Considering Risk, Reward, and Overhype

It has been said before that my decision to enter into the Alaskan wilderness without a weapon to fend off aggressive Polar Bears, hungry Wolves, or protective Moose was foolish and risky. “There is danger around every corner”, I was told, “a danger that can kill and eat you.” If I had heeded those warnings then I would not have witnessed calm arctic evenings spent with a book, a pen, and wide open expanses. I would not have leaned my bike against the sign marking the Arctic Circle, elated in my progress south. And, I would not have come face to face with a docile Lynx. If I had heeded those hyped up warnings, which came from within Alaska as much as not, I would not have started my bike trip in Alaska. Was my adventure into the Arctic overly risky? In retrospect, I hardly think so. I was 1,500 miles south and well out of Alaska before I saw my first bear of the trip. Every touring cyclist traveling through Alaska and Canada has received the same advice and almost all have brushed aside the warnings and fallen in love with those wild and dangerous landscapes.

What is the appropriate level of risk? Or, because risk is subjective, what is the perfect ratio between risk and reward? Some risks are excessive but are lessened by an individual’s preparation or experience, while other risks are minor but are enhanced by an individual’s fear. For instance, a first time river runner will look at an inflated raft next to a rushing river and think that the risk is insurmountable, the danger too great. If that person falls out of the raft they are not only battling just the river but also their fear of the water and the situation. They are in the belly of the beast, so to speak. All instructions will slip out of their minds and panic will set in. An experienced outdoor instructor, guide, or rescuer will tell you that a person’s fear is the greatest inhibitor to their rational thinking. As a result, you can take a relatively un-risky situation (a river that is repeatedly run at similar water levels) and turn it into a high risk situation as soon as fear paralyzes the body. So, is their something inherently riskier about a backcountry trip in the lands of wild animals, like Yellowstone, Denali, or the Arctic, if you do so without the protection of a gun? Or is the greater risk the preparedness of the individual embarking on the trip?

Risk can also be analyzed by the frequency of accidents; bear attacks, blizzards and bullets. In adventure travel I believe there are three distinct circumstances or settings involving risk, all of which are interconnected. The first involves wildlife encounters, the second, mother nature, and the third, people. Being face to face with a bear and her cubs is more risk than many of us will every face, yet encounters with bears rarely lead to an attack. In facing risk, there are scores of people who are continually pushing the limits of human endurance in the face of mother nature. True arctic travel, when the temps are never above zero and the sun never shines, is always one mistake away from disaster. Also, attempting to climb Mt. Everest or other high altitude peaks where the risk is not about wildlife encounters but about the forces of nature. Then there are the risks associated with people; traveling in war zones, late night trips through shady neighborhoods, or putting yourself in a drug cartel’s backyard.

In my opinion, risk is always greater when it involves mother nature. The experienced mountaineer is always at her mercy. Understanding the risk and adequately preparing for the challenge can only get one so far. So, perhaps the greater of my risks was venturing into the arctic with a goose-down sleeping bag rated to 32 degrees and ineffective if wet. The probability of a nasty, and bitterly cold summer storm was probably greater than the likelihood of me stumbling upon a hungry Polar Bear or a Grizzly with her cubs. Weighing all the options, and their risks, I decided to carry goose-down equipment into the great arctic wilderness.

So, what is the reward from exposing yourself to risk? Often-times it is selfish; an invigorating rush of endorphins that makes you feel alive, alert and awake. Other times it is in service of science or national pride, or simply to expose people to the experience and possibilities that are out there. Adventure travel has always straddled the line between the two; think Magellan or Columbus, Amundsen and Scott, Hillary and Mallory. Now that exploration has discovered most of the nooks and crannies of the world, the nation-backed adventures no longer occur (unless we look to the sea and the sky). As a result, people are dreaming up their own brand of unique exploration, and looking to find private funding and support for their risky adventures. Media has filled the role of the nation. The possibilities are endless, but the new media powers are constantly on the lookout for ground-breaking adventures. Consequently, the adventure seekers interested in an international audience are being forced to pursue more dangerous and riskier situations to secure funding. Has this separated the proper notion of reward from the risk-reward ratio? If it no longer is a selfish pursuit to push the boundaries and make discoveries, to learn more about yourself and your potential, then what is the reward?

Nathan touched upon the risk and reward of adventure travel in an earlier post of his, which can be read here. It discusses two friends we met just south of Jasper who were in the process of planning and promoting a big adventure. Both were young, skinny and youthful. They were dreaming up an adventure with rigid guidelines and lofty ambitions. If all went according to plan, this duo would depart in two years time and expose themselves not just to the wild Canadian wilderness, but also to the skeptical television public. Walking in a straight line from Edmonton to Vancouver they plan to live strictly off the land and teach the world of the potential of minimal, sustainable living. The caveat, and in my view the reason they have set themselves up to fail, is that they will not eat any meat or wild game, including fish. Subsisting on pine needle broth and fungi as they haul their wiry frames and 80lb packs over the Rockies has got to be impossible, not to mention risky. If they envision the reward to be greater than themselves, indicated by their dreamed of television coverage, then what message are they actually sending? If the audience’s new understanding of a self-sustaining life is the reward for their risk, then why tarnish the reward with a message that is inaccurate? It would appear, to Nathan and I at least, that their decision to turn their backs on the traditions and practices of the Natives, who have always subsisted on the areas plentitude of fish and game, is an effort to make the adventure greater than the message. It could very well be possible for these two young men to make the journey, and therefor prove Nathan and I wrong, but how would their endeavor represent a sustainable lifestyle? If there is anything to learn about wilderness life, then it should be learned from the people that have already come before you and adapted to that very environment. None of these cultures live solely on foraging, but instead subsist on a balance of meat, fish, and produce. A certain level of preparation can overcome many obstacles, but what if it misses the target of their perceived reward? Did their desire to be on tv supersede their crafting of the message, and therefore manipulate the scope of risk and danger necessary to make it onto reality television?

When considering risk and reward in my own life, I must consider that in six weeks time I will find myself facing the border to Mexico. The risk associated with travel in Mexico, or all of Latin America, is well documented, but is it overhyped? I recently read the account of a couple who biked/hitch-hiked from Alaska to Mexico and decided the risk was too great. Their trip to the bottom of South America ended, for now, in San Diego. This isn’t the first time I know of touring cyclists abandoning plans to go south as soon as the looming Mexican border comes into view. How much of their decision is based on accurate risk, how much hype, and how much fear? Having survived travel in bear country, I look at the situation with a new perspective. I also know that for every person that stops their trip at the border, there are many more that continue on, have a safe trip, and fall in love with the people and cultures south of the border. While I am fearful of dangerous encounters in Latin America, I am equally aware that the probability is actually quite small.

What concerns me more is how to convey that my reward will be greater than the risks I will likely encounter. The media translation of the danger will always overshadow the actual risk; they are in the business of hype and fear. However, when it involves killer sharks, I listen. I have an inappropriate level of fear regarding the fact that all sharks want to eat me. But, when it expresses the view that the world is full of murderers and drug gangs, I tend to take it with a grain of salt. So, what is my reward for exposing myself to this risk? First, it is a physical challenge that will result in new found confidence in myself and my abilities. Second, the diverse cultures and landscapes of the Americas will unwind before me, and as a result, it will unmask the hype that surrounds most of the regions. Third, this message will be spread in my photos and words to influence the world-view of my audience. Is my view of the risk subdued in order to make the reward worth it? Well, if I could accurately calculate all of the influencing factors, then it wouldn’t be an adventure any more, would it? The adventure comes as much from the physical struggle of the trip as from the knowledge that you are acting contrary to popular opinion and hype; that you are out at the edge testing the boundaries.

4 Responses to “Considering Risk, Reward, and Overhype”

  1. Joyce McWhirter says:

    Hi Justin,
    You are an amazing young man. More power to you. I have friends in Carmel that would love to have you stay with them. If you are heading down Highway 1 then, it will be perfect. We all went to Carmel Pres. church & they lead our bible study. They would love to have you. When do you think you might be there. They are very involved in the live nativity scene for the church right in the little town of Carmel. You would love them & all that they do.
    Hugs& Love,

  2. dan says:

    You’ll be fine if you get through Tijuana.

    But seriously, a couple of years ago Brian from Telluride motorbiked all around Mexico and down to Panama without any problems. Except for various equipment malfunctions and I’m sure you’ll see, probably already have, plenty of those.

    Enjoy the Pacific Coast!

  3. Patrick says:

    Yo dude, love the updates and introspective thought so far. I am glad you are putting so much thought into the day to day tasks at hand rather than stressing about big picture objectives that, when it boils down to it, you really have no control over anyways. I hope you are getting to spend some quality time with Max, Tucker, Sara and Quincy. Enjoy the good seafood and ocean views. Bozeman is not going anywhere. Can’t wait to read more.

  4. Caitlyn says:

    Last I checked you were more than just a little afraid of killer sharks. Wasn’t it that fear did not allow you to venture onto the frozen surface of Hyalite? Hahahaha. Only kidding. I bet I don’t have that completley correct. But it makes a good joke.

    I, for one, am glad to know that someone we all care so much about is being thoughtful about his safety and well-being in his reflections on risk. Adventure on and continue to take care!

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