What motivates big risk?
My nerves are surging as we approach the middle of the Perrine Bridge in Twin Falls, Idaho. My heart is beating fast. I take a few deep breaths and run through my mental checklist. I’m suited-up and wearing possibly irrelevant protective gear. It’s hot and windy (too windy), and I have to pee—again. It’s only been 20 minutes since the last time I went, but when I get nervous I have to go frequently. There’s no chance of going now, unless I pee myself during the jump, which is not outside the realm of possibility. Despite the large quantity of water I drank during our prep time, my mouth is dry—like really dry—another a symptom of my state of mind. Should I call my mom? Is the wind going to calm down?
My friend, Clayton, an experienced BASE jumper, is hopping along with the help of a crutch a few paces back. He’s jumping, too. He broke his leg riding a fixie, of all things, and just had his cast taken off two days ago. He’s not supposed to put pressure on his leg. I’m not sure what his plan is for getting the crutch on the ground in the landing zone. It’s not like chucking it down there is an option, but he’ll need it for the hike out of the canyon after the jump. Sean Chuma, the BASE instructor who is giving me a lift on his chute, is hammering a makeshift plank into place on the bridge.
I’m not sure if the wind is going to give us a pocket of opportunity to jump, and I’m prepared to bail in the event that it doesn’t, but we are getting ready just in case. I say a quick prayer, climb over the railing, and hook into Chuma’s tandem BASE rig.
We’re attached to each other, but nothing else and standing on a piece of wood that is scarcely long enough for us both to fit on. My feet are middled over the edge of it and my arms are reaching back gripped to the bridge railing behind us. This is the worst part and what my other BASE jumper friends warned me about a few nights before. It’s a good thing I don’t have a fear of heights, but this is not exactly a cakewalk.
The bridge rattles and shakes with traffic. Drivers honk and cheer as they pass by. I’m staring down at the kayakers on the Snake River below and the cascading waterfalls in the distance. I feel good about this. I’m smiling. It’s a 486-foot drop to the ground. It’s going to happen fast. Chuma is giving me instructions, Clayton is filming, and my friend, Becca, is taking photos. Our window opens. We count down from three. We leap forward.
This is not the decision of a naïve young girl. I’m well accomplished in both adventure and grief. I’ve lost friends to BASE Jumping and other extreme sports. I fully comprehend the gravity of what I’m pursuing. And though I’m doing the most dangerous thing a person can do, in the considerable spectrum of risk, I’m doing it in the safest way possible. I’ve been skydiving and done some paragliding so I have an idea of what to expect. Sure, having a few friends who are pro jumpers makes it more alluring, but I’m not doing this because they talked me into it. In fact, I tried to convince a few of them to teach me how to fly solo without having to go through the prerequisite 200 skydive jumps and First BASE Jump Course, but they all refused. Fortunately, Tandem Base (tandembase.com), which operates out of Twin Falls, offers a way to BASE jump in Magic Valley without any training. I’m doing this because I want to experience the full breadth of life and I wouldn’t want to get to the end of my life knowing that I had the will and opportunity to do it, but failed to act on it. And yes, I want the adrenaline spike too. Skydiving and BASE Jumping have a polarizing effect on people. Either you are intrigued by it or you are absolutely not. Practicing may make you better at it, but repetition also increases your chances of going in.
What motivates people to take such risks?
People who engage in high-risk activities such as BASE Jumping, mountaineering, and backcountry skiing are often accused of being adrenaline junkies with a subtext of recklessness, but a recent study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, found quite the opposite. Of course risk takers are not all of the same ilk and the thrill-seeking stereotype does not apply to everyone who partakes in dangerous play, especially those involved in prolonged and challenging risks, like mountaineering.
For many, choosing adventures with iffy outcomes is an exercise in acute mental and physical discipline and a way to control their emotions. “When one enters the high-risk domain, it’s most often not in search of a cheap thrill,” said Tim Woodman, one of the authors of the study that was done at Bangor University. “It’s most often a very personal challenge.” The study theorized that extreme risk-takers may seek out situations of “chaos, stress, and danger” to ascertain a stronger sense of control and mastery of their lives. “High-risk activities physically challenge the limits of the self in ways that are not readily available in even the most challenging of normative everyday situations.” The study included skydivers, who tend to score high on sensation-seeking, and mountaineers, who don’t. It also included a control group of low-risk athletes. Participants filled out psychological questionnaires that focused on sensation-seeking, emotion regulation, and Agency Scale, meaning sense of control and differential motives.
Skydivers reported a significantly higher need for sensation than did mountaineers, suggesting that not all risk takers are motivated by the rush. Both mountaineers and skydivers reported greater emotion regulation and agency during their activities than the control group. This suggests that risk-taking requires people to control their emotions, especially fear, in order to have a positive outcome, i.e. to survive.
The study shows that people who enter into high-risk sports believe that life should be filled with an intense range of experiences and feelings. “Basically, people who engage in the more arduous, high-risk activities, do so because they have a higher expectation of what life should offer, or what life should be,” said Woodman. The study also found that this feeling of control over their lives and emotions spilled over into their everyday lives after their objectives were accomplished. “Mountaineers want to push themselves to the limit in terms of experiencing emotion, and then manage that emotion in an extreme environment,” said Woodman. The study concluded that risk takers are not just a homogenous sensation-seeking group, and that risk-taking is a model of human endeavor.
Truthfully, if you’re going to BASE jump or skydive, you really have to surrender your illusion of control. You have to let go. You have to consciously make the decision to go beyond self-preservation and the natural instinct to stay in the safety zone, which itself is an illusion. It’s life and no one gets out alive. It’s arguably just as life-threatening to commute to work every day as it is to participate in extreme sports. Instead of resisting the fear and alleviating the discomfort that comes from this kind of edge, you really have to push through it and embrace the full extent of the physicality.
Landing is one of the best feelings in the world and I realize I have just joined a very exclusive party. Clayton jumps two minutes later, flies down with the crutch between his legs, like a baller on a broomstick, releases the crutch a few feet above the ground, and lands safely—on one leg. His doctor has voided the 100,000-mile warranty.