Not everybody wants to climb Everest, though, and those who do likely have a strong internal drive to seek out thrills that may be at least partially programmed by genetics, said Andreas Wilke, a psychologist at Clarkson University in Potsdam, N.Y. Decision-making studies show that some people are more likely to pursue or avoid risk than others.
But the spectrum of risk-taking behavior is broad and more complex than psychologists once thought. In his studies of people who engage in extreme recreational activities like bungee jumping and SCUBA diving, Wilke has met skydiving wallflowers and chain-smokers who buy extensive car insurance. People who pursue risks in some parts of their lives, in other words, don’t necessarily live on the edge in every way.
Instead, when Wilke has asked people to evaluate their behaviors, he finds that they often don’t consider what they do to be as risky as it might seem to others, either because they have a skill set that gives them confidence or because in their minds, the benefits outweigh any fear involved. That balance of risks and rewards differs from person to person.
“I would not climb Everest. I have other things to do, but in plain English, I’m also too scared to do it,” Wilke said. “But I would do things some mountain climbers would not do, like lecture to 500 undergraduates.”
From an evolutionary perspective, Wilke said, risk-taking behavior can be advantageous, particularly in men, because it signals strength and fitness to members of the opposite sex. In line with that theory, a successful Everest climb can convey status and prestige.
“If you said you went to Everest, you by definition climbed the highest mountain available to mankind,” he said. “That’s a very clear, non-fakable hierarchy. We can be very competitive in nature.”
For many people who have topped Everest, though, it’s about much more than hubris. Surpassing the “death zone” above 8,000 meters, standing on top of the world and returning home safely is an experience unlike any other.
“It brings into focus what’s important to you,” said Arnette, who summited Everest on his fourth attempt in 2011. “There are a thousand reasons to turn around and only one to keep going. You really have to focus on the one reason that’s most important and unique to you.
“It forces you to look deep inside yourself and figure out if you really have the physical, as well as mental, toughness to push when you want to stop,” he added. “When you come home, you realize you are able to face a wall and overcome that wall.”