“…a man climbs on dangerous paths in the highest mountains so as to mock his fear and trembling knees.” Nietzsche
“The obvious question is why,” Maggie Shipstead wrote in an Outside Magazine article about the Golden Globe Race. “Why choose to sail alone in a small boat through the world’s most furious seas, far from comfort or help, guided by the stars? Why attempt such a journey knowing full well that at times you will be horribly lonely, at others frustrated beyond measure, sometimes bored, sometimes afraid, that death by drowning out in the middle of big blue will be a constant possibility?”
It’s a good question. In fact, it’s the question but her answer was no answer at all. “If you have to ask, you’ll never really understand the answer.” In fact, she denied the possibility of an answer. “In a way, there is no answer.”
The sailors themselves are no better at articulating their reasons, their explanations no more satisfying than George Mallory’s reason for attempting to summit Mt. Everest: “Because it’s there.” He sacrificed his life in the attempt despite his inability to explain himself to others.
Shipstead does make a salient comment. “All the sailors seemed to have decided more or less instantaneously to enter the race as soon as they heard about it, as though the idea had broken a pane of glass inside them, releasing an implacable spirit.”
The immediacy of the decision, without thought or conscious deliberation, is suggestive.
“Fundamentally, the desire to be in the race was just that,” she observes, “a desire as instinctive and unpredictable and inarticulable as lust.”
Instinctive and inarticulable, perhaps, but unpredictable?
While there’s not much research on the motivation of long-distance solo sailors, there’s a fair amount on expeditionary mountaineers. The two extreme sports share a lot in common; the extensive preparation, comprehensive skill sets, and the experience of extended periods of grinding tedium punctuated by bouts of blood-thinning fear.
Agency & Emotion
Extreme sports have a high probability that something will go wrong and a high chance of death as the outcome. In the past participation in such sports has been explained as a means to live out a deviant personality trait, a pathological narcissism, or sensation seeking.
But don’t mistake mountain climbers with bungee jumpers and skydivers. The later, driven by sensation seeking, are addicted to the rush of adrenalin. It’s a quick fix. Sensation seekers are averse to routine work or repetitive experience. They become restless when things don’t continually change.
Expeditionary mountaineers often spend weeks hauling their gear to the base of a mountain. The ascent, one tedious step after another, may take more weeks on a major summit, and then the long return to civilization. Any pleasure is largely retrospective.
A circumnavigation of the globe in the old boats stipulated by the Golden Globe rules will likely take 10 months or more. Something other than adrenaline drives them.
James Lester, a psychologist, accompanied the first American Mt. Everest Expedition in 1963. He described several characteristics prevalent among the mountaineers; desire for agency, lack of interest in social interaction for its own sake, high need for independence and achievement but a low need for intimacy and affection. Personal relationships and domestic life “were more stressful to the average team member than were the icy conditions in a fragile tent in a high wind with inadequate oxygen.”
Additional research based upon Lester’s foundational work (Woodman, Hardy, Barlow & Le Scanff 2010) identified emotional regulation and agency underpinning the motives of participants in expeditionary extreme sports.
Emotional regulation refers to which emotions we have, when we have them, how we experience them and how we express them. Agency is fundamentally an individuals’ beliefs regarding their ability to exercise control over events that affect their lives. Research revealed mountaineers and trans-Atlantic rowers had greater difficulty regulating their emotions than most people and a diminished sense of agency in their everyday lives. At the same time, they had greater expectations of their own agency. They expected to be more in control of their lives than most people. The discrepancy between what they feel and what they expect of themselves drives some people to climb mountains or cross oceans.
Difficulty managing emotions may result in a constant, low-level anxiety, “a kind of background radiation saturating existence.” People aren’t likely to recognize the source of their anxiety or control it, but they feel it. In the mountains, climbers can trade their ambiguous, internal anxiety for a clearly identifiable emotion driven by external events: fear. Where anxiety has no source or defense, fear is a response to a definite threat. It’s a known enemy.
Extreme environments provide simple, stark challenges where there is no room and no time for anxiety. Failure to control your fear on the pitch of a major peak or a storm at sea diminishes your ability, efficiency, and chances of survival. It becomes a simple calculation. Control your fear or die.
Where mountaineers struggle with agency most and feel least in control is emotional relationships.
There are metaphorical similarities between the mountains and romance. (The same metaphors apply to the ocean.) Both are perceived as difficult and stressful, a prolonged emotional struggle. The ability to control emotions and master fear while summiting a mountain may transfer positively to managing romantic relationships.
It turns out to be true. Mountaineers returning from an expedition have a significantly heightened sense of agentic emotion regulation (control over their emotional life) compared to skydivers or ordinary folk.
Mountaineers and, by extension, ocean racers, have exaggerated expectations for their experiences and achievements in their everyday lives. Characteristic is their continual striving to push their limits., whatever they do. And because of their frustrations achieving those goals in the ambiguous muddle of everyday affairs where they perceive a lack control over their lives, they push themselves to achieve in extreme environments where the rules are simple but the cost of failure catastrophic. They tend to be intolerant of vulnerability and weakness in others because they are intolerant of it in themselves. Their own anxieties provoke a counter-phobic reaction, conquering their fear in high-risk scenarios to overcome their anxiety in common life. It is a complex of emotions and behaviors that has produced spectacular achievements, sometimes at great personal cost.
In a culture that has become increasingly risk-averse, whittling away the personal freedoms to ensure safety and conformity, the high mountains and the open oceans are among the few simple, deadly places where an individual’s survival is largely dependent upon their own agency. We tend to think of sports where the participants risk their lives as pathological but there are benefits as well as risks. We act in ways that enhance our survival, even if the behavior is profoundly paradoxical.