February 25, 2018 Features & Images » Feature Story

Just for the thrill of it 

What drives extreme athletes to keep pushing their limits in the face of repeated danger?

click to flip through (9) PHOTO BY JIA CONDON - Paul McSorley admits it's the thrill of a first ascent that keeps him coming back to some of the most treacherous winter terrain imaginable — including the towering Squamish Chief, making him the first person to ice climb the entirety of the 700-metre granite dome.
  • Photo by Jia Condon
  • Paul McSorley admits it's the thrill of a first ascent that keeps him coming back to some of the most treacherous winter terrain imaginable — including the towering Squamish Chief, making him the first person to ice climb the entirety of the 700-metre granite dome.

There's a heart-pounding moment when Paul McSorley swings his axe into the last bit of cascading ice a few feet below the top of the Stawamus Chief. His breath hangs in the -4 Celsius air as he kicks his crampons into steps. A thick layer of snow drapes down from the top and McSorley stamps his axe through the crumbling powder, moving through the last few feet with ease, a lightness and energy to his step that matches his brimming excitement. In a few seconds he is at the top, and as he secures his anchor to begin belaying up his fellow climbers, he takes a moment to revel in what he has done: he's just made history as the first person to ice climb the entirety of the towering, 700-metre Chief.

"It was the highlight of the season and most of the ice climbers in town — all 12 of them — were watching this piece of ice," McSorley writes in an email.

It's not that no one has thought of ice climbing the Chief before; it's that there's never been enough ice to actually do it. The ice that does occasionally form is thin and brittle, at best, or buried under a foot of coastal snow. There have been many a story of sections of Squamish waterfalls crashing down either on climbers or while climbers are on them — which makes McSorley's first ice-climbing ascent up the Chief not only noteworthy, but downright ballsy.

It's the ballsy part that bumps ice climbing into the exclusive extreme sports club — a club marked by high risk and typically thought to involve only the reckless, most extreme thrill seekers addicted to the rush of adrenaline that comes with pushing the human body to its absolute edges.

Each of these sports places the athlete at a level of risk where the cost of failure is anything from paralysis to the ultimate price: death.

And even though they know the cost, for some participants, pushing their limits seemingly beyond reason is something they can't, or won't give up any time soon. While many of us fantasize about the kinds of jaw-dropping feats that wouldn't be out of place at the X Games or in a backcounty ski flick, McSorley, along with a handful of other athletes in the Sea to Sky Corridor, actually do them.

And they do it almost every day.

But why?

Dr. Stephen Milstein, a Whistler psychologist, has seen his fair share of thrill seekers come through his door. He argues that extreme-sport participants like McSorley aren't in fact thrill seekers, but professionals who have made careful study of their sport and progressed to an elite level.

Thrill seekers, according to Milstein, are the ones who jump cliffs or recklessly huck jumps in the bike park.

"I find, at least in my practice, many of the people who are thrill seekers also are dissociative," he says, adding that disassociation is a state where the person experiences numbness, either physically or emotionally. "I think a lot of the people who are thrill seekers are just trying to feel. They're flat a lot of the time and they need that extra charge to get their endorphins."

On that particular January day last winter, McSorley and his partners climbed over 500 m, covering an unimaginable set of waterfalls. As it goes with all first ascents, the climbers didn't have the luxury of being able to follow an established route; they were the ones forging the path. They had known that the cascades near the top would be relatively solid, but it was unknown whether the lower parts were secure enough to hold.

It's that unknown, that sense of danger in a trying mountain environment, that makes McSorley tick. Top that with the reward of being the first up a route, and the temptation is almost irresistible.

"The draw of the first ascent or new route in ice is that it could only form once, ever," says McSorley. "There's something special about having the stars align and nabbing the first ascent of a new line."

When McSorley and his climbing partners reached the top of the Chief, they were undeniably excited. "I felt elated when I was topping out," McSorley recalls. "We were hooting and hollering with stoke."

McSorley doesn't view what he's doing as extreme, and that's perhaps a key insight into understanding why he and his three friends were the only ones ice-climbing the Chief that day last January.

"Ice is a bit ridiculous when you look at it from afar, but with good technique and a humble approach, it doesn't have to be extreme," he notes. "There are lots of variables in ice climbing but with a slow apprenticeship it can be a sustainable pursuit."

McSorley's no stranger to the world of extreme sports. With almost 20 years of ice climbing under his belt, he's also an accomplished alpinist with first ascents in Patagonia and the Rockies. Six years ago he started paragliding. It is the quickest way to get down the mountain, after all.

And while it may seem like McSorley's penchant for risk-taking borders on recklessness, he sees it in a different light.

"I accept that risk is a big part of life and I try to make calculated decisions based on my often hard-won experience," he explains. "Without risk, life would be pretty lame. I certainly put myself in risky situations, but not without careful consideration."

In all his time on the rock and in the air, McSorley's never been critically injured. In fact, he's never taken a leader fall on ice — something he attributes to his deliberate risk management.

Others, though, haven't always been so lucky.

The Injury

Twenty-one-year old Edward Muggridge has been kayaking since he was a young teen and has accomplished more in eight years than many whitewater kayakers do in an entire lifetime. Two years ago, he ran Chile's 24-m Newen Falls, and this past summer he did his first descent of the Grand Canyon of the Stikine, a 72-kilometre stretch of the Stikine River in northern B.C. A frothy, churning waterway that is often described as the Everest of Rivers, it hadn't been conquered for 30 years until Muggridge's friend Ben Marr ran the Class V Plus rapid called Site Zed in 2012, becoming the first to complete the entire river.

When Muggridge reflects on that first kayaking camp as a 13 year old, he remembers hating paddling. But his father kept sending him back, and when he was 16, "something clicked" and he became "obsessed" with the sport. Eventually, he would give up practically everything else in his life — including university and his home — so he could paddle every day.

Fast-forward a handful of years and now Muggridge has his eyes on breaking the 100-foot (30.5-metre) marker this summer at Ram Falls in Alberta and Alexandra Falls in the Northwest Territories.

When asked why he runs waterfalls, Muggridge pauses.

"I'm not really sure what drives me," he muses. "It's just something that I really love to do so much. There's the adrenaline rush you get from it and the reward of styling your line and being at the bottom and being super stoked. It's not something I can compare to anything else in my life."

While putting his inner motivation into words doesn't come easy, Muggridge does understand the consequences of the risks he takes firsthand. In 2015, at 19 years old, he ran the 18-m Tomata 2 waterfall in Mexico and landed flat in green water, instantly compressing his spine and L1 vertebrae.

"I messed up the line pretty badly," he says, adding that he had been pushing it hard on that trip, running 15-m waterfalls for five straight days before tackling Tomata 2. His rescue involved trying to figure out how to extract himself out of a 37-m canyon.

Three months of intensive rehabilitation later, Muggridge was back on the water. One year later, he ran Newan Falls.

And although he has fully recovered from his injury, it has left him acutely aware of his mortality. He manages his risk by working hard to understand every aspect of the waterfall or rapid he's taking on, like putting together the pieces of a puzzle. Now he won't drop into anything unless he is fully prepared to handle the consequences of his actions — though he admits parking the paddle isn't an option.

"I'm definitely not going to get scared off by one little injury," he resolves.

For some athletes, though, fear can be almost as paralyzing as a back injury.

The Fear

Anna Segal competed in the 2014 Sochi Olympics slopestyle event at 28 years old, but her journey to the podium began long before that, at the tender age of four years old, when she first learned how to ski. She didn't initially come to the sport as a fan, but by age seven, she'd realized skiing could grant her something she hadn't found anywhere else: freedom.

"I wasn't allowed to walk the streets or to go to the park by myself — there were all these things I had to have a parent with me for — but when I was skiing, I was allowed to be set free with my friends," she remembers.

The freedom was addicting, to say the least, and Segal continued pursuing skiing, eventually moving into racing — though she admits having a tough time kicking her nerves. They got so bad that it wasn't uncommon for her to vomit at the start gate moments before a race.

But skiing was something Segal loved, so although she didn't always land at the top of the podium, she trudged on and made her way into the freestyle skiing scene, where she soon began to shine.

Then, right before the Sochi Olympics, Segal went to a sports psychologist, who diagnosed her with anxiety.

It was that diagnosis that led Segal down a path of self-exploration. Together with her sister, big-mountain skier Nat, the Segals opened up about how fear has affected their skiing and decision making in the 2018 documentary Finding The Line, which had its world premiere in Whistler last month. Although the film saw Segal shred some of the biggest and wildest terrain in Alaska — roping up on knife edges so thin that one wrong step would have sent her sliding hundreds of feet down jagged rocks and cliffs — she worried that what she was doing wasn't extreme enough.

"I was always comparing myself to what guys were doing in their ski films," she says.

"You watch most ski movies and people are doing double corks and triple corks off pillows in natural terrain, and one of my big worries was that our skiing wasn't up to scratch, that it wasn't extreme enough."

Segal's fear of not measuring up has been something she's carried with her for a while, and it has caused her to push harder than she perhaps should have, leading to a litany of injuries. It also meant she spent a lot of time on the sidelines, which ultimately held her back.

"I had this insatiable appetite to continually progress," she says, "and fear often got in the way of that."

Segal now has a toolkit of strategies to help her manage her anxiety, and she's back out skiing big-mountain terrain every day she can.

"When you are afraid of something and you push past it, it's the best feeling in the world," she says. "You feel like you have control over your mind and body."

Like McSorley and Muggridge, Segal doesn't just charge out onto a mountain and shred it impulsively. The Aussie manages her risk by taking all variables into account before she chooses what line to ski — wind, snowfall, avalanche conditions — and then checking in to see where her headspace is at.

"I do love that feeling of being a little bit scared and pushing past it," she notes. "You can get an endorphin rush from going for a run, but it's just not the same thing."

It's that chemical surge that so many athletes can't seem to live without, although Milstein takes a different view on the addictive qualities of extreme sports.

"Addiction is something that is like, 'I can't stop and can't do without,'" he explains. "I don't know that (the endorphin rush) becomes addictive. Can some people get addicted to it? Sure. Does everybody? No."

The Addiction

Forty-nine-year-old Brett Tippie is something of a legend in certain circles; known as the Godfather of mountain bike freeriding and the unofficial Director of Good Times, among a long list of other enviable titles. There isn't a rideable cliff between North Van and Whistler that he hasn't hucked, or a trail that he doesn't know. A professional snowboarder-cum-mountain biker, Tippie has been pushing the limits on his bike and board for as long as he can remember.

His reasons for going hard are multi-faceted, ranging from wanting to impress a girl to simply riding with friends. At the heart of it, though, is his unbridled passion for "just living."

"'Everyone dies, not everyone truly lives' is a quote that I love," he says.

From sponsorships to movies to competitions, Tippie has experienced the full range of what being a professional extreme athlete can offer, and he recognizes boundary pushing as a natural fix for the adrenaline junkie.

"When you're riding at a very high level, it becomes normal, and then you need a bigger risk to get a little bit of a thrill because you become adept at the level you're at. You're always upping the ante with yourself and with your friends. Before you realize it, you're going harder than you ever thought you would," he explains.

Tippie manages risk in a unique way. To many, his infectious enthusiasm — which has garnered him a second career as a highly sought-after colour commentator at snowboarding and mountain biking events — may appear unwavering, but that isn't always the case. He's had moments when doubt creeps in. Like on a photo shoot and, psyched to drop in, a raincloud appears suddenly, forcing a last-minute location change. When Tippie finally gets the OK a half hour later, enough time has passed for him to realize the danger he's about to face.

"All of a sudden it's go time, the sun's out and you're like, 'This is dangerous. This is gnarly. I could get hurt here.' I've had that moment where I lost the spice, the mojo, the stoke on doing it and I've thought, 'Oh god, I've brought this photographer here and the film crew and they're waiting.' There's a lot of pressure when you are pro or sponsored to do it when you don't actually feel it sometimes."

When that fear seeps in, Tippie employs a little trick to mentally override his anxiety. "I basically just force myself to do it, but in a relaxed state. And if I don't feel like doing it, I'll trick myself into doing it by saying, 'If you were going to do it, this is how you'd do it.'"

For Tippie, there's no question that he loves the rush.

"Hi, my name's Brett Tippie and I'm an adrenaline addict," he says. "It's the best drug in the world — and I've tried them all."

Tippie isn't joking, either; he spent several years on the dark side, battling addictions to drugs and alcohol.

"It took me a lot longer than I thought to get out of it, and when you are a good, healthy B.C. boy and adrenaline-junkie, middle-aged action hero, you almost get a false sense of bravado and arrogance that you're invincible. You tell yourself that all the time and that's how you do things."

Tippie's been sober for almost 10 years.

"I realize I have an addictive personality and I just said I'm going to be addicted to something, so I chose to be addicted to something good, like snowboarding and mountain biking and looking after my kids and being a good father."

The Quitting

Tim Emmett got into wingsuit BASE jumping as a fast way to descend from a climb. A professional ice and rock climber for 28 years, Emmett has put up first ascents in Cuba, Mongolia, Wales, and the Himalayas. And while many of us appreciate the efficiency of a quick descent, not many are prepared to leap into the atmosphere from several hundred metres up. Of all the extreme sports, BASE jumping and wingsuit flying are considered the deadliest, with an average of 20 jumpers dying each year.

But the rush you get is like no other.

"The first time you fly, it feels incredible," relays Emmett. "When you wingsuit, it's like skydiving with an engine because you can control the direction you want to go. You can either fly quite flat and slow, or you can go steeper and faster."

The true appeal of the sport goes back to mankind's profound obsession with flight. Historians count dozens of (possibly apocryphal) accounts from ancient history of individuals attempting to take flight by mimicking the mechanics of birds, even donning makeshift wings — often to disastrous results. In a way, Emmett and his fellow wingsuiters are an extension of that centuries-long desire; the closest he ever got to experiencing the sensation of pure flight was when he began to do what's called perimeter flying, soaring next to jagged cliffs on the sides of mountains. Perimeter flying also allows for a greater sensation of speed, much like being in a car and looking out the side windows as objects whiz by.

But along with the thrill, also came tragedy. Emmett has lost several loved ones to BASE jumping, including close friend Sean Leary, who died in a 2014 accident. Other major figures of the sport, such as renowned climbers and BASE jumpers Dean Potter and Graham Hunt, have also died in recent years.

The deaths clearly took a tool on him, so, after BASE jumping for a decade, Emmett quit.

"It was taking out too many of my amigos," he says. "I thought I should quit before it quit me."

The decision wasn't one that came easy.

"I genuinely thought that for the whole duration of my career in BASE jumping that it wasn't going to kill me," Emmett says. "There was one point when it changed. That's when it wasn't fun anymore. That's when I thought, 'Hang on a second, actually, if I keep doing this, it's really selfish. I couldn't justify it to my wife and my family. Because it was for my own personal gain, I didn't think it was fair on them."

But Emmett loves taking risks. Without the rush of BASE jumping, he has fallen back on his first passion: climbing. In the time since he quit jumping, he has set all of the personal bests of his career.

And yet, these days, he still feels a void that only flying could fill.

"I definitely miss wingsuit BASE jumping," says Emmett.

On a recent trip to Thailand, he felt the pang of regret when he returned to the cliff where he met his wife.

"Just looking up at the cliff I jumped off, I was thinking, 'Oh man, I really want to go back and jump it,'" he admits.

In fact, it's the first thing he thinks about when he sees a steep cliff — which, of course, happens quite often now that he's rededicated himself to climbing.

"Just being in the mountain environment, whenever I see a steep cliff that's definitely jumpable I immediately think (about how much I miss it). It's the first thing that comes to my mind."

But while Emmett misses wing suit flying, he's done what Milstein would call a "cost-risk analysis," weighing the inherent hazards of his former passion.

"We all have choices, don't we?" he says.

And for Emmett, that choice — like McSorley, Muggridge, Segal, and Tippie — is to live another day. Because there's no thrill in pushing your boundaries if you're no longer around to do it.

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