Contemplating the risks and rewards of extreme adventure

Extreme adventure brings high risks and personal rewardsThis past weekend I had the distinct pleasure of attending the Outside in Aspen event held annually in Aspen, Colorado. The three-day festival is a gathering of like-minded outdoor enthusiasts who get together to enjoy some fantastic activities such as hiking, climbing, and mountain biking, while basking in the great spring weather of the Rocky Mountains.

One of the highlights of this year’s Outside in Aspen was a symposium held on the final day, during which a panel of elite adventure athletes discussed the risks and rewards of extreme adventure, something that they were all very familiar with. The hour-long discussion gave them the opportunity to share their own stories and to give the audience a glimpse of why they go to the remote corners of the Earth to pursue the activities that they love.

The panel consisted of kayakers Brad Ludden, and Ben Stooksberry, mountaineer and adventure filmmaker Michael Brown, professional skier Nick DeVore, and three-time Everest summiteer Melissa Arnot. Each of these speakers shared stories, experiences, and thoughts on what compels them to take sometimes substantial risks in order to accomplish their goals. For instance, Arnot had arrived in Aspen straight from a Kathmandu hospital where she had been recovering from pneumonia, which she had contracted while attempting to climb Makalu and Mt. Everest. Similarly, Stookesberry talked about a recent kayaking expedition to Africa, during which one of his teammates was pulled from his boat by a crocodile, and was never seen again.
Sitting in the small crowd that had gathered to listen to the panel, it occurred to me that the risks involved in these adventures were very real and tangible, while the rewards were often more nebulous and personal. Those rewards were something that were far more difficult to explain to people who didn’t “get” why someone would push themselves to the extreme just to reach the summit of a mountain or paddle an unexplored river. The panelists had weighed those risks many times in their lives, and yet they still found reasons to go ahead with their expeditions, saying the incredible sense of accomplishment and personal satisfaction was worth the dangers they faced.

Several of the speakers mentioned times when they had taken a look at both the risks and the rewards and elected to not move ahead with their plans. In the case of Arnott, she turned back on both Makalu and Everest this spring because due to illness. Both Ludden and Stooksberry cited whitewater rapids that they portaged around to avoid the inherent dangers as well. each of them noted that those choices were the ones that stuck with them long after they had gone home, often leaving them with a sense of unfinished business.

For many, it is difficult to understand what drives these adventurers to do the things they do, and oddly enough, they didn’t seem to have a complete understanding of it themselves. When asked to explain it to the audience, these adventures would often rambled on with some explanation about challenging themselves or pushing their limits, but in the end, it really boiled down to the fact that they were most happy while out on their expeditions, even if that meant suffering for weeks on end without the creature comforts of home.

Now, happiness is something that we can all relate to. After all, we all want to be happy in our daily lives, whether we’re at work or home or off on some amazing trip. We may not understand all the risks and rewards that go into climbing a mountain or paddling a raging river, but we all know those feelings of happiness and contentment that we get when we’re doing something that we really really love. In the end, it doesn’t really matter if we find those feeling on the top of a remote Himalayan peak or sitting in our favorite comfy chair in the safety of our living room. The important thing is that we do find it, and grab on to it as best we can.

Now that sounds like an extreme adventure.