The Cost May Be Your Life

When asked why climb a mountain like Mt. Everest if it’s so dangerous, English mountaineer George Mallory replied, “Because it’s there.” His answer was a simple one, it can be seen from a whimsical child-like perspective of doing something for the fun of it, as well as an adult heroic ideal of pushing limits and embracing challenges.

The innate traveler is in each of us — National Geographic calls this the “restless gene.” Yet everyone views travel differently; for some it’s about playing on the beach, for some it’s immersing themselves at the culture they’re in, for some it is active and fully engaging the five senses. Adventure itself is a broad categorization of different kinds of activities with varying levels of difficulty, specifically soft and hard adventure activities. Soft adventure expects no qualifications or prior experience. This includes bird watching, horseback riding, snowshoeing, snorkeling and casual hikes and people usually go for soft adventure because it is relaxed and easy. Hard adventure activities overlap with most soft adventure activities, except they are done at a much higher level of difficulty and hence require skill and experience. Examples include base-jumping, whitewater kayaking, canyoning, bungee jumping, free diving and mountain biking.

Hard adventure is not the family favorite activity to do when on vacation, but it is definitely gaining popularity in different parts of the world. In an Adventure Tourism Market Report, it reports that South American and European travellers account for the highest number of hard adventure tourists; with the number of European Travelers increasing from 1.87 percent in 2010 to 4.90 percent in 2013 and South American Travellers increasing from 1.43 percent to 8 percent in the same time frame. According to a survey by The Association of Travel Marketing Executives, the average hard adventure traveler is 35-years-old with some college education and is employed full-time. They are more likely to be single men, and have a professional or managerial job. However, more and more youths are pursuing these dangerous feats for the thrill and adrenaline. Hard adventure activities have ignited a sense of danger and risk. With the invention of action cameras such as the GoPro, people can document their crazy adventures and give themselves bragging rights in front of friends. It is an extraordinary way of seeing the world and the elements of nature. Hard adventure activities also allow you to interact with the world in a way you don’t get when you merely sightsee and spectate from a distance. This gives you a much better appreciation of the world we live in and for anyone who has the guts, they should do it right?

The answer is no, hard adventure is not for everyone. Along with the fame and recognition that comes with completing dangerous tasks and beating new world records, comes the risk of losing one’s life. There have been many accidents in the past that are testaments to not pushing the limits of how far one should go.

Natalia Molchanova, a 53-year-old Russian free diver, went missing when she went diving in the Mediterranean in August earlier this year. Freediving is a sport where you dive to great depths without any breathing apparatus. Natalia was considered one of the world’s best, and is decorated with 41 world records, some of which include holding her breath for nine minutes underwater, swimming horizontally with a fin for 237 meters and reaching a depth of 127 meters. The Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI) sets the recreational diving limit at 40 meters, which in itself can be a dangerous task if safety procedures are not practiced.

natalia molcahnova
Credits: The New York Times

The ocean is no doubt a beautiful place and there is  much to explore in the great depths of what covers 70 percent of the earth’s surface, but it’s not a place you want to mess with. There are many new rules to observe since the water is not man’s natural element. Underwater currents are unpredictable, water temperatures can drop dangerously low, nitrogen levels in the blood rise up which could lead to nitrogen narcosis. One very important thing is maximizing the amount of oxygen in the body. As one descends lower, the volume of air in the lungs decrease, which means that there is less oxygen to sustain you the lower you go. Furthermore, to get to a depth that deep in the first place, you need to exert energy, which uses up more oxygen. When Natalia disappeared that day, it was believed to be an area with strong currents and where beyond a certain point the water temperature dips sharply. She never resurfaced for air. Rescue and recovery efforts proved futile and she is assumed to have drowned. This was assumed to be the cause of her death but nobody knows for sure. Freediving Accidents Statistics reports that excessive hyperventilation and loss of consciousness underwater is the most common reason of deaths. Any of the above-mentioned factors or a combination of a few may have resulted in her death, and she was not exempt from the dangers of them just because she is a seasoned veteran to the sport.

wingsuit basejumping

Base-jumping is another hard adventure activity that has been named “world’s deadliest sport” by The Telegraph, The Huffington Post, The New York Times and many other sources. Just think of those scenes in Spiderman movies where he leaps off a tall building and only when he’s about a few stories above the ground, then shoots his web and swings to another building. Base-jumping is similar, except a parachute is deployed or a wing suit is worn, instead of webs shooting out of the human wrist. They can be jumping from a building, antenna, span and earth, hence the acronym BASE.  The world record for the highest base jump is held by Fred Fugen, a French national, who jumped a height of 828m off the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, the world’s tallest building. Compared to skydiving, the jumpers do not reach terminal velocity, however they do have less control over the aerodynamic control and have a higher chance of tumbling. If a parachute is deployed as they are tumbling, there are most likely to get entangled or malfunction. This is one of the reasons why there are fewer deaths in skydiving than in base-jumping. In fact, in 2013, the number of base-jumping deaths peaked at 97 world-wide. Earlier in July this year, Ian Flanders, a recognized jumper in the base-jumping community jumped to his fate in a tragedy that occurred at Turkey’s first ever exhibition of the sport. The jump he did was routine, something he had done countless times before. Yet his legs still got caught in the parachute cord and ultimately ended hitting the water at full speed.

These tragedies happen to people experienced in their craft, and that’s the scary part. When people build a reputation for themselves in their respective fields, they believe they are experienced and fall into the danger of complacency. Every past dive or jump becomes a testament of why they won’t fail the next one. Furthermore, the skill and equipment of these dangerous sports advance so rapidly that these sportsmen are working out of their boundaries of what’s possible. Even if they regard safety as their top priority and do multiple checks, there is no guarantee that they will make it out alive. When Natalia disappeared, it was a 40-meter dive, given her experience was considered not as deep as normal. Flanders was described by his friends as someone who would “check, check, check, then do.” But when you’re in the hands of nature, there is no predicting and there is no winning. You can always try to control your circumstances, but there is only so much you can do on your part, the rest is left to chance and nature.

Despite the risks, hard adventure activities do not need to be avoided completely for its inherent danger. The only things to remember is that whoever wants to give it a go must realise that their lives are at risk. Safety precautions only decrease the chances of accidents happening, not eliminate them, and this applies for both hard adventure and soft adventure activities. You have nothing to prove to anyone, not even yourself, remember the bragging rights aren’t always worth it.  


Feature Photo Credits: Edward Willet