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Renaissance of risk

Two climbers, using ice axes and wearing sharp-cleated crampons, make their way up the sheer face of a frozen waterfall, hammering in pitons and hooking their ropes to carabiners as they go, foot by foot, slowly, carefully. A hundred feet below, jagged, snow-covered rocks await.

A surfer, lying prone on a short platform the size of a boogie board, a surfboard at his side, is ferried by jet ski well out beyond the shore. Weather reports indicate that a storm surf is rolling in, waves the size of small apartment buildings, some 40 feet from crest to trough. Sliding off the platform, the surfer grasps a line and is pulled behind the jet ski like a water skier, matching the speed of the enormous wave that is building, rolling toward shore. Just as the wave begins to form a crest, the surfer releases the line and drops down the face of the wave, carving a slow right turn, as the crest begins to collapse and plumes of white water are whipped by the wind into the air. If he is caught, if he falls, he will be hurled forward and pummeled by tons of cascading water, held beneath the surface for agonizing, disorienting, life-threatening moments.

Two women, somewhere in the Southwest, inch carefully up a fissure in a chimney rock, a vertical obelisk of breathtaking beauty and height, cinnabar in color, and sheer as a stadium wall. Placing hardware as they go, driving pitons into crevices, anchoring safety ropes, they climb without hesitation, angling their athletic bodies away from the face of the rock, applying leverage, wedging their feet, one at a time, into the narrow cracks as they ascend. At the base of the rock, hundreds of feet straight down, everything is diminutive. The view is stunning.

A small group of skiers is off-loaded on a mountain top. In the distance are granite peaks, the sky a cobalt blue, the surrounding slopes covered with a blanket of white, untouched snow. Stepping into their skis, they begin a perilous descent down chutes and across open stretches of soft and seemingly benign powder. Making tight turns, gliding effortlessly through across undulating moguls, they launch over rocks, skiing down inclines of 60 degrees or more. At times, unexpectedly, the snow shifts and begins to move with them, in front of them, a precursor to what they hope they will never encounter: a full blown avalanche.

There was a time when such extreme sports and adventuring were experienced by the few and viewed vicariously by the rest of us, safely ensconced on the sidelines or the sofa or in a movie theater.

That was then, this is now

In the last ten years, the numbers of people who seek out adventures that not only provide lovely scenery, but include serious elements of hardship and risk has increased dramatically.

Witness the proliferation of expedition companies who stand ready to take your most ordinary citizen to the top of Everest, trekking across Siberia, or white-water rafting down the Rogue River. Rock climbing has moved from the fringe into the mainstream as has mountain biking. BASE jumping (launching from a fixed platform like a bridge or high-rise), which started in the 1980s, now has a growing number of adherents.

Amusement parks are in the process of devising ever more radical rides, responding to the desire of park patrons to go extreme: higher, faster, edgier. Rides which accelerate from 0-100 mph in six seconds, with jet pilot G forces in play, are de rigueur, some climbing over 200 vertical feet then free falling, giving the rider a rush of weightlessness. Amusement parks have taken the seemingly tame roller coaster and turned it into a twisting, looping monster of a thrill ride and folks beg for more.

What we are seeing in our culture are two parallel and seemingly contradictory movements. One is the desire to insulate ourselves from all possible risk: safer cars, better airbags, better antibacterial soaps, mandatory seat belts, safer toys, helmets for bike and motorcycle riders and skateboarders. Considerable time is spent by the media in warning readers and viewers about potential hazards. Be careful, be cautious, and look both ways.

Yet, the very same people who ask to have their burger cooked well-done (or skip meat altogether) are sky diving or BASE jumping off El Capitan in Yosemite, or street luging down mountain roads at 80 mph. When home they watch "Fear Factor" or "Eco-Challenge" or "Survivor" on television. The mantra is, "Take it to the next level. Go extreme."

Understanding the duality

Perhaps the explanation lies with chemistry. When people are exposed to what they perceive is a high-risk experience, the body is flooded with neurochemicals, such as endorphins or beta-dopamine, creating sensations of intense pleasure or well-being. Some say that these neuro-sensations can be addictive, hence people seek out extreme experiences. In other words, fear feels good. Even movies that are scary can be thought of in the same way.

Other social scientists have opined that risk-taking is part of our national character, cross-country treks by our forefathers being common and lasting for years. Lewis and Clark being one example, think of them as extreme athletes who left St. Louis in 1804, traveled up the Missouri River, crossed the Rockies and made their way to the Colombia River, where they canoed to the Pacific Ocean. They didn't return to St. Louis until 1806.

Psychologist Frank Farley, a leading researcher in high-risk behaviors, believes that in the American character is an adventure gene which refuses to die, despite the growing trend toward risk aversion in our daily lives. He calls these individuals who gravitate toward risk "Type T-positive" personalities. They are people who are extroverted, creative, and crave excitement and edgy endeavors. The "T Types" seek out those sports and adventures which take them to the edge of the precipice, where disaster is always just a breath away.

Paul Rowland, professor of psychology at Southern Oregon University, stated that in a completed study of high risk-takers v. low risk-takers, he found that high risk-takers were higher on sensation-seeking (based on Zukerman's Sensation Seeking Scale), were more masculine-role oriented (whether men or women risk-takers), and valued competitiveness more.

Matthew Dopp, of Kokopelli River Center in Ashland, said that the people who come to the center to raft come hoping for a rush and even a class two or three trip down the Rogue can offer the action that people are looking for.

What is indisputable is that we live in highly regulated and controlled times, work in climate-regulated buildings, worry about being a bit chilled or a tad warm, and live vicariously through the ersatz adventures of others, brought into our living rooms through the magic of television. We have become a nation of observers and not participants.

But demographic research seems to indicate that a growing number are no longer content to sit passively on the sidelines watching others test themselves on the field of play. In greater numbers people are looking for the antidote to civilization through extreme sports and adventures, and traditional sports, such as baseball, are deemed too slow and too deliberate. "Type T's" crave participation, want the life-affirming thrill of climbing, trekking, rafting, the common denominator being involvement and not watching. For many it's a new journey, off the sidelines and onto the field of play and into the center of experience. And that can make all the difference.