How Austria’s taming the rush of death-defying adrenaline highs condition us to be more resilient.
In just one tenth of a second your brain goes into fight or flight mode when confronted with danger. Repeated exposure is the key to focusing during adrenaline spikes, a skill that fighter pilots train for.
Some experiences almost defy description. “Powder skiing is not fun,” wrote the pioneering mountaineer and deep ecologist Dolores Lachapelle. It’s more than that: “It’s life, fully lived – life lived in a blaze of reality.” Asking Dominic Haffner and Clemens Frankl for their first memory of skiing draws puzzled looks. “We were born on skis,” say the Austrian cofounders of Ünique Skis. “This is like asking us about the first memory of walking.”
For the two young makers of individualized, retro-styled wood and carbon skis, adrenaline and skiing are inseparable: “Going touring feels a lot like conquering a mountain,” says Frankl. After hiking up Mt. Yōtei in Japan, “seeing the crater after a five-hour tour and then skiing down felt like taming a volcano.”
Expert skiers welcome the stomach-in-knots sensation induced by hostile mountain slopes, where lacking the right gear and skills can be fatal. Last year, a 25-year-old Austrian ski tourer died after being buried in fresh snow on the Hintertux glacier. “Powder skiing is really what it’s all about for us,” says Haffner, “the feeling of mastering human shortcomings to reach places where nobody has ever ventured.”
For Lachapele, we touch our roots in these extreme conditions. “What we experience in powder is the original human self, which lies deeply inside each of us, still undamaged, in spite of what our present culture tries to do to us.”
The world of our earliest ancestor Australopithecus, around four million years ago, was hostile to a truly Hobbesian degree. Adrenaline rushes – the “fight or flight” hormone and neurotransmitter impulses that produce split-second lifesaving reactions – occurred every few seconds. The greatest predator was likely an Australopithecus from another band.
Four million years later, Homo Sapiens enjoys relatively peaceful coexistence in modern European -cities, but our ancestral adrenal glands, in combination with the hypothalamus and the amygdala – our “reptilian brain” – still control our lives.
“You could call the amygdala a ‘relevance detector’,” notes Nouchine Hadjikhani, a Harvard Medical School expert in how our brains react to fear. “In less than 100 milliseconds, just one–tenth of a second, sensory information reaches the amygdala, which signals your brain to be aware. All your systems become more receptive. You’re now ready to fight, freeze or flee.”
Or ride away at breakneck speed on a motorcycle. The chance of a life-altering or fatal injury on skis or a motorbike is shockingly high, yet each year we spend billions to risk our lives on both. A growing sector is now focused on sustainability over speed, notably the Austrian-produced Johammer J1 – a sculptured, sci-fi beauty of an electric motorbike straight out of Blade Runner. “A customer described riding the J1 as ‘dancing on the streets’,” grins its creator, Johann Hammerschmid, who welcomes electric motors as a reversion to the pollution-free era of the horse. “Driving mountain roads is a very special experience not just for enjoying nature and a sense of dynamism. There’s nothing to get on your nerves. No noise, no smell. Only ultimate, untroubled pleasure. It’s another kind of adrenaline.”
Too much of a good thing
The reality of modern life is less bucolic. The basic stimuli of the Australopithecine environment have been replaced by a greater variety of stresses, impacting more complex brains. Homo Sapiens registers not just physical and emotional challenges, but existential ones too. We wake with fears our ancestors could not properly record on a cave wall: global crises, stage fright, sexual performance anxiety, job insecurity, bureaucracy and ageing.
An overwhelming cocktail of problems can produce a third reaction: freezing – a complete lockdown of all decision-making functions. Simply stepping outside raises adrenaline level for some to a point where the life-saving ability becomes health-endangering. Fear becomes a disability, damaging us to the root of our DNA. One Duke University study reports “chronic stress may lead to a variety of human conditions, which range from merely cosmetic, like greying hair, to life-threatening disorders like malignancies.”
Evolution has produced the ability to develop coping mechanisms for adrenaline’s downsides. From apps like Calm, to yoga and meditation, or taking a few deep breaths, we signal our hypothalamus to select an alternative to fight, flight or freeze, such as acceptance, compromise or diplomacy. The study states that in the rapidly growing field of crisis management, a crisis mindset “requires the ability to think of the worst-case scenario, while simultaneously suggesting numerous solutions.” Talking things through is critical in a hostage negotiation, a major oil spill or defusing a bomb.
Conversely, something feels missing when our lives become too safe. Kathryn Bigelow, the Oscar-winning film director, thrives in the high-pressure, billion dollar world of Hollywood film sets. “I don’t want to be made comfortable. I like stuff that gets your adrenaline going.” Even Australopithecus must have grunted lyrical over a decently savage, inter-band conflict when faced with a becalmed savannah, much as some welcome warfare after a protracted diplomatic stalemate. Manufactured excitement replaces the flatline of our existence: risky sports, first person shooter games, drug-fueled partying, Game of Thrones binges, passive-aggressive fights with lovers, rollercoasters, demonstrations, pop concerts. For Cole Porter, the heart-pounding kick of new love was the only way to throw off “the old ennui.”
In short, humans dream of peaceful coexistence, yet need adrenaline highs to feel truly alive. Why do we consciously seek ways to stress ourselves out?
Going to Extremes
Competitive athletes and pilots share an ability to focus in moments that would turn most of us to jelly. How they cope with the negative effects of adrenaline spikes is through repeated exposure, and a high degree of “situation awareness” – a total understanding of what is going on around them. “I had never been so challenged in an airplane that I doubted the outcome,” said Chesley B. Sullenberger III, the “Miracle on the Hudson” pilot who safely landed a plane carrying 155 passengers on the river along Manhattan’s West Side after birds knocked out both engines. Sullenberger, reflecting on “the most successful ditching in aviation history,” said humbly, ”it’s amazing what you can learn to get used to.”
Recalling prior stressful situations helps the brain to cope with fresh challenges. “We often find that unpleasant memories are the ones that stay with us more than pleasant [ones],” says Professor Hans Reul, a Bristol University neuroscientist who studied students coping with the extreme adrenaline flows associated with last-minute exam preparation.
“It is clearly important from a biological point of view to remember something that hurt or threatened us.” Stress reprograms genes in the hippocampus, enhancing memory and learning through increasing cell communication networks. Surviving a “black run” (the toughest at any ski resort) or a rain-slicked road requires such high degrees of focus and instinctual memory, and a willingness to put oneself in danger. “I think to be courageous, you have to be afraid,” says the Oscar-winning actor Julianne Moore. “For me, it feels very courageous when I go skiing, because I’m very, very afraid. It’s dangerous!”
Avalanches are a known hazard in Austria, the world’s third biggest ski market. The Alpine Republic is a skier’s paradise, with easy access to eight glaciers – dense masses of ice up to 3440m above sea level, constantly moving and highly sensitive to climate change. So besides the commecial slopes, the danger of off-piste skiing has it’s own draw. “The search for adrenaline has evolved into variations of skiing involving higher risks,” notes Clemens Frankl. In “extreme skiing” on very long and steep slopes, one failed turn can lead to serious injury or death. Ski Base daredevils deploy a parachute at the last second before a run closes out on a high cliff. Speed Riders ski with an open canopy along steep faces.
“With the help of the right skis, anyone can decide how far they are willing to go on their pursuit of adrenaline,” says Frankl. “Lower risk usually means lower reward, but that decision is up to every individual, especially as the risks can get really high.”
Even experts misjudge conditions. In 1998, the Austrian all-time great skier Hermann Maier flew off a super-G run at around 70km/h. Maier crashed into several barriers, but somehow walked away relatively unscathed. “Ski racing, especially downhill, is a dangerous activity and there are many accidents,” confirmed Maier. “It would be really too bad to lose everything because of a crash.” Which he nearly did in 2001, not on the slopes but with a near-fatal motorcycle accident. Narrowly avoiding the amputation of his right leg, Maier skied another eight years, finally retiring following several more super-G wins.
Although Austrian innovators are at the forefront of producing tools demanded by rush devotees – Kreisel Electric, for example, are making a high performance electric engine that they say will outperform Tesla in speed and battery life – they are also extremely mindful of the environment that has given them so much. “I have a split relationship with the competition,” says Hammerschmid. “Faster, higher, further – I really hope this is not the future. We live in a time of profound upheaval in many areas: energy, mobility, environment, finance, work. Everything is related. This is a decisive factor in starting something radically new.”
Scientists confirm that our environment nurtures our natural abilities. Australians challenge crushing ocean waves. Kenyan runners endure endless open bushland. Austrians master the mountains – and the wind.
Despite a lack of coastline, the mixed topography of Austria – its high Alps and large flat lakes – has produced not just skiers but generations of yachtsmen and eight Olympic sailing medals. The sailor Hubert Raudaschl has competed in more Olympics than nearly any athlete. The 315 km2 wide Neusiedlersee is the largest endorheic basin in Central Europe. Its shallowness (only 1.8 meters maximum depth) and changing winds averaging up to 17 km/h, provide a Mecca for both competitive sailors and extreme windsurfers.
Motorcycling is also a serious pastime. Red Bull revived the Formula One Austrian Motorcycle Grand Prix, dormant from 2003-2016, although not a single Austrian won the championship since the first flag dropped in 1964. Amateur riders flock to the 48km long Grossglockner high alpine pass, with its 36 twisting turns constructed in 1935. Two Britons plunged off in their high-performance car in 2015. The danger, of course, is part of the attraction.
In Austria’s other favorite motorsport, the highly successful Formula 1 driver Niki Lauda, immortalized in the 2013 film Rush, survived a terrifying crash at Germany’s Nürburgring, barely escaping the flames and toxic fumes of his exploding Ferrari. Disfigured for life, six weeks later he raced at the Italian Grand Prix. “A lot of people criticize Formula 1 as an unnecessary risk. But what would life be like if we only did what was necessary?” asked Lauda.
It is precisely this thinking that has had every generation of Austrians taking on the Grossglockner – the country’s tallest mountain at 3,798 meters above sea level. In the 1930s, G.E.R. Gedye, The Telegraph’s interwar Central European correspondent, was convinced the whole country was risk mad: “To reach the lovely snow-capped peaks… is a very stiff climb, only for the experienced in the company of guides. And every Austrian province is full of these. They are never at a loss for a fresh method of challenging death.” After his own heart-stopping climb in 2000, even the highly experienced Alpinist Peter Hardy concluded, “I felt exhilarated at what I had achieved, but angry at my naivety in accepting the ‘walk’.”
Ünique test their skis in both summer and winter on the Kitzsteinhorn & Hintertux glaciers from their base in Kitzbühel. “Kitzbühel is to ski racing what Monaco is to the Formula 1, or Wimbledon is to tennis,” notes Haffner. “Taking people down the Kitzbühel race track, the Streif, still causes a rush.”
The ultimate rush came in 2012, when in nine minutes, the noted Austrian stuntman Felix Baumgartner jumped from a helium balloon in the stratosphere, and broke the speed of sound, freefalling back to earth at 1,357.64 km/h. At one point Baumgartner almost spun out of control. For adrenaline addicts, near death experiences are no deterrent.
There are many benefits to adrenaline-induced stress, whether for a high volume stock trader, or a mother negotiating toddlers through a metro system. Stress in small doses makes your mind sharper, heightens your resilience to cope with fearful challenges, and helps you assess the right moves in rapidly changing, complex situations, boosting overall confidence. As the meme says, we increase our chances of achieving our goals when we leave our comfort zone. No risk, no stress, no gain.
The path to innovation is also littered with risk. “Many disappointments accompany you along the way,” says Hammerschmid about the often-tortuous path to producing the J1. “Mostly it’s the better ones that aren’t discovered without blows. Learning, getting up and experiencing more is never worthless.”
Most of us prefer to play it safe. Homo Sapiens has a radically different expectation of safety than Australopithecus. Even in the worst war zones, where adrenaline rages in both combatant and civilian, there is hope for the protections modern technology, laws and medicine provide. They help us to stay whole long enough to enjoy the world’s wonders. To increase our chances, we apply a million health and safety laws, like a Rousseau strait-jacket: Don’t drive too fast. Wear a helmet. Stay calm. Don’t be a burden on the health system.
When the deluge of constraints themselves induce stress, we need a chance to release pressure. An hour of probation, even at the risk of one’s life.
“Happiness is the enemy,” says Lauda. “It weakens you, because then you have something to lose.” Those seeking the ephemeral highs induced by adrenaline rushes, from shaving the hairpin bends of the Grossglockner on two wheels, to hurtling down Kitzbühel on narrow strips of wood, are seeking not simply to stretch the boundaries of what is humanly possible, but the extreme life-validating high of conquering death, the pure freedom that total empowerment over one’s own body and mind brings – if just for one precious moment.