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An interesting observation of serious risk-taking sports people is that despite frequent near misses and accidents, they continue to participate in adventure sports. This persistence in the face of trauma is in my view quite unique. Average people who experience or witness trauma to the levels found in my studies would be expected to develop psychological complications, such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and other mood or anxiety problems. In the studies however participants appeared to be immune to these reactions. Researchers in Switzerland who studied a large number of professional mountain guides also found that they had unusually low levels of trauma-related psychological complications. The researchers commented that the level of trauma experienced by the mountaineers was similar to that experienced by fire-fighter and army personnel, yet they had only 10-20% the rate of psychological disturbance. Only 3% of mountaineers developed Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, whereas rates in firefighters are up to 20%.

The mountaineers in that study were also found to have low levels of Harm-Avoidance. What emerges as an interesting possibility is that risk-taking sports people may be protected from the psychological complications that generally accompany serious trauma. This could explain why accidents don't put them off adventure sports and low Harm-Avoidance may account for this immunity. At a community level, psychological complications from trauma are relatively common and it is estimated that at least 5% of the population will suffer from these debilitating problems at some point in their lives. A major difficulty for health workers following traumatic events such as natural disasters or terror attacks is identifying which people are at risk or are protected from these conditions. If a link between Harm-Avoidance and a lower incidence in these conditions is established, then it may eventually help to identify vulnerable individuals and offer early interventions. Further studies of risk-taking sports people could therefore have important public health benefits.

The study of risk-taking sports people yields interesting results. Not surprisingly sports such as mountaineering and base jumping are associated with significant risk of accidents and fatalities. People who choose to take up these sports appear to have a biological make-up which is different to that of average people in the community and these differences in brain chemistry help to explain why they put themselves in perilous situations.


Biological correlations however must not be taken too far. In my view adventure sports are rewarding and exhilarating for reasons that go beyond the explanation of biology. A very significant number of participants in these studies pointed out that their involvement in risk-taking sports were richly rewarding for reasons far more profound than the simple thrill of risk-taking. They often described a connectedness to nature and respect for the natural environment. Others spoke of the special relationships that eventuates from trusting partners in challenging times. Ultimately however, whatever the reasons behind risk-taking sports, participants will be judged not so much by their achievements, but by their response to the needs of others at times of crisis and need. The risk that personal ambitions and economic pressures erode acceptable standards of behavior and moral values are sadly as present in adventure sports as in any other human endeavor.

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As a New Zealand mountaineer who has witnessed the death of a climbing partner, I'd like to make a couple of observations.

Firstly, to compare David Sharp's with Lincoln Hall's rescue is misleading. David was incapable of moving, and with the best will in the world, could not have been rescued. A team cannot carry an incapacitated person down from 8000 metres. Lincoln walked down with support, and therein lies the difference. Lincoln's rescuers saved his life by cajoling and coaxing, sometimes forcefully and perhaps brutally, but that was the limit of their abilities. They could not have carried Lincoln down, nor could any team carry David down. Lincoln lived because he capable of moving down under his own power.

Secondly, the rewards of mountaineering at a high level are closely bound with its hazards. To successfully negotiate a catalogue of hazards in an environment with severe consequences, by the application of skill and guile, is a potent and life-enhancing activity. It's often confused with sensation or adrenaline seeking, which is missing the point. It must be acknowledged that there are some forms of joy which are so powerful that it's worth risking every future potential happiness for that one, extraordinary, moment.

Thirty-five years ago, I watched a climbing partner fall to his death on Mt Cook's South Face. The experience affected me profoundly. I think about Tim often, and his death has altered my attitude to climbing. But I still climb.

How many of us drive cars, knowing full well the statistical dangers?

2016-11-15 00:02:32

Remember the familiar cliche following a climbing death: "he died what he loved doing most." This may help explain why such deaths have fewer long term effects for people witnessing them. While they are certainly terrible to witness, the person dying made a conscious decision to participate. They could have just as easily lost their nerve and stayed home that day. It seems to me this difference may explain the lack of PTS disorder.

2008-08-27 18:19:21

I read with interest 'The Risk of Adventure Sports/People, and ask the question: Why, for example, if climbing and mountaineering carry such a risk of death and serious injury (and they do) why are very young people being 'enticed' to climb, in this day and age, usually via artificial climbing walls?

These very young people have not / are not turning to climbing through some inborn attraction but climbing organisations who should know better... Step forward the British Mountaineering Council for example. Any number of websites show very young people who once they have been enticed, are then led to believe that for example, it is fine to climb not wearing a sefety helmet.

2008-08-26 03:37:32
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