Fear can be Healthy

The news was tragic. A young woman’s life had been snuffed out by a fatal fall from a path along a steep and dangerous Italian slope where she and her friends had been hiking. It was supposed to be a fun afternoon outing. But it took the life of a vibrant young person who had her whole life ahead of her. And for what? For a little excitement, which I’m sure was thrilling – up until she died.

The article hit close to home for us because that young woman had once been a student at Conestoga College where I worked, and I’d seen her in the hallways between classes. She had helped my wife out with some volunteer events. She was a bright, involved, and charming young person. Yet a few minutes of dangerous fun ended her life.

The article pointed out that she had died in an area notorious for its dangers, and which on that particular day had also been icy. My 23 year old son, reading the news article, asked why anyone would risk their life on such a clearly treacherous trail. Why had they taken the chance? Why, indeed? Bravado? Thrills? Showing off? Acting on a dare?

The same day that article appeared, I saw an online photo of four young women taking a group selfie while standing on subway tracks as, in the distance, the light of a train can be seen rounding the bend towards them. They’re all smiling, clearly oblivious to the danger they’ve put themselves in. I must ask… was this stupidity, courage, or as the photo’s Fail caption reads, “Natural selection” at work?

We hear of it all the time. Snowmobilers killed while trailing in parks that have been shut down due to dangerous snow conditions. Skiers killed in well-marked and cordoned off avalanche zones. Hikers lost on trails that have claimed the lives of others in the past. Young kids killed by a train while attempting to cross a long, narrow trestle. What lures people to such dangerous places to engage in risky activities that have already claimed the lives of others? I found myself at a loss to answer my son’s question.

And it’s not just dangerous sports. Sometimes it’s everyday activities. For example, what makes overly-confident motorist foolishly venture out onto snow-packed or ice-covered roads, or speed along roadways shrouded in thick fog instead of obeying the speed limits or even just hunkering down and staying put? In fact, what makes so many motorists irresponsibly disregard the speed limits altogether and race along at 30 to 40 km/hr over the posted limits? What makes construction workers disregard safety restraints when working on high structures? What makes tourists at Grand Canyon crawl past the safety barriers out onto those precarious ledges, and risk falling hundreds of feet to their deaths, all for the sake of a selfie? What makes so many tourists at Peggy’s Cove in Nova Scotia ignore the warning signs and clamber out onto the exposed rocks and risk getting swept by a wave to their deaths in the deadly undertow of the surf? In short, what makes people take unnecessary and life-threatening chances for such meagre rewards? Not only ignoring the warning signs but their own innate common sense and fear.

Do they think that the warning signs are lying, or exaggerating the danger? Do they think signs are only meant to keep out wusses and sissies? Do they think they are losing face and admitting defeat by heeding the warnings? Is their ego somehow deflated by giving in to caution, common sense, and safety? Do they think their friends are going to laugh at them for exercising good judgement and wanting to stay alive?

We may as well ask what makes a drunk person get behind the wheel of a car. Sheer stupidity, combined with cocky overconfidence, impaired judgement, a lack of self-control, and a compulsive need to prove the naysayers wrong. But nature has a tried-and-true way of overriding such self-destructive behaviour. It’s called fear, and it’s supposed to keep us from killing ourselves. No one should want the epitaph “Don’t worry, I’ve got this” carved on their tombstone.

My son and I discussed people’s cravings for excitement and adventure, and their compulsion to seek out life-threatening thrills for the brief adrenaline rush they experience.

He said that while these traits may apply to brainless daredevils, he had to question why an intelligent yet inexperienced person like that young woman would have even considered going on such a dangerous hike. For me, that question also hit kind of close to home. Because I’ve been there.

To show him how easy it is to get unwittingly swept up in reckless behaviour like that, I recounted an episode from my own past.

It was 1975. I was 24 – not much older than my youngest son is now – and had just moved to Vancouver to attend graduate school. Some new friends had invited me to accompany them on what they described as a “hike” to a beautiful, scenic BC mountain landmark… the Black Tusk. To an Ontario city boy like me, a hike was a walk through the woods with maybe a hill or two. It sounded like fun, and I was promised a breathtaking view of a mountain vista that was not to be missed. So I eagerly accepted the invitation.

Right from the get-go I realized I was in over my head. We marched from the parking lot up 1700 meters in elevation along gradual switchback trails to the base camp. I was already winded by the 300 meter mark. The rest of the way was agony. Then, instead of resting, we hiked to the Black Tusk, a huge projection of volcanic basalt in the Garibaldi mountains of BC near Whistler. The trail to the Tusk took us along steep snow & ice-covered ridges, along narrow trails that span icy slopes, and across tricky outcroppings of treacherous basalt scree – steep slopes covered in flat, fist-sized chunks of loose shale that can easily slide out from underfoot leading to long bone-jarring slides down steep embankments and sometimes even over cliffs below. I probably should have turned back many times, but I’d been provided an ice axe and shown briefly how to use it to arrest such a potentially life-threatening mishap. Besides, I certainly wasn’t about to admit to any signs of weakness or cowardice. Pride goeth before the fall, you know.

When we reached the base of the Tusk, I discovered that the initial struggles had been the easy part. What now confronted us was a vertical spire of black rock that soared over 200 meters straight into the sky. Most sane hikers would have taken their photos here and returned with a story to tell and pics to show. But not my friends. They insisted that we actually climb this ominous black obelisk. Don’t worry, they said, you’ll do fine. And like the proud fool that I was, I smiled and agreed to press on.

Now, I must point out that BC Parks actively discourages anyone from attempting to climb the Tusk. As they put it on their website, “Be careful on the loose rocks as some of the cliffs in the area are high enough to cause very serious injuries or even death. And, although it is possible to make it onto the peak of the Tusk, it is not recommended as it is extremely dangerous and is strongly discouraged by BC Parks. However, it has been attempted by experienced rock climbers with the proper equipment and training.” I had neither the experience, the proper equipment, nor the training. But did I turn back right then and there? Of course not.

Whatever the look on my face, any limitations or hesitations I felt certainly didn’t dissuade my friends. Whether they were trying to show off their climbing prowess, or wanted to see how much it would take to scare the shit out of me, I don’t know. But they proceeded to embark on the climb up the basalt face of the Tusk. And I, like the proud fool that I was, willingly followed along… but with extreme trepidation, mind you.

We found ourselves a vertical crevasse or notch in the rock wall where we would be enclosed on three sides by rock. Basalt exists as a vertical mass of parallel hexagonal columns when it cools to form volcanic plugs like the Tusk. So climbing relied on us placing our hands and feet on the flat tops of broken pillars. Trouble is, basalt easily crumbles and breaks away without much sideways effort. So footing and handholds were unreliable at best, and we had to thoroughly test each grip and step before putting our weight on it. Remember, we had no ropes or pitons… just ice axes hooked to our belts, plus our wits… or lack of wits, as in my case.

I was already exhausted from the switchback ascent, and found that this vertical climb now introduced pain into even more muscles and joints. My one friend was about 5 meters above me, his wife about the same distance below me. Occasionally a chunk of basalt would break free and the person who caused it would call out to those below as it fell. Usually this was less a warning and more an apology for what had just hit them.

Needless to say, the climb was slow, painful and laborious. I didn’t question whether the view at the top or the sheer achievement of the climb would be worth the risk. I just went along because I didn’t want to look like a coward. That’s what peer pressure does to you… it overpowers your better judgement.

Halfway up the Tusk my legs gave out and started to shake the way muscles do when lack of tone combines with fatigue. At this point, I froze with fear at the paralyzing realization that I was trapped over 100 meters in the air on the side of a rock face, and could neither advance up nor retreat back down. In my calmest voice I tried to explain my predicament to my friend’s wife whom I could tell was quite annoyed by my stopping. But instead of expressing concern or sympathy, she just huffed and said that if I wasn’t going to keep climbing, then I should get the hell out of the way and let her scramble past me. I was stunned. There it was. Safety meant nothing to them. It was simply the glory of the achievement that was at stake.

I guess it was the ensuing anger and stubborn pride that prompted me into action, summoning up whatever reserves of strength I still possessed, and enabling me to clamber up the remaining 100 meters to the peak. I even surprised myself. With relief, I thought I was done. But at the top, to my horror, I discovered that the worst was yet to come.

The peak of the Black Tusk is a flatly-rounded hump of basalt some 20 meters across, covered in a thick layer of loose scree. The trick to mounting it from the top of the crevasse is to stretch out one’s arms and scramble on one’s belly as far up as one can, then straddle one leg, then the other, up onto the surface (if you can call it that) while being careful not to roll or slide backwards, free-falling to one’s death on the rocks hundreds of meters below. As I performed this tricky maneuver (successfully, I might point out, as I’m clearly around to tell this tale), the adrenaline coursing through my body made my ears ring so loud I couldn’t hear whatever instructions were being shouted at me by my so-called “friends”. I was too busy praying to God to spare my foolish life.

Once out of the crevasse and onto the top surface, I crawled first on my belly then cautiously on all fours until I reached the summit of the peak, whereupon I scrambled to my feet to appreciate the… well, the lack of any view whatsoever. The high altitude air, it turns out, was so thick with fog and snow we couldn’t see much beyond the peak. No mountain vista. No memorable photos. The only evidence of our accomplishment were the few small cairns and inukshuks made from rocks that previous climbers had left to declare their own victories over nature and the grim reaper.

Although we could see nothing of the promised mountain view around us, we did notice a second nearby black peak separated from the ours by a deep 10 meter-wide chasm. A twin peak, as it were. This second peak looked even more frail than the one we were on. Yet it too proudly bore several handmade victory monuments.

With little else to do other than make our own inukshuks (which we each did, of course), we headed back. But instead of a relatively easily descent, the return journey down the Tusk turned out to be even more terrifying. You see, the upward climb had the advantage of requiring our upward gaze. But, when going back down, our gaze had to be directed downwards. And don’t they always warn you “Don’t look down”?

So, as I cautiously bum-slid down the slippery rocks back toward the crevasse, I could see the deadly precipice ahead – a stark drop-off beyond which lay nothing but hundreds of meters of open air. And I discovered, to my dismay (and by considerable trial-and-error), that I could not arrest my slide on a dime as I might have wished. So, as I neared the edge, heart pounding in my chest, I rolled from my butt onto my belly and proceeded to slip feet first in short inch-by-inch increments towards a very likely backward plummet to my death.

When I reached the crevasse, somehow – don’t ask me how, as my brain has wisely chosen to erase all memory of the next few moments – I slung my legs one-by-one over the edge, and got my feet firmly planted on some solid basalt… the trick here being to not shift one’s weight too quickly from the relative safety of the horizontal peak to the vertical crevasse, a movement which could result in one toppling backwards into the abyss. I guess I must have instinctively realized this, because I somehow successfully managed to perform this tricky and unfamiliar manoeuvre.

From there the climb down was actually much easier than the climb up, as I was facing the rock wall and tentatively feeling my way for secure footing below me, trying hard to remember where I had placed my feet and hands on the way up.

As I recall, once I reached the bottom I was of mixed emotions. First of all, I was relieved and grateful to be alive. I was also feeling quite exhilarated at what I had achieved. And for some time afterwards I even felt like I could understand why some people insisted on doing this sort of thing for recreation. Whereas, I should have been angry for being tricked into putting myself in such mortal danger.

It has only been with the passage of time that I’ve come to realize that I might have died in any number of horrible ways that day… died needlessly from either my stupid pride, a need for an adrenaline rush, or for bragging rights, none of which are valid grounds for risking one’s life and one’s chances for a long life with many safer adventures, personal relationships, and even offspring.

Which brings me to my point. It seems to me that many (mostly young) people today are either compulsive, irresponsible thrill seekers, or pushers of this insanity who encourage others to risk their lives for a thrill, or who are bound by foolish pride to follow others into the jaws of death, as I once did. And for what? For a few minutes of exhilarating terror and some photos?

Why does fear and the survival instinct not prevent these people from doing such dangerous things? You see fear, like pain, is the body’s way of protecting itself by telling us that something is wrong. Pain tells us to stop doing whatever is causing the discomfort because it may lead to serious tissue damage. Fear, on the other hand, tells us to stop doing whatever is provoking that reaction because it might lead to injury or death. If someone is addicted to pain, we tell them to seek psychological counselling, because normal people do not enjoy pain. And if someone is addicted (or immune) to fear we should give them the same advice, seek help, because fear is to be respected and heeded. But the truth is, there are some people who, for whatever reasons, seem to either crave fear or, if they don’t feel it, put themselves in extreme situations where they start to feel something.

And there are also some people who actually admire fearlessness for some inexplicable reason. Why? Do they mistake fearlessness for bravery? Because firefighters, police, and soldiers returning from duty almost universally describe bravery as not being fearless, but performing heroic acts in the face of fear.

I’ve asked myself many times what it was that drove my so-called friends to carelessly attempt that dangerous climb, and especially to rope me – an inexperienced and unfit hiker – into accompanying them without the proper training or equipment. These were two intelligent, and highly educated people. It wasn’t lack of brains that overrode their better judgment. So what was it that interfered with their rational thinking?

Personally, I think a kind of psychological or physiological malady has inflicted these people. They suffer from a condition that renders them almost fearless in situations that should make them recoil from whatever folly they’re committing. They either don’t get the typical jolt of adrenaline that alerts one to imminent danger, or they don’t interpret that jolt as a warning. Either way, something is wrong with them. They lack the necessary fear-and-retreat reflex needed for proper survival. In fact, instead of experiencing the horror of fear, they often seem to experience a euphoric, even giddy, exhilaration. And, alarmingly, they often seem to be proud of this.

I see evidence of it every day. We have a roundabout a few blocks from our home. Most drivers navigate it with ease, but some do not. Inexperienced motorists often enter it at the wrong time, either hesitantly or aggressively. On many occasions I’ve found myself slamming on my brakes mere feet away from ploughing into the driver’s side of a car that has bolted into the roundabout right in front of me while I was rounding the curve. The weird thing is, where I would expect to see a look of fear or panic on the face of the driver who has only narrowly escape injury or death, I often see them smile or even laugh. That is not a normal reaction when coming close to dying. But I don’t think it’s relief from having been spared, because relief comes afterwards, in hindsight. Nor would I call it nervous laughter, because that has a characteristic giggle with a distinct look of terror. No, they seem to display a kind of perverse joy at what has just happened.

It seems to me that this spontaneous reaction of giddy laughter is the thrill of a danger averted… of plucking life out of the jaws of death And that’s not a healthy reaction. In fact, if anything, that kind of elated response only encourages a person to put themselves into harm’s way more often in order to experience that kinky… what? Joy? Pleasure? Thrill?… again and again. And that’s simply not rational behaviour. They’re playing a kind of Russian Roulette, and enjoying it. A near death close call should be frightening, not exhilarating. There is something clearly wrong with people who don’t experience protective fear as they should.

It’s not a new thing. Remember that craze a few years back where cars often bore a window or bumper sticker that read “No Fear”? At the time I thought it reflected the attitude of the owner that “I’m a badass who’s not afraid of you, so don’t mess with me.” But now I’m inclined to think that those drivers intended that message to convey their immunity to the usual feelings of fragility and mortality that make the rest of us back away from threatening or dangerous situations. And that implies a kind of crazy “lethal weapon” attitude – an almost suicidal personality – and hence flags them as someone who is not to be provoked because normal fear for their safety doesn’t dictate their behaviour.

This condition might also explain the growing popularity of thrill sports and activities like higher and faster thrill rides at theme parks, as well as death-defying activities like rock climbing, spelunking, base jumping, hang gliding, bungee jumping, and the like. Or the growing popularity of physically risky sports like rugby, surfing, hang gliding, car racing, skate boarding, and the like.

I think this fearlessness phenomenon began years ago with the “extreme sports” craze. It even affects young people who carry out risky “jack-ass” pranks, like riding a shopping cart down a hill, riding in a box down a steep set of stairs, or jumping off the roof of a house into a swimming pool. And of course there are those everyday thrill seekers who speed and drive dangerously, thus putting us all at risk. Quite possibly there’s even a connection between pathological fearlessness and growing involvement with violent criminal behaviour or even terrorist activity. On a global scale, some part of us that keeps us safe and alive seems to have switched off.

Now, admittedly, some people may claim to be seeking memorable experiences to photograph and brag about. But one can experience many exciting things without putting oneself directly into harm’s way. Scuba diving is dangerous, but training for this sport is extensive, with every effort being made to ensure that the sport is safe. The same goes for sky diving. That doesn’t make these sports any less exciting, although I’m sure that some extreme sports enthusiasts might disagree. For them, it would appear, it’s the fact that the safeguards are off that makes the sport or activity so enticing.

You know, sometimes I wonder if there’s an element of cocky defiance in this behaviour. It’s as if the laws of nature, and the laws of man, are viewed as unfair constraints to be openly ignored as a point of principle.

Nature: “Don’t do that, it’ll kill you.”

Fool: “Okay, then that’s exactly what I’m gonna do.”

I think perhaps the act of defiance is seen as a rite of passage to achieving some kind of perceived hero-like status. If so, then that’s even more disturbing, as it adds foolish bravado and aggressive disobedience to the mix. It’s the triple threat… fearlessness, foolhardiness, and rebelliousness… not a good trio from a survival point of view.

I met a young man (also out west) who was an extreme skier. Despite being a 20s-something family man, he’d been hospitalized several times already for injuries suffered in high-speed collisions and falls on the slopes. His wife strongly objected to his cavalier disregard for his own safety, and often begged him to knock it off and be more careful. She casually joked that he was probably going to kill himself one day. He, on the other hand, just shrugged aside her concerns and said skiing wasn’t fun if it didn’t have the thrill of danger associated with it. Three weeks later he was killed in a high-speed skiing collision. He left behind a shattered young widow and two lovely young daughters who would never grow up with their daddy beside them. He chose a few thrills over a lifetime with them.

I personally suspect that a crucial protective aspect of our psychological makeup has been diminishing with each successive generation. Maybe it’s from our diet. Maybe it’s the fast food. Maybe it’s the fluoride in our drinking water. Maybe it’s a reaction to all the horror in the world. Maybe they find life boring. Or maybe it’s a reaction to all the restrictive laws and regulations that we’re subjected to. Who knows? Whatever the reason, it greatly concerns me, because absence of fear can unshackle normal restraints in ways that are not healthy to anyone. Fear stops us from taking dangerous chances, and from putting ourselves or others at risk. We all need a healthy governor to control our risk-taking behaviour, especially as the population density increases and life speeds up.

I know that some of you will simply write me off as just a coward or timid loser who’s averse to taking chances. But, as my story shows, I’ve taken my fair share of chances. I’ve piloted small planes. I’ve motorcycled across North America. I’ve climbed steep mountains. I’ve skied the high Rockies. I’ve hiked in mountainous bear country. I’ve driven up Pike’s Peak. I’ve slept outside in Death Valley. I’ve canoed in wilderness areas at night in snow storms. I’ve driven a Ford Econoline van down a steep motocross mud-climb hillside (although I feel it necessary to explain that, until I crested the top of that hill, I really thought I was on a country road). And each time, through God’s good grace, providence, or shit luck, I’ve managed to survive to tell the tale. But each of those risks (except the hill) could have turned out differently had I not done them with plenty of forethought, preparation, and caution. They were not risks taken merely to thumb my nose at death.

How long before people who drive their snowmobiles recklessly, or who race at breakneck speeds along back country roads, or who weave at high speed through traffic on a motorcycle, start paying attention to warnings and advisories meant to save their lives. There are lots of safe, cautious ways to have fun and experience excitement without taking fatal risks. Listen to that voice inside your head that says “this might not be such a smart idea” and obediently let the fear regulate your behaviour instead of laughing at it. You don’t have to be a hero.

I suspect that young woman who died in Italy probably had second thoughts about going on the hike that killed her. But, like me, she was perhaps too proud or too self-conscious to refuse to go. Or perhaps some pathologically fearless (or stupid) friends talked her into venturing into harm’s way without adequate regard for her safety for the chance of becoming a hero. Or dead.

And maybe that’s the answer. Maybe some people put themselves and others in life-threatening situations and ignore the fear because they think it makes them come across as brave heroes. So it’s just ego, and a need for hero worship that makes them risk their lives, and the lives of others. Let’s see, live wisely & cautiously to the ripe old age of 90, or die needlessly as a forgotten “hero” at 22. Is that such a tough decision?

I guess what I’m trying to say is, if you ever plan on climbing the Black Tusk, don’t do it the stupid way like I did. Take the time to get yourself in good physical shape, get proper training, use the correct equipment, and check that conditions are safe. Oh, and go on a clear day.

I’m just sayin’

In national parks, they often have to deal with bears that, for whatever reasons, have lost their fear of people. These fearless bears brazenly wander into campgrounds to ransack tents and trailers in search of food. This presents a clearly dangerous situation for campers. Park Rangers shoot bears like that with paint gun pellets to mark their fur with bright splashes of colour in order to identify them as potential threats to people. If a marked bear is ever caught invading human space a second time, that bear is shot and killed on the spot. 

Maybe it’s time we start marking fearless people the same way.


About wordswithbrad

Let's see. I guess first and foremost I am a life wanderer on a journey of discovery and experience. Can you tell I am a child of the sixties? Along the way I have become many things ... a College Professor (now retired after 28 wonderful years), a writer of both fiction and nonfiction, a singer/songwriter, a musician, an artist, a world traveler, a fan of science fiction and history, and a student of human nature. But my greatest accomplishments are being father to two of the most amazing and accomplished young men I have ever known, and husband to the incredible and delightful woman who made that possible.
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