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Chapter 14: The Extreme Gene [excerpt]



The call to adventure, as strong as any drug, can be difficult to explain. If you don’t feel its pull, you wouldn’t understand—at least that’s the attitude both professional adventurers and weekend warriors assume about their thrill-seeking hobbies. Still, why do some people answer the siren song—to jump out of airplanes, to ski down avalanche-prone mountainsides, to dash breathlessly through forest labyrinths—while others remain content with their quiet lives of domestication?

Over the last decade, I’ve asked dozens of outdoor athletes and adventurers that question. Often I’ve tracked down peripatetic adrenaline junkies by cell phone or satellite link in the middle of a wilderness foray. In the comfort of my pajamas, I’ve interviewed these travelers standing atop mountain peaks, traversing polar tundra, or (in the case of one round-the-world explorer) rowing across the Atlantic while dodging hurricanes, container ships, and amorous giant turtles. Almost as often, I’ve caught them while they were recuperating from the injuries (frostbite, sprained joints, worse) that are the dues of their unconventional occupations and risky hobbies. They are articulate and amusing when they describe the ups and downs of previous expeditions, the close calls and peak experiences, the moments of ecstasy and the moments of doubt. They can detail with precision and passion the training and preparation they devote to trips and competitions, past, present, and future. Ask them, however, for a definition of true adventure, or inquire (as their spouses and parents must do) why they chase its tail, and their answers become more vague, less certain.

Why shouldn’t they be? It is hard to rationalize such socially unproductive pastimes as backcountry skiing, whitewater kayaking, or adventure racing. Outdoor sports have always existed outside the definitions of ordinary morality. That’s why French mountaineer Lionel Terray dubbed his clan of climbing colleagues the “conquistadors of the useless.” For years, the stock reply to the whys and wherefores of any adventurous undertaking has been George Mallory’s flip justification for trying to ascend (and ultimately perishing upon) Mount Everest: “Because it’s there.” The currency of that cliché, alas, has faded from overuse. Back in the 1930s, placing the first mountaineer atop the world’s highest peak had been an expedition of national urgency for glory-hungry governments in the United Kingdom and elsewhere. Thirty years before that, the sprint for the poles had gripped the attention of pre-television audiences around the globe. The polar expeditions were the ultimate in extreme races, complete with bold winners (Roald Amundsen), tragic losers (Robert Scott), and trash-talking rivals who disputed each other’s achievements (Robert Peary and Frederick Cook).

By the twenty-first century, most of the major accomplishments in wilderness exploration had been ticked off, at least the ones that don’t require a rocket ship or a deep-sea submersible. Our tallest peaks have been conquered, our most distant lands discovered. We have paved paradise and put up a parking lot, practically at the base of Everest. Every attempt at adventure adds a footnote at best to the great expeditions of the past. To catch the attention of a fickle public, attention-getting outdoor “firsts” have become sliced absurdly thin. How much glory is there, really, in becoming the youngest diabetic to skateboard across the Sahara?

Our present age has been kind neither to adventure nor to adventurers. As a culture, most North Americans have retreated from seeking outward journeys in what little wilderness remains beyond our bloated suburbs. Instead, we look for inner worlds to explore, new depths of self-awareness to plumb. Our postmodern vision quests tend to be of a virtual sort—through movies, self-help books, psychedelic drugs, meditation retreats, inspirational seminars, websites, internet chat rooms. Without ever leaving the safety of their bedrooms or basements, video game players and online second-lifers pay to live vicariously through digital avatars, comic book symbols of their better selves, and to navigate imaginary worlds straight out of the ancient myths. “Our modern disregard for adventure reveals how thoroughly domesticated is this view we have come to take of our human and cultural limits,” warned Paul Zweig, the literary critic and inveterate globe trotter, thirty years ago. “Man, we decided, is the laboring animal whose ability to create values depends upon his infinite capacity to buy and to sell: his time, his work, his very life. From this point of view, adventure is, at best, a recreation.” These days, adventure is almost always packaged that way—as a recreation, an off-the-shelf consumer accessory, an experience bought and sold like any widget.

And yet people still long to push beyond the boundaries of the world they know. For full-time explorers and part-time weekend warriors, that call to adventure is no longer something out there—it’s mostly something in here, either hardwired into our DNA or culturally habituated into our consciousness. For some people, it can feel like a relentless tug from a deep recess of the mind. In the mid 1960s, J.R.L. Anderson, a British journalist for The Guardian, succumbed to the call and embarked on several long-distance sailing journeys, including an attempt at age fifty-five to recreate the Vikings’ six-thousand-and-five-hundred kilometer crossing of the North Atlantic to the enigmatic coast they had dubbed Vinland. In 1970, after several risky boating expeditions, he gave this will-to-adventure a name: he called it the Ulysses factor, after the mythical Greek hero and Mediterranean wanderer. Anderson admitted that the exploring instinct didn’t manifest in all or even a majority of the human population, and that it likely waxed and waned throughout history and among nations, cultures, and civilizations. “There is some factor in man,” he mused in his book, The Ulysses Factor, “some special adaptation, which prompts a few individuals to exploits which, however purposeless they may seem, are of value to the survival of the race.” He catalogued examples and types of this adventurous mutation in humankind, such as the ocean-crossing scholar Thor Heyerdahl, the English nomad Eric Shipton, and the French mountaineer Maurice Herzog. Each of these explorers shared a curiosity about the world, similar to the general scientific frame of mind that Anderson called the Archimedes factor, but they also had a drive to step beyond the comforts of civilized life and test their own limits.

“I think people by nature are inquisitive,” agreed Ian Adamson, the world’s premier adventure racer, who has described his twenty-four years in the sport as a “postdoctoral degree in living.” “Consequently, humans moved from Africa half a million years ago and explored—pushed further and further to the outer reaches of the world. In the modern era, when you look at all the explorers, why do people try and push to the North Pole? It’s a desire for adventure. And now there’s not a whole lot left in terms of conquering peaks, poles, oceans—and yet we’re still inquisitive beasts, we’re still searching in science and nature. So now that we have so much more leisure time and money and resources, we’re naturally drawn to doing things like adventure races because it’s a challenge—exploring our souls and exploring a new environment or wilderness or country or culture or society or interpersonal relationships. It’s all a discovery.”

The Ulysses factor that supposedly flows through the blood of great explorers, as described by Anderson, can sound like an odd mystico-genetic urge, a bit like the Force from the later Star Wars sequels. The author-adventurer suggested neo-Darwinian justifications for such dangerous preoccupations as trans-Atlantic sailing and Himalayan climbing. “The grape that has too sheltered an existence does not produce good wine,” mused Anderson. “The great vintages are from vines on exposed hillsides that have to struggle to survive. What is true of viticulture is true of human society: the over-sheltered individual does not thrive.” His metaphorical leap of logic, from cultivating wine to courting death, isn’t entirely convincing. In the end, the best grapes still get crushed.

From the perspective of evolutionary survival, the risks taken by explorers and adventurers appear counterintuitive. How do you pass on your genes if you have been buried by an avalanche or lost at sea? For those adventurers who push themselves too far and never return from their journeys into the unknown—the Mallorys and the Scotts and the Earharts, the thousands of other ill-fated and anonymous strivers—he might have reserved another category. Call it the Icarus complex, the sometimes fatal drive to touch the sun.

Still, Anderson may have been on to something. By the end of the 1970s, psychologists had begun to chart humankind’s moth-to-the-flame urge to seek risks. Researchers variously described the impulse as sensation seeking, novelty seeking, or the Type-T (for thrill) personality. The Zuckerman-Kuhlman questionnaire became a widespread method to profile such tendencies in experimental subjects and psychiatric patients. With a litmus test for risk tolerance, scientists could explore what might cause variations in behavior. Studies of identical twins, the gold standard of nature-versus-nurture debates, revealed that the sensation-seeking trait in humans is highly genetic. While environment helps shape our appetite for danger, the line between whether we will want to ski the bunny hill or the double-black diamond run is more than fifty percent programmed into our genes—a greater genetic link than most other psychological characteristics.

In the late 1980s, biologists began a quest to link such behavior to a specific gene or mutation. They soon focused on the dopamine D4 receptor, a genetic marker that controls the intake of dopamine by the brain’s reward centre, the patch of gray matter associated with motivation and pleasure. A pair of Israeli scientists dubbed the DRD4 the “adventure gene.” Health-conscious outdoor athletes will be dismayed to learn, however, that when studying this bit of risk-friendly DNA, scientists and psychologists tend to lump extreme sports with drug-taking, unprotected sex, gambling, reckless driving, and other unhealthy habits. “All the studies, they look at skydivers or something—and then they look at cocaine users,” explained Cynthia Thomson, a former Rocky Mountain ski bum and now a risk-genetics researcher at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. “The idea is that some people find an athletic outlet instead of using drugs.” By the late 1990s, biologists were debating how strong, if any, an association could be made between variations in the DRD4 gene and the risky business of study subjects. Do tiny changes in the DNA mean that some people need a bigger thrill—a stronger drug, a steeper mountain—to get the same rush of pleasure as everyone else? For her research, Thomson collected DNA swabs and interviewed avid skiers, both those who were experienced yet cautious and others who were of a more extreme inclination. Next she planned to match genetic clues with their varying tastes for outdoor risk. Ultimately, she hoped some social good would come out of her pure science. Adventure-based wilderness programs such as Outward Bound, she suggested, could be aimed at kids who would otherwise chase illicit thrills. “That child may not respond to playing basketball or volleyball,” Thomson said, “because they’re not getting the adrenaline rush they need.” Her findings may add one more mark on the trail of the mysterious extreme gene.


MOST PARTICIPANTS in expedition-style races, ultramarathons, and organized eco-adventures claim they are interested in more than the transient pleasures of an adrenaline rush. Seeking sensation or novelty is only part of the equation. Pushing the body to its physical limits opens doors of perception otherwise closed in daily life. Asked what they’re chasing in endurance activities, outdoor athletes and amateur adventurers of a Zen frame of mind describe a phenomenon called the Flow. It can be experienced by a skier carving perfect S-turns across the canvas of a mountain slope. It might be the union of body and machine as a mountain biker weaves down a slalom course of tree trunks, gnarled roots, and exposed rocks. It could simply be the trance-like rhythm between landscape and gait that hill walkers and hikers fall into as they lope for hours along a forest trail. Pro athletes talk in a similarly fuzzy way about being “in the zone,” when every shot feels certain of scoring, when they feel invincible. Marathoners describe pushing through “the wall,” an invisible psychosomatic barrier, beyond which they encounter a sense of floating outside of time—of Flow.

The concept comes from the research and writings of American psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, who described Flow as an elusive mental state, a kind of preconscious harmony of mind and body that comes with intense psychic focus, physical mastery, and the ideal balance between skill and challenge. It can be found at work. It can be felt in sex. It can be experienced through art. The human activities most associated with Flow tend to be sports and games. Csíkszentmihályi’s earliest research studied rock climbers, and his theory of Flow, which has been embraced by dozens of researchers, echoed the concept of “peak experiences” articulated by psychologist Abraham Maslow. A competitive outdoor event such as an adventure race seems purpose-built to manifest moments of Flow. “When a normal physical function, like running, is performed in a socially designed, goal-directed setting with rules that offer challenges and require skills, it turns into a flow activity,” Csíkszentmihályi argued in Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, his 1990 popularization of the theory. “Whether jogging alone, racing the clock, running against competition, or—like the Tarahumara Indians of Mexico, who race hundreds of miles in the mountains during certain festivals—adding an elaborate ritual dimension to the activity, the simple act of moving the body across space becomes a source of complex feedback that provides optimal experience and adds strength to the self.” Flow, he emphasized, is not some drug-like stupor or escape from reality. Rather, it is that state of joy that arrives when body and mind work as one to control the chaos of our environment. Flow isn’t a means to an end, to a future reward. It is, like children’s playing, its own reward.

David Le Breton, a philosopher and sociologist in Strasbourg, France, has focused his own studies on the lure of pain and risk among young people and extreme-sports enthusiasts. He has suggested that in our secular world, the physical limits revealed by such out-of-the-ordinary activities have replaced our traditional moral limits to behavior, which have become vague or evaporated entirely with the decline of religion in the western world. In the twenty-first century, we discover who we are not by our designated place in a preordained social order, but by what we can and cannot do on these difficult fields of play. We find ourselves in the wild. “The more intense the suffering, the more the achievement has a reassuring personal significance, the more fulfilling the satisfaction of having resisted the temptation to give up,” Le Breton argues. “The legitimacy of surviving in a symbolic game with pain, death, and bodily injury brings to light a radical truth for the subject . . . where significance springs from the heart of individuals, giving them a feeling of jubilation, sometimes even of ecstasy, and of being in perfect harmony with the world.” Seen in that light, modern masochistic rites of passage such as marathons, triathlons, and adventure races make more sense.

Many event organizers have revised their marketing materials to reach a new introspective breed of soul-seeking, goal-driven eco-adventurer—what one outdoorsy friend of mine has called “ego tourists.” The TransRockies Challenge, a week-long cycling event through the Canadian Rockies, changed its tagline from “The world’s toughest mountain-bike race” to “Discover what’s inside, outside.” La Ruta de los Conquistadores, another multi-day bike marathon in Costa Rica, followed suit with its own promise: “More than a race . . . a personal growth journey.” A popular adventure-racing series on Vancouver Island is christened Mind Over Mountain. Many extreme athletes talk about their feats of endurance in such mystical, mythical terms. One long-distance cyclist described to me an intense out-of-body vision he experienced on the tenth and final day of the excruciating Race Across America. “I was in the middle of a labyrinth,” he recalled, “and I felt like a warrior.”


THAT QUEST FOR inner revelation through outdoor challenge—and the vicarious pleasure viewers take in witnessing these struggles—was key to the success of the original Eco-Challenge and Mark Burnett’s later productions. For all their prominence and influence, however, neither Eco-Challenge nor Survivor was the first reality-TV hit. That title should go to An American Family, a thirteen-episode PBS documentary from 1973, which brought a suburban California family and their messy relationships into the living rooms of North America. (Lance Loud, the gay son who came out on the show, later lamented: “Television ate my family.”) An American Family provided inspiration for dozens of more superficial programs in the early 1990s—from MTV’s long-running The Real World to the arrest-chasing videographers of Cops—that offered voyeuristic looks at the soap-operatic travails of ordinary people. What Survivor added to the genre was the same ingredient with which Burnett had spiced his Eco-Challenge: the human drama generated by modern castaways cooperating and competing, in a wilderness setting, to withstand the elements and their own characters under stress.

The narration of Burnett’s British Columbia race even drafted a chief from the Lillooet tribe, whose lands the competitors traversed, to announce before each episode: “The universal language has taught us that man has always journeyed into nature. This is their vision quest. The Lillooets believe you cannot conquer the land. You can only find strength within it.” Burnett’s adventure race used the vision quest (and later the songline journeys of the Australian aborigines) as both a cultural backdrop and a spiritual justification. What might otherwise seem like an outdoor obstacle course for leisure-class overachievers was framed instead as a journey into nature with profound psychological overtones. Burnett draped Survivor with similar primitivist trappings and the catchphrases “You’ve been voted off the island” and “The tribe has spoken” quickly became pop-culture punch lines. He designed the entire show with portentous and quasi-mythical motifs—the immunity challenges, the tribal councils, the snuffing of the tiki torch to signify elimination—based on his reading of Joseph Campbell, the historian of world mythology whose books were popular among Hollywood scriptwriters and producers. Like Burnett’s expedition race, Survivor showed everyday people turned into temporary heroes (and villains) answering a call to adventure (whether genetic or purely mercenary) and then overcoming (or not) obstacles and ordeals in a metaphorical journey of death and rebirth, of survival.

The success of Survivor spawned dozens of other shows that plumbed (some critics would say to disturbing depths) a new public appetite for survival themes. Everest: Beyond the Limit sent mountain-mad contestants into the thin air at the top of the world. The Amazing Race dispensed with wilderness living conditions and pitted spouses, siblings, best friends, and other twosomes against each other in a globe-hopping travel-quest-cum-relationship-test. Fear Factor combined extreme physical challenges (escaping from a submerged car, dangling from a helicopter), extreme gross-outs (being buried in worms, eating cows’ eyeballs), and an extremely grating host. The hit series Lost turned fact into fiction by imagining the struggle to survive among several groups of plane-crash survivors on a mysterious island; reality TV was now inspiring its fictional rivals. Mark Burnett transported the elimination dance of Survivor to Donald Trump’s executive boardroom with The Apprentice and then cannibalized his own breakout hit with a buccaneer-themed castaway knock-off (and ratings bomb) called Pirate Master.

At least one reality-TV show tried to out-Survivor the popular series. By the time Burnett’s show went supernova, Les Stroud, a music video producer from Toronto turned survival guru, had won several awards for his first film, Snowshoes and Solitude, an intimate video diary of his year living alone with his wife in the boreal forest of northern Ontario. He figured the hour was right for his own reality-TV concoction. Stranded first appeared on the Discovery Channel in 2001, and Stroud later appeared as Survivorman in Canada and the United States. In each episode, he ventured into exotic wilderness locations to live off the land for a week. He separated his methods from those of other reality shows by doing all the filming himself. Viewers no longer had to suspend their disbelief and ignore the fact that the on-screen “survivors” were being monitored round the clock by Big Brother–like teams of camera and boom-mike operators. In Survivorman, Stroud had to wrest nourishment and shelter from desert canyons, tropical jungles, or black fly–infested bogs while simultaneously worrying about light readings, battery charges, and picture composition. Watching a savvy outdoorsman like Les Stroud struggle to spark a fire, catch a fish, or find anything remotely palatable to eat destroyed the delusion of many urban viewers that getting by in the wild was as easy as they might imagine. (In Born Survivor, a British take on the same concept, the former commando and Everest summiteer who starred in the 2007 series was later accused of staying in hotels and choreographing escapes with his production crew—taming a wild horse, building a raft—during what were supposed to be solo adventures in the wild.)

For every copycat success, dozens of other failures never got beyond the pitch or pilot stage. In 2004, a Mark Burnett wannabe organized what was supposed to be a twenty-four-hour adventure race in mountainous Strathcona Provincial Park on Vancouver Island. He billed the event as a qualifier for Survivor Canada, a reality show he planned to pitch to networks. Several racers were injured while hiking in the park, and search-and-rescuers had to chopper twenty-five near-hypothermic participants to safety. After the debacle, the aspiring TV mogul caught flak from all directions—from racers for misrepresenting the risks, from rescue staff for poor planning, from parks officials for not obtaining a permit, from the producers of Survivor for swiping their trademark.

The most ill-advised reality-TV knockoff had to be The Ultimate, Ultimate Challenge. Backed by an adult entertainment producer whose main fame came from distributing the Paris Hilton sex video, the pitch for the show (which the producers planned to retitle American Cannibal) promised a twisted union of Survivor meets Alive. At casting calls, potential contestants were asked questions such as “Would you be able to, in order to save one of your teammates, eat one of their fingers or toes?” On day nine of filming, on an island off Puerto Rico, a contestant was injured during an adventure challenge and had to be helicoptered to a hospital. The producers finished the pilot, but sponsors and backers bailed from the jinxed project. In the final irony, a documentary film crew had been shadowing the show’s writers and producers—a reality movie exposing reality TV—and released, in 2006, American Cannibal: The Road to Reality, a critical take on our culture’s obsession with Survivor-style shows and extreme adventures. By then, reality TV had devoured more than one American family.

The Eco-Challenge and other adventure races, however, remained a far cry from the humiliation spectacles let loose from the reality-TV Pandora’s box that Burnett had opened. Unchaperoned encounters with raw nature made it hard to fake one’s feelings. “I like to call adventure racing ‘total reality TV’ because it’s the real thing,” explained Ian Adamson, who has been featured as a top competitor on many broadcasts. “People navigating through the wilderness in small teams—by the very nature of it, they create everything you could ever want to see. You don’t have to make anything special. You don’t have to give them little tasks and award them things. The story’s going to happen anyway. It’s the same with a climb up Everest—the drama’s there, it’s all there. That’s total reality to me.”

Burnett was keenly aware of how his adventure races and televised survival challenges tapped into a restless, soulful need among participants and audiences to step outside the orderly boundaries of their urban lives—whether that urge to take risks in the outdoors was genetic, psychological, cultural, or a mix of all three. “The more comfortable our society becomes, the more we seek adventure,” he told an interviewer from Esquire magazine. “It’s because we’re looking for something deeper. You’re not going to find the meaning of life sitting at your desk with your thumb up your ass and your brain in neutral. You’re only going to find the meaning of life with a little bit of pain, in the outdoors, where nature is in command and you feel vulnerable and you start to feel a little bit scared. That’s when you find out who you really are.”

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