Published: February 2010
Upward Mobility
What really drives extreme athletes
Text by Greg Melville

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.

This year David Zald, a psychology professor at Vanderbilt University, performed some of the first tests on so-called thrill-seeking personalities using PET scans. He discovered that his subjects’ brains actually had fewer dopamine shutoff valves—or autoreceptors—than the average human’s. So when they have a new experience, they feel more euphoric. Zald refers to these individuals not as risk takers, but “novelty seekers.” The distinction, he says, is important: “The world would be a boring place if we didn’t have people drawn to the new and exciting.” But once the mountain has been climbed, the experience becomes predictable. It doesn’t evoke the same feel-good response. “So for them to get that rush again,” Zald says, “they have to try something new and climb an even higher mountain.”

That’s where risk comes in. Zald explains that the pull of euphoria can sometimes overpower a novelty seeker’s ability to properly evaluate risk. “The reward is just too great, so they’ll do things that most other people wouldn’t do.” To compensate, novelty seekers—at least those who are successful—tend to be meticulous planners. A researcher at the Queensland University of Technology in Australia published an article last July showing that extreme athletes like alpinists and BASE jumpers overwhelmingly strive to minimize risk. They also tend to delude themselves, somewhat, about the real dangers.

Danger Management

Among his peers, Tackle is known as thorough and competent—the ultimate expedition leader. “What I try to do through good preparation,” he explains, “is reduce the risk factor to an acceptable level, if there’s any at all.” But alpinism isn’t exactly shuffleboard, as Tackle knows all too well. In 2003, on Canada’s Mount Augusta, a suitcase-size rock dislodged and hit him in the back, breaking several vertebrae and bruising his spinal column. Thankfully he and his climbing partner had a satellite phone and were able to call for a helicopter rescue. “You have to have contingencies and be adaptable,” Tackle says.

That’s a lesson Nick Devore is learning gradually. The 24-year-old telemark freeskiing world champion has made two first descents of Mount McKinley. But after a handful of recent accidents, he says, “I’m more calculating now. It’s not always about getting to the top of the mountain. When you hit a roadblock, you’ve got to be willing to turn back.”

In many respects, extreme athletes have a lot in common with top CEOs. Psychologists at the University of Cambridge recently found that effective entrepreneurs are significantly less daunted by risky ventures than typical middle managers and are more flexible when making decisions. Meanwhile, an October 2009 report from German scientists established a close connection between elevated dopamine levels and people like high-powered stock traders who excel at making snap decisions and learn quickly from their mistakes.

The true challenge for novelty seekers—whether in the boardroom or on the mountain—is to manage danger just enough to enjoy long-term success, the way Tackle has. “I’ve been climbing since 1973,” he says. “It’s part of my makeup.” And, as we’re finding out, so is the dopamine.