Why risk is necessary

Why would anyone in their right mind paddle in 4 meter waves or rockhop over skerries in their sea kayak?  “Because it’s there” said Mallory when talking about his ascent of Mount Everest in 1924. It seems that thrill addiction and adventure is something we humans can enjoy even though risk is present.

The sensation of thrill comes when  endorphins (a hormone-like chemcial) are released into the bloodstream during stressful experiences. Endorphins resembles narcotics such as opium, only without the negative side effects. Humans need a certain amount of stress in their lives to maintain the level of endorphin secretion we have become used to. Some have enough stress as it is, while others have greater needs and seek out stimulation through risk taking adventures.

The brain’s level of arousal depends on the amount of information the brain is receiving. An experienced sea kayaker paddling on flat water might be underaroused. A new sea kayaker paddling in 2 meter waves might be overaroused. This suggest that there exists a level of optimal arousal for each individual.

Optimal arousal

Optimally aroused

Stages of adventure
Colin Mortlock proposes four stages of adventure a person can experience in outdoor activities:

Play: Absence of fear, fun or boring.
Adventure: Some fear, participant is in total control but challenged.
Frontier adventure: High degree of fear, risk of physical harm and lack of complete control.
Misadventure: Too much fear and failure is likely. Dissatisfaction, physical and psychological damage is likely.

A representation of Mortlock's stages of adventure
A representation of Mortlock’s stages of adventure

“You learn good judgement from experience; you gain experience from poor judgement” – Reg Lake

The qoute above indicates experience is hard to gain without some risk involved. The key is to gain experience without getting into serious trouble.

Sea kayaking involves risk, but so does everything else in life. With too little risk the experience becomes boring, with too much risk the experience becomes dangerous. Risk is therefore necessary to make your experience interesting, challenging and valuable for learning. If you remain within your comfort zone and play you will not grow as a sea kayaker. If you constantly find yourself in misadventures you are likely to stop sea kayaking. With a mix of frontier adventure and adventure you are likely to increase your competence level as you adapt and master new risk levels.


Source: Simon Priest & Michael A. Gass “Effective Leadership in Adventure Programming”.

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