Watoga Trail Report

Denny Bailey overcame his intense fear of heights to sit on the summit of Seneca Rocks with his son, Chris. K. Springer photo, 1987

Ken Springer
Watoga Park Foundation

Risk-Taking
Nature, nurture,
or something else?

On a visit with friends some months ago, the topic of risk-taking came up. Jim and Beth Bullard have lived exciting lives – backcountry canoeing, lots of foreign travel and a period working in Africa. Jim, now in his mid-eighties, was a mountain climber as well, having climbed major peaks in the Swiss Alps and first ascents in the Mount Waddington Range of British Columbia.

At some point in our conversation, Beth asked me why men, emphasizing the word “men,” took so many risks? I naturally thought that she was referring to Jim’s younger days, but as she went on I realized that she was talking about nowadays.

She expressed her concerns about his continued use of chainsaws to down trees, and climbing around on the roof of their house without fall protection.

I didn’t have a ready answer for her. I am very much the same way, and I had never really considered my own motivations for climbing, whitewater boating, backcountry skiing, hang gliding, etc.

In response to a newspaper reporter’s question, “Why did you want to climb Mount Everest?” George Mallory, famous Everest mountaineer, was quoted as saying, “Because it’s there.”

That short retort was probably a paraphrase and not likely the full version of Mallory’s answer to such a complex question. Mallory died in his third attempt on Everest in 1924, but whether he made it to the summit or not, is still in dispute.

From time to time, climbers are still asked that question by people who can’t understand why anyone would take such a huge risk with their lives; particularly when they are not being paid to do so.

In 1998 I ascended the Grand Teton, my final mountain climb. When asked by a tourist the clichéd “Why did you climb that mountain – because it’s there?” I thought a bit and replied, “That’s a tough question, you’ll need to talk to my therapist.”

She chuckled as she walked away.

So, why do some people take risks and others make every effort to avoid any threat to their well-being? Do we do dangerous things because of the adrenaline rush, or to do something that no one else has done, or do we feel more alive when walking close to the edge?

Maybe we should look at what science has to say about risk-taking.

Unsurprisingly, it turns out that teenagers are much more likely to take risks than adults. Sandra Kuhlman, a neurobiologist at Carnegie Mellon University, says that the adolescent brain has less control over risk-taking impulses.

“Decision-making areas of the brain are composed of roughly 80% excitatory cells and 20% inhibitory cells.” says Kuhlman. Those excitatory cells have far more influence over behavior in the young brain than do the cells that promote discretion.

But what about as we grow older? 

It is common for many middle-aged people to yearn for the days when they traveled the world, took chances and had great adventures. They often wonder what happened to that adventurous person that they used to be. The common excuse is that “life” got in the way – you know, marriage, kids, mortgages and careers. 

But is there a biological reason for a diminished appetite for risk? 

“There is plenty of biological evidence indicating that the brain’s modus operandi changes over time, affecting risk-taking and other behaviors,” answers Kuhlman.

Dylan Evans, a risk intelligence expert, breaks risk-taking down into three primary categories, those that are risk-averse, risk-loving, or risk-intelligent. The first two may have some inheritable elements. If your grandfather was a bare fist pugilist, you may have honestly acquired your penchant for kayaking the lower Gauley River.  For you, risk-taking may be hardwired.

A risk-averse person will take the safest possible route through life, avoiding any and all risks deemed unnecessary.

It is the risk intelligent person who assumes risk with forethought. This is a form of risk-taking that involves minimizing the chances of failure through planning and risk analysis. In physical pursuits, regular training comes into play – these folks only take calculated risks.

And then there are the people who take really serious risks, ones that attract public attention.  

Alex Honnold is an example of a risk-intelligent person. Alex is a free solo rock climber, meaning that he climbs extremely difficult routes without a rope or partner. This is high-stakes climbing – if he falls he will likely die.

In 2017, Alex free soloed the 3,000’ sheer granite face of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park, a first on this route. But before he began this feat he climbed the route roped and with a partner, memorizing the critical moves as he climbed.

When asked, in a 2019 Ted Talk, if he considers himself to be a risk-taker in general, he quickly replied, “No, I hate games of chance. It’s OK to fail, particularly with financial risk. People take financial risks because the upside far outweighs the down-side. But with free soloing, it’s not like that; the downside is infinite; death is a very big downside.”

As for Beth Bullard’s question, “Why do men take risks?” I needed to do a little research and found a 2017 Rewire article by Katie Moritz titled Who Takes More Risk, Men or Women?

Her article exposes a fact about outdated research; it can be biased, and in this specific case, gender-biased. She points out that earlier research on risk-taking was heavily weighted toward a cultural bias that correlates masculinity with dangerous jobs and sports. Think big game hunting, mountain climbing, working on oil rigs and even gambling.

When such biases are removed from the study methods, the results show that women take as many risks as men. In such sports as elite rock climbing, surfing and mountain biking, women excel at a level with men.

Yet, in terms of occupational fatality rates, we find that 10 times more men die on the job than do women. In 2017, on-the-job deaths for men was 4,761, compared to 386 for women.

There are many hazardous occupations that are still not well represented by women, oil rig workers, ironworkers and logging to name a few. Not because of women’s reluctance to perform dangerous jobs, rather that the system sometimes acts to discourage them from seeking such jobs.

Coincidental to the topic at hand, I met with two friends from Ohio recently who were camping at Watoga State Park. Kari Lindbergh retired from a 30-year career with the Columbus Fire Department. She started her career as a firefighter and ended it on the bomb squad.

Bev Ressler donated a kidney several years ago. This coincides with research showing that women are more likely than men to assume the risk of giving away one of their kidneys. Clearly, given the opportunity, women do accept risks on a par with men.
In some cases, we may participate in a risk-taking adventure purely out of love.

I met John (Denny) Bailey during a homicide investigation in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park in 1976. We hit it off right away and soon became friends. Denny has three sons, all of whom enjoy outdoor sports such as hunting and fishing.

One of his sons, Chris, came under my tutelage when he showed a strong interest in rock climbing. In a few years, Chris’s skill level was such that he participated in an ascent of the Grand Teton in Wyoming. Although only 15 years old at the time, Chris would prove to be an exceptionally talented climber.

Chris spent the summer between high school and college guiding climbers at Seneca Rocks. One weekend his father came down to Seneca to climb a vertical route to the south summit with Chris.

Denny was a courageous law enforcement officer, having faced many threatening situations in his job with the Summit County Sheriff’s Department. But Denny had one overwhelming fear – heights. He was white-knuckled at the thought of climbing a ladder, let alone a sheer 600 foot rock face.

But Denny was intent on making it to the summit with his son no matter how frightened he was. I was there, and I saw him face down his fears and force himself to the top just to please his son. Denny was just that kind of father.

Whether you’re scaling a vertical 3,000 foot granite face without a rope, playing high stakes poker, or enjoying a hike at Watoga State Park, there is no such thing as zero risk in this life. So go out there and enjoy every second of it.

As for why Jim Bullard continues to take risks in his golden years, well, you would have to ask his therapist.

From the brilliantly hued tree-clad mountains of West Virginia,
Ken Springer
Ken1949bongo@gmail.com

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