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Being Extreme: Thrills and Dangers in the World of High-Risk Sports

Being Extreme: Thrills and Dangers in the World of High-Risk Sports

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by Bill Gutman, Shawn Frederick

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Being Extreme

By Bill Gutman, Shawn Frederick


Copyright © 2002 Bill Gutman with Shawn Frederick
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4976-1249-5



There is a romantic quality about participating in high-risk sports. It almost takes the place of things that happened in the past, such as the majesty of sword fights with the winner the one who gets the girl.

—Rob DaFoe, freestyle snowboarder

Until a relatively short time ago, there were no extreme sports. In fact, when you consider the whole history of mankind, organized sports of any kind have existed for a very short time. Human nature, however, hasn't changed that much since man first walked on the earth. In those earliest of days, nearly everyone lived on the edge simply because every day was a matter of survival. Would the hunt for food be successful? Would a family or group fall prey to hungry wild animals? Would a violent storm spring up when there was no adequate shelter close by? Just staying safe was a huge task in itself. Whether the species' penchant for taking risks and putting themselves on the line has been a function of the human personality since the beginning is certainly a viable thesis. Back in prehistoric days, there was no choice. Life or death was a daily crapshoot and the choice to remain safe and secure was rarely available. Like the animals they lived with, mankind had a simple daily task—survival.

Once civilization began encroaching upon various parts of the world, people began feeling safer. There were, however, still worlds to conquer and new frontiers to explore. Only now people had choice. It was only the most adventurous who decided to go out to the extreme. In America, these were the original explorers who arrived from Europe. These were men and women who were willing to brave the dangers of the oceans by sailing in small, wooden ships looking for new lands that were not on an existing map. Those who settled then explored the new land were going out on the edge as well. They courted danger with every mountain they crossed, every stranger they met, every step that took them farther away from civilization.

Settlers who left fairly secure homes in America's East to travel by wagon train in search of new lives in the West during the 1840s also embarked on a high-risk adventure. The safety of an entire family might be at stake during this long arid arduous journey. What was it that separated those who decided to take the plunge and go, from those who didn't want to risk life and limb and chose to stay home? Maybe some heard stories of unclaimed riches in the West, gold there for the taking, or perhaps unsettled fertile lands that could be claimed for farming. Those with the strongest motivations decided to brave the dangers and take the plunge.

This sense of high-risk adventure continued as long as there were frontiers to tame and conquer. The image of the Western lawman, walking resolutely down the main street of town to face a villain in a gunfight, still piques the imagination of armchair cowboys everywhere. How many films have been made about the Gunfight at the OK Corral, in which the Earp brothers and Doc Holiday faced down a group of allegedly evil villains? The romance and risk of the Old West often meant living on the edge with a Colt-45 strapped to your waist.

Early in the twentieth century, America was quickly becoming more civilized and increasingly mechanized at the same time. Conventional sports such as baseball, basketball, hockey, and football were beginning to attract young people as a way to have fun. Eventually, they would also offer a way to make a living. Though it took a great deal of physical skill and talent to excel at these sports, and there was a risk of injury, the stakes rarely rose to the level of life and death. That was left for other kinds of pioneers. Despite an increasingly safe society, people continued to step out onto the edge in new and different ways. Sometimes it was to test innovative and potentially dangerous manmade machines, such as aircraft. In the years following the Wright brothers' success at Kitty Hawk, aircraft technology improved rapidly Test pilots were needed to fly new and often experimental machines. These were pioneers willing to risk it all for the combination of their love of flying and the opportunity to earn some money. Flyers and test pilots are not so different from extreme athletes today, and they continued their own high-risk traditions, which led to piloting the first jet planes, breaking the sound barrier, and eventually flying into outer space and walking on the moon.

Other aviators also looked for "firsts" in a young industry that was attracting increasingly more attention among the general public. When Charles Lindbergh climbed into the cockpit of his plane, The Spirit of St. Louis, in 1927, and became the first man to fly alone across the Atlantic Ocean, he also became a national hero. His unprecedented flight somehow captured the imagination of those on both sides of the ocean. Today, Lindbergh is remembered not only as a pioneer of aviation, but also as a man willing to go to the extreme for something he believed possible and important. He knew full well what the consequences could be. Just a single engine malfunction, an unexpected violent storm, a miscalculation in his course, and Lindbergh would not have made it. Instead of being a national hero, he would have become just another guy who was killed doing something "crazy."

With life becoming safer and society more protective, those who opted to continue taking risks often had their sanity questioned, something that is not uncommon with extreme athletes today. Then, as now, such labels weren't enough to stop people. Amelia Earhart proved that when she began making solo flights. Although she, along with navigator Fred Noonan, disappeared in 1937 while trying to fly a small plane around the world, Earhart is rarely referred to as crazy, but rather as courageous. Perceptions can change very rapidly, altered by the slightest shift in circumstance. The crazy people went over Niagara Falls in a barrel (a common stunt undertaken back in the 1920s); the courageous ones tried to fly around the world. Both, however, were going out to the extreme by their own free choice.

Exploring new and dangerous parts of the world has always fascinated people with the propensity to go out to the edge. Two of the last desolate and largely unknown areas were the North and the South Poles. Explorers reached the North Pole for the first time in 1909, and not surprisingly, the South Pole became the next goal shortly after that. Located deep within Antarctica, most of the area is covered by ice frozen solid by winter temperatures that can plunge to minus 120 degrees Fahrenheit. Winter darkness there lasts six months and the winds often roar across open and unprotected ice.

Two separate expeditions set out in 1911, each wanting to be the first to reach the pole. One was led by Norwegian Roald Amundsen, the other by Englishman Robert Scott, and to make things more interesting, the two expeditions approached the Pole from different directions. Amundsen's team had the luck of traveling in better weather, and they reached the Pole on December 14. Scott's group, however, was besieged by blizzards and bad decisions. For example, they had brought ponies instead of dogs, a fatal error in a harsh climate that resulted in the animals' deaths and little help to them. Despite all the hardships, they finally made it to the South Pole on January 17, 1912, only to find that Amundsen had already been there and gone.

The Amundsen team made it back safely, actually sledding and skiing part of the way. Scott's return trip, however, turned into a disaster. The fuel they had brought for fires leaked from its containers. Supplies left along the way for the return trip couldn't be found, as blowing snow covered the markers. The men faced frostbite and scurvy, and soon team members began to die. Those remaining struggled into March when blizzards came again. Everyone else, including Scott, finally succumbed, the last ones dying just eleven miles from a supply of food and fuel.

The lesson is simple. Those who are the most fully prepared have the best chance of survival. For example, dogs and not ponies were the correct animal to bring to Antarctica. Fresh seal meat (Amundsen's choice of food) was a better source of vitamin C than the canned meat brought by Scott's team. It prevented Amundsen's men from contracting scurvy, kept them healthier and more vigorous. Then there was pure luck. This time, weather turned out to be the X-factor. It was good for Amundsen, free of storms and blizzard; yet just the opposite for Scott. These are all factors that expedition mountain climbers, for example, must be aware of, even today.

Perhaps the extreme behavior from the early days of the century that most closely foreshadowed the future was the desire to climb mountains. Not surprisingly, the mountain that received the most notoriety in the early years was Everest. As far back as 1852, the Great Trigonometrical Survey of India determined that Everest was the highest mountain in the world. It got its present name in 1865, named after British Surveyor General George Everest, but it wasn't until 1920, however, that Westerners could begin scaling it. That was when the thirteenth Dalai Lama opened Tibet to outsiders and allowed people to enter the country for the sole purpose of trying to climb Mount Everest. The first attempt came in 1921 by a British team that included a man named George Mallory, They weren't successful, but three years later Mallory returned to lead another expedition, the one that would result in the beginning of the legend and the mystique that has characterized the mountain ever since.

At the time of Mallory's 1924 attempt, no climber had been above 24,600 feet, and it was still not known if humans could survive any higher without supplemental oxygen. For this second try, Mallory took oxygen bottles, but no one was sure how well they would work, or whether they might leak, rendering them useless when they were needed the most. Without using the oxygen, the team failed to go above 28,125 feet. Then on the morning of June 6, Mallory and twenty-two-year-old Andrew "Sandy" Irvine decided to make one last assault on the summit, taking the oxygen bottles with them. They started from the top of the North Col, at 23,100 feet, with the feeling they would need three days. They were last seen through the mist in the early afternoon of June 8, by a geologist named Noel Odell, who had followed behind for support. Odell said he saw two black figures, the size of dots, approaching and then climbing a rock step, called the Second Step. It was near the base of the summit pyramid. Odell felt they looked strong enough to make it, but then clouds covered them and they were never seen again.

To this day, some feel that Mallory and Irvine made it, but were lost when they tried to descend back to camp, something that has happened to many climbers since. In 1933, an ice axe was found at 27,750 feet, right along the route they were taking. It had three nick marks on it, characteristic of marks Sandy Irvine was known to put on some of his equipment. Then in 1975, a body was found 750 feet below where the ice axe was discovered, but there was no direct evidence that the body was that of Irvine or Mallory. The two simply disappeared into the mythology of the mountain. Everest was finally conquered by Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay in 1953, and the lure of the mountain has only grown since, especially in recent years as more people than ever seem to be captivated by the prospect of climbing Everest, and decide they want to try to reach the summit. The story of Mallory and Irvine, had it happened elsewhere, would undoubtedly be largely forgotten by now. Because it happened on Mount Everest, however, their names are well known today to almost everyone who wants to attempt the world's highest peaks.

Obviously, behavior that is considered risky and dangerous has been part of the human condition for thousands of years. Since the beginning of time, for example, man has been captivated by flying. The artist and scientist Leonardo Da Vinci tried to find a concept for a flying machine as far back the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Even after the Wright Brothers flew the first successful airplane, man continued to think about free flight, a way to emulate birds. Obviously, those willing to go to the extreme for their times wanted to "catch air," in the same way sky divers, para and hang gliders, and BASE jumpers do today BASE jumper Mick Knutson, in fact, has documented the earliest recorded jump from tall objects as being way back in the Middle Ages. Daredevils of the time jumped off towers with various designs of free fall inhibitors, usually made with some sort of rudimentary wood frame. Sadly, in most of these early cases, the know-how and skills weren't enough to design a safe way to break the fall, especially not with the raw materials available then. The majority of these early attempts ended in disaster.

Through the years the groundwork for the extreme lifestyle was being set forth by brave and adventurous men and women who wanted more than a routine, everyday existence. They wanted to explore the unknown and try to achieve something that others said couldn't be done. The bottom line is simply that the nature of man hasn't changed much. The extreme was always there. Those stepping out on the edge today are combining what has been with what is, and are determined to take it to a place they want it to be.



The biggest risk is definitely death. That's how extreme this sport is. It can kill you. Beyond reason, beyond doubt, that wave can kill you. But on the same note, that's what drives a lot of us to do extreme things, that rush of knowing that you did something that was on the edge.

—Archie Kalepa, big wave surfer

Everyone takes risks. While that is simply an undeniable fact of life, it certainly does not mean that every risk poses the same amount of danger. What is it then that makes some people take the bigger risks—the ones where the odds of something going wrong rise dramatically—as opposed to the everyday risks that are just part of normal living? Kids take risks almost from the time they are born. The first time they get up the courage to walk up stairs on their own, they are unwittingly taking a risk. When they climb up on their toy box and decide to jump off instead of climbing down, they are taking another. It is recognized by experts on child development that risk plays a major role in the maturation of adolescents and young adults. Writing in Camping Magazine, Bob Ditter explained how risk taking is a necessity for youngsters as they grow.

"Risk-taking is the way that children expand their horizons," Ditter wrote, "learn about new worlds, stretch themselves beyond their current sense of their own abilities, and, in short, gain mastery over new challenges ... Those children who engage in successful, healthy risk-taking are the ones whose self-esteem tends to be strongest and most resilient."

At some point in the growth process, however, risk begins to divide into two distinct categories—healthy and unhealthy. Healthy risks for adolescents include activities such as participation in sports, the development of creative and artistic abilities, contributions to family and community, volunteer work, making positive friendships, continuing to learn, and setting goals. By contrast, negative or unhealthy risks include drug, alcohol, and tobacco use, unsafe sexual activity, committing misdemeanors and/or crimes, reckless driving, getting into fights, and choosing undesirable friends. Healthy risk can expand the horizons of young persons, helping to propel them into early adulthood where they will make sound decisions, continue to take positive, healthy risks, and live an overall productive and fulfilling life. Unhealthy risk can, pure and simple, only lead to more trouble. At least that's the way it's supposed to work.

Where, however, does degree of risk fit into the world of extreme sports? Can you make a case that those who follow a high-risk adventurous lifestyle come from a group who took the so- called bad or unhealthy risks as youngsters? Or perhaps high-risk adults always took bigger risks, even as children? As with so many other professions, occupations, and hobbies, the participants come from a myriad of backgrounds. In some of the cases, however, the risks taken growing up are definitely higher and more potentially dangerous than those taken by the other youngsters. However, with the exception of the fact that the high risk might lead to injury, it doesn't necessarily have to be considered negative behavior.


Excerpted from Being Extreme by Bill Gutman, Shawn Frederick. Copyright © 2002 Bill Gutman with Shawn Frederick. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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John Butman is an established business author and journalist.

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Being Extreme: Thrills and Dangers in the World of High-Risk Sports 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Kiss hand 3 times post this on 3 other books and look under your pillow