Risking it all for an adrenalin rush

“This is going to be a bit spicy, Jools.” I was standing with TV presenter and climber Tim Emmett on the cliff edge near Lochinver, Highland, looking at our target, the Old Man of Stoer.
The Old Man is a 60m- (197ft) tall sea stack that protrudes out of the frothy ocean. If you’re a rock climber it’s graded as very severe. I am not a rock climber. When I was a nipper I’d watch in wonder as brightly coloured blobs scaled various rock faces in the Peak District as we hiked on by. I never thought I’d don the harness and attempt what is known as vertical chess.
Zugzwang is a chess term. It’s an indefensible position from which a player is unable to escape, whatever move they make. As I stood there with Tim I felt well and truly zugzwanged. In other words, I was terrified. I’d agreed to take part in a BBC series that prescribed pain to irritable TV presenters through a series of perilous physical challenges. To see if I was a spider-woman, I was sent up Commando Ridge in Cornwall, followed by the appallingly named Crackstone Rib in Snowdonia, designed to test my agility and cement my fear.
This was my last challenge. But now, my motivation was clear – I did not want to fail (or fall) on telly. But what about the thousands of people who do this kind of thing every day for fun? Or for a living? Tim, my assigned rock climbing mentor, is also a base jumper and dives out of airplanes wearing a bat-suit. Why? About 150 Britons die each year taking part in adventure sports, and activity holidays are on the increase. Some people really enjoy danger, risk and the ensuing adrenalin.
Adrenaline rush
Shelley Jory is a British powerboat champion. She and her co-driver Audrien Ciantar make up the first all-female team in the history of the P1 World Championships. Statistically, it’s more dangerous than Formula One – fewer people compete but there is an equivalent number of deaths. “Not only are we battling with our bodies being beaten to death by the water,” says Shelley. “But there is also a real possibility of catching fire as we sit above fully loaded fuel tanks. Then there’s the added threat of drowning.” What fun! And yet Shelley feels the dangers are worth it because she is living life to the full. “I have more chance of dying on the motorway than racing a boat,” she says.
But why do people put their lives at risk for fun? Scientists have discovered that both human and animal brains are hard-wired with reward pathways, also known as pleasure systems. These pathways have to be stimulated sufficiently by serotonin, dopamine and other neurotransmitters if the organism is to function optimally. The neurobiological explanation for risky behaviour is based on these reward pathways. In thrill-seeking individuals, the flow of neurotransmitter release is abnormal and the number of dopamine receptors becomes decreased, so the individual must release more dopamine to compensate.
All risk-takers are recognised as having a Type T personality, an extroverted character
that takes risks and craves excitement. A broad range of activities and substances stimulate our reward pathways. Type Ts just need more stimuli than others!
Fear factor
A smidgen of my fear and failures made the final cut of the documentary. There were two occasions on the Old Man when I simply couldn’t move. I was suffering from the uncontrollable wobbles known as disco leg, my mouth was dry and I was crying with fear. I couldn’t see a way up the rock face; my game of vertical chess was over.
Tim was trying to talk me up and eventually I lifted my foot. I have no idea how I did it. By all accounts I shouldn’t have made it up that pillar of rock and I can’t say that it was an enjoyable experience, but when I clambered to the top after about six hours and looked out across the ocean, I was totally overwhelmed by our achievement. I hugged Tim and cried again. Am I a Type T? Nope, just a big softy with a big ego and a nose to match (that’s personality Type I by the way).

This feature was taken from issue 23 of Countryfile Magazine. To make sure you never miss an issue subscribe today.



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