02 Oct

I once met a young woman. Actually, believe it or not, I have met more than one woman in my time. This woman was married to a mountaineer. Beth, for that was her name, told me that Mick Burke - her husband - had climbing in his blood and his life wouldn't be worth living if he couldn't climb.

Mick was part of the famous assault team led by Chris Bonington (later to become Sir Chris) to climb Everest "the hard way" in 1975. Mick was not only a mountaineer but also a full-time cameraman for the BBC. When only a few hundred yards below an easy (!) slope to the summit, he decided to go up and film it and then come on straight down to join two others who had just reached the peak. The weather, however, had rapidly deteriorated, and a blizzard reduced visibility to only ten feet. While it is believed that he probably did reach the summit, conditions had dramatically worsened and Mick Burke was never seen again. Forty-six years later, his body still has not been found. He left Beth and their young child fatherless.

Our son David, a few years ago, decided to climb the world's highest active volcano, Cotopaxi, which hangs out in Ecuador. While it's only 19, 300 feet tall, it's no piece of cake. Indeed, one of the three climbers with David was sent down before summiting, as he was not in good enough shape to handle going up and then descending. Some climbers have even fallen to their death on the slopes of this volcano.

At 18,500 feet, David was overcome by a sudden urge to have a dump. This required removing his harness, attending to his business, and then re-harnessing...no easy feat at this altitude especially when he was already experiencing symptoms of altitude sickness. You can imagine our relief when we heard that he had summited, see photo above (one of those lads is David, believe it or not). More importantly - he returned safely with his body intact. 

One wonders what propels folks to undertake such extreme activities. They must surely know that they are gambling with their lives. Why, then, do they do it? This seems to me to be a reasonable question to ask. Well, neuropsychologists now  have a good understanding of how the reward systems in the brain respond to fear. The brain contains a dopamine pathway that leads to the nucleus accumbens, which is strongly associated with motivation and reward (I hope you are impressed by this knowledge as much as I am). The release of dopamine results in a "natural high", and this can become addictive. It is highly likely that I am severely dopamine-deficient since I have never seen any reason to risk death or even the slightest of injuries.

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