Scarpa North America Blog

Are We Hardwired for Adventure?

Mar. 17th 2015

by Rob Coppolillo

People much smarter, braver, and tougher than me have spent books upon books writing about adventure. They’ve gone bigger than me, written in second and third languages about epics on unknown peaks, survived buck-naked disasters in backwater republics, been held hostage by savage barbarians in empires that have crumbled to dust.

But I did lead the Bastille Crack (5.7) in a snowstorm one time … and this was in the days before cell phones, so it counts as “extreme.” Has Reinhold Messner climbed the Bastille in winter? Thought so.

Josh Wharton climbing through the summit gargoyles on Mt. Robson. Photo Credit: Jon Walsh

Adventure. Yours, mine, Shackleton’s, and the poor guy’s who didn’t survive swinging on a vine across a swollen river in the late Pleistocene. On a planet with seven billion people, countless adventures will start, finish, go sideways, blow up, and conclude while I’m typing at this.

Ernest Shackleton’s Nimrod Expedition (1907-09) to the Antarctic.

Adventure–it’s ubiquitous across cultures, so much so people generally accept it’s “human nature.” One theory goes that in the olden days (as in, the epoch before Hot Pockets and The Bachelor) communities with more risk takers were “more successful” than others. By more successful, I think anthropologists mean they kicked more ass, laid more pipe, and generally got it done more often than the other guys and girls. Researchers say 1 in 200 men carry the genetic code of Genghis Khan, so maybe there’s something to this line of reasoning.

Dr. Michael Wolff on the first joint Western-Russian expedition to skydive and scuba dive the North Pole. Photo credit: Henry Higgins

It’s not much of a stretch to think future generations will express the adventure culture (and genes) of today’s heroes. Genghis Khan’s exploits become squirrel-suiting off the Aiguille du Midi, paddling lost tributaries of the Amazon, and heroic ascents of moderate rock climbs in Colorado. Will Gadd as a modern-day Musashi, Erik Weihenmayer the reincarnation of Jessie James, Alex Puccio as Amelia Earhart, Lynsey Dyer as Joan of Arc. Senders, all of ‘em!

Lynsey Dyer, Last Frontier Heli Skiing in Canada

Some research suggests thrill-seekers have lower levels of dopamine in their brains, so therefore seek to produce more of it through risky behavior. Other research suggests it’s the behavior that results in the lowered levels of dopamine. Chickens, eggs, functional MRI’s, and PET scans. The issue is far from resolved.

One thing’s for sure, a lot of us dig getting out there and pushing our limits. And Will Gadd’s limits on Niagara Falls don’t really affect your limits, when it comes down to it. Your first pitch of water ice, your first shot of untracked snow, your first 5.14 — wherever you find your limits, they’re your limits. Feels good to go right up to them, maybe even surpass them and surprise yourself. Just like Will and Lynsey do.

Will Gadd climbs Niagra Falls. Photo Credit: Christian Pondella/Red Bull Content Pool

Jean-Paul Sartre once opined that an adventure isn’t an adventure until it’s shared. If only that guy could’ve presaged FB, Instagram, and social-media spraylords. Or maybe he did?

In any event, I’m not sure I agree. Imagine the millions of adventures no one has ever heard of. Or imagine the ones that almost succeeded. Mallory on Everest. The unknown Indians who crossed the Rockies in winter. The Inuit who survived the 100-year storm, alone, out on the ice, his family waiting back at the igloo.

Kitty Calhoun on the FA of Captian Calhoun WI 5, Iceland. Photo Credit: Jay Smith

I assume there are thousands of epics every day, pulled off by the best of us, pulled off by people far less capable than Will, Erik, and Lynsey, and all of us in between. Social media or not, the senders are out there, on unnamed 6000m peaks in Kazakhstan, on icy bike paths in the Midwestern US, on secret limestone crags in southeast Asia. They can’t help going for it and neither can you.

Maybe the one of the great adventurers of all time–Jimmy Buffett–said it best: “One of the inescapable encumbrances of leading an interesting life is that there have to be moments when you almost lose it.”


Or maybe this is just all of us would-be tweakers, trying to stay out of the county lock-up, self-medicating our altered brain chemistry with self-inflicted adventures and epics.

Getting the definitive answer would kind of suck, I think. The joy is leaving the trailhead with friends and on some level knowing it doesn’t totally make sense. Then again, neither does the total safety of taxes paid on time, rotating your tires every 5K, and knowing where you’ll sleep tomorrow night.

Alex Puccio on Shadowfax 8B. Photo Credit: Joel Zerr

Writing about it, though, just like trying to explain “cool” to your 13-year-old nephew…ultimately, it’s uncool. So, I’m lacing up for another brave attempt on the Bastille, and this time that thing is going down in less than 12 hours. Just like Genghis Khan before me, I’ve got some crack to slay.

The author climbing in Rocky Mountain National Park

Rob Coppolillo is an IFMGA-certified mountain guide based in Boulder, Colorado. He’s the co-owner of Vetta Mountain Guides

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