These two rock climbers take risks that would paralyze you with fright. How?

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April 19 2010 7:15 AM

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These two rock climbers take risks that would paralyze you with fright. How?

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John Dickerson John Dickerson

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.

Time and space bend in the presence of Eli Simon and Pete Fasoldt. Around them, a distance of 15 feet can feel like a quarter mile. A minute can feel like an hour, and an hour like a minute.

Eli and Pete are highly trained rock-climbing guides and extraordinary climbers. The physical danger of climbing disorients and shocks those of us who lack their skill to evaluate danger. Their clients, like my wife and me, stare up at a stretch of angry granite and suddenly aren't sure it's going to be such a fun thing to go climbing. Eli and Pete, on the other hand, are totally at ease. They work the ropes, knots, and climbing equipment precisely and with complete command. They are in their late 20s, but their clients regularly assume they are 40. It's more drastic than that: It would be more accurate to say that, around them, their adult clients become like children.

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 "Because the perceived risk is so great," says Pete, "clients do whatever we tell them. If they're at the edge of a cliff they're like, 'I'm going to do what that dude holding the rope is going to tell me to do.' "

Even their most enthusiastic customers are on edge when they walk into Pete and Eli's Atlantic Climbing School in Bar Harbor, Maine, which is why they have made ACS look like one of those tidy home offices in the Restoration Hardware catalog. Long wooden church pews line walls decorated with carefully aligned climbing photos. (There's Pete looking like an action hero. Eli slept up there? These guys must know what they're doing.) Shoes, helmets, and harnesses are all tucked into custom-made cubicles. The offices are designed to comfort nervous clients who hope the guides will be just as obsessive and compulsive about their safety.

Still, it takes more than a tidy desk to beat back the fear of falling. I've climbed with Eli three times. On my second outing in Camden, Maine, I belayed him, standing at the foot of the cliff, holding the rope tied to his harness. As he ascended, he demonstrated the exact series of foot moves that would get my wife and me past one tricky area. At another spot, he showed us where we'd have to make a lunge to grab the only good hold.

He moved quickly. On his harness hung several aluminum camming devices that chimed against one another. He was 30 feet up (it felt like 60), high enough that my neck hurt from craning. Once he found a good crack, he would take a cam and wedge it into the rock. The rope would pass through a carabineer attached to the stem of the cam and catch him if he fell. I traced the rope from his harness to my hand. It was in a "gentle smile," as he'd instructed—he had enough slack to move up freely but not so much that if he fell, I couldn't quickly pull the rope tight to catch him.

But he hadn't put the cam in yet. That meant if he fell, the rope I was holding would be as useful as a trombone. There was nothing to stop him from plunging straight down into the rocks at the base of the cliff. My hands started to get sweaty. He knew what he was doing, right? I asked my wife quietly (I didn't want him to hear and think I was not, you know, sturdy). I was about to say something to him when, at what must have been 50 feet (it felt like 80), he put in the first cam. I exhaled. I felt like I'd reached the top.

My turn. Eli would hold the rope for me. "I've got you 100 percent," he yelled down. There was absolutely no chance I could fall. In fact, since he was at the top of the climb, he could haul me up the wall with no effort from me if he wanted to. Intellectually, I knew I was safe. But what I felt was another matter.

I was graceless. My hands were already dotted with little semicolons of blood from grinding my way through other routes earlier that day. I'd climbed much harder routes indoors, but the experience of a safety-manic climbing gym with a soft floor is vastly different from that of a real granite cliff.

Indoors, there's nothing like a layback maneuver, in which you walk your hands up the crack, inching your feet along with you. On a real rock face, you have to lean back so far it feels like you'd perform a half gainer (back flip and all) if your hands slipped.

When I didn't know where to put my hand or foot next, I would feel what climbers call "The Grip" coming on—a mixture of fear and frustration. My muscles would tense and my peripheral vision would turn off. Part of this was terror. Part was irritation that I couldn't solve the math problem the wall was giving me. The solution was there; I just wasn't finding it.

For me, climbing this rock was all-consuming, mentally and physically, and I was perfectly safe. Eli, climbing without equipment, didn't get gripped 50 feet up the rock face because for him, climbing the route he'd been on countless times since he was a teenager, wasn't much harder than mounting a kitchen ladder. He wasn't oblivious to the risk. He just counted it differently than I did.

My sense of his danger was also affected by my own perspective. Fear of falling is part of our DNA. Pediatricians test babies to see if they're healthy by examining their Moro reflex-- the inbuilt fear of falling. They lay a baby down on her back and then let her fall a little. If she throws her arms up and back like a conductor starting a symphony then her brain is functioning.

On the cliff, I felt fear even though I knew there was a complex system protecting me. The rope I was using was a double rope built to withstand the weight of a school bus. I understood and had tested the physics behind how the cams worked to keep me held to the rock. The anchor holding Eli and me at the top of the climb was redundant, made of several cams (in case one broke) placed in different cracks (in case one crumbled) and tied with multiple slings and ropes. Even if a deranged killer wanted to dismantle the cams and ropes it would take several minutes of chopping. And there weren't any serial killers around (I'd checked the papers). Still, I was gripped.

The explanation for my exaggerated sense of fear was first articulated almost 350 years ago. In 1662 Antoine Arnauld and his fellow French monks wrote in La logique, ou l'art de penser (Logic, or the Art of Thinking) that "fear from harm ought to be proportional not merely to the gravity of the harm, but also the probability of the event." With rock climbing, as with plane crashes and getting struck by lightning, the probability of the event may be low but the sense of gravity (and gravity) is high, making them feel like big risks.

In my brain, two forces were battling for control, my fear and my intellectual mastery of that fear. My fear of falling (aided by a fear of failure) was putting the central nucleus of my amygdala to work. Almond-size areas responsible for processing memory and emotional reactions, they send out urgent bulletins, triggering hormones including cortisol, which causes the sweating and tensing of muscles. Because my body knew this was no time to grab a meal, it shut down my digestive system, making my mouth dry.

Working on the opposite side was my prefrontal cortex, that part of the brain you appeal to during a horror film when you murmur, "It's only a movie." It responds a little more slowly than the amygdala. That's why you always feel behind in talking yourself out of a panic.

Putting my prefrontal cortex to work, I remembered how strong the ropes were, I might even have flashed those pictures from the office to remind myself I was climbing with an expert. I knew that if I took a deep breath and relaxed, I'd be OK because it had worked for me on previous climbs. And indeed, it worked again. My muscles unlocked, my vision expanded and I was able to find that flake of rock where I could put my toe. I even enjoyed myself. And yes, I made it to the top.

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To say that Eli and Pete don't feel at risk guiding me on an 80-foot cliff is not to say they don't feel risk at all. It's more that they test and expand their tolerance for physical risk every day. They have increased their mastery of risk by pushing it, over and over, until risks that once seemed daunting to them now seem like nothing.

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."

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"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.

By the end of July 2009, the rain had been so bad they were 38 tours behind where the company had been the year before and tens of thousands of dollars behind where they needed to be to break even. They were carrying the rent and the salaries of their eight guides and were only paying themselves $300 every two weeks. The Weather Channel is their home page. "Every day I would come in and see seven of the same icon: rain," remembers Pete.

Pete and Eli weren't just worried about paying their bills. They were also going stir crazy. The office is on the second floor of a storefront on Main Street in Bar Harbor. Pete would look out at the tourists walking below and talk to himself. Why weren't people coming in, he'd ask the window. Eli took up bowhunting to relieve his claustrophobia.

They were gripped. It wasn't the same as on the mountain. They wouldn't die if the climbing company failed. But their fear of a bad outcome was higher than it was when they climbed. Their amazing powers of risk bearing were not working in the office. In control on the wall, they felt out of control in the office.

On a climb, the rules of the game are limited and clear. "There's not much margin for error in what we do," says Eli. "If you mess up what you do, you don't do it anymore because you're dead." A business involves many more variables. You can be affected by everything from an OPEC meeting to hotel prices. "Climbing simplifies your life," says Eli. "You eat when you're hungry. You sleep when you're tired, and during the daylight hours you climb. All your energy and all your partner's energy is put toward one specific goal."

Without control, risk-takers get bored, a particularly acute sensation for them. The calm that serves them on an expedition turns against them in a static situation, such as, say, a rainbound office. Psychologist Marvin Zuckerman, who has studied the sensation-seeking that underlies high-risk behavior, has found that risk-takers have an almost physical aversion to "low-sensation situations." In some cases, this leads to drug abuse; in others, it leads to risk-takers making friends with people who act outrageously to keep exciting their senses.

It also makes them impulsive. In college Eli took up competitive kickboxing to fill the hours he couldn't climb. Pete, who refers to himself regularly as "an ornery Mainer" dropped out of college after two years (he finished up later) and won't order something off a menu that someone else with him has already ordered. (I discovered this when we did a sandwich ordering do-si-do at our first meeting.)

In August, the weather improved in Acadia and the boredom was replaced with intense activity. Once Pete and Eli felt they were regaining control, the mood started to lift. The fear and frustration turned into active energy.

The business started to become like an expedition, ordering their lives the way a climb might. Time disappeared the same way it did for them on climbs. Says Eli, "Every job I've ever had, you look at the clock. Time meant something. Being an owner, time means nothing. I would be at the office for 14 hours and look up and think 'OK, that just happened.' I never thought I'd work for so many hours and not care."

They started talking in climbing shorthand around the office. "Do you have the schununu," Pete asks. This is a made-up word that means "anything in the immediate vicinity that I might need that you know I need." This could be a hot dog or an ice pick, but Eli knows what his partner is talking about.

As the clients streamed in, the two men traded shifts just as they trade lead climbing, working in the office for two days and guiding clients for two. They started at 6 in the morning and closed the office at nearly 10 p.m. By the end of the season in mid-October, they had worked 89 days out of 90.

When the season ends in Bar Harbor, the town contracts until spring. Pete and Eli packed away the equipment and hibernated the office. They closed their books for the year with a small profit. It was such a surprise, they didn't quite know what to do with the money. "We were wondering if we should pay ourselves a little," said Pete, as if the idea of working for personal gain had just dawned on them. The only Atlantic Climbing School obligation remaining was an end-of-the-year business trip. It would take place on the Nose of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park—a nice vacation from that three month period when everything had felt so risky.

Read John Dickerson's interview with Eli Simon and Pete Fasoldt. Read the other entries in this series, on entrepreneurs Redbeacon, the band Girlyman, and Marine Gen. James Mattis.

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