Top of the world: Matt Burney perched on edge of Dark Canyon near Hite, Utah; Carl Hulit races his mountain bike, opposite, top; Burney, shoulder deep in Escalante River in Utah, bottom. © Andrew Gombert /epa/Corbis
Top of the world: Matt Burney perched on edge of Dark Canyon near Hite, Utah; Carl Hulit races his mountain bike, opposite, top; Burney, shoulder deep in Escalante River in Utah, bottom. © Andrew Gombert /epa/Corbis

Duke Daredevilry

Why some daring young men and women are driven to seek out thrills-and spills.
Writer: 
August 1, 2006
 

Over fall break of his junior year, Chris Davis '06 went whitewater kayaking on the Narrows of Western North Carolina's Green River. He had just finished negotiating several of the river's Class Five rapids, including the infamous "Gorilla," when he figured he was home free. That's exactly the moment that Davis got into trouble. He tried to coast through a "piddly" Class Three and flipped his craft. His elbow shattered against a rock, forcing him to swim to safety with his single good arm.

Davis' friend and classmate Carl Hulit suffered a similar misfortune. The experienced mountain biker was practicing his skills on a bike teeter-totter when he and his bike fell sideways. He landed awkwardly, breaking his C7 vertebra. "You're most likely to get hurt when you think you're least likely to get hurt," observes Hulit, who wore a neck brace for several weeks his senior year in visible testimony to this hard-learned principle. "You can spend a day ripping hard runs and then at the end of the day wipe out coming off a ski lift," he adds. When the brace came off, he returned to biking, alpine skiing, and his other passion, cyclocross racing. (This summer, he planned to take a National Outdoor Leadership School mountaineering course and work as a ranch hand in Colorado.)

While concerns about liability and costly insurance have put the skids to some of the most structured university daredevilry--the Duke skydiving club disbanded several years ago because of rising insurance requirements, according to Mike Forbes, director of club and intramural sports--there are plenty of students who still find dramatic ways on their own to push their personal envelopes.

Before they graduated in May, both Davis and Hulit were diehard members of Duke's Outing Club, a student outdoor-adventure club. They describe themselves as "adrenaline junkies." When they travel in Third World countries, they prefer to hitchhike and to stay in strangers' homes rather than hostels or hotels; they don't mind group undertakings but are often more comfortable going solo, even if--or perhaps because--being alone holds the promise of greater adventure. Davis even braves danger in his volunteer work: For two years, he's been a firefighter and EMT for the Parkwood Fire Department in Durham.

Davis and Hulit are what psychologists often refer to as "high-sensation seeking" personalities--an adventuresome lot who thrive on putting their bodies through difficult and even dangerous situations. Society calls them thrill-seekers. Whether it's a short-term thrill (the few seconds it takes to do a free-fall ride at an amusement park) or a months-long adventure (hiking the Appalachian Trail solo), the thrill-seeker is a marvel to the rest of us, who just can't understand why, for example, someone would jump out of a perfectly good airplane.

Though there has always been a subgroup of humans given to daredevilry (recall that in August 1914, Antarctic explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton was able to recruit his Endurance crew with an ad promising, "SMALL WAGES, BITTER COLD, LONG MONTHS OF COMPLETE DARKNESS, CONSTANT DANGER, SAFE RETURN DOUBTFUL"), such behavior has perhaps never been so ubiquitous among people so young. Today's youth don't have to head to the South Pole for a sanctioned adventure; they need only seek out the nearest skateboarding, snowboarding, or motocross park. "Kids who are in their late teens and twenties do all kinds of things that we didn't do," says John Thompson, a professor of history at Duke. Thompson, a baseball scholar who has studied trends in other sports, grew up in the 1950s. He says that advances in technology and mass communications and more abundant and affordable travel options have all helped to steer thrill-seeking into the mainstream.

"Have you ever looked at an inline skate? For all that today's activities require of physical courage, they all require a certain degree of contemporary technology, too," Thompson observes. Mountain Dew commercials, not to mention a plethora of niche trade magazines, cable-television stations, and websites, have made it possible for young people to educate themselves about the latest thrill and "gain access to the places where they can do it," he says. World travel is no exception. In the 1960s, Thompson's wife was offered a rare treat: the opportunity to travel to Africa as a student. "Today," says Thompson, "thanks to cheap airline tickets, half of the kids in arts and sciences at Duke travel or study abroad."

The major television networks have capitalized on the public's fascination with thrill-seeking with successful, high-impact reality shows such as Fear Factor, The Amazing Race, and Survivor. Though simply viewing a TV show is enough vicarious danger for most people, the Outing Club daredevils snicker at such armchair adventure, arguing that the shows are overtly staged. "It gets [the participants] out of their comfort zones, but it's not dangerous," says Jessica Evans-Wall '08, who grew up kayaking white water in the Northwest and West Virginia.

The reality-show participants clearly do it for the big bucks, but these daredevils find themselves having to constantly explain their odd proclivities to the rest of us. "A lot of people don't understand why we do some of the things we do," Davis says. "They just don't get it."
Rick Hoyle certainly gets it. As a research professor in psychology and associate director of Duke's Center for Child and Family Policy, Hoyle has studied the thrill-seeking personality, in part, for help in crafting effective public-health messages aimed at this group drawn to risk. Hoyle says high-sensation seekers can embrace activities that are, by and large, positive (such as snowboarding and firefighting) or, by and large, negative (such as drug taking and reckless driving).

White water: Evans-Wall, in dark helmet, piloting adventure-seekers through Pillow Rock rapids on upper Gauley River in West Virginia

White water: Evans-Wall, in dark helmet, piloting adventure-seekers through Pillow Rock rapids on upper Gauley River in West Virginia

The thrill-seeking tendency often shows itself early, says Hoyle. That was certainly the case with Gracie Sorbello '06, who is spending the summer traversing the country on a unicycle; she would be the youngest person and the first woman to complete such a feat.

"She climbed up a jungle gym and hung off the monkey bars at ten months," recalls her mother, Kim Sorbello, who with horror watched her daughter grow into a climber of sixty-foot redwoods around their home in Davis, California. "She was always begging to go higher. She just didn't have physical fear." Her devil-may-care approach to sport also made her a strong competitor on Duke's highly successful field-hockey team, and she hopes to try out for the 2008 U.S. Olympic squad later this year. "If there's a tree, I think to climb it," says Gracie Sorbello, speaking metaphorically, as well as literally. "It keeps things exciting."

It doesn't help parents' nerves that the thrill-seeking effect is often compounded in the teenage noggin. Studies have shown that adolescents' brains tend to be undeveloped in the delayed-gratification department, making them more susceptible to activities with quick payoffs, such as taking drugs. So, when the Outing Club daredevils refer to themselves as "adrenaline junkies" who need a constant "endorphin fix," the drug-user terminology is not completely coincidental. Dopamine's effect in the brain is similar to that produced by amphetamines such as speed. "And then you get this double whammy with drugs," Hoyle points out. "Pharmacologically, drugs produce a reward, and, because they are illegal, they provide an additional allure." Making drugs legal might reduce their appeal, he says; conversely, making snowboarding against the law might draw more kids to the slopes--and the next Winter Olympics.

Wilderness route: Huffman in 14-foot rubber raft on Hulahula River in Alaska

Wilderness route: Huffman in 14-foot rubber raft on Hulahula River in Alaska. Cindy Lindsay

Even so, thrill-seekers in many cases are no more likely to use drugs than the average person. It may be instructive, Hoyle explains, to divide thrill-seekers into two camps: those who are highly impulsive, and those who are not. "Impulsivity is the idea of doing things without intention, without planning." So the thrill-seeker may be quite impulsive and decide, on a whim, to try to cross a track before the train barrels by. Or he may be quite deliberate, packing his own parachute and jumping only on a clear day.

The members of Duke's Outing Club are careful to plan ahead and use the proper equipment when they approach an outing. And, for the record, the trips they take as a group are highly regulated and don't involve much of the daredevilry--the whitewater kayaking, the spelunking, the cliff jumping--that some of the members pursue on their own time. Even then they show caution. "If you were to rock climb without ropes, that would be the riskiest thing that any of us did," says Brian Wright '07, a past president of the Outing Club. "None of us do that." Hulit, for one, says he would not consider sailing off-shore by himself because "there's no safety net." Adds Davis, "I wouldn't walk on rocks by the river."

One former member of the outing club who plans his adventures carefully is Matt Burney '06. Burney, who is five feet four inches tall, is used to having people tell him he's not physically capable of achieving large feats. That only adds fuel to his fire. He hiked the Appalachian Trail alone the summer after high school and later biked the Pacific Coast Highway from Oregon to Mexico. He's hiked the 500-mile Colorado Trail from Denver to Durango, and, last summer, he and a girlfriend drove from Bryce Canyon to Moab, Utah, burying buckets of food they later dug up while retracing their path on foot. "Hiking the Appalachian Trail gave me confidence to chase down random big dreams that seem just crazy," Burney says. After graduation in May, he and three friends hopped on bicycles in Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina, and headed for the West Coast. By the end of June they'd gotten as far as Colorado.

Certainly there has been the rush of danger in all of Burney's adventures--like the time during the Utah trip that he and his friend were caught in a flash flood and nearly cut off from a life-saving food cache, or the time he was hiking the Colorado Trail and was chased down Vale Mountain by a black bear. "I wasn't thinking," he recalls. "I was just running!"

But he insists that it isn't the near-death experience he searches for; rather, it's the satisfaction of using a finger on a globe of the world to trace a path he's trekked. Hoyle would classify Burney as a particular kind of thrill-seeker, the kind who is drawn primarily to novelty. Evolutionarily speaking, "to orient toward, and attend to, novel stimuli would be very useful," says Hoyle. The theory holds that such individuals were more likely to comprehend their surroundings with all the accompanying opportunities and dangers--thereby showing the rest of us the way to a safer locale.

Of course, savvy on the slopes or the rushing river does not prevent disaster from occurring in other aspects of a daredevil's life. "In order to take physical risks, you have to be strong in yourself," says Evans-Wall, who has difficulty finding boyfriends comfortable with her weeks-long whitewater adventures. "In order to take emotional risks, you have to become vulnerable, open yourself up." But she acknowledges that letting one's guard down is difficult for someone who relies on herself--and herself alone--to land upright in her kayak. Davis, shaking his head, says he can relate all too well. "My relationships have gone terribly. I feel like I'm not good in a relationship, because I have to have control over things." At least at this stage in his life, the firefighter who rushes unflinchingly into burning buildings is not willing to risk too much emotionally.

The apparent contradictions within thrill-seekers is no surprise to John W. Payne of the Fuqua School of Business, who, with his colleagues at the Center for Decision Studies, has researched and studied the ways in which people make decisions that involve risk. "Very few people are risk-takers across all aspects of their lives," Payne says. "The same person who skydives will keep his money in a savings account. Often when we talk about people who do [seemingly risky] things, they don't talk about it as that much risk. It just looks risky to the uninformed."

In the line of fire: Davis, Durham firefighter and EMT

In the line of fire: Davis, Durham firefighter and EMT. Megan Morr

Similarly, thrill-seekers are biased toward one thrill over another and may confess fears that few would suspect. "I have never wanted to skydive," says Jan Hackett, who directs Duke's Outdoor Adventure program. He would rather cliff jump. Evans-Wall, perfectly at home in a torrent of water and rocks, finds riding on the back of a motorcycle "really scary." Former Apache helicopter pilot Shannon Huffman '93 can't imagine bungee jumping and doesn't like roller coasters. "Most people who don't know me really well would say I'm a risk-taker," she says. "Those who do know me really well would be less likely to say that." Her current job is with Microsoft, perhaps one of the most secure companies in the world for an employee.

Self-contradictions notwithstanding, some people are programmed to seek out thrills in some aspect of their lives. "It's a biochemically based aspect of their personality, the hand they were dealt," Hoyle says. "The dopamine system seems to be attuned to risk as a rewarding stimulus." In other words, for some people, the payoff from taking a physical risk is similar to what others would feel winning a lottery jackpot. Who wouldn't want to recreate that rush if they could, and often? And risk-taking may run in families: A Canadian study of 336 pairs of adult twins found that a love of roller coasters was shared between siblings more often than most other activities, especially intellectual interests, which showed little connection to genetics.

Huffman, for one, can point to an environmental and a genetic basis: She credits her own love of outdoor adventure to her father, who took her camping at a young age. "He encouraged me to take big risks and challenge myself," she says. Huffman also followed her dad's footsteps into the military, where for eight years she flew Apache helicopters for the U.S. Army in Bosnia and Korea. An avid triathlete and endurance runner who has also skydived, Huffman has climbed several difficult peaks, including Mt. McKinley (while just a nineteen-year-old undergraduate), Mt. Rainier, and Mt. Kilimanjaro. In most cases, what moves her is not the thrill of cheating death or even the rush of reaching a task's literal or proverbial summit, she says. Rather, paradoxically, her feats have had a calming effect on her, providing "the ability to feel close to God ... and be at peace."

Huffman draws more than ever on the spiritual aspect of adventuring since last summer, when her father and stepmother were killed by a predatory grizzly bear during a rafting trip in northern Alaska. "There's nothing good about it," says Huffman of the bear attack, which struck the couple in their tent as they slept, even though they had taken precautions. "But I don't wish that he didn't go on the trip, because he was living life to the fullest. He jumped into the deep end of the pool." She, too, planned to dive into that pool this summer by retracing the route her father and his wife were following before they were killed.

Testimony from sensation-seekers, no matter what their stripe, shows that they always find a way to satisfy their needs. That's why it is important, Hoyle says, for parents to steer young people toward positive risk-taking--as Huffman's father did. Merely forbidding negative risks without replacing them with a positive counterpart will only serve to make the negative exploration more desirable. "The more you put the clamps on, the more a high-sensation seeker is attracted to the activity." If a parent doesn't convey a powerful message, the child's peers will: Thrill-seekers tend to find each other--and invent risks to take together, Hoyle says.

So it's better that they find more structured activities, says Thompson, even if watching a child on a balance beam threatens to give a parent a stroke. "We drank and drove a lot more than today's kids do," he says, reflecting on his younger days in a small Midwestern town, where there was little positive activity to attract him and his thrill-seeking friends. "Kids today have access to more and different kinds of risks. I don't see the good old days as 'good old' at all. I like the new days, even if the occasional student gets in trouble skydiving or snowboarding."

Whether your sensibility is closer to Pee Wee Herman's or to Evel Knievil's, no matter what your palate for danger happens to be, there's always another, bigger thrill just over the horizon. "My goal in life is to sail around the world in a sailboat," says Burney. "I think that pretty much takes the cake."

"But first," he adds, "I've got to learn how to sail."

Larson '93 is a freelance writer and president of Stellar Media, a communications company that provides writing, editing, marketing, and video services.