For These Pros, Danger is Simply Part of the Job

We asked five people with dangerous jobs — a wingsuiter, speed climber, arborist, steeplejack and polar explorer — how they deal with extreme risk on a daily basis.

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Growing up there was always one friend, or maybe a cousin, who sky-ed a BMX bike off the roof, or backflipped from the trampoline to the pool, or shimmied to the highest branch of the biggest tree. They made the bloodcurdling their everyday pursuit, because that pursuit was simple for them — they were too young to really feel fear, or at least immature enough not to understand it.

As general thinking goes, eventually these wild-child types reach adulthood (or at least, most of them do) and grow up; the ones who don’t become the crazies who jump off buildings, speed-climb up mountains, and generally throw risky behavior around like a football in the backyard (no pads, of course). “Those guys are crazy,” we all like to say after watching a video of someone leaping into thin air or climbing a wall like Spider-Man or pulling a sled through the drifts of a polar ice cap.

But general thinking on this matter is both easy and untrue. In fact, most people who follow dangerous passions to careers must be experts at managing risk just as much as they are at raising finances or organizing expeditions. They must continue living to pursue their livelihoods, after all; there are a few truly suicidal thrill-seekers out there, but most have more sanity in them than they’d like to admit.

Peeling back this false understanding lays bare some of human nature’s most riveting secrets about dealing with fear and pursuing life at its most frayed edges. Risk, it turns out, is fluid as water; each man takes it in his own way. Here it is, from five men who face risk on a daily basis.

Ueli Steck


Record-Setting Speed Climber and Mountaineer


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A Normal Day: There is no normal day. This basically does not exist. Right now I am on my 82 Summits project. Most of the days I get up between 1 a.m. and 4 a.m. and I climb, run, hike, etc. between eight and 14 hours.

Q. What are the most dangerous parts of your job?
A. I think it is the routine. I’ve climbed the Eiger’s North Face 37 times. This changes it in your head. But it does not mean it’s not as dangerous as the first time I climbed it. With the routine you get used to the danger and it’s very easy to lose respect.

Q. Any “Oh Fuck!” moments? Have you ever frozen up?
A. No, but of course I’ve had many moments where I knew: “Now you have to put it together and do what you have to do, or it ends in a disaster.”

Q. What helps you deal with the fear and/or calms you down? Any rituals?
A. I can be very rational. I can be very good at avoiding emotions. But I need to disconnect with the other “world”. I just need to be for myself and get focused on my own things, my climb. Because it’s just my problem. If I screw it up I have to deal with the consequences, nobody else.

I’ve climbed the Eiger’s North Face 37 times. This changes it in your head. But it does not mean it’s not as dangerous as the first time I climbed it.

Q. Biggest non-work-related fear?
A. I don’t like to depend on somebody else’s skills to survive.

Q. Ever regret the danger you put yourself in?
A. There are always moments when you ask yourself “Why?” The last time was on Shishapangma. I saw three friends disappear into an avalanche. Two died. It was a trip with my wife to climb an 8,000-meter peak, so I was on holiday. I asked myself why I don’t spend my holidays on the beach.

Q. How do you feel about risk outside of work — in financials, gambling, drinking, drugs?
A. In financials I am totally Swiss. My financials have to be very dialed in, otherwise I get nervous. Also my savings account. Gambling, drinking, drugs, I don’t take any risks with.

Q. Have you always been able to deal with danger and risk (as a kid, in college)?
A. I have always been willing to accept the risk. But I’ve always dealt with it very carefully.

Q. How do you justify what you do to friends and family?
A. I try to explain, but at the end of the day they just have to trust me.

Q. Are you superstitious?
A. I always lace my right shoe first…

Jeff Provenzano


Red Bull Base Jumper and Wingsuit Flyer


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A Normal Day: There is no normal day on the job. Every day is actually completely different. It could be anything from doing lessons at the skydiving center or hiking a mountain to going BASE jumping.

Q. What are the most dangerous parts of your job?
A. Honestly, driving to go BASE jumping. I swear to god it’s the truth. The roads are way more dangerous than what I do. I feel like with base jumping, it’s something you do in a laboratory. And driving a car is the complete opposite: no way to predict or calculate.

Q. Any “Oh Fuck!” moments? Have you ever frozen up?
A. I’ve never frozen up. At least not long enough for it to have any significant result.

Q. What helps you deal with the fear and/or calms you down? Any rituals?
A. I think what helps me deal with fear is visualizing — and to be honest, I visualize all the bad possibilities but I also visualize all the good possibilities. Through visualizing, I prepare myself. Being fully prepared for a jump going into with confidence and feeling prepared is very calming.

Q. Biggest non-work-related fear?
A. Honestly, I hate to say this, but it’s really just not living — not living life to the fullest. If I’m not doing something all the time I start to feel anxious.

Disease just looks gnarly, man. I’ve been around it. I’ve seen it. I’ve had friends die. Gnarly stuff man, it’s just scary. You aren’t choosing anything — there is no choice in that. Healthy life maybe, but really if it’s genetic you have no escape. Zero control. Nothing you can do about it.

Q. Ever regret the danger you put yourself in?
A. I have. There have been times. And I’m just like, “Why did I do that? That was dumb. I got lucky. It’s not the first time.” When you do the same mistake the 20th time and you’re like, “Damn, I’ve gotten away with that so many times. Stop doing that.”

When you do the same mistake the twentieth time and you’re like, “Damn, I’ve gotten away with that so many times. Stop doing that.”

Q. If you weren’t doing this, what would you be doing?
A. I would be doing something else, I’m sure, that my mom would be not entirely thrilled with. Honestly, snowboarding or skateboarding. This just sort of took all my energy. Things could have gone in a different direction with skiing and snow. Honestly before that was art. I went to art school. When I discovered skydiving I was painting and drawing. My mom would have loved that — she’s an artist. Not to make my mom sound like she hates it all. She’s super supportive.

Q. Favorite badass (fictional or real)?
A. Hmmm. [Laughs.] Thats a good question. I don’t want to drop any names. Might offend other people. I’ll stay fictional. Let’s say — you know what? I think honestly my favorite badasses are the real men and women who serve this country.

Q. How do you feel about risk outside of work — in financials, gambling, drinking, drugs?
A. Any risk you take, you want to calculate the risk and minimize it. You want to balance it out. What’s the reward? Is it worth it?

Q. Have you always been able to deal with danger and risk (as a kid, in college)?
A. Definitely had a daredevil side… I would say it’s a little genetic. It’s ingrained in me. I think the only thing I learned is about the sport. But as far as that goes, I think I always had that in me.

Q. How do you justify what you do to friends and family?
A. That’s the hard part. Sometimes the ones that you love or the ones that love you have a difficult time understanding and accepting why you do things. And that’s a tough one. Part of that is that some people, that’s the way they are always going to be. And you’re not going to be able to change that. There are others that do want to know, “Why do you do this?” They want to understand. To those people — they know me, they know who I am. I think what helps make them feel comfortable is the fact that they know that I’m trying to do things as safely as can be done. That I’m not gonna take a dare. I’m leaving that at home when it’s time to go to work.

Q. Are you superstitious?
A. [Laughs.] I don’t think I am. But I dated a girl who was very superstitious. And she kind of programmed me. I don’t believe in it, but I do pay attention sometimes to the black cat. And hats on the bed. No hats on the bed. What was the other one? Oh, and salt. No wasting salt. She was an Italian girl and she had some old-school Italian-type superstitions and they kind of rubbed off on me. But deep down, I don’t believe in any of it. I tell you, when I see a black cat, I notice it; if there was a cat across the road, she would pull over, and someone else had to pass the line the black cat made. So we’d just pull over on some random side of the road. Same thing if we were walking. It was hilarious.

Casey Johnson


Arborist Crew Leader


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A Normal Day: The work day starts at 7 a.m. and ends when the work day is over. I work in a residential/commercial setting servicing clients by performing pruning, removals and tree root care. I typically lead a crew of two to three workers but that number can grow to around six if needed.

Q. What are the most dangerous parts of your job?
A. I use chainsaws while being tied into a tree. My job often takes me into heights of 70 feet and on occasion over 100 [feet]. Removing trees often involves complex rigging devices that enable you to completely control the movement of the pieces that are coming down. All of this requires an innumerable amount of moving pieces; all of which are critically important to sustain the weight of the moving wood.

It’s hard not to daydream about something easy, like a Wall Street socialite type, when you’re dangling 100 feet in the air.

Q. Any “Oh Fuck!” moments? Have you ever frozen up?
A. I can still vividly remember a time when I was first starting to climb when I was all the way at the top of a tree and I just froze. I hadn’t realized how high up I had gone and when I looked down, my little novice knees locked up. To be honest, I’ve had many, many close calls but that’s really part of the industry. Each week (Thursdays to be exact) we have a meeting where everyone can voice their “close calls” without the scorn of punishment.

Q. What helps you deal with the fear and/or calms you down? Any rituals?
A. In the words of Chris LeDoux, “If you don’t use this nasty stuff, don’t start; but if you’re hopelessly addicted I guess you gotta find something good to say about a bad habit.” Copenhagen.

I don’t have any particular rituals. I check and double-check my knots, rope, saddle, etc.

Q. Biggest non-work-related fear?
A. Needles. You can’t make me get a shot. I’m an adult.

Q. Ever regret the danger you put yourself in?
A. I rarely regret the danger, that’s what keeps you astute. I often regret working in the weather.

Q. If you weren’t doing this, what would you be doing?
A. It’s hard not to daydream about something easy, like a Wall Street socialite type, when you’re dangling 100 feet in the air.

Q. Favorite badass (fictional or real)?
A. It’s a tight race between Andrew Jackson and Teddy Roosevelt, but Old Hickory gets my vote.

Q. How do you feel about risk outside of work — in financials, gambling, drinking, drugs?
A. I don’t gamble, money is too important to me. I don’t do drugs, not falling out of trees is too important to me.

I suppose that’s why I drink like a sailor and spend like an asshole.

Q. Have you always been able to deal with danger and risk (as a kid, in college)?
A. I’m not sure that I do particularly well with danger now. There are dangerous elements of my job but it’s always a very calculated risk. In short, no; I was always the kid to throw a big rock on the ice before walking across… just to be sure.

Q. How do you justify what you do to friends and family?
A. Study. Study. Study. I need to know the latest techniques, newest equipment, safest practices, and top industry data to improve upon my work practices. My job is never going to be safe, the only way to go home each night (with 10 fingers and toes) is to adapt continuously.

Q. Are you superstitious?
A. As Groucho Marx said, “If a black cat crosses your path, it signifies that the animal is going somewhere.”

Jonathan Santa


Rope Access Technician and Steeplejack


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A Normal Day: A normal day on the job all depends on what type of job is being done. I have worked on everything from small town church steeples to classic Manhattan skyscrapers (Empire State Building, Flatiron Building, 40 Wall Street Building). A church steeple for example is oftentimes a very dusty, dirty, stale, humid environment that leaves you with a fine black soot on your exposed skin by the end of the work day. While a skyscraper, oftentimes, requires the worker to climb multiple sets of stairs before even being able to get to the work zone. Regardless of the environment, the job is always unique. I have worked on projects that were centered on masonry, carpentry, gold leafing, rigging, hoisting, and painting.

Q. What are the most dangerous parts of your job?
A. Depending on the site, there can be a lot of pressure not to drop anything. But that, like most other issues on site, has always been related to human error. The equipment we use to perform controlled descents has extremely low fail rates. You just always hope that nobody is having too off of a day, ’cause that could lead to a lack of common sense. And a lack of common sense could cost you your life.

Q. Any “Oh Fuck!” moments? Have you ever frozen up?
A. I watched my good friend and coworker fall about 70 feet down the side of a building. He was knocked unconscious on impact, and he was left with a lot of bodily damage. Luckily he survived, but he was out of commission for one and a half years. If I remember correctly, in that moment, I definitely said “Oh, fuck.”

Q. What helps you deal with the fear and/or calms you down? Any rituals?
A. I have been around the equipment we use for many years and I have developed a trusting relationship with it. But I always follow my gut. If my gut feels like something is off, I listen, while also trying to be as logical as possible.

Q. Biggest non-work-related fear?
A. Drowning.

Q. Ever regret the danger you put yourself in?
A. Not yet. Hopefully I never do.

Q. If you weren’t doing this, what would you be doing?
A. I have a degree in supply chain management. So I imagine I would be utilizing Microsoft excel a whole lot more.

Q. Favorite badass (fictional or real)?
A. Bruce Lee comes to mind. He is a legend.

I used to be agoraphobic at a point in my life. When I was a boy I would experience extreme panic attacks. I used to be scared of everything. At some point I guess I just grew tired of being scared.

Q. How do you feel about risk outside of work — in financials, gambling, drinking, drugs?
A. I believe the greater the risk, the greater the reward. I also believe that everything is also risk versus reward. I often step back and ask myself, “Is this risk worth the reward?” I find when it comes to gambling and drinking, the answer for me is no.

Q. Have you always been able to deal with danger and risk (as a kid, in college)?
A. Nope. I used to be agoraphobic at a point in my life. When I was a boy I would experience extreme panic attacks. I used to be scared of everything. At some point I guess I just grew tired of being scared. I still to this day have many fears. However, I always try to emit logic over emotion.

Q. How do you justify what you do to friends and family?
A. I am beginning to lack justification for what I am currently doing. I appreciate the thrill, but part of me wants to be more technical. I want to work more with my brains than with my hands. The risk is beginning to outweigh the reward.

Q. Are you superstitious?
A. Yeah, I guess I am. I believe in Karma. I believe you get what you give. And I believe that we are in the end all reflections of one another. To hurt another is to hurt you. But ultimately I try to have faith over belief. But I will walk under a ladder with an umbrella anyway and not think twice.

Parker Liautaud


Polar Explorer


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Photo: Willis

A Normal Day: I’ll use the Antarctic as an example, as that was my biggest trek. [Liautaud, now 20, was 19 when he set a new record for the fastest human-powered trek from the coast of Antarctica to the South Pole.] We wake up at 4 in the morning, because we were lining up our time zone with mission control back home, and because of media timing issues. And since it was 24 hours of sunlight we didn’t notice it because of sun.

The first thing you notice is that you’re in the middle of nowhere, and there isn’t any liquid water. You have to use a chunk of ice and put it in the tent — it’s cozy in the tent but outside it’s minus 40. First thing you do in the morning is turn on a stove and start melting some ice. So we could have drinking water for the day, the whole day, since we can’t stop; and we’d also use it for breakfast, mix it with oatmeal.

While we’re waiting for that we’re getting stuff together. There are lots of moving pieces, little socks and gloves and goggles, and whatever happens to be in your pockets, and you can’t lose track of any of it. When we’re ready, we take down the tents and put everything in the 180-pound sleds we’re hauling. It’s a two-person team, and we’re checking each other’s masks and making sure neither of us have pieces of uncovered skin that could be a danger for frostbite.

During the day we pull for 1.5 hours, and then we stop for five to six minutes. Time is flying by on the break and slowing down while we’re walking. During those five minutes of break we eat and drink, and we organize the sleds so we don’t have to dig around or anything. For fluids, we never drink just water — why only have water when you could have something with calories? We put electrolytes or something in it.

A normal day lasts 11 or 12 hours and tends to be around eight pulls, one less if tired, one more if feeling good. When we break for the day, we set up the tent, make sure we put in everything we need, do communications and check in with base, eat something, then go to bed.

Q. What are the most dangerous parts of your job?
A. Antarctica has different types of dangers. We were OK as far as crevasse risks go, but that was the scariest risk — to just fall into nothingness and never be seen again. But for us it was mostly a matter of keeping mental sanity and not exposing any skin. Mental mistakes meaning, if you drop a glove, you can get frostbite and lose the finger. It’s not uncommon that something like this happens.

Another danger, and the more pronounced one as far as the Arctic goes, was being around open water. I’ve fallen through arctic ice into open water, and it was the scariest thing I’ve experienced. You try not to panic, because panicking is the worst thing you can do.

Q. Any “Oh Fuck!” moments? Have you ever frozen up?
A. Yeah, like 50 or 60. I went to the North Pole when I was 15 and 16, South Pole at 17, it wasn’t like I had the most experience, obviously. I knew about the risks, and that I had to prepare carefully because I couldn’t rely on instinct. I had to rely on preparation.

When I was 15, I punched a hole through thin ice and fell into arctic ocean. I had lost my teammate Doug in a whiteout storm, he was about 100 yards ahead. I had gotten moderately injured and was slower than him, and I didn’t want to tell him or slow down progress. When I fell through the ice, water started filling up my boots, and I started to panic. I was anchored to my sled with ropes and I had to pull myself out. You don’t know what to expect or what is going to happen to you. I had to take my clothes off immediately, then of course you get into a tent and dry your clothes.

There was another moment where I had a stomach cramp so bad it brought me to the ground. Doug didn’t know and went ahead; when he came back I had the worst pain I’ve ever felt. I tried to call base camp, but the satellite phone had broken in the cold. My goggles were frozen, my gloves fell off, and I spilled all our painkillers for the entire trek all over the snow. That was a moment of panic.

Q. What helps you deal with the fear and/or calms you down? Any rituals?
A. What helped me get over fear of things like that was just seeing progress happen. It felt like we weren’t getting anywhere, but then you look at the numbers and don’t allow delusion to get to you.

The thing is, I have this kind of OCD stuff. It’s terrible when you’re in a place where you can’t control anything. I have all these different types of things: everything has to be parallel or perpendicular, doing things twice or a number of times that’s a power of two, everything from blinking to turning on lights. I’ve gotten better at controlling it, but while I was doing my expeditions, that was before I improved on it. In a place like Antarctica you can’t control anything at all. There’s no order. And that was terrifying. Eventually what helped me get over it was that everything fell apart in the structure and order of my mind — and if we were still making progress (we were — we broke the previous speed record by three days) then that helped me get over the fear of not having control.

Q. Biggest non-work-related fear?
A. I can’t even tell you because I’m too superstitious to have it written down somewhere. But for me, I struggle with the concept of lack of control over circumstances in life. A lot of the expedition stuff was ideas that came out of nowhere — there was no structure behind it, no one suggested it was a good idea, I just went for it. I felt like when I was doing these things I was putting myself in control of impact I wanted to have on the world, where I stand and what I’m here to do and contribute. So many things you have no way of controlling — anything from small in the grand scheme of things, to devastating stuff. I’m afraid for those things to disrupt what I feel is my plan to fulfill my potential.

Q. Ever regret the danger you put yourself in?
A. No, strangely not at all. It’s a hard question though, because I don’t see anything that goes on outside of the dangerous situations I’m in. I would regret it if something had happened that permanently changed the situation of my life. So far we’ve been lucky that we haven’t had anything permanently devastating… If somebody had died on an expedition, how could I not say that I regret it?

Q. If you weren’t doing this, what would you be doing?
A. Everything would’ve been different. I would have gone to a different college, and I’d be a different person because these expeditions changed me massively as a human. For example, in developing social skills, because I had no social skills before I did these.

I try to explain honestly what the real risks are and how I am prepared for them. If I didn’t have a good answer, it would be a bad idea for me to go in the first place.

I’d still be a science-oriented person. What would’ve happened is that I would have ended up being a doctor or a surgeon… Ever since I was 12 or 13 I’ve had a strong interest in medicine, and wanted to help people and solve complicated problems. Being a surgeon is about grappling with the most complicated cases — being an explorer in a sense, in the medical field.

Q. Favorite badass (fictional or real)?
A. For a while they were real people, people like Doug Stoup who I idolized when I first met him. Doug’s an incredibly experienced guy, and extremely charismatic. When I first met him I was so inspired; he was telling me about how he’d been to the poles, how he’d guided a deaf man and a blind man to the poles. He’s insane at his craft. He turned 50 on our trek to the South Pole. He’s 50 years old and still doing hardest journeys on the planet.

Q. How do you feel about risk outside of work — in financials, gambling, drinking, drugs?
A. Look, everybody has their way of dealing with things. I also think that certain sets of drugs are also a medical issue that can be beyond people’s control. Personally I never smoked a cigarette in my life, never smoked weed, even though people around me are doing it. Finances is hard for me as someone without perspective who has entered the workforce or non-workforce.

I don’t know how addiction works, but I don’t gamble ever. I worry that it would be an unnecessary risk of getting trapped into a system. It’d be interesting to see in 20 years how I’d answer that question. In high school I was a notorious tight-ass, nerdy, I never took risks. But when it comes to expeditions, the risk came out of curiosity and trying to do something that might make an impact. Whereas things like gambling, etc. are the types of risks where no good can come of it.

Q. Have you always been able to deal with danger and risk (as a kid, in college)?
A. I dunno, I still have a year of college. [Laughs.] But in terms of risks, physical dangerous risk, I was totally completely uninterested in those when I was a kid. I was terrified of swimming in the ocean, terrified of sharks. My dad was the kind of guy to tell me to be a man a little bit — he wasn’t like a manly man or anything, he just kinda wanted me to be reasonable. Like, “There’s probably not a shark in the water. We’re in France in the English Channel.”

I would avoid contact sports. I was a terrible athlete, always the last pick for sports teams. When I went to high school I was the goal keeper on the soccer team. I did okay, but even then I was afraid of the sport. What you have to do is be courageous and come out of the net to confront someone coming toward you. That’s the one major aspect of the game I was terrible at: I was too scared to come out.

That’s why it’s strange. The decision to go to the North Pole had nothing to do with bravery or courage. I didn’t think about the implications of doing it because no one, including me, thought we would get funding. Then GE comes onboard and gives us all this money. I was excited for five minutes, then I thought: “Oh shit, I gotta go to the North Pole.”

So yeah: courage is learned and not inherited.

Q. How do you justify what you do to friends and family?
A. People have worries that are not really… they’re based on gratuitous view of what the regions are. Like my grandfather, the first time I told him I was going on this expedition when I was 14 or 15, he got freaked out about polar bears, then started talking about grizzly bears and his experience fishing, and close calls with one. He didn’t understand that they’re very different animals. People relate to these experiences based on their own experiences. So I try to explain honestly what the real risks are and how I am prepared for them. If I didn’t have a good answer, it would be a bad idea for me to go in the first place.

Q. Are you superstitious?
A. Yes, very. But not in weird mystical ways. It’s more like OCD mixed with superstition. If I don’t fulfill the little things for order and parallel — pens on my desk, light in a room to have been on an even number of times — then I feel something terrible will happen. It was way worse when I was in high school. It gets way worse when things are not going well in my life. It’s a dumb way of thinking about it. It’s nothing structured or… I don’t really believe them. It’s almost like a joke in my own mind.

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