Feature

Living On The Edge

Coloradans have long pursued outdoor adventures, usually to satisfy a craving for one thing: Adrenaline. But what’s the real cost of our most feverish obsession?

November 2012

Few places on Earth can match Colorado’s selection of rigorous climbs, verdant hiking trails, roaring white-water rapids, and majestic ski runs. They are the lifeblood of our economy, the primary motivator of our physical healthiness, and the inspiration for the local and regional pride that make our state one of the most desirable places to live in America. 8 These outdoor playgrounds also are the sites—and sometimes the causes—of an alarming number of accidents and deaths. Fueling virtually every mogul run, fourteener hike, and river chute is adrenaline. It’s the hormone that, depending on your internal chemistry, either seduces you into rushing up (or down) the side of a mountain or intimidates you into remaining firmly earthbound. 8 What follows is a series of stories, statistics, and graphics that illustrates the toll Colorado’s love affair with adrenaline takes each year. Regardless of whether you’re a gonzo daredevil or lean toward low-velocity recreation, learning more about this mysterious and intoxicating substance can only help you better assess the risks and rewards you’ll encounter during your own outdoor forays. These tales and tips will enable all would-be adventurers to more completely understand—and safely realize—the full potential that life in Colorado has to offer.

Getting Your Fix

Are adrenaline junkies actual addicts?

Dr. Steven Wright has been practicing addiction medicine and medical pain management in Denver for seven years. He recently chatted with 5280 about the nature of adventure sports and why, in some cases, the need to push one’s physical limits might wander into the same territory as alcohol or drug addiction.

5280: What causes people to become addicted in general?

Wright: The frontal cortex is the judgment area of the brain. A majority of what the brain does is say, “No, don’t do that.” Figuring out why someone needs to do something despite its adverse consequences is the hard part. It probably occurs because of dis-regulation of the prefrontal cortex. There may be excellent reasons, such as bad consequences, to choose not to do something dangerous. But some people are dialed in in such a way that they really need to ramp that up, extraordinarily so, and to do it repeatedly. This puts them at risk for developing a true addiction, and even if they might actually end up with an injury or even death as a result of their behavior, and they know it, they still do it anyway, to ride that edge.

5280: But you’re not saying every extreme athlete is an addict?

Wright: No. The key thing people need to recognize is, are there negative consequences, and do you repeat the activity anyway? Someone who overextends themselves to where they are climbing, for example, at a pace where there is no protection possible, and it’s far too risky for anybody—that certainly is a problem. So they love it, but if they’ve had a history of harm associated with it, it could well be an addiction.

The other thing to remember is that what we think of as “reason” is probably tilted toward one’s own point of view, whatever the addictive activity is. So we collect reasons to support that and discard others, depending on the drive in the nonrational area of the brain that says it’s correct.

5280: Most accomplished adventurers would say the risks they take are thoroughly calculated, and therefore not so risky.

Wright: If something is high-risk and yet truly within your capacity, I don’t think you can quite say it’s addiction. If you do something I would never even consider doing, but you do it very well, that just means you’re able to be on that edge, and I just don’t have the ability to do that. It comes back down to, are there negative consequences of significance, and do you repeat those actions in spite of them? It’s the compulsivity that leads to negative activities over and over again that could lead to addiction. 

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The Effects of Adrenaline on the Mind and Body 

Whether a predicament excites or frightens you, your body reads it as stress. Here’s how it responds:

1. BRAIN Releases dopamine as a coping mechanism that affects mood and hunger, and triggers the initial release of adrenaline.

2. MOUTH Nervous system inhibits the production of saliva.

3. HEART/BLOOD/MUSCLES Heart rate increases to bring more oxygen to the muscles while blood vessels constrict to pool more blood around the muscles, which enables the fight-or-flight response.

4. SKIN Turns pale if blood vessels are constricting; turns red if blood vessels are dilating, which causes sweating.

5. LUNGS Breathe faster to inhale oxygen and deliver it more efficiently to the blood and the muscles.

6. ADRENAL GLANDS Release adrenaline (also known as epinephrine) into the blood. Also secrete cortisol, which can provide energy bursts, heightened memory, and lower sensitivity to pain.

7. KIDNEYS Conserve extra cellular fluid volume and temporarily prevent the need to urinate. 

8. BOWELS Can cramp and cause either diarrhea or constipation.

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TEST YOUR LIMITS

Want to find out if you’re a tortoise or a hare? These sites will help you discover your true calling.

Testyourself.psychtests.com/testid/2122
Specifically designed to determine your risk-taking tendencies.

Psychologytoday.tests.psychtests.com
A series of self-tests for everything from exercise IQ to “adventure quotients.”

Runners’ High

A world-class ultramarathoner explains why he does it.

Saying Scott Jurek is an accomplished runner is like saying Lennon and McCartney could write a catchy tune. In June, the Boulder-based Jurek’s first book, Eat & Run: My Unlikely Journey to Ultramarathon Greatness, landed on the New York Times bestseller list. He’s been UltraRunning Magazine’s ultramarathoner of the year three times, and in 2010, he set an American record by running 165.7 miles—in 24 hours. Jurek recently chatted with 5280 about just what it is about extreme distance running that keeps luring him back. 

Beginning to run on trails was key. I connected to the variety, running over rocks and roots, uphill and downhill. It forced me to stay in touch with my senses, which made it a different sport. 

I was a midpack cross-country runner in college, but in ultramarathoning, because it doesn’t require as much speed, I got better results.

It’s much more than just running long distances; it’s eating, drinking, and managing all the body systems. It’s also a time to unplug from life’s stressors while plugging into my body and intuition. You become more animal- like and attuned to your surroundings. The beauty of this sport is that getting through rough patches becomes a metaphor for life.

You might feel fear and loss during a race, but you don’t wallow in them. I always try to take stock, realize I’m not going to die, look at things in a different light, then do what I can to remedy the situation. It’s about trying to be clear even though you might be freaked out.

I’ve beaten guys who were a lot faster than me on paper. You can have raw speed or talent, but the beauty of the ultramarathon is having intuition, calmness, and clarity in tough situations, and I pick different environments to race in because it brings out these moments of flow.

What most ultramarathoners remember are the low points and coming out the other side. That to me is the ultimate runners’ high.

There will always be a struggle during a race, but that’s what I like about it. When you’re running in the mountains, in the elements, over that much distance, there’s a lot of opportunity for things to go wrong, but there’s also a lot of time for redemption. 

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The Ones They Left Behind

Do climbing tragedies change anything?

In mid-july, boulder resident Will Butler got the call. His close friend and climbing partner Gil Weiss had missed his flight back to Denver from Lima. Butler, 29, immediately knew Weiss was gone. Not gone, as in returned to the Andes to explore more new routes—although that would’ve been just like Weiss. Gone, as in never coming back. “In the last couple years, five of my friends have died climbing,” Butler says.  

Weiss, also 29, perished along with climbing partner Ben Horne, 32, after scaling Palcaraju Oeste, a 20,000-foot glacier-capped peak in Peru. According to the rescue team that found their bodies, the pair probably fell during the descent. 

A highly visible Colorado climber, Weiss blogged about climbing for Pullharder.org and founded Beyond Adventure, a company of professional guides and photographers. For many on the Front Range, his untimely death tore the scab off the summer 2009 loss of Boulder mountaineers Jonny Copp, 35, one of the founders of the Adventure Film Festival, and Micah Dash, 32. (The two climbers died in an avalanche in southwestern China.)

Like those two men, Weiss was pursuing a first ascent—an accomplishment revered among climbers that means you’ve arrived where literally no one has gone before. Had Weiss survived, he’d have been immortalized in climbing guidebooks; instead, he’s a cautionary tale. “This is kind of weird to say,” Butler says, “but the day Gil died was probably the happiest day of his life.” 

Most people can respect Weiss’ ambition to explore uncharted territory, even if few can relate to taking such a risk. Given that a first ascent, truth be told, affects very few people and isn’t terribly relevant outside the insular climbing world, dying in pursuit of it might seem pointless—especially when losing a friend, spouse, son, or brother has such a devastating impact on so many lives.

Accidents like these evoke one question: Why? Erik Monasterio, a mountaineer and psychiatrist from New Zealand, recently concluded a study of climbers and BASE jumpers and found that boundary-pushers like Weiss score higher in novelty- and sensation-seeking and self-direction, and lower in harm-avoidance. This suggests that biology and genetics partially determine who’s drawn to sports that encourage exploration and a tendency to view difficult situations as a conquerable challenge—sometimes with foolhardy optimism. 

This implies that some people simply are hardwired for adventure, pushing boundaries to nurture their sense of purpose and mental stability. Colorado’s adventure-sports community echoes this ethos, and even idolizes it. People like Weiss are considered inspirations because they live the way their destiny commands. 

Monasterio’s research shows that even after a near-fatal accident, most of these people will stick with their extreme adventure sport if they’re physically capable. For evidence of this, look no further than Weiss himself. A year before his death, in the same Peruvian range, he survived a life-threatening fall and blogged about it later with an almost eerie acceptance:

We had sent, suffered, lived, and above all, learned. A sea of fog blanketed the valley below. That night I dreamed of Pollo a la Brasa and beer, but the taste I had in my mouth when I woke the next morning was one of alpine glory spiked with humility, bittersweet, the only way life ever tastes.

Like Copp and Dash, Weiss was single and childless. Among athletes with spouses or families, however, the motivation remains. In 2002, Loveland’s Craig DeMartino, now 46, was climbing in Rocky Mountain National Park when he plummeted 100 feet. Despite shattering both feet and ankles, breaking his back and neck, tearing a rotator cuff, cracking ribs, and puncturing a lung, he survived. The accident cost him half of his right leg; it had no effect on his desire to keep climbing. He was at it again within a year, and in 2005, he won two events at the Extremity Games, the X Games for disabled people. He later became the first amputee to climb El Capitan in Yosemite, normally a four- to six-day endeavor, in less than 24 hours. 

DeMartino’s wife, Cyndy, another climber, understands her husband’s motivation. When he resumed climbing, her primary emotion was excitement. “I actually went through a grief process thinking we were going to lose climbing from our lives,” she says. “Maybe that sounds shallow, but I wanted us to continue.”

Like most climbers, Cyndy doesn’t view her sport as dangerous. It’s a calculated risk, no more perilous than, say, cycling, a difficult point to rebut considering how many Coloradans have been killed or maimed while riding bikes. These athletes stress climbing’s soul-enriching mental and spiritual aspects. “When I started climbing, it was the first time that something clicked in me that made me 100 percent present,” DeMartino says. “I don’t know of anything else that can do that.”

Another climber, Boulder resident Malcolm Daly, 57, echoes DeMartino—to a point. Daly lost a foot to frostbite, and nearly his life, while attempting a first ascent in Alaska in 1999, when his kids were 10 and 13. “When we have children,” Daly says, “we don’t stop being who we are.”

Even so, Daly doesn’t believe climbing is the only way to achieve the bliss extreme athletes romanticize. “The phrase ‘he died doing what he loves’ really gets under my skin,” Daly says. “I hate it. Gil Weiss loved climbing, but he sure as hell didn’t love dying. [His death] is a wake-up call.” —Jayme Moye

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Moving Mountains

With the number of avalanche deaths increasing, here’s how to avoid becoming a statistic.

Avalanches kill more coloradans than any other natural hazard. Although it ends up being about six deaths per year, sliding snow is a bigger threat than lightning, and avalanche fatalities are on the rise. “They ebb and flow every year, but the general trend is upward,” says Ethan Greene, director of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center. 

Colorado’s recent increase mirrors the national numbers. Last season saw 34 avalanche deaths across the United States. (The number usually is in the mid-20s.) Some of those accidents occurred within ski-area boundaries, normally a rarity, even though avalanche education and awareness have increased and avalanche safety equipment—transceivers, AvaLungs that let victims breathe during burial, and backpacks fitted with airbags—is better and more readily available. 

So why are more people dying? “Better equipment is letting more people go into dangerous areas,” says Dale Atkins, a member of the Alpine Rescue Team and president of the American Avalanche Association. He says today’s fat powder boards and rocker technology make tough terrain easier than ever to navigate. “All you need now is athleticism and daring,” Atkins says. 

Even less-experienced skiers are becoming bolder—and more rash—and terrain that would’ve seemed unskiable not long ago now attracts attention hogs intent on posting their exploits online. “That’s the beauty of the Internet, that you can immediately post where you are and how much fun you’re having,” says Atkins, who suspects Facebook and YouTube have become self-promoting stages for show-offs. “There’s now a fast, easy way for people to communicate about avalanche conditions and spread valuable information,” Atkins says. “But if you’re using it for glory, you’re asking for trouble.”

With increasing traffic into avalanche terrain, deaths are bound to rise, because as Greene says, “You just have more people in harm’s way.” These new danger zones exist within ski resorts, not just in the backcountry. Last January, for example, two people died from in-bounds slides at Vail and Winter Park. Although the victims’ families have sued the respective resorts, Atkins says, “Ski areas do a phenomenal job of reducing the avalanche danger to almost zero.” 

Yet even the most conscientious resorts can’t totally manage every inch of snow, particularly when the smallest slides can prove deadly. “Safety has to be a shared responsibility,” Atkins says. “Riders have got to take some responsibility for where they go, how they go, and when they go into this terrain.”

That’s why learning to discern danger zones is the best way to manage risk. “You can’t change the snowpack, or the weather, but you can change your terrain choices,” Greene says. Similar selectivity should determine whom you hit the slopes with, because although following an avalanche-ignorant daredevil into sketchy terrain is a recipe for disaster, a properly skilled buddy might save your life. “Your companion is your immediate rescue party,” Atkins says, “so choose him carefully.”—Kelly Bastone

* SAFETY TIPS

Skiing

˛Stay in control

˛Give right of way to people downhill from you 

˛Stay on designated trails

˛Pay attention to signs indicating treacherous conditions or closed trails

˛Wear reflective clothing

˛Wear a helmet

˛Adjust bindings properly 

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Colorado’s Five Riskiest Ski Runs

1: Rambo at Crested Butte 

Short (less than 1,000 feet) but deathly steep with its 55-degree pitch. 

2: Body Bag at Crested Butte 

Another 55-degree slope, this one with a 275-foot drop. Also, it’s called Body Bag.

3: Two Smokes at Silverton  

This 53-degree rock funnel is open only to skiers accompanied by professional guides.   

4: Avalanche Bowl to Zoom at Loveland 

Called the sixth-toughest run in North America by Gearjunkie.com in 2007.  

5: Lake Chutes at Breckenridge  

Has the highest chairlift in North America, and at 55 degrees, it’s another super-steep run.

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Walk This Way

Think a little hike can’t hurt you? Think again.

Even if you have no interest in scrambling up one of Colorado’s daunting rock walls or schussing down a backcountry slope, at some point you’ll probably do some hiking. Just don’t fool yourself into believing this relatively pokey pastime is any safer than the more daring outdoor options. 

In fact, every year, hiking accidents account for the highest number and greatest percentage of mishaps that require assistance from Colorado’s county-based search-and-rescue (SAR) teams. (See charts below.) It’s not just volume; these incidents are increasing per capita: They accounted for 28 percent of all reported SAR operations in 2003 and increased steadily to 35 percent by 2009. According to Howard Paul, public affairs manager for the Colorado Search and Rescue Board, “More hikers get into trouble than those who are engaged in another activity because of the number of people who do it, but also because you could’ve moved here from sea level in Houston last week, and have never been in the mountains before, and off you go.” 

 SAFETY TIPS

Hiking

˛Plan a route ahead of time to avoid getting lost

˛Don’t hike alone 

˛Tell someone where you’ll be and when you expect to return 

˛Pack basic gear: simple first-aid kit, Swiss army knife, whistle, small flashlight, brightly colored bandana, and rain gear, along with adequate water and food

˛Stay on marked trails

˛Never climb on waterfalls

˛Wear proper shoes and bright clothing

Not So Fast

A risk-taker finds liberation in limits.

since my neck was immobilized by plastic, the only place for my gaze to go was up, toward the ponderosa pines and the 30-foot granite face I’d been climbing. As the EMTs hoisted me off the rock escarpment to the waiting helicopter on that March day in 2003, I lay on the gurney and watched the birds overhead, high and bright white, circling in a cluster. I would later mention them to my friends, wondering what species could fly that high and be that white. No one else saw them. 

Maybe I was hallucinating; after all, I’d just plummeted 20 feet down to a stone slab. Real or not, the birds distracted me from the foreign sensation enveloping my body. It was less of an aching than a not-fitting, as if my once-snugly arranged puzzle pieces of bones and muscle now floated disjointedly in a galaxy-size emptiness more intense than anything that could be described as pain.       

Although I was new to climbing, I’d always known the outdoors. I grew up in New Mexico under my family’s motto: “Those who ski together stay together.” My sister and I spent our youth chasing each other down moguls and chutes throughout the West. Our father led us on summer backpacking tours through northern New Mexico and southern Colorado, fishing rippling crystalline streams for rainbows or browns. I attended the University of Denver largely because of its proximity to the Rockies’ serrated ridges and pine forests, and even when I moved away after graduation, I always sought out peaks that promised a bird’s-eye view of the world.

Like most twentysomethings, I took risks lightly and harbored that youthful sense of invincibility. While I worked as a reporter in Guatemala City—home to one of the world’s highest per-capita murder rates—people were routinely robbed at gunpoint, or worse. When nothing happened to me, it only strengthened my illusion of being untouchable.  

Climbing lured me in with its challenge of navigating routes that led to dazzling views, coupled with the sensation of defying gravity and accomplishing something seemingly unnatural—or even impossible. The day I fell, while top-roping in northern California near the spot where the infamous Donner Party met its bleak demise, I was with much more experienced climbers. Although I had several of them check the equipment before I started up the face, I slipped near the top, and nothing caught me. 

I landed in a sitting position with a sickening thud. I’d fractured my pelvis in two places; mercifully, though, the bones that floated in space like exploding planets were still aligned and eventually healed without surgery. After two months of evolving from a wheelchair to a walker to crutches, I walked again. Soon after that, I returned to the mountains via hiking. Feeling the wind on my face was liberating; inching along a steep drop—while my legs wobbled and my heart rate spiked—was terrifying. 

I’m back in Colorado, and while I relish a run along the base of the Flatirons, or a hike or mogul-run in Vail or Summit County, I’m much more cautious now and have no desire to climb. Since my accident, the glory of suspending myself amid a postcard-worthy view no longer seems worth the risk, and instead I now follow one of my father’s other maxims: “If you can’t afford to fall, you probably shouldn’t be there.” 

Although skipping such rewards might feel like a living death for some people, I’m at peace within my newfound limits. Before, declining an invitation to the climbing gym would have made me feel like a wimp; now I think of those birds. The image of that fluttering white circle on a bright, blue sky reminds me that I’m lucky. It’s not because I’m invincible; it’s because I know now my life is worth protecting—and I have nothing left to prove. —Megan Feldman

SAFETY TIPS

Rock Climbing

˛Make sure your equipment is up-to-date and functioning properly 

˛Frequently check your harnesses, knots, ropes, buckles, rappel system, and belay device 

˛Always wear a helmet

˛Pay attention to your movements, and plan each step before you take it

˛Don’t climb solo

˛Be aware of your surroundings and know exactly where other climbers are

Because It’s I’m There

An accomplished climber explains why—even after surviving life-threatening injuries—he has no intention of stopping.

On September 19, 2011, Renan Ozturk felt a creeping numbness along his cheek. He couldn’t form words, so only gibberish came out, and he was so fatigued he couldn’t crawl into his sleeping bag. The maladies arose from injuries he’d suffered six months earlier. While skiing in Jackson, Wyoming, Ozturk fell off a cliff, ending up with a fractured skull and two broken vertebrae in his neck, and damage to an artery running to his brain. That he later had relapse symptoms was no surprise; unfortunately, when they set in, Ozturk was pinned to the side of a blizzard-battered mountain in northern India, attempting to scale a peak no one had ever summited before.

Ozturk, now 32, grew up in Rhode Island and started climbing while at Colorado College. “I was exposed to a community of climbers who appreciated it beyond the sport,” he says. “It was more of a lifestyle.” After graduation, he got more into it—partly for the adrenaline, more for the camaraderie. “I’m part of this tightly knit tribe of people who share a passion and their beliefs,” he says.

The adventure, of course, still has allure. Ozturk says scaling Mt. Everest, which routinely hosts guided tours, holds no interest. But, he says, “If I were to find a giant pinnacle of a rock tower, a big skyscraper that nobody had climbed, you’re not really sure how to get there, you’d have to travel through some unique cultural terrain to get there, that would be something I’d pour my energy into.”

Enter Meru, a film of Ozturk’s first ascent—with well-known climbers Jimmy Chin and Conrad Anker—of the Meru Peak in northern India, a trek of spiritual as well as physical significance. “Its glaciers feed the headwaters of the Ganges River, maybe the most holy river in the world,” Ozturk says. “The Hindus consider Meru to be the center of the universe, and all the climbers who have tried it have failed.” 

Meru follows the men’s first unsuccessful climb of the shark fin–shaped peak in 2010 through their return in 2011. It shows, with harrowing bluntness, the concern Chin and Anker have for their protégé as he suffers a strokelike episode on the first day he was to lead the climb. (The setback came after Ozturk had bought his plane ticket to India without telling his girlfriend, which she describes in the movie as “a slap in the face.”)

The film grippingly portrays the withering grit of climbing while also revealing how and why these enthusiasts keep battling sites that have conquered them before. “Everyone has a true nature, and maybe some people never find that,” Ozturk says. “Guys like Jimmy and Conrad obviously have found their true nature; they’re willing to risk life and limb even though they have families to support. I think it’s just a matter of where your passions lie and what makes you happy, and just acting on what you’re meant to do.”