Are all extreme skiers, paddlers, climbers and riders really chased down the mountain, up the mountain or over the waves by frightful gnomes pulling the puppet strings of their brain neurons? Jon Turk investigates.
Recently, I attended a talk given by Jennifer Jordan, author of Savage Summit, chronicling the women who have climbed K2 and then died—either on the descent or later on other formidable Himalayan peaks. Jennifer claimed that all high-altitude climbers—male and female—are chased by demons.
And by extension, all extreme skiers, kayakers, rock climbers and mountain bike riders are also chased down the mountain, or up the mountain or over the waves by frightful gnomes pulling the puppet strings of their brain neurons.
Is that true? All of us? Always? In my own life, I’ve hung it out there a few times. And even though I recognize the demons when I see them, I’d like to think that for the most part I was on a quest to seek moments of flow, tuning into the sublime, while waves of water or snow passed overhead, dancing rainbows in the sky.
To understand what drives us humans to do whatever we do, I find it helpful to examine the behaviour and survival of our Paleolithic ancestors.
Proto-humans evolved around five million years ago. Over the millennia, our ancestors grew big brains, walked upright, and learned to fashion primitive stone tools. I think it’s safe to presume that individuals “chased by demons” into exhibiting extreme bravery in the hunt or in battle would have had a high probability of successfully feeding and defending the tribe.
It also seems reasonable that if those individuals survived their recklessness, they’d enjoy an increased probability of finding sexual partners and passing their genes onto the next generation. (Just look at the group behaviour, hierarchy and sexual selection of wolves, lions and baboons.) So, all this would imply that a propensity to be “chased by demons” might rank pretty high up there among genetic survival attributes and be a common character trait of us moderns.
But that’s not the whole story. About 70,000 years ago, all those “chased by demons” humans weren’t doing so well from an evolutionary standpoint, and were close to becoming extinct. Then “something” happened and our population exploded. What was that “something”?
From the evidence in the fossil record, archeologists have learned that at the same time the population exploded, people began creating art and using symbols that imply spiritual journeys. Thus, it seems likely (though also a bit of a paradox), that seeking the sublime played a critical role in providing the pragmatic power to walk the earth, avoid lions and raise our young. Of course, those pesky demons didn’t go away and surely remain to drive us and to haunt us, but their influence had to be moderated before our fragile, big-brained human ancestors could thrive.
Check our conversation with Jon Turk:
Today, in our uber-technological, oil-soaked, internet-crazed, climate-altered modern world we are fundamentally no different than our forebears who dug roots and escaped from hyenas on the savanna. We’re all chased by ego-demons, but at the same time, evolution has given us pathways to control all those nasty beasties that can drive us to madness and beyond. I find it comforting to know that fun, peaceful, non-aggressive behaviour such as meditation, art, dance, music and play are all integral components of the human survival strategy.
Probably it’s just because I’m getting older, but the demons seem to be mostly leaving me alone recently, and I’m glad to see them receding farther into the background. I rode my mountain bike today, across the desert, past grandmother saguaros (cactus-keepers of ancient wisdom), around barrel cacti with their yellow succulent buds, and rolled down gravel slopes to cross sandy arroyos. There was no one to watch me and, luckily, no sponsors or journalists to record my performance.
I find it comforting to know that fun, peaceful, non-aggressive behaviour such as meditation, art, dance, music and play are all integral components of the human survival strategy.
As I write this, the sun just dropped beyond the horizon. The last rays of light cling to the undersides of clouds in red streaks, as if hanging on for dear life, so they don’t slip into the darkness below. My wife, Nina, is preparing hamburgers and broccoli for dinner. We will ride together tomorrow, feeling the compression of the turn, the compression of the togetherness we share. Just living in the van, wintering in the desert, old enough to wonder if just maybe we’ve outrun the demons once and for all.
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