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Explorers Push The Limits, Despite The Risks

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As a National Geographic Emerging Explorer, Constanza Ceruti studies ancient Andean peoples and their sacred ceremonial sites. The high-altitude archaeologist braves blistering winds and altitude sickness to reach the highest peaks of the Andes, often working in locations that few humans have visited in hundreds of years.

While Ceruti explores above the clouds, environmental anthropologist and 2011 National Geographic Explorer of the Year Kenny Broad dives deep into ocean caves to explore freshwater reserves around the globe. He hopes his work will reveal ways the world can sustain its freshwater reserves.

Like many other scientists, Ceruti and Broad take calculated physical and emotional risks to help us understand more about our world. In a special broadcast in front of a live audience, the two explorers talk with NPR's Neal Conan about what they do and the limits, risks and rewards of their work.

Interview Highlights

On exploration as a calling

Broad: "I got to caves via the water, where, when I was a little kid, all I wanted to do was dive. All I wanted to do was get in the water. And I guess the ultimate, the "Ph.D." for diving is cave diving. And at the bottom of dry caves, it tends to be water, where it collects, and that's where it tends to stop people. So, if you can dive into that, you can have an edge on what's around the corner."

Ceruti: "I was born and raised in a city in Argentina with no mountains. But ever since I met the mountains, they came to life. I wanted to be an archaeologist who could work on high mountains. So the vocation was really from the very beginning. As soon as I graduated as an anthropologist I started climbing, out of the blue, up to 17,000 feet.

On the limits of technology in remote locations

Broad: "The good thing about cave diving is we can outcompete with technology. You can't send a manned or unmanned submersible into caves. There's just not the intelligence there, [or] the computer decision making to find its way through complex mazes. There's not the dexterity to take the samples; there's not the judgment and decision making to be able to decide on-the-fly what direction to go. And it would be too expensive. And you can't go very far with these tethered machines."

Ceruti: "We don't use any supplementary oxygen when we are up there [in the Andes], because we couldn't possibly climb the mountain as many times [as required] carrying the oxygen in addition to the food and the equipment to do the archaeological work. So we have to get our bodies naturally adjusted to the altitude. We are our own porters, in a way. So we go up and down with loads of food and equipment, and then eventually we camp on top."

On the human tendency to overstate certain risks, and understate others

Broad: "When you tell people you work in a small dark places with no oxygen, you tend to think of the most dreadful situations: of the cave-ins, getting lost, getting stuck. But it tends to be the little things that get you. It's walking to the dive site where you fall down.

"There's plenty of risks, but we tend to over-weigh some of the dreadful, dramatic ones and we don't even think about the routine ones. And it's the routine, the things you do all the time, that are probably the most dangerous."

On the physical risks of working in challenging environments

Ceruti: "On the mountains we are facing not only the climate conditions that can be very hard, like snowstorms, extremely strong winds, the low temperatures. And the fact that, in Argentina, it's very difficult to get proper mountain equipment. So usually we are under-dressed for the conditions we are going to face.

"Let alone that, we are often working in an hypoxic environment, meaning that there's very little oxygen available. So the body is exposed to [altitude sickness] to start with. And then eventually it could lead to pulmonary edema or brain edema.

"You never know until you go back home if you've been exposed to frostbite or other conditions. I have had a few of the mild conditions, like frostbite in my fingers and toes.

"So we're always facing these kinds of problems and trying to cope with them, and trying to be aware of our own limitations."

On overcoming fear and managing risk in difficult environments

Ceruti: "Of course we have that feeling [of fear] always. But on the other hand, we are so aware that the archaeology work is important, because you are helping to preserve this heritage for future generations. So we tend to leave aside our own fears and try to keep going.

"But we're very respectful in the way we go to the mountains, so we always feel welcome. We thank God and the mountains β€” we have been very blessed in our climbs."

Broad: "I think we often confuse thrill-seeking with exploration. And most of the people I know who do things that are admittedly high-risk, they're very, very meticulous risk managers. It's about keeping your adrenaline down, not letting it get up. They also have a healthy dose of cognitive dissonance, where I think they're in a certain degree of denial. Because you don't want to be overcome with the emotions that you get from bungee jumping or those sorts of activities β€” which I personally would never do β€” and scare me."

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