now clear to me that these peak experiences are gateways to something bigger and more powerful, though I hesitate to use the word God.”
Both Coetzee and Wickwire were obviously searching for something. And risking death in the process. Coetzee’s life seemed plagued by a void that even a euphoric Class V or VI rapid could not fill. After successfully soloing unchartered waters on the Nile, he said the river still left him feeling “no relief.” Perhaps the endorphins that possessed his brain were a protest against the war in which his father served, but they were also a testament to his father’s bravery. Coetzee obviously needed to believe in something and even said, “I need … to prove to myself that we can do things which are bigger than ourselves. I needed to walk through a minefield to feel protected.”
History will never know if Coetzee felt protected on the river or if that took actual death itself. He died in the jaws of a crocodile on the infested Lukuga River in 2010 after what's been dubbed his 'best day ever.' As he said,
“Too often when trying something no one has ever done, there are only three likely outcomes: success, quitting, or serious injury and beyond. The difference in the three are often forces outside of your control. But this is the nature of the beast: risk."
Coetzee found what lies beyond.
Whether risks are impulsive or calculated, they do contain a certain amount of luck. Felix Baumgartner was the first skydiver to succeed at breaking the sound barrier. He ran a 24 mile long, 850+ mile per hour race through the clouds. But what should have left him feeling empowered, left him humbled. After landing, he dropped to his knees. He made no apology for his immediate disclosure that the record setting dive would be his last. Regarding the record setting dive he said, “sometimes you have to go really high to see how small you are.” Baumgartner was well-grounded in his realization that more than a record could have been broken or lost. The dive had not been without a couple of hitches. His actions mirrored Herzog’s words,
“… I lost a great deal, but I found many marvelous things that had been unknown to me. I used to think that the chief thing was to be stronger, that strength came before everything else.”
Herzog, despite losing most of his digits during the Annapurna summit, found happiness in making it to the top. He went on to say that if he “felt such happiness in such rigorous circumstances, it is because the planned, organized, predigested happiness that the modern world offers is not complete” - perhaps the best argument yet for risk-takers.
Despite the potential for success at reaching personal goals, surviving risks takes its toll. And the greater the risk, the greater the toll. Hence Wickwire’s lament that by trying to excel as a climber, a lawyer, a father and a husband, he had not excelled as either. Instead, he had discovered “that he could overcome his fears, survive in the face of adversity, and rise above his own limitations” - also the benefits from a course of rigorous self-discovery.
Self-discovery is inherit to some; heavily sought out by others; and indifferent to the rest. Adventure can become a sort of war with one’s self and if men can feel liberated by war, then adventure can be even more liberating.
Warner Heisenberg, a mountaineer and the Nobel prize-winner for quantam mechanics in 1932 said,
“The young man who goes to war has thrown off the burdens of his daily cares and worries. When life or death is at stake, petty reservations, all those qualms that normally restrict our lives, are cast to the winds. We have only one aim – victory – and life seems simple and clear as never before.”
The focus needed to overcome an obstacle is not nearly as overwhelming as it is unburdening. When minds are free of all the white noises of defeat, the only thing that remains is the next move. Like all rock climbers will tell you, the next move depends on calculated effort and a flawless connection with elements often beyond your reach. But when the voices of doubt, guilt, rejection, and failure are replaced with tenacity, fortitude, and freedom from fear, the heavens erupt with the thunderous sound of accomplishment and overcoming the odds!
There is a hidden truth for all risk-takers. Facing death in order to succeed, also requires facing life. Bagging a peak, breaking a record, or any other death defying feat taps into your inner sanctum. Those who aren't afraid of walking on the edge may be looking for a deeper meaning than they can express. Looking for a closeness to the great unknowns. It's hard to explain a snow-covered peak at 20,000 feet. Likewise, it's hard to explain a reason for our existence in the midst of such greatness. In a world of inextricable beauty yet inescapable mortality, we are merely onlookers until we CHOOSE to participate. The ability to manage your heart rate when a 2000 lb. monster called death is staring you in the face allows you to clearly see nature’s ability to crush mortality between her fingertips. But make no mistake, the human will to prevail can be a force of its own...
The ‘unknown’ and ‘unexpected’ are in an indissoluble marriage with risk. But by committing yourself to it, risk has a way of preparing the adventurer’s heart and mind for just that!
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