adrenaline addiction

🕔Aug 04, 2005

An electrical storm: this is what’s going on in the cerebellum and motor cortex of Wayne Goss’s brain. His neural networks are completely absorbed in processing the stimulation offered by steep, twisting trails and 25- to 30-foot drops, covered at speeds of up to 70 km per hour on his mountain bike.

When you scare yourself, you learn something new
- Wayne Goss

A few hours later, the weather has calmed in this part of Wayne’s brain. His pre-frontal cortex, including the anterior cingulated where negative thoughts are born—and which would have only been a hindrance during this most recent bike escapade—has been unleashed to do what it does best: plan, reason, and consider risks. That’s because he’s been asked by Northword, along with four other sports risk-takers, to consider why his brain thrives on adrenaline—and how it relates adrenaline-promoting experiences to day-to-day life.

Are adrenaline-seekers like himself genetically wired with adrenaline-seeking impulses, or have they learned it? As researchers continue to weigh the evidence, Wayne refers to his own experience. “I think it’s mostly acquired.”

Wayne should know. He describes himself as “quite a chicken” in his younger years, but somehow was convinced by friends to do progressively crazier things on bikes. Today, this 20-year-old from Smithers is a sponsored mountain bike racer who is counted among the world’s 25 most extreme freestyle riders.

“When you scare yourself, you learn something new,” he says. “Every time you do something scary, you’re always progressing.”

You can’t have negative thoughts when you’re riding… That’s when you crash.
- Wayne Goss

Wayne’s own evolution as a biker offers a powerful lesson for day-to-day life: a healthy dose of fear is frequently a precursor to great learning. And to perform well at extreme sports, that learning must include the ability to decisively rein in negativity.

“You can’t have negative thoughts when you’re riding,” he says. “That’s when you crash.”

Gary Maltin, a 42-year-old from Terrace who approaches Nirvana through skydiving, hang-gliding, rock-climbing and speed-skiing, agrees. To him, the real buzz in adrenaline-producing sports is actually the “absence of any thought.”
“Your mind is absolutely clear of all clutter. You’re reacting, because your body knows how to do it,” he explains. “Yes, it’s adrenaline … but that clarity that you feel when you’re on the edge, so focused on the job at hand because if you don’t, you could fall and die, is also kinda Zen.”

Gary, who insists he is a “bit of a hacker” at these sports, believes his ability to invoke this intensity of focus is useful in his work life. “I can deal with a lot of things on the go in the office, juggle a lot of things,” he observes. “Maybe it’s given me some mental training, to think reactively.”

He maintains you don’t have to be a super athlete, or look death square in the eye, to get a positive adrenaline rush. These days, Gary gets it from a variety of sources, including music performance. “Any sport will give you adrenaline, especially if you give it all you can.”

Adrenaline-producing sports are described in near-mystical terms by Michele Johnson. Gary calls this 37-year-old human and physical geographer from Smithers the “craziest female” he knows. A seasoned backcountry skier and snowboarder and former provincial-level ski racer, Michele craves speed and challenge. She’s known to hike up a mountain for two days in winter just for the 1.5-hour snowboard ride down, and has even found herself unexpectedly thrilled when—on more than one occasion—she’s had to out-ski an avalanche.

For Michele, adrenaline-charged experiences offer the “back door to bliss.”

“You kind of come out of your body, although you’re still aware of being in your body,” she relates. “Everything slows down… time seems to assume a jelly-like consistency.”

You kind of come out of your body, although you’re still aware of being in your body… Everything slows down… time seems to assume a jelly-like consistency.
- Michele

Michele has recently thrust herself into whitewater kayaking—the perfect complement to her winter adrenaline supply. She finds herself upping the adrenaline quotient by attempting expert-level runs as a rank beginner—including some raging sections of the Bulkley River during her first year.

Michele also looks for other, less death-defying ways to experience this rush. She really likes the work of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a psychologist who’s written several books on “flow”: an experience of intense focus not unlike that produced by absorbing adrenaline sports. He maintains it is essential to human happiness.

“You could get it from anything, even knitting,” explains Michele. “But the activity has to be complex enough to have you fully engaged and concentrating, and be just challenging enough to be difficult but within your range of comfort.”

Corrie Gellner, a 26-year-old snowboarder and mountain biker from Prince George who manages a gym, instinctively understands the experience of “flow.” She experiences it when she’s performing at the peak of her ability.

“It’s that point, that ultimate place, and when you’re there, nothing else matters,” she says. “It clears your mind.”

She hesitates to call herself an adrenaline junkie, but admits these sports-induced rushes are pretty critical to her happiness: “If I never did it again, it would be the worst thing in the world.”

For Corrie, adrenaline-chasing is intimately tied up with the intellectual reward of accomplishment—which permeates everything she does.

“It affects everything,” she says. “In life, school, work: I always want to give things 110 per cent.”

Of course, the more you do something, the better you get at it. And therein lies a danger that adrenaline-lovers should be aware of, says Philippe Grant. He’s a 39-year-old firefighter from Terrace, who climbs rock and ice at every chance he gets. His peers consider him one of the best climbers around.

“You can build up ego around it without noticing,” he says. When ego spirals out of control, adds Philippe, “you’ll put yourself or someone else at risk, because you won’t be aware of your limitations.”

That’s why he makes a point of mountaineering solo on occasion. Certainly, he raises the adrenaline factor by having only himself to rely on in the face of fatigue and unforeseen complications. But to Philippe, this exercise is key to remaining in tune with himself.

“When you go by yourself, you’re more vulnerable to the environment. You get a ‘humble’ lesson.”

He believes that many of the same skills used by adrenaline-lovers to confront risk on rock faces, impossible steep slopes, white water and free falls build the character to confront day-to-day problems. “You’ll always find your own little mental wall out there,” he says. “It’s up to you to see how thick, how high it is. You take a rest, maybe, focus on a couple of steps—and you get over that wall.”

It’s a character-building journey, he says. “You just feel more alive.”

Adrenaline: where’s their supply?


The Howson Range, particularly the Broken Hand Couloir and Lost Peak: “It’s some of the most amazing backcountry skiing on the planet.” Seven Sisters near Kitwanga for mountaineering. Sibola range near Huckleberry Mine southwest of Houston, which offers limited access in winter but great summer skiing.


Shames Mountain near Terrace, for backcountry skiing: “It’s really great terrain, and there are tons of people to go with.” The lake which fronts her cabin near Smithers, to jumpstart her circulatory system with a mid-winter dip.


Cranbrook and Pidherny hill trails in Prince George for mountain biking thrills in the city. Tabor Mountain ski area, near Prince George, which has just opened up a trail network for bikes: take your bike up the chairlift, and then ride down an extensive network of trails challenging a wide range of skill levels. For snowboarding: Powder King, near Prince George. The Easter Run, from which Corrie hikes to access a 45-minute backcountry run down to the highway.


Wesach Mountain, 30 minutes north of Terrace for hiking (renowned for its profound alpine wildflowers in late July), mountaineering and summer ski touring: Four hours of hiking from Douglas Road takes him to incredible summer skiing. Phillipe adores ice-climbing between Terrace and Prince Rupert, but especially likes Glacier Gulch and Twin Falls, near Smithers, in late fall.


The steep drops, sky rides, log rides of the Bluff on Smithers’ Hudson Bay Mountain and Desous Mountain near Williams Lake.

On transcendental sport
  • On the Sweet Spot: Stalking the Effortless Present, Richard Keefe, 2003
  • In the Zone: Transcendent Experience in Sport, Rhea White & Michael Murphy, 1995.
  • Flow in Sports, Susan A. Jackson and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, 1991

© Larissa Ardis