It's the feeling when board perfectly meets transition, replacing the uncertainty of soaring through the air with the joy of success. It's the anxiety of looking down a steep chute and the elation of arcing a turn out through the bottom. It's the anticipation of an untouched powder run and the release when your ski bases push against the snow in a weightless turn. It's the splendor of snowshoeing through a copse of woods and emerging to the view of a 2,000-vertical-foot wall of rock and snow glowing in the light of the rising sun.
We are talking about Thrill, and it's why we do things — why we travel, why we compete, why we are drawn to unique and hard-to-attain experiences. Merriam-Webster defines thrill as "a sudden strong feeling, especially of happiness or excitement." But those are just words.
Physiologically, thrill can be explained by simple chemical reaction. "In the reward centers of the brain, dopamine accounts for 90 percent of the reward response," says Dr. Robb Gaffney, a psychiatrist and avid thrill-seeker. "Norepinephrine — central nervous system adrenaline — accounts for only 10 percent. So when people say 'adrenaline junkie,' they really mean 'dopamine junkie.'"
Mundane definitions and clinical explanations can tell us what thrill is, why it happens, and can even break down the nervous feeling right before we break our comfort barrier as well as the jubilation when we emerge successful. "Norepinephrine — adrenaline — makes us more nervous and tends to make us all quiet up above the big line, so not too many of us really like the adrenaline response," Dr. Gaffney continues. "When we get to the bottom, the dopamine is the one that calls us back to do it again."
Science and semantics, however, fall short when it comes to shedding light on the mystery of thrill.
When it comes down to it, thrill is personal. And it is fluid. What induces that sudden rush of excitement and happiness, what kicks off that chemical reaction, differs from person to person, and moment to moment. What is thrilling for one — a first ride on a chairlift, the loss of control the first time you catch air, breaking trail to a vista that you've seen only on cocktail coasters and inspirational posters — is boring for another. Even within each of us individually, a run, trail or event that brings on an adrenaline-filled bout of anxiety one day might bring us a shot of pure dopamine another, and no reaction at all on yet another.
And yet there seem to be certain things that give us a thrill no matter how many times we've done them: getting blasted by a faceshot in the middle of a powder turn, looking up from the snowshoe track to see the peaks reflected in a glassed-over Mirror Lake, overcoming fear and defining new personal boundaries.
We can define thrill, yet still not understand it. The biology behind it can be explained, while the phenomenon remains inexplicable. Thrill is beauty, but also fear; accomplishment and failure; danger and serenity. It is all of these, or it could be none of them. It could be intense as riding off a cliff, as gratifying as sinking into untouched snow, as peaceful as snowshoeing through a pine forest with only the hissing of snowfall to break the silence.
"These reward centers are all the same systems that attract us to anything cool," says Dr. Gaffney. "And I'm a firm believer that thrill-seekers don't necessarily need to risk life and limb to experience thrill in all kinds of ways in life."
To take a closer look at the phenomenon of thrill, let's focus on one epicenter: the Rocky Mountains of Alberta, Canada, an area that embodies thrill like few other places on Earth. Consider as subjects two people who find thrill in very different ways. One moved to Alberta as a teenager in search of it. The other grew up looking at the Canadian Rockies and travelled, literally, to the edge of the Earth to find his peak experience, only to appreciate it more upon returning home.
As a professional competitive snowboarder, Audrey Hebert is constantly balancing her adrenaline and dopamine reactions; the anxiety of standing in the start gate is counterbalanced by the feelings of relief and elation once she crosses the finish.
"It's a huge mental game," she says. "Any girl that I compete against is a really strong rider and on any given day could win. It's just whoever is having a great day and is in the zone and really feeling it. I always ride best when I'm happiest. Sometimes nerves help; sometimes they take you apart."
So far it's worked out for the 28-year-old Banff resident. Hebert won the 2015 Subaru Freeride Series, a big-mountain circuit where riders are judged on how well they navigate steep terrain riddled with cliffs, chutes and natural features. She also claimed the overall title on the 2015 Rahlves' Banzai Tour, a head-to-head racing format that blends big mountain with boardercross.
Hebert grew up in Quebec and first visited the Alberta Rockies when she was in middle school. She knew then that someday she would be back. "I remember being like, 'Oh my God, this place is so amazing; one day I want to live here,'" she says. When she turned 18, she followed through on that dream, returning to Banff for what she thought would be one winter. "It was just like nothing I have ever seen," she says. "I remember the mountains being just great and huge. They were so big, and there was a lot of snow that year. And the resorts were nothing like back home. It just kind of opened my eyes."
Ten years down the road, Hebert still calls Banff home. On skis by age 2, and snowboarding by 8, she didn't start competing until she moved to Alberta, enticed at first by the prospect of earning new gear. "I was at a point that I was snapping my board pretty much every year, and I have weak ankles, so I needed two pairs of boots per year, and then a pass," she says. "Someone told me, 'If you start competing and you do well, you can get on the freeride team, and you'll have a pass.'"
Hebert did well almost immediately — and, more importantly, was having fun, particularly in big-mountain and boardercross competitions. After a few years of competing locally, she started traveling to bigger contests throughout North America.
Just standing in the start gate, Hebert says, is a mental game all its own. "Your head is like a big challenge to keep it together," she says. "It's just, 'Do not panic and pick out a good line.' You just need to stay calm and focused. When you're committed to your line, and you're sure of yourself and you don't doubt it so much, I feel I do better."
Once she is through her run, her emotions change. "Usually I'm just happy it's over and I don't have to be stressed and I can just go ride," she says. During big-mountain contests, she has to wait until that evening to see the results, which can bring another dose of thrill. In boardercross or on the Banzai tour, she knows the instant she crosses the finish if she's won or not, but she says that's usually not the first thing on her mind. "It's full stress reliever," she says. "Just to finish a Banzai course … they're so rowdy, just to finish it, you feel great."
When she's not traveling to compete, Hebert can usually be found riding the Banff resorts: Norquay, Lake Louise and Sunshine Village. She has her go-to runs at each mountain, the common theme being that each brings a unique challenge. "At Lake Louise, I really like all of the Emergency Room Chutes," she says. "They have so many options, and they're steep and technical. Lone Pine at Norquay, just because it's really challenging. It's long, it's mogul-y, it's technical. And you get to ride the North American chair, which is almost historical. It's really old and badass. [At] Sunshine, Delirium Dive is really fun. It's a little bit of that special thing; you have to have your [avalanche] beacon and all that."
Hebert balances her winter snowboarding with rock climbing in the summer, which she finds to be a perfect counterweight. "The thing I like about climbing is, you know, a lot of people will say, 'Oh, it's such an adrenaline rush.' Well, usually when you get adrenaline, it's because something went pretty bad, like you're falling or something," she says. "[For me] it's really calm; it's almost like a meditation. It's a slow pace, it's fun, it's really relaxing, while snowboarding is completely the opposite: It's super intense and full on."
With both sports, however, Hebert gets a sense of accomplishment when she pushes her comfort zone. "There is definitely some stuff you get into that's a little hairy," she says. "It's the same with both sports. You challenge yourself, and you don't feel so great in the moment, but after, you're like, 'I really pushed my boundary again; that felt great.'"
Whether it's for snowboarding or climbing, Hebert feels she's landing in the perfect place. "I didn't expect to live here," she says. "I was just coming for a couple of months, but in the end, it was like, 'There's no way I can leave this place.'"
As a kid growing up in Southwest Calgary, photographer Reuben Krabbe could see the mountains from his street. In the winter, he would get his dopamine fix at a tiny, now-defunct local ski area called Wintergreen. "It would be basically me straight-lining the entire thing and my parents yelling at me, trying to get me to turn," Krabbe says. As he got older, his family ventured deeper into the Canadian Rockies, migrating first to ski areas such as Nakiska and Fortress before moving on to Sunshine Village and Lake Louise.
"It's just been a continual progression to bigger mountains," he says. "I remember the first time we were going to Sunshine, and I looked at the trail map and there's these two massive boulders on Lookout Peak — so big that they put them on the trail map because they are, like, 80-foot cliffs. And when we were looking at the trail map, we're like, 'Oh, we should go jump off those cliffs' — not understanding how big those mountains are.
"When we got to the ski hill, we were absolutely floored."
When he was 14, Krabbe discovered photography; today, he gets as much of a thrill from producing mind-blowing images as he does from skiing or mountain biking. Most notably, he recently pulled off a never-before-accomplished feat when he photographed a skier silhouetted in front of a solar eclipse. The image took three years, from planning to execution, to produce, and required Krabbe and a team of 10 people to travel to Svalbard, Norway — deep into the Arctic. The Svalbard archipelago was one of only two places in the world where the eclipse would be visible.
The image won POWDER's 2015 Photo of the Year award and was chosen as the cover of the magazine's prestigious photo annual. The trip was the subject of a documentary by Salomon Freeski TV, which premiered at the Banff Mountain Film Festival and was awarded "Best Snow Film." It has since been widely viewed online and continues to play at theaters throughout the mountains of North America.
For Krabbe, producing a groundbreaking photo triggers emotions similar to those he had as a kid skiing Sunshine Village for the first time. "I think it's sort of just being an entire tourist of life," he says. "Any experience that I haven't had is something that I generally want to try. So skiing a new objective or going and creating a new photograph, they are completely similar just because they are new experiences."
Now 25, Krabbe was exposed to photography at a young age. His father was constantly documenting their family adventures around Alberta. "My dad shot tourist photos on a manual SLR, so I was always seeing this mysterious thing that I couldn't really understand," he remembers. "Both of my older brothers at some age got a camera for their birthday. Both of them ended up destroying them. So the third child didn't actually get a camera."
When he was in his early teens, however, two of his friends got manual SLR cameras, and Krabbe's interest was piqued. He asked his dad if he could borrow his old Pentax; though reluctant at first, his father agreed.
"We started shooting mountain biking and skiing and just documenting what we did — just recording memories," Krabbe says. "Because we had these peers doing the same thing, we were sort of in a little competition, but also learning together. It was the first time that creativity was accessible to me. I was never good at drawing or painting or anything that you needed fine motor skills to do. I always thought I was just a scientific-brained kid, but then this creative outlet was just an amazing gift."
In 2011, Krabbe won the first-ever Banff Photographer Shootout, which helped to convince him photography could become a career. His first decent ski shot was of his bother, Silas, at Lake Louise, and appeared on the resort's website. His first published shot made BIKE's photo annual: a self-portrait with an amazing Albertan Chinook cloud arch as the backdrop.
From his mountain adventures in Alberta, Krabbe also gained an interest in celestial events. "Halley's Comet [visibly] passed [Earth] in my younger years, and I remember being fascinated [by] it," he says. On a family road trip to Edmonton, he saw the Northern Lights for the first time. When he was 19, he attempted to capture a self-portrait mountain biking shot under the Perseid meteor shower between Calgary and Canmore.
These key formative experiences led to him making an acclaimed photograph a skier turning in front of the Aurora Borealis in 2013. Ultimately, they also groomed him for his most recent success with the stunning eclipse image from Norway.
To some extent, Krabbe says, growing up in Calgary, where the two very different ecosystems of the prairies and the Rocky Mountains meet, helped prepare him for Svalbard. "Just having an appreciation for all different types of nature sort of helped," he says. "Svalbard can be like the prairies, where it's minus-20 [degrees] and you have howling winds. But you're also seeing the beauty of that, that these flat and very hostile, cold places are beautiful, as well as the Rockies. In a way, Svalbard is kind of a combination of both."
In the moment, when the pieces fell into place and the eclipse appeared, Krabbe was hit with waves of emotion. "There were two things going on during the eclipse: the euphoria of seeing something that's so beautiful and so rare," he says. "You're in this environment that's alien before an eclipse is happening and then you see the most surreal thing. That was what everyone would call 'mind-blowing.' It is the hyperbole that everyone uses for clichés: 'The stars aligned.' The stars did align in this beautiful moment.
"However, on the photographic side, and also in the hour after, it was more relief than it was excitement at that point. I was so happy that stressful feeling was gone, because it was the worst, the most tied up in knots and frustrated and worried that I've ever been about anything. It went from the most intense bad emotions to the highest high in the course of two hours."
Now, almost a year from the trip, Krabbe continues to ride the thrill of the eclipse. With each new accolade, he gets another dose. One of the most memorable was the premiere of the documentary, back in Alberta. When he was 12 years old, Krabbe attended the Banff Mountain Film Festival as a member of the general audience. More than a decade later, he got to return as the subject of one of the winning films.
"The first showing of Eclipse in Banff at the world premiere, that was a really special thing," he says. "For the first time sitting down and, without distraction, watching and enjoying this beautiful spectacle again. It was really, really beautiful to see how amazing it was for a second time."
For Krabbe, the world premiere was also a homecoming, and a chance to see the splendor of Alberta with a fresh perspective. "It's been interesting coming back to the Rockies, because they really are my home mountains in a way," he says. "Over the years they were [at] first massive and inspiring and beautiful, but they were all scenery outside of a safe and tame ski resort. I come back now and have the ability to understand how to move on those mountains. Now they are things that I look at as places where I would love to play. They are both playground and scenery and beauty. They have become more and more captivating over time."