FEATURE: Risk vs. Reward

By on September 22, 2015

[This online version has been amended to reflect that rescues in Grand Teton National Park are at the hands of the Jenny Lake Rangers, not Teton County Search and Rescue, which handles incidents outside of the park’s boundaries while also sometimes assisting the efforts of park rangers. – Editor]

Exploring the mind mechanics of mountain athletes

(Photo: Taylor Luneau)

(Photo: Taylor Luneau)

It’s midnight on Aug. 16 and 10 confused people are huddled together on a cold Petzoldt Ridge, off route and near hypothermia. Each individual cerebrum is wondering, “How the heck did I get here?”  Meanwhile, both hemispheres of their neo-cortexes explode into action, desperately searching for information that could keep them alive for the next 10 seconds. Fear floods their neural circuitries, as the dopamine and oxytocin cocktail that motivated them to start from the trailhead is quickly replaced by stress hormones and survival instincts.

Stories like this one are becoming commonplace in the Tetons, as it seems every week the Jenny Lake Rangers (for incidents in Grand Teton National Park), or Teton County Search and Rescue (for rescues outside the park’s boundaries), are on another mission to untangle a mess in the vertical world. Undoubtedly all of us on the valley floor shake our heads and mumble, “What were they thinking?”  and then try our best to learn from these accidents. However, most of the time, our hindsight criticism is just an attempt to silence the internal voice in all of us that whispers, “It could have been me.” As Monday morning quarterbacks, we somehow delude ourselves into thinking that the victims should have suddenly become perfect decision makers. From our high horse, we forget that we are in all this together as humans, imperfections and all. We quickly judge those that find themselves in a jam, or even worse, die in the mountains, in order to make ourselves feel better. We only pause long enough to assign blame and conveniently forget to ask a tough question of ourselves, like, “Why is the reward worth the risk?” We also do not stop to ponder what’s happening upstairs – the combination of electrical impulses and neuronal firing that make us think that going into the mountains is a good idea in the first place. Perhaps then a more productive way to examine these accidents is to try and understand why our brains allow us to end up in these predicaments, as neither novice nor seasoned mountaineers are immune to accidents. Perhaps if we can find an answer to these questions through neuroscience and evolutionary psychology then maybe we can better prepare ourselves for future outings in the mountains and stop pointing fingers at what others could have done better.

Crisis mode in the brain

If we could look inside the brain of one of the climbers stuck on the Petzoldt Ridge we would see a labyrinth of more than 100 billion neurons communicating through 90 trillion different synapses. This natural supercomputer is the legacy that evolution has gifted us and while each cell has specific instructions, the overall team motto is always the same: survive. So staring out from their cold perch with their eyes fixated on the setting sun, each brain in the stranded climbing party was focused on two things: avoiding pain and seeking pleasure. Stay away from falling rocks and get back to the warmth of home as quickly as possible. These two maxims are what every brain in the history of man has been programmed to adhere to, according to Troy Higgins of Columbia University. However, with our genetic lineage comprised of monkeys and cave dwellers we gained some “evolutionary hiccups” in our mental calculus of decision-making. Our species was seemingly programmed to overvalue rewards and underestimate risks, which may in all reality have kept our ancestors alive. Psychologist Michael Aptor of Yale University proposes underestimating risk may be hardwired into our DNA as necessary for the advancement of the group. As in the past, one altruistic soul had to determine which berries were poisonous and “which caves were empty of dangerous animals.”  This may mean that at a genetic level, humans are born risk takers that may be programmed to miscalculate dangerous situations. So in today’s mountaineering world, that could mean that we cast away any doubts about our ability levels or ignore glaring signals to stop in search of summit glory.


A short-haul helicopter rescue in grand teton national park this summer. park officials highly encourage visitors to be prepared for their activity, including having the appropriate skills needed, proper equipment and knowledge to use the equipment, and communications with someone on where you plan to go and when you plan to return. (Photo: Grand Teton National Park)

Shirking the pain

The rewards for being in the mountains are certainly high, but very few people go into the Tetons saying, “This is totally worth dying for.” For Fio Lazarte, who came within inches of losing her life last spring in a mountaineering accident, the possibility of death had crossed her mind, but her brain chose to focus on “keeping up.” The most human part of our brain is the prefrontal cortex. This section of your brain’s main job is to act as a fortuneteller to help predict whether a future action will result in success or failure. However, for Lazarte, and all humans, that genie in your brain isn’t right all of the time. It turns out that the brain actually works on probabilities, not promises, and just because it works most of the time doesn’t mean it will work all of the time. For Lazarte, this meant she could make that jump across the snow to safety 99 out of 100 times and for a brain that tolerates risk those odds were acceptable. Psychologist Raymond Nickerson of Tufts University refers to this type of cognitive glitch as confirmation bias. Nickerson says that the human psyche has a tendency to block out information that doesn’t fit with our predetermined opinion. Therefore our brains sometimes sacrifice accuracy for speed. This spells disaster in an alpine setting, as it hinders our ability to see the full picture. If we believe that success is likely then we anchor to that piece of information and will not shift our behavior upon receiving new input. Lazarte said that she agreed to take on the route because “it fit my ability level on the way up, but we didn’t factor in the way down.” Like all of us who head into the hills, Lazarte wanted to enjoy a day in the mountains, and never predicted that by the end of the day she would be in a hospital.

Disappointment Peak, where Lazarte was injured, and Teewinot, where two women recently died, have many small scrambling obstacles that need to be surpassed before true danger is encountered. As research by Barry Shaw of Northwestern University indicates, this creates a recipe for disaster, as the brain will tolerate risks if they are small and frequent in nature, and will escalate the amount of risk taken when committed to a course of action. This was the case for Lazarte.

“We had already overcome two small snow fields higher up on the route, when we came about a steeper section of snow,” she recalled. It was then easy for Lazarte and her partner to escalate their level of commitment because they had already come so far. When confronted with such risks, our brains demand results for energy expanded and we reluctantly take risks that surpass our ability levels. Sometimes we get lucky and come out the other side of these instances unscathed, but other times the rescue helicopter is called.

Over the last month in Wyoming, two sets of climbing partners were killed while navigating technical terrain. Common sense would lead us to believe that since there were two people involved in decision-making then two separate brains should have been better than one. However, according to studies done by neuroscientists at the University of Parma, all humans have “mirror neurons” that evolved over millennia to protect us in the wild. These brain cells’ main job is to spread emotional contagion making two brains function together instead of separately. Mirror neurons create a resonance circuit in the pathways of our brain to help us detect danger when we observe fear in others. This creates an evolutionary advantage because if we can look across a field and sense that our fellow tribesman just spotted a saber-tooth tiger, then we have a better chance of high tailing it to safety ourselves, even if the other poor guy becomes an appetizer. The fallout from this evolutionary “advantage” is that when your climbing partner starts to freak out, so will you. It is hard to control the impulse to jump into the puddle of insanity with our friends because at our roots, humans are social beings. Bonding with our peers is the hallmark of our species and this inclination causes us the highest highs and the lowest lows.

In the good old days of woolly mammoths and warring tribes, acceptance by our peers equated to safety, according to a recent article in the Harvard Business Review by Nigel Nickolson. A universal urge to be noticed and approved of by others developed to keep us out of harm’s way. Humans are the most social mammals on the planet and even to this day our monkey brains warn us that if we get rejected from the tribe, death will be imminent. This is why the same part of our brain gets activated for either physical pain or social rejection, according to the American Psychological Association. Therefore, if everybody is “living on the edge” in the mountains, our brains tell us to hop on that train so we are not left behind. This seems to be the case in Jackson where we see daily summit photos and conversations at dinner parties seem to revolve around the question of, “What peak did you climb last weekend?” Our “need” to be accepted then gets equated with how badass people perceive us to be, which can lead to some pretty ugly outcomes, as shown by the man injured on the Middle Teton last month who posted on social media, “I still peaked it.”

Researchers from Temple University, Jason Chein and Laurence Steinberg, measured brain activity when evaluating risk and found that, “regions associated with reward showed greater activation” when peers were watching. So with the frequency in which people check their Facebook page it starts to feel like “everybody” is watching 24 hours per day.

Pleasure seekers

A common response mountaineers give when asked why they head into the mountains is “because it feels good.” Tristan Greszko, a local mountaineer and photographer who recently climbed the Nose of El Cap, echoes this sentiment. “Climbing is the one thing that focuses my mind and erases the anxieties of everyday life,” he said.

To understand why this is true on a neurological level we must go back in time to the bedrock of human pleasure, exercise and exploration. Evolution has bestowed on us dopamine, or “happy chemicals,” that turn on when it’s time to do something important to our survival. Exercise and exploration are the mainstays of this pleasure circuitry because in the past if you didn’t move, you didn’t eat. This kept our species alive for a 100,000 generations, so what our brains liked then, our brains still like now. The lifestyle of a Paleolithic cave dweller was active, always killing this or eating that. Lazy cave folks simply died off and the evolutionary advantage went to the athletic hairy guy who lived two caves down. Therefore, exercise and exploration still gives us the natural pleasure of a dopamine spike every time we hit new trails. Greszko refers to this natural plateau of pleasure as “flow” and indicates the mountains help him achieve this euphoric state of being. “Everyone is wired to pay attention to things that are new in their environment, but it’s a matter of degree,” said Michael Bardo from the University of Kentucky, who specializes in the psychology of risk states. “People who are sensation-seeking tend to be more stimulated [by novelty].” This indicates that people who partake in extreme sports, such as Greszko and much of the valley populace, are literally getting a “higher high” than many people who do not participate in mountain athletics.

Evolution, according to JD Fernstrom in the Journal of Nutrition, also equipped our bodies to spurt out the neurochemical tryptophan when exercising, producing a relaxing effect. Indeed, this is the same chemical that puts you in a food coma after Thanksgiving turkey. The one-two punch of happy brain juice and the grandma-in-a-rocking chair feeling of natural sedatives is almost impossible to find outside of a chemist’s lab. In fact, exercise runs through the same circuits in the brain that are activated when using heroin or cocaine, according to David Linden in his book “The Compass of Pleasure.” So the next time you think about getting into that “high” mountain air, remember that the same endocannabinoid receptors used in THC are also engaged when you’re staring at those alpine peaks. This overlapping circuitry between addiction and natural pleasures illustrates why both extreme sports and recreational drugs seem to bring about irrational behavior. So the next time you judge someone with an addiction, look in the mirror and imagine one year without breathing in the fresh air of the mountains. In fact, the outdoor Jackson lifestyle hits all three of the hallmarks of addiction: climbers gain an “increased tolerance” for risk after smaller obstacles no longer provide the same dopamine rush; they “crave” to hit the trails after a long week at work: and they experience “withdrawal” symptoms, such as feeling lethargic and slightly depressed if they don’t get their alpine fix.

People outside of the climbing world find this behavior to be fascinating when all goes well and disturbing when it ends badly. It’s easy to imagine workers in cubicles across America shaking their heads in disgust, when reading about the recent deaths in Grand Teton National Park, murmuring something about how the fallen died needlessly. However, those same busy bee employees might sympathize with mountain culture a bit more if they realized that spending time in nature is one of the best things you can do for your health and wellbeing. This is supported by numerous studies, including research from Stanford University, showing that time in the woods can quiet the mind and soothe anxiety. When we return to our Paleolithic roots of dirt and bugs, our brain deactivates the subgenual prefrontal cortex, the rumination center. Greszko can attest to this phenomenon.

For him, climbing is “about forgetting, and casting off all that weighs so heavily in my life,” he said.

Nature and exercise can also calm the orientation awareness area in our parietal lobe, which helps the brain see our own body as separate from the outside world, explained Steven Kotler who examines the relationship between extreme sports and brain activity. This part of our brain deactivates so that we can divert resources away from our “sense of self” in order to focus on more pressing matters, such as gripping to that tiny hold. This translates over to the mountaineering realm as climbing lets you “tune out the background noise and stay focused,” according to Greszko. Therefore, nature really can allow us to feel “interconnected” with the rocks and dirt beneath our feet in a way that the cold concrete of a sidewalk simply cannot.

Drinking in the view on the summit of the Grand Teton, ryan burke enjoys the halfway point of the perception traverse, a four-day traverse of the Tetons he dreamt up that hits 24 peaks, 65 miles and 41,000 total vertical feet. (Photo: Taylor Luneau)

Drinking in the view on the summit of the Grand Teton, ryan burke enjoys the halfway point of the perception traverse, a four-day traverse of the Tetons he dreamt up that hits 24 peaks, 65 miles and 41,000 total vertical feet. (Photo: Taylor Luneau)

Survival of the calmest

Evolution, because of its long history, still gets the first vote in how we react to dangerous situations. Our fight or flight response system receives sensory input twice as fast as our shiny new neocortex that specializes in rational decision making, according to Dr. Bessel Van Der Kolk a Dutch psychiatrist. In the case of the climbers stranded on the Petzoldt Ridge last month, they may have gotten themselves into trouble but they stayed calm long enough to come out of the mountains alive.

Perhaps when things started to go awry for the group their hearts started to race and the hamster wheel in their head may have gone into overdrive, but they paused and created a gap between their impulse and action. This could very well have saved their lives. The area of your brain most involved in decision-making is the lateral intraparietal lobe, which works to search your long-term memory for past instances that may be of assistance in your current quagmire. This process takes time, however, and while the database is being searched you can send signals to the rest of your body to settle down. One helpful hint is to lick your upper lip in order to increase salivation. This signals your “rest and digest” nervous system to calm your body down, according to Rick Hanson a neuropsychologist from UCLA.

A snapshot of the climbers on the Petzoldt Ridge might reveal them unconsciously calming themselves by taking deep breathes through their noses. This is an effective technique because the inhalation passes through your sinuses causing a release of nitrous oxide into your brain. This process soothes your amygdala, “the smoke detector of the brain,” into thinking everything is just dandy. Mark Fohs, a therapist who focuses on the neuro-emotional technique in his practice, identifies breathing as the “easiest access point” to calming down the fear centered limbic system. This gives sensory feedback to your internal world that you have it under control, even if your external world is in dire straits. If deep breaths didn’t do the trick for the stranded climbing party then they should have tried smiling. As research by Barb Henderson at the University of North Carolina has shown, when people are primed with positive emotions, their peripheral vision expands. Therefore, if we can laugh at getting ourselves into such a jam, our brain will literally see more holds on the rock. If their hands were warm enough the group could also have tried passing a rock between each hand to figure out the right course of action. This bilaterally stimulates both hemispheres of the brain, deescalating the emotional right hemisphere and activating the rational left hemisphere, according to Francine Shapiro who pioneered the EMDR technique in counseling.

Behind the motivation

Looking back on the myriad past incidents in Grand Teton National Park this summer, it is impossible to know exactly what was happening in the brains of those involved. However, as armchair mountaineers safe in our homes, we tend to simplify the causality of these accidents into one-sentence explanations that usually start with, “I wouldn’t have done that.” We quickly forget that these incidents could happen to any of us, and do happen to experienced mountaineers every season. Rarely do we pause to question the nature of risky decisions in our own lives, asking ourselves, “Why is it worth it to me?” So perhaps it is important to determine our own motivations for going into the mountains. Is it for praise and approval or for sanity and personal growth? Yes, our brain is designed to take risks in order to survive, but each brain is ultimately as unique as its owner, and in the end your brain can be your best friend or your worst enemy. PJH


(Photo: Brian Alward)

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