An Exploration of Risk 

The following is a chapter excerpt from Hanging By A Thread: The History, Science, Technology and Culture of Rock Climbing and Mountaineering. It is a self published book that explores rock climbing through a socio-technological perspective. It is available as an ebook(kindle), book and an iBook.

Previous chapters detail how science and technology have affected our lives in general as well as the sport of climbing in particular. Arguably the single force that drove all scientific development was introduced in the first chapter which explored curiosity as the motivation for learning. Without that, could humanity have even begun to explore the realms of science we now take for granted? That incessant, insatiable human curiosity produced an extraordinary understanding of the natural sciences and the determination and skills to harness them to make our own incredible technologies.

This curiosity has not been exclusively directed outwards. Recent generations have held up a mirror to themselves to examine the driving force behind all innovation; the human mind. When we climbers turn that mirror on ourselves what can we learn about why we climb? I do not intend to enter into the world of philosophy and the more existential question why we are here. The question that fascinates me is why some of us possess an urge to take undue chances with our lives in our modern risk adverse society.

Trying to find an answer was incredibly hard, necessarily involving neuroscience, genetics and psychology. A PhD thesis on just one facet of this research would normally take three years so summarising it all into a concise and readable story proved challenging. Add to the mix that very little of the research is totally infallible so some of my theories and the links I make are contentious. What I have tried to do is give an honest, open and enquiring look at all areas of the research and where possible highlight those areas of contention.

If you are a climber or a mountaineer, pause for a minute and try to answer this simple question; Why do you climb? The chances are that it seems to be such a large and vital part of your life that you struggle to know where to start to frame a simple answer. But it is probably easier if I ask; How does climbing make you feel?

Personally, I climb because it makes me happy. I believe I feel like that because I become so absorbed with the act of climbing that I forget about bills, deadlines, worries and other worldly things. It just becomes me and the rock. Clearly I do it to try to escape ordinary life temporarily. That says something about my personality as we shall see. But we will also see that it produces physical effects too. The fact that I find it enjoyable may be due to the natural response in my brain; possibly producing a ‘natural high’.

There are essentially three schools of thought developing in research into risk taking;

  • School 1 – when taking risks we may become addicted to the sensations and feelings we experience.
  • School 2 – assumes risk has a more functional purpose and asks what benefit risk taking gives to a person taking chances.
  • School 3 – takes the view that personality and/or genetics play a role in predisposing individuals to taking risks.

Clearly, these schools of thought apply only to the principal reasons for the behaviour of large groups of risk takers. The decision making that leads a particular individual, such as you or I, to engage in risky activity is an unquantifiable and complex process which depends on personality, genetics, upbringing and current circumstances. And we should be under no illusion. There is a darker side to taking risks and some of us might prefer not to look too closely at why we sometimes put ourselves in mortal danger. Perhaps instead we should try to remember that it does not really matter why we climb except because we enjoy it and that is probably all that counts.

However, risk taking as a facet of the behaviour of groups of people is fascinating and the scientific investigation of those ideas is enlightening. Research into risk-based sports is proliferating but it is by no means wide spread. So occasionally my arguments are drawn from more general research into what might be seen as less socially acceptable risk-taking pastimes such as serial murder and international banking. You will have to judge for yourself whether you think they can justifiably be applied here.

In any case, it makes sense to give ourselves an historical context and we should obviously begin with one of the most often repeated quotes from any climber or mountaineer about why we climb; George Mallory’s ‘…because it’s there’. As it stands, it offers very little as an explanation of why he chose to risk his life to satisfy curiosity about the possibility of surviving one of the world’s most extreme environments. Today it is generally accepted that risk taking only very rarely adds to the sum total of human knowledge. We climb for much more intrinsic reasons and it can be argued that climbing done well and in control by experts has become safer than ever. But from my five years serving on the Llanberis Mountain Rescue Team looking after one small area of mountains in North Wales, I can assure you that climbing is neither safe, nor bothered if you are an expert or a novice. Bad things do happen to nice people and most climbers accept that as part of the sport they love.

‘Because it’s there’ then is arguably more of a maxim of the time. It was not until ten years after Tenzing and Hillary stood on the summit of Everest that a young psychologist, James Lester, started some of the earliest research into risk takers in mountaineering. A member of the Peace Corps, he joined the 1963 American Everest Expedition and reached a height of 6700m (22000 feet). His mission was not to summit but to observe and study how the climbing team dealt with high levels of stress and how they gelled together. It was James Lester115 who truly began to formulate an answer to the question posed to Mallory.

Lester’s expedition profile report was written early in his career. He maintained this lifelong interest well into his retirement, extending the research by reviewing as many of the great works of mountaineering literature as he could. He abstracted from them quotes that would express the meanings the climbers found in what they did. In the introduction to his article he confesses that, “’Because it is there’, …could never satisfy someone with a psychological bent”.

His original task of profiling the American Everest climbers to see how they acted in ‘stressful’ situations provided the earliest indicators of common attributes amongst those who enjoyed this type of lifestyle. Firstly, the team had a much bigger proportion of assertive people than an age and educationally matched control group and Lester observed that they…

“…expressed considerable restlessness, dislike for routine, desire for autonomy, tendency to be dominant in personal relations, a lack of interest in social interaction for its own sake. Their felt need for achievement and independence was very high, while their felt need for intimacy and affection was low.”

Further, Lester reported that,

Ordinary domestic lives were more stressful to the average team member than were the icy conditions in a fragile tent on a snowy ridge in a high wind with inadequate oxygen.”

He also heard the climbers mention that they felt more at home and more themselves whilst on the expedition and that it provided them with an escape from mundane domestic routines and schedules.

Just from these few paragraphs then, Lester has already suggested that escapism is one benefit of risk taking and that climbers are more likely to be dominant personalities and less likely to need intimacy and affection. These two themes were later to be researched experimentally with regards to the function they might fulfil and the benefits they might provide.

In his later review of mountain literature Lester elaborated on those initial observations. He identified these eight threads of meaning shared by climbers;

  • Contact with a High Power
  • A Sense of Freedom 
  • A Sense of Power, Energy and Vitality 
  • Contact with a Better Self 
  • Assertion of Self
  • The Conquest of Self 
  • Escape from Self 
  • Unity 

Several of these themes can arguably be linked. In particular, those involving self sit more comfortably with the theory, explored later in this chapter, that risk taking performs an emotional function. But the first four threads seem to fit the notion that a ‘natural high’ may be involved in risk taking that may have resulted in the literal interpretations Lester found. The science which supports them was developed subsequently but next I want to share with you what Lester unearthed.

To start with we will look at what Lester referred to as Contact with a High Power. This was something he had hoped to observe on the 1963 expedition and is the term he gave to an experience where transcendence is reached. Key words he reportedly looked for in the literature were infinity, eternity, ecstasy, reverence, salvation and humility. These experiences were often associated with the most extreme of survival situations. Whilst Lester’s first paper on the 1963 expedition did not report any such experiences, his subsequent correspondence with some of the team, who after summiting had been benighted at 8500m (28000ft), are a chilling read;

When we bivouacked that night I was much clearer in the things that counted to me, than in recalling time, temperature, etc. That was a destruction of what I understood when I had to relate that junk into a foolish microphone. I could see my body lying on that rock and snow, but that didn’t matter. I cared not if I came back, for life had been found (again – not the first time I felt that) which transcended mere physical survival. I knew we would survive anyway.”

Another climber later wrote this of the same situation high on the mountain,

There was no space, no time, no sense of losing life. It did not matter whether this type of life was lost or not, for life as I knew it then transcended all physical manifestations of body. I was looking over the arête into the other side of the universe…

As we will see, this incident could be ascribed as much to a euphoric high brought about by the extreme danger the pair overcame as to some quasi-religious experience. This description resembles another of the recurrent themes in Lester’s paper, the Sense of Freedom which allows the world to be experienced in a new way. He quotes Reinhold Messner after his successful solo ascent of Everest without oxygen;

The summit seemed so peaceful to me and the descent so unimportant, as if I meant nothing to myself, as if I had climbed out of a sea of loneliness into the safety of the universe”.

We probably have to accept that in those moments Messner and those from Lester’s expedition were undoubtedly at the extreme hypoxic limit of human endeavour. People tested at altitude in hyperbaric chambers can become so delirious from lack of oxygen that they can forget to reattach themselves to the supplementary supply. Often they fail to execute the most basic of tasks and try, for example, to put square blocks in the round holes of a childs toy.

Whether the Contact with a High Power or the Sense of Freedom are experienced independently or are just tricks of the hypoxic mind needs to be considered. Climbers certainly experience serenity after climbing routes sometimes. Usually the feelings are linked with the most challenging of survival situations which brings up the question of whether transcendence is part of a death defying experience or simply the human body’s natural reaction to risk-taking and fear. Whilst I have never had a truly religious experience neither have I faced what I believed would be certain death. What I have felt many times when climbing is an inner peace which brings a greater sense of place where the world looks more vibrant and colourful than before the climb. These times are usually associated with the hardest and most challenging routes I have ever climbed.

The next thread of meaning from Lester’s list is the Sense of Power, Energy and Vitality. This sounds similar to the adrenaline driven physical and mental jolt we all recognise as naked fear and which is technically well known as the ‘flight or fight’ response to moments of real or apparent danger. In such moments we can find ourselves fuelled with a previously unknown energy and clarity epitomised by John Muir’s,

… when life blazed forth… I seemed to suddenly become possessed of a new sense”, and Dougal Haston’s, “Now the iron was returning to my soul; I was rediscovering that feeling of inner invincibility that I had felt on the descent of Everest. Had the climbing not been so utterly demanding, I could not have felt this way”.

This would certainly support the contention of the mainstream media that extreme sportsmen and women are adrenalin junkies.

If then climbers climb to experience those sensations and feelings mentioned above then there should be a scientific explanation for them and to a certain extent that exists. The explanation lies in the neuroscientific understanding of fear; in layman’s terms, what goes on in our brain when we scare ourselves which is something we climbers can regularly achieve.

Fear starts in an area known as the amygdala, a walnut sized area in the centre of the brain just above the spinal cord whose primary purpose seems to be to deal with both memory and emotional responses. Once the emotional and physical responses induced by fear are sensed in the amygdala, it sends messages to other parts of the brain by releasing several neurotransmitter chemicals116 amongst which are dopamine, endorphins and noradrenalin. These are the major neurotransmitters. Each has different functions and symptoms but all are part of the ‘flight or fight’ response; one of evolution’s greatest gifts. What follows outlines how it works but not necessarily in the order in which it happens in the brain.

The trigger is the cascade of hormones and neurotransmitters from the amygdala to the hypothalmus which sends a message to the pituitary gland which passes a hormone into the blood stream. Situated just above the kidneys, the adrenal gland detects the hormone and fires out adrenalin. This series of events, along what is referred to as the HPA axis, causes several things to happen very quickly. First, the noradrenalin in the brain accelerates the rate and volume of the heart and lungs and begins the chain reaction that leads to adrenalin being excreted by the kidneys. The adrenalin shuts down the digestive system, closes off blood supply to other parts of the body and diverts it instead to skeletal muscle by opening up the blood vessels there. By now symptoms are obvious; heavy breathing, a sinking feeling in the stomach, butterflies and sweaty palms. Climbers will be very aware of these and can often feel the effects either prior to or during a climb. Also the bladder relaxes. Have you ever needed a nervous wee before an route, exam or public speaking? Also peripheral vision shuts down in favour of sharper focus on threats or escape. Have you ever been so scared you become hold blind? Then shaking or jitteriness sets in as muscles anticipate explosive action.

Personally I have experienced all of these whilst climbing and I suspect that most climbers have. If you like, this is Muir’s, ‘life blazing forth’ but frankly the aptness of his phrase was not central to my thoughts when I was experiencing the symptoms. The label ‘fight or flight’, suggests readiness for two courses of action, both unsuitable when danger threatens on the mountain or rock face. The first is usually inappropriate and the second physically impossible unfortunately. But the good news is that these primal reflexes evolved because they increase our chances of survival. If we can keep them under control they enable us to perform beyond ourselves and to reach a level of performance that we were unaware we could possibly achieve.

The next wave of chemicals to be released in the body in response to fear is the endorphins. Serving a very important purpose, these closely resemble opiates although it is argued that the one most commonly produced in the body is 100 times more powerful than morphine. As well as pre-empting the need for pain relief in a fight or flight situation, they also create a feeling of well-being. Endorphins are released not only by fear. They also produce the high experienced after intense exercise, excitement, pain, love and orgasm. Descriptions of the sensation are very similar to those of the feelings of oneness frequently found in the climbing literature reviewed by Lester.

The final hormone to be released is dopamine. This provides an intrinsic ‘feel good’ reward to reinforce behaviour which works in any given situation. As explained in Chapter 1, this mechanism has evolved to reward curiosity so it is perhaps puzzling that dopamine is released when we are scared. But we are successful as a species because evolution has taught us first to recognise and then to deal with scary situations. Just as curiosity helped us explore the world around us, this fear based learning response dramatically increased our chances of survival. We curiously assess every situation we meet including its potential threats and our learned response may be anything from mild anxiety to pure terror. Body and mind are stimulated to react and, if successful and we survive, the size of the dopamine hit which is our reward is commensurate with the level of threat we have overcome.

That dopamine is essential to learn from the fear response has been shown by scientists using mice bred to be dopamine deficient. These were trained by being subjected to a loud noise at the same time as they received an electric shock in one foot. The dopamine deficient mice did not learn to associate the foot shock with the sound. But the control mice responded to the foot shock in the same way that they responded to the loud noise. The necessity of an immediate dose of dopamine was con?firmed by injecting the deficient mice with dopamine immediately before or after the training. Then they too learned the response as successfully as the control group but the dopamine had no effect if the injection was delayed for an hour.

Clearly this is a form of the well known Pavlovian conditioning. Pavlov’s dogs associated the ringing of a bell with food so strongly that the sound alone made them salivate. The dopamine mice show us the mechanism and the power of rewarding the fear response associated with stimuli like places and sounds. We humans are undeniably subject to the same process. We have all felt the results of our own conditioning; totally irresistible, it cannot be consciously overridden. When I was on the Llanberis Mountain Rescue Team, the call-outs were initiated by text. As soon as a message came I certainly experienced the same fear response I feel when I am climbing even when I was unable to go and knew I would not be attending.

Given the rapid and profound effects of the natural hormones, it is not surprising that drugs which stimulate their production or actually mimic them have been developed and have existed for a long time. It is also not surprising that the synthesized versions are strongly addictive. Amphetamine, the generic form of ‘speed’, for example produces a physiological response similar to that of noradrenalin; heightened awareness, increased heart rate and a feeling of being stronger and more energetic. The effect of cocaine is to release massive amounts of dopamine into the brain whilst simultaneously blocking its re-uptake and that of other pleasure associated neurotransmitters like serotonin.

Although it is disputed, it is strongly argued that addiction occurs through one of the routes dopamine takes through the brain, in particular the mesolimbic pathway that associates the drug with our intrinsic reward system. It is also argued that addiction to behaviour which triggers the reward system can happen in the same way. This is certainly supported by the fundamental law of psychology which states that any behaviour that is rewarded will be strengthened.

The addictive effect of dopamine rewarding risk taking recently emerged from a treatment for Parkinson’s Disease. Caused by the death of dopamine producing cells in the brain, the disease affects the central nervous system producing movement problems and tremors. Early treatment is to administer a drug which stops the declining supply of the hormone being metabolised away. To begin with dopamine levels are raised and an observed side effect in a few cases has been pathological gambling. The added reward provided by dopamine has turned some otherwise ordinary people into compulsive gamblers.

One case study117 provides a dramatic illustration. A 52 year old married man being treated for Parkinson’s Disease decided to increase his own dose, presumably to increase its stabilising effect. Before that, he gambled only occasionally and had never lost more than $400. After taking the drug, his gambling became uncontrollable and he lost more than $100 000. He gained 50lb in weight through compulsive eating and became obsessed with sex and pornography, engaging in several extramarital affairs. After his medication was reduced and the dopamine levels dropped those problems vanished.

Clearly, all three of the hormones released by fear have possible addictive qualities. As we can see, the association of reward with fear, a mechanism fine tuned by evolution to keep us safe, could have the ironic consequence of making some of us addicted to scary situations. Could this be a sufficient explanation for increased participation in extreme sports and does it account for why some people describe themselves as ‘hooked’ on their favourite activities? Dr Michael Davis, a neuroscientist at Emory University, said that, whilst……………

“……….there haven’t been studies on so called action sports, (but) the general scientific thinking is that the more fearful a certain sport makes you, the greater the release of these chemicals. The greater the release of the chemicals, the greater the addiction like symptoms”.118 

So an addiction to risk or fear has never been proven in sport but Davis implies that this is only because the research has yet to be done. By logical extension then, it must be alarming for sporting risk takers that, as with many addictive drugs, a tolerance soon builds up and the addict needs a bigger dose to get the same effect. In the case of climbing, would this mean being scared more often? Or being more scared by being in greater danger? Whether sustaining the same feeling would equate to climbing harder, bolder or more often it is hard to say. Maybe the average recreational climber never reaches a level of participation which develops risk or fear addiction. Possibly the research is better applied to elite climbers who participate far more often. Marvin Zuckerman, whose research features later on, says in an email that…… “…..the [Everest and other extreme] expedition and elite mountain climbers are among the highest [scorers on the Sensation Seeking scale], not only on the subscale Thrill and Adventure Seeking but also on the more general Experience Seeking subscale”. That is to say that they scored higher on those scales than participants in any other risk based sport119.

I offer as anecdotal evidence observations of two people I have known for a long time who excel in climbing at the most elite level; Leo Houlding and Tim Emmett. Both seem to feel compelled steadily to increase the difficulty and riskiness of the type of activity they have been doing over the last fifteen years. Leo was already one of the greatest ‘trad’ climbers in the UK and has since become one of the few to have taken that free climbing skill to big walls. He did so first on the reasonably comfortable surroundings of El Capitan in Yosemite and then in more remote and adventurous locations like Baffin Island, the Venezuelan rainforest and Antarctica.

Both Tim and Leo have gone on virtually to invent a new sub-sport of climbing so extreme that the number engaged in it globally can be counted on one hand. Para-alpinism is the combination of climbing huge alpine walls and BASE jumping off the top. Having climbed an extreme route, Leo, Tim and a select group of others will, if the conditions are right, jump off the cliff in the most extreme form of parachuting.

Another way of testing the addiction to fear hypothesis might be to see if there are withdrawal symptoms when the cause of the fear, in this case climbing, becomes unavailable. Although there are no studies on climbing or other risk based sports, there is literature on the psychological effects of injury to sportsmen and women. Whilst not necessarily regularly exposed to the same intense fear response as climbers, they do experience the anxiety and thrill of competition and some similar hormonal responses to hard training. A study in 1992 found injured athletes were….. “……statistically more tense, hostile, depressed, unsure, tired and confused than their non-injured peers.”120 The symptoms of withdrawal from cocaine include depression, anxiousness, irritability, fatigue, tiredness and agitation. The two lists are remarkably similar. This is inconclusive of course but an interesting route for possible future studies.

Personally I have had several injuries which caused me to stop climbing for prolonged periods and have felt effects similar to those withdrawal symptoms. The wait for a prolapsed disc of cartilage in my back to heal affected me so deeply I was diagnosed with the depression I have battled with it ever since. Many climbing friends report feeling down when recovering from injuries and many look for solace by taking up other risk based sports. Climbers and mountaineers often describe post expedition blues as if they experience a ‘come down’ or ‘withdrawal period’ after prolonged excitement. Admittedly, this is further anecdotal evidence. But reports are so frequent and so widespread this alone gives a degree of validity until science quantifies the physical effects of being deprived of the risk some of us seek. The commonly experienced negative moods described here will also help us later to examine how risk takers define themselves and use risk to provide the escape they sometimes need.

In summary, whether or not people become addicted to the kind of risk encountered in extreme sports where the outcome could be physical injury or death has yet to be scientifically proven. It must also be emphasised that the research reviewed here does not actually link risk taking in sport with addiction. But the evidence I have cited from related fields indicates that addiction to risk taking in sport is a far broader issue than the use of the pejorative term ‘adrenaline junkie’ would imply.

The possibility that some of us could be more predisposed than others to develop an addiction to risk taking and that this could be an inherited trait adds a further layer of complexity. It has long been recognised that some people become addicted to the kind of risk taking provided by commercial gambling. Some current studies are examining whether the predisposition to become a compulsive gambler is determined by DNA and, if it exists, whether the gene can be passed on.

This research is in its early days because until recently not enough was known about the human genetic code. In fact, 13 years of collaborative research worldwide were needed to map the 3.2 billion base pairs of genetic code in the human genome, work which was completed in 2003. Early technology could map only 300 to 800 base pairs a day but now the Beijing Genomic Institute has 128 of the latest Illumina sequencers which allow the equivalent of 1000 human genomes to be mapped every day. Like the early computer engineers who suffered the ‘tyranny of numbers’, geneticists struggle with these vast amounts of data. But researchers can now map areas of the human genome to identified brain functions to find out whether particular behaviours are predetermined by DNA. This offspring of bio-psychology is called behavioural genetics.

No sooner had the new science come into being than those connections began to be found. At first, researchers were intent on mapping each clearly identifiable behaviour to a single piece of genetic code that had been traced to a specific brain function. Early on, risk-taking became one subject of the research because many forms of it are anti-social; obsessive gambling, drug taking, alcohol addiction and dangerous driving amongst others.

Key in this research is that part of DNA which has been mapped to the development of dopamine receptors. Without these, dopamine could not stimulate the pleasurable euphoria which is the reward in our reward system. The responsible part of our genetic code, the DRD4 gene, can be repeated anything from 2 to 11 times with the most common number of repeats being 4. Some studies link more repeats with more risk-taking whilst others show no relation. The likelihood of the number of repeats being a risk-taking indicator is currently 60/40 in favour. This is hardly conclusive but a limitation of all these studies is that they placed people into a high or a low dopamine receptor group with the low group having less than 7 repeats and the high group having 7 or more. Conventional psychological research predicts clearer results if three groups were used; a low group of below 4 and a high group of above 8 with the middle group being disregarded. Research findings are also difficult to interpret because different studies have not used the same measures of risk and sensation-seeking which may well have introduced inconsistency. It also seems that the assumption that a specific behaviour is determined by a single gene is unlikely to provide useful answers.

Another of the genes identified as being potentially linked to risk taking behaviour has been given the media friendly name Warrior Gene. It might however more accurately be called the Psychopath Gene because it has been linked to psychopaths, both those who function successfully in society and those non-functioning psychopaths who are usually diagnosed as clinically insane. The research which led to the discovery of this gene attracted much publicity and controversy121. It all started in Holland where a woman was so concerned about a trait shown by the male side of her family that she went to a doctor for help. Tracing back the family tree revealed the full extent of the problem. Since the 1870s, males in her family had all had serious learning difficulties and had exhibited extremely aggressive behaviour that was anti-social to the point of criminality. Their crimes included rape, violent assault and arson.

In one of the earliest pieces of research into human genetics, a mutation in their DNA was eventually isolated that effectively stopped the production of monoamine oxidase. This enzyme regulates the level of serotonin, a brain chemical that has a calming effect amongst other functions. Put simply, if dopamine is the go signal for behaviour then serotonin is the stop mechanism. With a serious serotonin deficiency, the males in the unfortunate woman’s family went from mild irritation to uncontrollable rage with very little provocation and terrifyingly quickly.

Researchers subsequently looked for different versions of the mutated gene in other subjects and found high and low versions. The low version has been linked to more aggressive behaviour so it acquired the name Warrior Gene and it is now possible to be tested for it by a private company for the bargain price of $99. This is almost certainly a rip off since the colourful term is a simplistic misnomer. Perhaps those with the gene struggle to control a tendency to anti-social behaviour but it turns out that it can also give them attributes considered to be desirable. What tips the balance seems to be not genetics but upbringing, itself probably the most powerful conditioning process there is of course.

The reputation of the Warrior Gene for causing criminally psychopathic behaviour helped a convicted murderer to get his sentence reduced from the electric chair to life. In the US in 2009, Brad Waldroup pleaded guilty on the grounds of diminished responsibility because of his genes and his upbringing. It had already been established that those with the Warrior Gene who have a conventional, ordered childhood exhibit only socially acceptable psychopathic traits and manage to stay within the Law. However, those with the gene who have a chaotic or abusive upbringing are much more predisposed to become violent criminals. Of the convicted criminals invited to take part in the study because they had the Warrior Gene, many exhibited psychopathic behaviour and many had been abused as children. This was explained as the means by which their resilience to non-functioning psychotic behaviour was lowered to the point where they did not learn to discern right from wrong. An interesting aside is that one of the behaviours psychologists use to define psychopathy is thrill seeking.

Another piece of research in the US confirmed that some psychopathic behaviours are socially acceptable. Business leaders in this study displayed on average four times more psychopathic tendencies than the normal population. Clearly the line between the high achiever and the clinically insane can be a perilously fine one. In more recent research, low levels of the Warrior Gene have been linked with being more than usually able to make decisions and take financial risks122. The lack of the controlling brake serotonin seems to help some people to distance their emotions when making decisions. However, when decision makers lack the ability to discern right and wrong then the outcomes will be amoral and possibly socially unacceptable as demonstrated by subjects who were willing to increase retribution when provoked in laboratory experiments123. A finding particularly relevant to risk taking is that people with low levels of the MAO gene may be more likely to make decisions impulsively.

The enzyme that the Warrior Gene affects comes in two forms, an A and a B type and there have been non-genetic studies into both which found that the B type deals with dopamine and is related to sensation seeking. Low levels of MAO-B have been linked to high measures of sensation seeking in a majority of studies124 and research into a wide range of conditions regarded either as addictions or diseases. These include; attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, antisocial personality disorder, long term criminality, alcoholism, drug abuse, pathological gambling and paranoid schizophrenia.

As with research into psychopathic behaviour, all the studies attempt to disentangle the effects of their subjects’ genetic legacy from those of their upbringing. The perennial ‘nature versus nurture’ issue has been tackled particularly successfully in studies of twins who were genetically identical but, because they were separated at birth by adoption, had been brought up differently. The tests focused on the trait of sensation seeking which has been shown to be associated with risk taking generally and in sport125. The conclusion was that the trait is inherited in up to 50% of cases. In other research looking at determinants of personality, non-identical twins who had shared the same upbringing as identical twin siblings took part. Again it was found that up to 50% of personality traits could be ascribed to their genes. If this is confirmed by follow-up studies, then the inescapable conclusion has to be that up to half of an individual’s personality is genetically predetermined.

So, since genetic makeup is linked both to a tendency to take risks and to personality traits, then a connection between a particular type of personality and a desire to take risks should be apparent. And indeed, this has been shown to exist but is less than clear because personality measures have been altered over the years. Marvin Zuckerman, a leading researcher into risk cited earlier, has extended his Sensation Seeking scale to produce the Zuckerman-Kulhman Five Factor Personality Questionnaire to quantify traits which he linked to risk-taking. However this is aligned too closely to risk takers to be generally useful as a personality test. It was when a more universally applicable test was devised and the ‘Big Five’ aspects of personality were widely accepted that arguably more consistently standardised research was possible. More than one version exists so I refer only to the open source International Personality Item Pool which uses the ‘Big Five’ personality traits; Extraversion, Agreeableness, Conscientiousness, Emotional Stability and Openness to Experience.

Extraversion, Emotional Stability and a lack of Conscientiousness had each been shown separately to affect risk taking and clearly some combination of those three was involved. To deal with the problems encountered when a single trait was tested in relation to a single behaviour, Castanier, le Scanff and Woodman126 used multiple personality traits to make a multidimensional model. To achieve this they grouped individual subjects previously linked to risk taking into high and low scorers. Then they selected people with particular combinations of traits from those groups. Those with low Conscientiousness and either high Extraversion or high Neuroticism were found to be more inclined to engage in risky behaviour; high risk personalities. Conversely, they also found those considered to have a low risk personality type to score at the opposite ends of those scales; high for Conscientiousness with either low Extraversion or low Neuroticism. The three types of high risk personality were described as people who would be Impulsive, Hedonistic or Insecure. The Impulsive and Hedonistic people respectively fitted neatly into psychotic and risk- addicted models of behaviour. But that left the Insecure and it was argued that they fitted into a group who take risks to satisfy an emotional need.

That risk taking fulfils an emotional need is surely intuitively accepted by most climbers. Lester’s literature review certainly found it expressed in many ways in accounts of the personal experiences of climbers and mountaineers. As we saw earlier, he separated these into eight themes no less than five of which provide labels for different emotional responses; Contact with a Better Self, Assertion of Self, Conquest of Self, Escape from Self and Unity. Definitions are provided by the following extracts from climbers’ accounts;

Contact with a Better Self occurs when one feels purer, more honestly and more authentically oneself. Lionel Terray was on the epic ascent of Annapurna with Maurice Herzog and in his book, aptly entitled “The Borders of the Impossible”, he says, “I began to realize that the mountain is no more than an indifferent wasteland of rock and ice with no other value than what we choose to give it, but that on this in0initely virgin material each man could mould, by the creative force of the spirit, the form of his own ideal.” 

Escape from Self suggests that sufficient challenge can give one an escape from a deeper feeling of discomfort or a release from life’s more mundane aspects. Reinhold Messner recalls, “Each movement was neither work nor action, merely being. And being was freedom. And freedom was older than time.”

Assertion of Self reflects the feeling one has sometimes when climbing of being the principal agent in one’s own life, no longer a pawn controlled by someone else or as Frank Smythe put it,
…to rise superior to his environment is the great privilege of man”.

Messner felt…… “… be alone and trusting only to my abilities gave me a strong feeling of identity”.

The Conquest of Self refers to the development and testing of self-control and self-discipline. Mark Twight in his “Extreme Alpinism”, a kind of how to remove your brain and succeed in spite of the mental and physical difficulties of high-end modern alpinism, says,

You can only let go, allowing instinctual reaction to prevail instead of conscious reaction, if you believe 100% in the ability of the unconscious to direct the action”.

Lester’s final theme was the Unity expressed by individual climbers who feel ‘completely and wholly’ themselves when engaged in the mountains, as if in ‘real life’ they felt constrained to be what society wanted them to be.

The need that many people, including climbers, seem to have to see themselves in the best light or to escape something in themselves has been examined by Taylor and Hamilton 127. They explored two possible motives for sensation seeking; escape and compensation. The origins of their work go back to 1981 when a theory of emotional self-regulation through self-awareness began to be developed. The theory proposed that as individuals we choose to focus either on ourselves and in the process become self-aware or we focus on the external world to avoid self-awareness.

In becoming self-aware we can carry out important psychological functions but in the process become goal orientated in our behaviour. The goals are not necessarily set deliberately or consciously, they can be set sub-consciously. Then the more we focus on ourselves, the more we notice discrepancies between our goals and our present state. When the difference between an ideal self (where we would like to be) and a real self (where we actually are) is a gap too far to bridge, there is a negative effect. If we cannot see a way to reach our goal, we either stop trying to attain it or we simply turn our attentions elsewhere.

To illustrate this with a scenario familiar to many climbers, we set ourselves goals which are arranged sub-consciously in an ordered fashion and going to the wall to train, for example, would be just a part of the goal to climb harder. This in turn might be part of a goal to climb to a particular grade that is part of a bigger plan to climb a dream route. Then if training goes badly or we cannot see how what we are doing now will help us to reach any of our goals, we are likely to switch to another activity which is sure to bring success. As a result, we are far more likely to train our strengths than our weaknesses or we may refocus on a totally different aspect of our life.

The example Taylor and Hamilton use is the student who finds difficulty in one subject and probably focuses his effort on another subject because thinking about the problems of reaching the original goal is negative and we prefer to think positively. Similarly, I am sure many of us find ourselves engaged in pointless activities as the deadline for some work we are struggling with looms closer. The ‘displacement activities’, as they are known, replace the hard stuff with things that are easier to achieve. When we cannot achieve a goal and be our ‘ideal self ’, we re-focus our attention and accept a version who achieves easier things but at least this self has got something done and is not a complete failure.

There is a raft of psychological literature on behaviour patterns which involve how we regulate which version of ‘self ’ to apply in different situations. In any given set of circumstances, we have an ‘ideal self ’ as a model and an ‘actual self ’ including many versions of our social ‘self ’. Some research concludes that having several versions of ‘self ’ is good because, if we become distressed with one of our forms of self, we can focus on another especially if those roles are easily assumed and discarded. With this flexibility, we can avoid challenges that are unrewarding and difficult by resorting to rewarding and less difficult ones.

How we regulate or move between different versions of ‘self ’ is key. If there is a problem in our self-regulation we have two options; either stop being self aware by switching attention to something external or assume another self which gives a greater feeling of self worth. Those who have fewer forms of self can suffer higher levels of depression and anxiety because they have fewer goals to choose from and often over-value those they have as a result. Essentially, if they find they have no way of increasing their self worth, they become depressed or anxious as they are forced through lack of positive outlets to focus on the negative or they try to escape those feelings by shifting to an external focus such as rock climbing.

We need next to look at self regulation in the context of risk taking. There are kinds of risk that are usually premeditated like climbing which require training and preparation. There are other risky activities like drinking, drug-taking or driving recklessly that are more spur of the moment than planned. Of course, the opposite can often be true; climbers do make snap decisions to try routes whereas drug and alcohol abusers sometimes plan binges. I could give many examples of both types of decision from my own climbing career.

The ascent of Right Wall mentioned earlier in the book, definitely falls into the premeditated category. I had trained for a long period before finally climbing it. Very much an impulsive decision, on the other hand, was the first ascent of a new route on the Dervish Slab in the Slate Quarries above my home village of Llanberis. I did top-rope it successfully once 6 months previously but I had done very little climbing since and certainly nothing of the grade this route turned out to be. Heading out that day, I had planned on doing only the two classics on the slab, Last Tango in Paris and Comes the Dervish. Having climbed both of them hundreds of times, I felt I was just going through the motions. On a sudden impulse, I chose to attempt this technically thin and extremely bold new line. I arranged some gear, returned to the ground, tried to centre myself and intoned a little mantra, “Just keep going”, “Just keep going.” As I set off again I quickly reached a point of no return. Utterly committed, those words “Just keep going” overcame all other thoughts and, emerging from the other side with the route in the bag, I was freed from worldly burdens. It was me and the rock. An incredibly rewarding experience, I had not prepared or trained for it. It had happened purely because of a decision made with very little thought that day. Maybe there is a darker side to my personal risk taking behaviour or maybe my fear based associative learning kicked in and I was just trying to get a natural high?

Imagine a simple binary world where all decisions are either planned and prepared for or made on the spur of the moment and we will examine how each arises when we are taking risks. A planned risk gives us another self with which to carry out self regulation. In that situation, we make the decision to give ourselves a new opportunity to maintain self-worth or a particular self-image. There are no links to negative aspects with this form of functional risk taking and Taylor and Hamilton coined the term the Compensation Motive for the reasons why some of us actively seek other avenues of personal identity. ‘Compensators’ have a sense of accomplishment. As a result, they will feel good about themselves, will be more likely to plan ahead and will link the act of risk taking with their self image.

Snowdonia Mountain Guides - Rock Climbing Courses

In contrast, the reason for making a sudden decision to risk it all, as I did in the Quarries that day, is to avoid self-awareness and is labelled the Escape Motive by Taylor and Hamilton. In general, ‘Escapees’ were found to be more likely to have higher anxiety levels, negative moods and depression. Using the Risk and Excitement Inventory they created as their psychometric research tool, Taylor and Hamilton concluded that Escapees show a narrowing of attention. They are more likely to act spontaneously and focus on the physical sensations of their activity rather than the emotions it evokes. This fits observations that a risk taker forced, by injury maybe, to take fewer risks may feel something akin to withdrawal symptoms and experience negative moods. Similarly, someone who already suffers negative moods may take up climbing for the very reason that it helps alleviate those feelings. In this ‘chicken and egg’ situation, cause and effect cannot be disentangled and are arguably interchangeable.

We need to look deeper because when we make a real life decision our motives are rarely polarised like this. Usually we adopt a role which is partly Compensator and partly Escapee. The extent to which we are one or the other at a given time for a particular purpose depends on a complex mix of factors and influences.

The far reaching study128 by Cazenave, le Scanff and Woodman I describe next investigated this mix by examining the psychological profiles of risk takers using the Risk and Excitement Inventory and the Sensation Seeking Scale. But it also used measures of impulsiveness and the extent to which the subjects were affected by their emotions. Clearly, gender bias needed to be eliminated so the subjects were exclusively female and were selected from three comparative groups;

1.non-risk takers (the control group) W swimmers, dancers, table tennis players, golfers and athletes

2.risk takers in sports for leisure purposes W mountaineers, BASE jumpers, parachute jumpers, downhill skiers, snowboarders and downhill mountain bikers

3.risk takers in sports for professional reasons W mountain guides, rally drivers, sky divers, downhill skiers and snowboarders

The indicator used by the researchers to gauge the importance of emotion in the decision making of their subjects was whether or not they had the condition alexithymia. This condition is defined by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorder129 as either the inability to feel emotions or express emotions, or both of these.

I digress here because I find it interesting that alexithymia, together with impulsiveness, sounds very like the result produced by the psychopathy gene although I should stress that this was not a focus of the research. The effect on behaviour of a total lack of emotion is illustrated rather alarmingly in the following extract from Kent Keihl’s interview with Brian Dugan. Serving a double life sentence for rape and murder, Dugan scored in the 99th percentile of the psychopath test and he said……….. “I have empathy, too – but it’s like it just stops. I mean, I start to feel, but something just blocks it. I don’t know what it is.”130

Trying to explain his crime, Dugan said in an emotionless voice, “She came to the door and … I clicked, I turned into Mr. Hyde from Dr. Jekyll.” Kent Keihl highlighted the problem……….. “What if I told you that a psychopath has an emotional IQ that’s like a 5 year old?”

Returning to the main findings of the research, it would be natural to expect that the main differences would be between the psychological profiles of the risk takers and those of the non-risk takers. But this was not borne out. Instead, the most striking differences proved to be between the risk takers for leisure purposes and the rest; both the professional risk takers and the control group of non-risk takers.

The leisure risk takers came out ahead of the other two groups in all tests. They were more impulsive and more likely to be sensation seeking. They were more likely to be Escapees on the Risk and Excitement Scale from which we can infer that they therefore probably suffered more of the associated negative effects; increased anxiety, depression and low self worth. When alexithymia was considered as a possible reason for their need to escape, it turned out that indeed, they scored higher than the other groups showing either that they felt their emotions less acutely or that they expressed them less ably than the professionals and the non-risk takers.

The differences between the professional risk takers and the non-risk takers (the control group) were far less dramatic. The professionals proved to be the least impulsive group of all but they were slightly more sensation seeking than the control group. The Risk and Excitement Inventory showed both groups to be Compensators implying that the professionals’ risk taking provided them with ways of boosting self worth and positive self-awareness. Surprisingly, the professionals scored lower than the non-risk takers on the alexithymia scale so they were the most likely of the three groups to engage their emotions when making their decisions.

These findings beg the question; why are the motives of the person engaged in risk taking as a professional different from those of recreational risk takers? Cazenave, le Scanff and Woodman hypothesised that the main difference between the two groups itself provides the reason. They argued that the two distinct psychological types self-regulated in different ways so that…….

‘…………..women who deliberately take risks as part of their leisure activities (without training and supervisory staff, and even, sometimes without many of the requisite skills) will have a more negative psychological profile than women who have a profession that is based on risk-taking. Indeed professional risk-takers have acquired a social acknowledgement and recognition in their professional (risk-taking) field.’ 

I would challenge the reasons behind that hypothesis. Working as I do as a professional mountaineering instructor alongside many colleagues, I know that we all began as recreational risk takers and we fitted the profile of the study’s leisure group fairly closely. As we gained experience and sought qualifications we migrated to the professional group. The research does not address the movement from amateur to professional and it is important since every professional risk taker in the study must have made that switch at some point. None contradicted the gloomy predictions of careers teachers by starting a job as a rally driver or a sky diver the week after leaving school. Their career paths all began with lengthy periods as amateurs. To my mind, what separated the professional subjects from the leisure group was essentially time and experience.

Self evidently, not everyone who engages in risky leisure pursuits, however skilled or talented, chooses to become professional. Amongst any leisure risk takers, it seems likely that psychological differences would distinguish those suited to a professional career from the rest. So the differences displayed by the professional research subjects may have been apparent at an early stage and could perhaps be regarded as intrinsic. On the other hand, could they have been acquired over time through training and experience?

The research does not acknowledge the personal attributes needed by many professionals, having the patience to look after novices for example. The criterion for selecting professional risk takers for the study was that they all made a living from their sports. No distinction was made between roles represented by instructors, guides and elite sponsored sportswomen amongst others, each requiring attributes which might affect a psychological profile. The professional group was also on average more than 10 years older than the leisure group so facets of personality which change with age may have contributed to the differences found.

I think that the addiction hypothesis should be cautiously reconsidered here as well. I imagine that the recreational risk takers could not engage in risky activities as often as if they had no other commitments so their psychological profiles may have reflected the negative effect of withdrawal. In my experience, the professionals’ risk taking would be closely related to their precise role. Instructors and guides spend their time at work with clients and students diligently controlling risk. But in their free time, with their chosen sport providing as much risk as they wish, some of their decisions will be planned and others will be made on impulse. In contrast, elite sports people, especially those who compete, seem to maximise the risks they take when they perform.

I am speculating here on areas outside the remit of the research but I offer the sheer complexity of the activities of the professional risk takers as the reason why their profiles are less distinct from those of the control group and why their motives are so difficult to interpret. Because of its simplicity, it is hard to disagree with the above statement from the researchers that professionals have a variety of ways to nurture their self worth and are therefore less likely to suffer the negative effects of escapism. But we do not yet have the full story about why some of us consider the kinds of risk others regard as foolhardy to be an essential part of our lives.

In this chapter I set myself the task of finding out why climbers climb. I did warn you at the beginning that this question and the more general ‘why do risk takers take risks?’ has been the subject of much speculation, theorising and research for decades. As promised, condensing vast swathes of current thinking in psychology, neuroscience and genetics has not been straight forward and has produced many possibilities. On the plus side, these are all more enlightening than poor old Mallory’s ‘because it’s there’ and amongst them must be The Answer.

It cannot be denied that the popular view that risk takers become addicted to the buzz they get when they scare themselves is very plausible. Apparently resembling the quasi-religious euphoria described by many mountaineers and climbers, the aftermath of the body’s ‘fight or flight’ response feels like a natural high which lots of us seem to need to the point that we feel down when we are deprived of a regular dose. The same hormonal pathway and reward system are responsible for drug addiction, alcoholism and compulsive behaviour too. So far, so convincing but the existence of the adrenaline junkie has not actually been established beyond doubt in a sporting context.

Genetic inheritance is a strong contender of course. In spite of some contradictory evidence, how could it not be? Parts of the human genome definitely determine the likelihood that we will behave in particular ways. Work is in the early stages but already we know that sometimes the affect is as direct as control of mechanisms which produce mood shifting hormones. But our genes shape, at most, only half of our personality it seems. That leaves a great deal to be moulded and conditioned by other influences and factors. In the future, the science of behavioural genetics will continue to reveal which of our attributes we have inherited, bringing benefits even greater than understanding why climbers climb, as long as we guard against its use as a eugenic tool.

Significant results have been produced by conventional psychological research into the types of personalities who take risks. The need to take risks changes with age and there are gender differences too but the Hedonistic, Impulsive and Insecure amongst us are more likely to engage in risky activities. Some of us naturally engage our emotions more in the decisions we make when taking risks and those of us who do not, may be psychotic but in a nice way.

Perhaps the most promising research I have reviewed looks at the emotional function of risk taking as a benefit we gain from our sports. This was actually carried out in a sporting setting and is directly applicable. It shows that many of us use our risk taking to regulate our emotions and provide positive versions of self. It shows that risk based activities can provide us with an escape from ourselves and everyday life or alternatively with a means to develop self awareness and self worth. At the very least, this valuably points us at something we can learn to control and change.

All the research considered here grouped people according to variables, found a mean value for each group and looked for statistically significant differences between them. Average trends emerged like snapshots which, whilst informative, were hazy at best. If you are a climber, if you peer into the snapshots, you may recognise some aspects of your personality and some of the reasons why you climb. As a unique individual, you cannot find yourself pictured more accurately than that. Hopefully though, you will also have gained some insight into why other climbers climb too. And that is The Answer or at least as good an approximation as can be given for now.

We climb essentially for enjoyment, regardless of where that enjoyment comes from. That to me is the most important aspect of why I climb. I head out to challenge myself against gravity by rock climbing and if it was not fun then I would probably have given up years ago. The same is undoubtedly true of all the pioneers who have come before us and all of those who will follow in their footsteps. We all head to the heights to put smiles on our faces.


115 James Lester wrote two noteworthy articles. The first was about his experience of the expedition and what he saw as the personality traits/motivations of the climbers for engaging in high risk sport; ‘Wrestling With Self on Mount Everest’ Journal of Humanistic Psychology 1983. The second was a review of 150 years of mountain literature which reflects modern research on the subject; ‘Spirit, Identity and Self in Mountaineering’ Journal of Humanistic Psychology 2004. 

116 This section is highlighted here: adrenalineWsport

117 Pathological Gambling Caused by Drugs Used to Treat Parkinson Disease Whttp://

118 natureWadrenalineWsport

119 Sensation Seeking and Risky Behavior – M. Zuckerman 2007.

120 Emotional Effects of Sports Injuries: Implications for Physiotherapists Whttp://

121 Born To Rage: A Case Study of the Warrior Gene W An overview of controversy surrounding the warrior gene W 10339/37295/Murphy_wfu_0248M_10224.pdf ?sequence=1



124 Personality and Risk Taking by Zuckerman & Kuhlman W zkpq/sites/

125 Marvin Zuckerman – Sensation Seeking and Risky Behavior W 2007

126 Who Takes Risks in High Risk Sports? A Typological Personality Approach, Castanier, C. Le Scanff, C. & Woodman, T. Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport, Vol 81, 2010.

127 Taylor and Hamilton. Preliminary Evidence for the role of selfWregulatory processes in sensation seeking. Anxiety, Stress and Coping, 1997.

128 Psychological pro?iles and emotional regulation characteristics of women engaged in riskWtaking sports, N. Cazenave, C Le Scanff and Tim Woodman. Anxiety, Stress and Coping 2007.

129 This is the manual that American Psychiatric Association publishes to describe and classify mental disorders. Alexithymia was only classi?ied in the latest 2012 ?ifth edition of the Manual.

130 Barbara Hagerty – Inside a Psychopath’s Brain: The Sentencing Debate – http://

This is a chapter excerpt from Hanging By A Thread: The History, Science, Technology and Culture of Rock Climbing and Mountaineering. It is a self published book that explores rock climbing through a socio-technological perspective. It is available as an ebook(kindle), book and an iBook.


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