Here's what I mean. In their off-season, Eli and Pete make some of the most difficult climbs known to man. Their most harrowing experience happened in Patagonia in January 2008, when they attempted to climb Mount Fitz Roy, a 3,500-foot block of ice and granite. The first three attempts in their month long visit had all failed. They'd hiked up to base camp over deadly crevasses and glaciers only to be beaten back by the snow. On one attempt they spent 50 hours in their dug-out ice cave waiting for a blizzard to pass.
When the clouds cleared, they knew their fourth attempt would have to be their last. They'd run out of time. They started at the base of La Brecha, a 1,200-foot wall. It was 10 p.m. "You have to do the climb at night because the sun melts the snow and chunks the size of houses come off," explains Eli.
They climbed for several hours, their headlamps giving them just a dinner plate of light to follow. At 2 a.m. they hit a headwall. They couldn't go any higher. They had taken a wrong turn several hours before. They'd have to climb back down and start over.
On their way down they found slings left in the ice by previous climbers. They MacGyvered a way to swing around a prow of rock to take a shortcut to the correct path. Delighted with themselves, they pulled their ropes. One was stuck. That meant they were. They needed the rope to continue their descent. "We can't go up. We can't go down. It's 3 a.m. and we're wet, cold, tired, lost, and stuck," says Eli. "And we haven't started the real climbing yet."
They were at the place most of us only visit in anxiety dreams. It wasn't just that they were stuck. Getting unstuck would be tricky and require an even more dangerous kind of climbing. One of them would have to inch back up about a hundred feet without the aide of a rope to catch him. Once there, he'd have to climb back down the wall of ice, also without the protection of a rope. Eli pulled the duty because he was closer. "It was petrifying," he says. "If I fall I die. We were freezing cold and soaking wet and 20 miles from the closest dirt road. … I had to go up into the darkness without a rope or anything but just Pete encouraging me."
As terrifying as it was, Eli may not have been feeling the same panic I had felt. In part, that's because he had more experience and had gotten himself out of similar scrapes. Perception of risk is determined by experience. It is also determined by brain chemistry. Studies have shown that a low level of the enzyme monoamine oxidase correlates with high levels of certain risky behaviors. That enzyme affects a variety of neurotransmitters that regulate arousal and pleasure. Low levels of norepinephrine in climbers and other risk-takers allow them to handle higher levels of stimulation before their body begins sending out signals to start freaking out. Much of rock climbing can be taught, but this advantage is something you're born with.
This is why Eli and Pete can sleep soundly on a thin sheet of plastic thousands of feet in the air. Their mind isn't racing with thoughts that the anchors that hold them up could all suddenly fail. They're comfortable enough to be goofy. When climbing, they are the opposite of their serious guide selves. On the wall, they often sing or talk in Cockney accents. This is partly an intentional coping mechanism: You can't fixate on danger if you're loose. Still, some of the goofiness is unplanned. Once they found themselves with cans of tuna but no can opener. They used a hammer. The explosion forced them to work for two days smelling like StarKist.
Eli and Pete are better than I am at getting the most out of panic before it spirals out of control and becomes debilitating. As Jeff Wise illuminates in Extreme Fear,his book about the science of danger, regulated fear can be very helpful. When the amygdalae are on your side, they stimulate the production of noradrenaline, which helps the prefrontal cortex focus with precision on the immediate danger. The sympathetic nervous system also kicks in, aligning the body so it can attack the problem.
After Eli successfully retrieved the rope their problems were just beginning. With thousands of feet of rock ahead, they realized in the ordeal they had dropped their can of fuel. They couldn't melt snow, which meant they couldn't make soup.
With only two Clif bars between them, they started the actual climb. A full day later, with only a brief shivering catnap, they made it to the summit "I am exhausted and at times crawling and panting," Eli wrote in his journal of the 36-hour climb. "As we approach the summit, pure joy becomes my fuel and we climb the last rock section. La cumbre de Cerro Fitz Roy; no doubt the most beautiful place I have ever been. Overwhelmed with emotion I begin to cry."
Their celebration lasted eight minutes (during which time they shot a short video). They had to get going. In Patagonia speed is safety. Though they were enjoying a spectacular and rare bout of good weather, conditions can change quickly. Bad weather can gather around you quickly and shut off your ability to move. They had a 10-hour trip back down ahead of them.
Never again, right? An experience like that would have been enough for me (typing it has almost been enough). And I love climbing. I love testing my limits. I love the physical trance of a climb that's progressing nicely or the focus of trying to get out of a jam. I love the rush of accomplishment of having climbed. But when Eli and Pete talk, I get vertigo.
But for Eli and Pete, an accomplishment like climbing Fitz Roy only feeds the desire to do more of it, and harder. "You climb and suffer this painful and scary and miserable and dangerous thing to push your personal limitations and then see if you can smile at the end of it. Then you come back, move 15 feet to the right and do it again," says Eli.
They clearly love living to tell the tale. "Those things make the best stories," says Pete as he tries to explain why they put themselves through an El Capitan climb that left them without fingernails or toenails at the end. The story of standing at the top of a mountain smiling isn't that interesting, either to the listener or the one telling the tale. It's the scrapes that are interesting. There may be a neurological reason for that, too. Moments of fear are tagged by the amygdala in a way that makes them more vivid than other memories.
The addiction to the rush is also neurological. Risk-takers are compelled to take risks in part because they become addicted to the intense feeling of arousal and pleasure found at their limit. One of the other characteristics of those who take extreme physical risks is that they have lower levels of dopamine, which means they're harder to please. The risk has to increase to give them the same pleasure. "Like [taking] a drug, the only way to relieve the post-send comedown is more of the same—in my case another expedition," writes Caroline George in "Post-Expedition Blues," a Climbing magazine article about chasing the high.
Eli and Pete seek the high by climbing routes that no human has ever climbed before. (How many people you see on an entire trip becomes another way to classify it. "We saw four humans the entire time," Eli wrote to me after his most recent trip to Patagonia.) In late 2009 they traveled 400 miles from the nearest road in Newfoundland on a trip that required three ferry rides, then a ride from a local fisherman to a bay that they then crossed by canoe to the base of the rock. "The appeal is to stand on top of a mountain no one has ever stood on," says Eli. "And it's the unknown. You don't know whether the crack system will turn into nothing or whether the route will even exist."
As Eli and Pete neared the end of Rosa's Cantina, one of the seven routes they charted in Newfoundland, they were both in their hanging jester mode. They were almost at the top. Pete was in the lead, gardening out some debris and vegetation from a crack to get a better hand placement. He brushed by two enormous blocks of rock. The rocks moved. "His tone of voice changed in a split second," says Eli. "It became really fucking serious really quickly. If they had fallen they would have just blown me up."
They stopped singing. Pete tiptoed around the closer loose rock and set a piece of equipment into the rock to keep his rope from even brushing it as he climbed out of the way. Eli then climbed up the 50 feet or so. After easing his way past the threat he turned and pushed the stone with a little more force than you'd use to close the front door. "Those two boulders fell 600 feet into the ocean. It was awesome."
"I've never whittled my nails down to the point of pain before," says Pete. He's not recounting another terrifying climb. He's talking about his office job. Pete and Eli bought Atlantic Climbing School almost a year ago, in May 2009. Last summer, Acadia National Park experienced its wettest summer in 16 years. When it's wet, you can't climb. And when it's the middle of a recession, people don't climb. Their new business was dead.
Eli and Pete had put careful thought into their purchase. They did market research, studying vacation patterns and talking to other local businesses. With the help of Eli's father, an entrepreneur, they pitched different arrangements to limit the risk of the investment. Finally, after months of discussion, they bought the company with a little of their own money, loans from their parents and the promise that they'd pay off the remaining amount over the next few years. Pete, who was 26 at the time, brought a briefcase to the final meeting.
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