Published: February 2010High Performance: Extreme Athletes

Upward Mobility

What really drives extreme athletes

Text by Greg Melville
Illustration by Jeffrey Decoster

No living American alpinist is more respected for his climbing skills than Jack Tackle. The Exum mountain guide is 56 years old, sports a bushy salt-and-pepper mustache, and will tell you, in his mild-mannered way, that he wants to keep on climbing—bagging first ascents, conquering new lines—as long as age allows. Last year alone, he and a friend established four new routes in the jagged Alaska Range, atop snow-crusted peaks that hadn’t been touched by human feet in years.

For the past decade, studies have linked people like Tackle with the feel-good neurotransmitter dopamine. This research has fueled the perception of outdoor athletes as reckless adrenaline junkies who heedlessly put their lives at risk to trigger the next rush. But a new line of inquiry paints a very different picture. Far from risk-obsessed, people like Tackle are often careful planners, driven by success. "I hate being scared,” the climber admits. In fact, if risks are managed effectively, dopamine could be the key to a successful career both in and out of the mountains.

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