Category Archives: Health

Do We Have An Adventure Gene?

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Cynthia Thomson testing her theories on Mont Blanc

Cynthia Thomson testing her theories on Mont Blanc

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Why do some athletes reach for the extreme while others enjoy safer, less thrilling pursuits? Is it nature, nurture or a combination of both? Ask most world-class extreme athletes and they’ll tell you some version of the same story. They’d always loved getting close to the edge, pushing themselves to their limits even as young children, driving their parents sick with worry. Once introduced to their chosen sport, they followed it passionately, stopping at nothing to pursue their dreams.

Do they possess an “adventure gene” driving them forward or is there something else going on? University of British Columbia PhD Cynthia Thomson set out to discover just what made these athletes tick. Her recent study of 500 skiers found surprising results. Turns out action sports athletes, like skiers, take up dopamine—one of the brain chemicals associated with reward—in a very different way. Dopamine, along with it’s sister reward drugs seratonin and norepinephrine, keep us humans on the path to seek rewards by doling out the good feelings associated with these chemicals. Ski a double black diamond run, get a hit of dopamine. Give a speech in front of a large crowd, get some seratonin. The brain wants us to push ourselves to be our best. Incidentally, this is the very same high drug users are seeking, but in an ironic twist, the more one uses drugs, the less thrill the body receives each time. Natural highs, on the other hand, act differently.

Thomson found that natural highs, however, are not the same for everyone. Those that seek more thrills, might actually be getting a smaller high every time, thereby skiing the extremes in order to get the same reward others would get on the bunny slopes. Thomson found that the dopamine receptor DRD4 has a variant in the -521 C/T polymorphism. Those with this variant tend to be sensation seekers. Some are even calling this gene variant the “adventure gene.” Thomson claims, however, that thrill seeking is a polygenic activity, or one that brings several genes into play. Furthermore, one’s upbringing can have a major impact on their choice of sport. I was raised in a skiing family (thank God); but had my parent’s been bowlers, I may have followed their path.

Kircher-show-descriptionThis week on The Edge, I’m talking to Dr. Thomson about skiing, sensation seeking and the “adventure gene.” Don’t miss this show, Wednesday at 8 a.m. Pacific, when Dr. Thomson explains the implications of this ground-breaking research.

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High-Five Report: Shirley Sundt

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Shirley Sundt is my hero. She came to skiing later in life, but once she started, she never stopped. Now she’s in her 80’s, has battled cancer three times, and most recently she wouldn’t stop for chemo to save her last breast because she’d already bought her season’s pass. Instead, she told the doctor to, “just lop it off.” She didn’t want to miss a season at Crystal Mountain.

I recently wrote a story about Shirley for Powder Magazine. Check it out here, and see if you don’t just feel a little more inspired. I dare you.

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Aspen Event to Promote Organ and Tissue Donation

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The 7th Annual Summit for Life Event in Aspen on Dec. 7-8 will raise money and awareness for organ and tissue donation. I participated last year and many of you made donations in my honor. This is a great event, full of energy and enthusiasm to celebrate second chances. My husband was given a second chance four years ago. Below is a video from the event last year. See if you can spot my cameo appearance.

This year, I’m making my donation in honor of Chris Klug. In 2000 Chris received a life saving liver donation and then went on to win a bronze medal in the 2002 Salt Lake Olympic Games. When my husband was waiting for his liver transplant and heard about Chris’s story, he was motivated and hopeful. Chris gave John the hope and drive to get through the ordeal. Since meeting Chris and participating last year, I can say he’s one hell of a guy. His enthusiasm for life is infectious. Being a part of Summit For Life last year was fun and exhilarating. It is a celebration of life.

Today Chris heads the Chris Klug Foundation, which promotes donor awareness and puts on great events such as Summit For Life. Today 116,000 people are waiting for lifesaving organ donation. One donor can save 8 lives through organ donation and enhance 100 lives through tissue donation. 90% of Americans support organ and tissue donation, but only 30% take the necessary steps to becoming a donor. Thanks to people like Chris Klug, this is changing.

Please visit Chris’s donation page and support the cause.

November is National Diabetes Month

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Even though I don’t always mention it, I never forget that I’m Type 1 Diabetic. I have a pump attached to me at all times, administering insulin. Yet, I don’t identify myself as a diabetic. I don’t subscribe to diabetes magazines or go to diabetes meet-ups. I don’t know very many other diabetics and don’t swap tips or recipes or horror stories. Maybe I should. It might do me some good. But my doctor tells me I’m still his rockstar patient. My numbers (aka A1C) are in the “normal” (read non-diabetic) range. My diet is healthy; I exercise every day; this disease doesn’t define me.

It’s just a constant annoyance, like bad breath or Mitt Romney commercials.

Diabetes is a prescribed eating disorder: I obsess about carbohydrates and calories. When I overeat or my blood sugars are inexplicably high, I do push-ups and sit-ups or run around the neighborhood. I’m that crazy lady with the pedometer and that million-yard stare. Since exercise brings blood glucose levels back to normal even more effectively than extra shots of insulin, I choose activity as my antidote.

26 million Americans have diabetes, and another 79 million have pre-diabetes. Recent estimates suggest that by 2050, 1 out of 3 adults will have diabetes. Many of these have Type 2 Diabetes, the mostly preventable and diet-related kind. Type 1 is an auto-immune disease, and research now suggests it could be the body’s continued response to a virus. Both diseases affect your body’s ability to use insulin, and because of this connection the two diseases are lumped together.

Either way, diabetes is a vicious little fiend. She gets into the tiniest vessels in your body and wreaks havoc. Constant control is the key to staving off heart disease, stroke, amputation, blindness, kidney failure and a myriad of other diabetes-related “complications”. I like to blame my control-freak nature on my disease. After all, I’m forced to count calories and carbs, and control food intake and exercise output.

So I plan to cheer on the folks at the American Diabetes Association with their month. The motto is Stop Diabetes. What’s not to like about that?

Don’t Be a Pig

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Almost as beautiful in the summer

I took a hike this weekend at Crystal Mountain to enjoy the views and start getting my quads back in shape for skiing. Thanks to CMAC Ski Racing, and their annual ski area cleanup day, there’s very little garbage on the slopes. Every year countless bags of beer cans and bottle caps, ski pole baskets and plastic baggies are dragged off the mountain thanks to these volunteers. You can now walk most of the open slopes, ridges and bowls and find very little trash. It’s a beautiful thing.

However, when I got off-trail the other day–traipsing through the thick trees off Toilet Bowl–I came upon some astonishing garbage. Apparently I stumbled upon a popular “safety meeting” spot, and the leftover evidence was pretty disgusting.

Ask most ski area users why they come to the mountains in the winter time, and most will say the same thing. They come to the mountains for the fresh air, to ski/ride and to be in a beautiful place. The winter wonderland of the Cascades trumps the rainy concrete jungle of the city any day. We come to the mountains to get away from the humdrum and find some special.

Dear Mr. Keystone and Ms. Bud Light: Please don’t be a pig

So why leave your garbage behind? Why be a pig? Why, if you carried those full beer cans into the woods, can’t you carry the empties back out again?

I’m probably preaching to the choir here. Most of you readers would never throw your empties off the chairlift, or into the deep woods. You would never steal a closed sign to sit on while you chucked a six-pack of Keystone or Bud Light, with your back up against the trunk of an alpine fir.

You, dear readers, are not pigs. You are not litter bugs. Most likely, many of you were the very volunteers that picked the trash a few weekends ago. And if you ever do drop a piece of accidental trash, you chase after it, trying to step on it before it skitters under that pickup truck in the parking lot.

But just in case Mr. Keystone or Ms. Bud Light happens upon this page while googling “how not to be a jackass” here’s a few pointers:

  • Everything flows downhill

    If you must drink alcohol while skiing or riding, don’t throw your empty cans into Mother Nature’s lap. It’s bad karma. Carry a bota bag instead.

  • Go ahead and find a cozy spot in the woods to throw back a cold one with friends. But just remember: PACK IT IN, PACK IT OUT. And don’t steal our closed signs just to have a dry place to sit your ass down. That’s what Gore-Tex is for.
  • Respect Mother Nature. Beautiful places are all too rare. Don’t turn this beautiful place into a garbage dump.
  • When in doubt, follow the Dirt Bag Code of ethics. Don’t know what that is? Just look around at the guys and gals that have made Crystal Mountain (or any other ski area for that matter) their home, who live in their van in the parking lot, and have eschewed the city life in order to be here on a powder day. Do what they do.
  • And if you don’t remember anything else, remember this one thing: DISCRETION. Just because you’re crushing it and you’re the biggest badass on the whole mountain, doesn’t mean you have to be a jackass.

And for those of you that already take care of the world’s pretty places, thank you. Feel free to pass on these words of wisdom to those that could use a little extra. And don’t be afraid to remind those litterbugs that you noticed that Snickers wrapper that they dropped from the chairlift. It takes a village, people.

Getting Out Alive

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What is Judgment?

Teaching Judgment at Stevens Pas

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, judgment is “the ability to make considered decisions or come to sensible conclusions.” In the backcountry that usually equates to knowing when to forge ahead and when to turn around. Having good judgment might help us decide when the risk is just far too greater than the reward. Judgment helps distinguish between what we need and what we merely want. The adventure will be here tomorrow, and our judgment can help us return another day to take it on.

How do you gain judgment without getting yourself killed in the process? Look at any aging adventurer and he or she will tell you about the time they almost died, or the time their climbing/skiing/parachuting comrade nearly bought the farm, or the time when, at the last minute, they couldn’t join their friends for a trip and someone got killed in an avalanche. It could have been them.

Experiences such as these–if we live through them–give us the ability to notice risk. We gain judgment by sheer proximity to death. The closer we get, the more humble and cautious we become. But then there’s the opposite effect. Being close to death can make us feel immune. Perhaps its like sugar to a diabetic, slowing them down rather than hyping them up. Maybe those that feel immune to death in the midst of it lack some important hormone, like insulin or humility.

Where Does Judgment Come From?

As a ski patroller, I’ve seen my fair share of accidents; some ending in injury, others ending in death. Does this lend me judgment? I think it has. Instead of feeling like I’ve cheated death and won again, I marvel that there but for the grace of God go I. This season I felt that especially, with the loss of such luminaries as Jamie Pierre and Sarah Burke and friends taken in the avalanche at Stevens Pass.

Some day I was going to ski Everest

When I was very young, I thought I could conquer the world. I was pretty sure that by age 20 I would be skiing Everest on a weekly basis. Give me a mountain, and I would ski it. Give me a river, and I would kayak it. Like any teenager I was oblivious to risk, and ready to take on the world. I was immune to judgment.

Then I developed Type 1 Diabetes, and all that changed. The first doctor I went to wasn’t an endocrinologist and didn’t know much about the disease. When I asked if it would kill me, he sighed. “While the threat of immediate death is controllable, diabetes does lead to a myriad of other complications.” He was kind enough to list them for me–heart disease, blindness, amputations. I imagined myself in a wheelchair, unable to walk, unable to see and really hankering for a bag of caramel corn. For the first time in my life I saw my own death. I grew humble in about fifteen minutes.

While living with a disease like T1D might temper one’s ability to take risks, it also taught me judgment. I was no longer immune. If I was going to work this hard to stay alive, I didn’t want to just throw it away in a risky ski descent. Not that I haven’t taken risks. I have. But I’ve also learned to listen–to really listen–to my fear. Fear is a gift reminding us that at the heart of it we want to live.

How do we develop judgment?

Stevens Pass Memorial

I’m not sure there is a single path to gaining the knowledge of when to go and when to retreat. No GPS unit worn on our sleeve can worn us when the risk is too high. No amount of gear, not an Avalung pack or an Airbag System or Avalanche Transceiver will grant us immunity to slides. Sure, we take classes and sharpen our skills, but when the risk gets too high, more often than not we go anyway. A few get caught, but many don’t. They can mistake luck for judgment, and it isn’t the same at all. Years of accumulated luck will eventually catch up with a person.

Judgment isn’t about years so much as it about experience. The more experience we carry with us–being sure to carefully glean the lessons–the more likely we are to make it back home. Because isn’t that the goal? Willi Unsoeld said it best when considering why he didn’t just stay in the wilderness.

Why don’t you stay in the wilderness?  Because that isn’t where it is at; it’s back in the city, back in downtown St. Louis, back in Los Angeles.  The final test is whether your experience of the sacred in nature enables you to cope more effectively with the problems of people.  If it does not enable you to cope more effectively with the problems – and sometimes it doesn’t, it sometimes sucks you right out into the wilderness and you stay there the rest of your Life – then when that happens, by my scale of value; it’s failed.  You go to nature for an experience of the sacred…to re-establish your contact with the core of things, where it’s really at, in order to enable you to come back to the world of people and operate more effectively.  Seek ye first the kingdom of nature, that the kingdom of people might be realized. -Willi Unsoeld

Often, we gain judgment through close calls. There’s nothing like a heart-to-heart with the Grim Reaper to bring about some calculated decision-making. What about you? How have you gained judgment in order to keep returning to the adventure you love?

Weekly High Five Report: Bonnie Prudden, Ski Patroller and Exercise Guru

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Bonnie on the cover of Sports Illustrated, 1957

Bonnie Prudden is my new hero. She was the first woman to earn a National Ski Patrol badge, an exercise expert before there was even a name for such a thing, and a champion of children’s fitness. Six months ago I’d never heard of her. She passed away in December, and I recently wrote an article about her life for National Ski Patrol Magazine (to be pubbed next Winter). Even though I never met Bonnie, after interviewing her long-time business partner and close friend, Enid Whittaker, I feel like I know her. After proving herself in the very male world of skiing patrolling and rock climbing (putting up many first ascents in the Shawagunks), Bonnie wrote articles on fitness for Sports Illustrated in the 1950s, such as “Shape up for Stretch Pants,” as well as recorded what must be the very first ski fitness album, Fit to Ski, based on television episodes of the same name. Bonnie was a few decades ahead of her time, before VCRs and Jane Fonda and YouTube.

Bonnie Prudden

She taught fitness not as a means to subsidize her own lifestyle, but knowing that fit people were happy people, she wanted to spread her message. Plus, who could argue with the title Shape up for Stretch Pants? That has to be the world’s best Sports Illustrated title ever. Bonnie went on to cofound the President’s Council on Physical Fitness which utilized the “President’s Fitness” test we all endured in P.E. classes, in which I wondered who in the world could do so many pull ups. It was probably a good thing I hadn’t heard of Bonnie back in the awkward years of sixth grade gym class. It only would have given me someone to blame (even though Bonnie’s version of the fitness test was much easier than the one later adopted by the Council). But I did live on Grape Nuts as a kid, and Bonnie was a spokesperson for them, which is awesome. If Grape Nuts needs me to be a sponsor for them, I am totally available.

Recovering from a ski injury these past few months, I can look to Bonnie Prudden for inspiration. She claimed that it wasn’t years that aged us, but rather pain. I can relate. But she had a solution for that too. She called it myotherapy, and while researching my article I enjoyed a few sessions. It was totally awesome. Even if you aren’t in pain, you can always pretend and go get some sessions anyways.

As Bonnie liked to say, “You can’t turn back the clock. But you can wind it up again.”