Why do all these ‘high risk’ sports? Is it really for the ‘rush’?
In the course of the past three months I have had the opportunity to indulge in four of the ‘high risk’ sports I like: ski mountaineering, paragliding riding and caving. As usual, friends have all asked me in turn why I still get an adrenaline rush from activities like these. Each time I’ve been asked I say ‘it’s not the adrenaline’, then wonder if I’m not just in some kind of denial about that.
Yet, yet… having given the matter some thought, I have concluded that – for me – and I suspect for many others it is not the rush of what is now officially epinephrine (yup, we’ve adopted the US name). It is much more complex than that. I am not saying a rush isn’t what one can experience. My new friend, Matt Gough, who gave up BASE jumping this spring, after a near death experience from his last jump would, I am sure, list the rush as high on his list of why he jumped in the first place.
And I would be the first to put my hand up and say that that rush can be a part of any of the activities listed above. It is just that it is not the reason I do it, not the principal feeling I get. If you like, that rush, if it is present at all, is a bonus, and not always a welcome one because it frequently tells me I am well over what ever edge I hoped simply to teeter on, into a serious danger zone. Back for a moment to Matt because, the way he tells it, absolute danger was very much in his mind when he jumped: not just from the canopy not opening, but from the illegality of what he was doing. But then, he is just 25; I’m a bit older, if not in my head, by the book.
So, I have been asking myself recently, what motivates me to go on wanting so badly to do what I do: what is at the heart of it?
First and foremost, and critically important, it all keeps me young at heart, if not always in body. It is in my soul, it reminds me I am alive. Second, it keeps me fit, and wanting to be fit – fitter, if the truth be told, than I am. It provides an ever moving goal of pure fitness, if you like, something constantly to strive for, in order to carry on.
Then – and this may sound odd to anyone who doesn’t push their physical limits – there is the ‘no pain, no gain’ aspect, something that you have to live with as you grow older. But it is an absolute truth. For instance, when I was ski mountaineering in the Picos de Europa, in March 2013, the sheer physical effort of dragging oneself up a mountain, in order to ski back down again, was intense. We mostly did it in harsh sunny conditions, so there was a lot of sweat as well. It hurt, by God it did. But that, my friends, was very much part of the point.
Similarly, in southern France, in June, on the occasion we flew from Rabou (some of my readers will instantly know where I am talking about) the longer your flight off the hill, the longer the schlepp back up, lugging your glider and harness with you. But, at the end of that day, I felt – we all felt – a deep sense of achievement. You get it, of course, every time you make a mountain summit, anywhere. I’m not alone in thinking the pain is worth it: ask any top athlete or sportswoman.
Then there is skill, often undertaken in less than perfect conditions, not a groomed tennis court for me, but the rough ground of a mountainside, to ski, to climb, to take off or land on. Not a broken down school horse, but a wild mount, known to be a problem child, grown quiet under my experienced hands on the reins, my modulated voice, my carefully controlled leg movements.
In paragliding the real skill is in feeling the invisible air all around, what it is doing, where the lift is, and thus the sink, what the distant clouds mean, where turbulence will be found, how to cut through this mysterious ether, to locate, then use the landing area, and to step easily down to the ground, after having experienced life thousands of feet higher.
And with those varied skills goes the kit, a point made recently to me when I was halfway up a beech tree, using our tried and tested methods in what we deem to call arbreseiling. ‘You love using all this kit, don’t you?’ Yes, indeed I do, it is an integral part of each of these particular sports, paragliding, climbing, caving, sailing, skiing, whatever it might be. The kit lists are all different, the techniques often at variance, the need to understand how to use each element vital to safety and success.
Finally, there is exploration: it is perfectly possible to find means to explore, right on your doorstep. The obvious places are under the sea through deep diving – but also in caving. In the UK, right now, there are systems being uncovered that no man or woman has ever discovered before. Near where my eldest son, Olly, took me in 2013, in the Peaks, the largest shaft, Titan (at nearly 500 feet deep) ever found in the British cave was only uncovered in 1999. New caves, even complete new systems, are being found all the time.
So, you see, in all this adrenaline has but a small part to play. As for the elements of risk, well I have often been heard to say that the riskiest thing I ever do – and try to avoid at all costs – is driving round the M25 on a wet Friday afternoon. Now that really is a danger to life and limb.