Science & Tech Editor Matt Laing discusses why thrill-seeking isn't so "crazy" after all.
What is it with those bunch of nutters trekking across crazy landscapes to hurl themselves off cliffs, as a means of "exploration"? It may be a fair question, but one that annoys me as a self-professed adventure sports addict. For most of the folks in my world, it is not the danger that draws people in, but instead what it necessitates.
In the first instance, most adventure sports require a colossal amount of planning and equipment. For an hour of diving, one can expect to spend in excess of three hours prepping and assembling different hoses and testing valves. Following that, there is the boat trip to the site and planning session. And, after all that, the entire process reverses to disassemble kit and debrief. For me, the whole experience, not just the underwater bit, is what makes the sport. Whilst friends and family look on in dismay about the idea of descending to thirty metres and breathing through a tube, that part really only crosses my mind when calculating how much air we have left as a massive eel crosses my field of vision.
This isn’t by accident; it’s a principle lots of self-help authors drone on about: the fear bubble. The idea is to mentally enter a bubble where nothing other than the direct task at hand comes to mind. All the fear and apprehension attached to risking your life is held at bay as you process only what’s immediately necessary to keep you alive. The best thing about the fear bubble is that it is transferable; useful in everything from exams to large parties. It is even taught professionally by military pilots, and former SBS operator Ant Middleton calls it his "secret talent".
"All the fear and apprehension attached to risking your life is held at bay as you process only what’s immediately necessary to keep you alive."
One of the great things about adventure sports for me is their technical aspect. In rock-climbing you can expect to carry something like 20kg of gear, split across camp kit, ropes, safety kit, and climbing aids like chalk. The fun of actually pulling yourself up a wall and doing battle with the 3D boulder puzzle you come face-to-face with is accentuated by the added task of working out how you're going to clip the rope to the wall and, you know, not die. So, rather than chasing the thrill and adrenaline of looking down 20 metres and seeing the hard ground mid-climb, I’m completely absorbed by the task at hand. What appears from the outside as taking risks for the fun of the risk itself is in fact a meticulous, and surgical, operation well away from the wall.
Another one of the best aspects of adventure sports? The community. Go to a climbing wall and you will find rich bankers, street sweepers and everything in between. People of every religion, race, and sexuality, with no one batting an eyelid. The similarities shared by lovers of adventure creates a group that’s infinitely colourful, and just downright fun. There is a strange bond between people that share pastimes, strengthened all the more when that pastime holistically absorbs your brain, wallet and free time; oh, and that you could die doing it. In that sense, I guess it could be said that thrill-seekers do get a bit of a kick out of the danger involved, but it's never the aim. In fact, most people stay well clear of those who chase the danger. I certainly wouldn’t partner with someone in that camp; the idea alone is more terrifying than snapping ropes and falling boulders. What tends to cause death is complacency. Getting away with bad practice again and again till it becomes habit will eventually lead to something that’s usually backed by well-grounded practices killing someone - often their partners, rather than the mistake-makers themselves. That’s why the community is so tight: you are literally putting your life into someone else’s hands.
"There is a strange bond between people that share pastimes, strengthened all the more when that pastime holistically absorbs your brain, wallet and free time..."
Perhaps my favourite part of “thrill seeking” is the travel aspect. Exploring a mountain range requires mountains - and whilst Glasgow does have its hills, there is excitement in planning a trek on new terrain. Often the planning is even more memorable than the trek itself. One of the highlights of a recent walk in Skye was a small coffee shop on the bay looking out at Portree harbour; and I will never forget eating "goat soup" on the side of Mount Olympus. The world is full of mental little places that are endlessly fun to explore. Instagram is covered in views from the top of massive mountains, but don't be fooled by the frequency: behind every epic selfie, there is a colossal amount of exploration having been done.
The sense of adventure is well rooted in the entire trip. People will tell you far more stories about airport antics and how they got such a good deal on a hostel than the actual hike. In the same way that walking a ridgeline inspires all the senses at once, going to a market in a far-flung place to buy some local food you can't spell is another sure way to explore the world. Perhaps that’s why adventurers tend to also care intensely about the climate emergency or international poverty, because you end up in all kinds of places on the edge, where their impact is felt the most.
Whilst “thrill seeking” is dangerous, it’s not the danger that draws people in: it’s the response to that danger and the methods you employ wherein the real adventure is found. My best memories are all from crazy situations that dumped me in some far-flung valley refuge, and my best friends are just that because nothing brings people together more than shared suffering. The mishaps aside, I would encourage people to try different sports and activities even just as a way of getting out of your comfort zone. “Thrill seeking” teaches you so much about yourself and, who knows, you might even get to have fun whilst you're risking your life.
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