Extreme (and Selfish) Sports

Enthusiasts risk it all, and the lives of others, too

A young man clad in skin-tight clothing and a small nylon backpack waited for the cable car doors to open, suspended 900 feet above a gorge, half a world away, in Turkey. He then stepped out of the cable car and fell, speeding downward to the water below.

Then, he died. Because he thought he could fly. He couldn’t. 

This is not a page from a spy novel, but the tragic real-life death of BASE jumper Ian Flanders, 28, who fell to his death July 21 during what was supposed to be a routine jump. Friends believe his feet got tangled in his parachute cords.

BASE stands for Building, Antenna, Span and Earth — all potential take-off points for jumpers — and can be landed with either a parachute stored in a slim backpack, or a winged suit. Such jumping is largely forbidden in America’s national parks, so jumpers are increasingly drawn to perform jumps in other countries like Turkey, Norway and China.

Like cliff diving, kayaking over waterfalls, or walking a high wire, BASE jumping is exciting, gaining enthusiasts. Downside: It’s sometimes deadly.

BASE jumping is exciting, gaining enthusiasts. Downside: It’s sometimes deadly.

Flanders’ fatal plunge follows the death of extreme outdoorsman and jumper Dean Potter and Graham Hunt in a jump in California’s Yosemite National Park in May. How deadly is BASE jumping? There have been 264 deaths since 1981, and seven in just the past several months.

So why do some people risk their lives for dangerous, fleeting thrills? People are nuts. Literally.

Holistic health expert Dr. Andrew Weil’s website says that so-called “adrenaline junkies” are recognized by the psychiatric community, but they have yet to receive an official diagnosis. What is known is that when these people put themselves in danger, they activate their brain’s “fight or flight” response. The brain pumps out high amounts of adrenaline, which is closely related to dopamine, the chemical messenger in the brain that triggers feeling of pleasure. Think that first bite of chocolate, or driving really, really fast.

BASE jumping also triggers the release of endorphins, the feel-good chemical that causes both pleasure — and drug addiction. Extreme sports enthusiasts know that it is important to be hyperfocused instead of hyperexcited during a jump or fall, which helps control those chemicals, but they still fall prey to the thrill.

For jumpers, facing death is their drug, and extreme sports enthusiasts crave it like heroin. The costs are not far off: A wingsuit costs about $1,200, and a parachute costs between $1,200 and $1,500.

What about those whose job it is to rescue extreme sportsmen and women, possibly losing their own life in the attempt?

What about those whose job it is to rescue extreme sportsmen and women, possibly losing their own life in the attempt?

Kim Kircher, a ski patroller, author, and avalanche blast expert, told LifeZette: “Is it fair to those endangering their own lives to rescue them? Most of the people doing extreme sports at the highest level would not want others to rescue them. Nor would they necessarily expect others to risk their own lives to recover their body. In my experience, those getting rescued are the amateurs — weekend warriors.”

Still, rescues are undertaken by concerned professionals who want to see the best possible outcome — rescue or recovery of a body — from a catastrophic extreme sports event.

Take Nick Hall. In 2012, the 33-year-old former Marine and park ranger from Mount Rainier, Washington, fell to his death after being lowered from a helicopter in strong winds during an attempted rescue of two rock climbers who lost their footing and fell into a crevasse.

In April of this year, an 18-year-old died after a 50-foot cliff jump off Hermit Fall in the Los Angeles National Forest while attempting to save his friend, who had jumped first.

And what about the families of extreme sports enthusiasts, those who are left behind if things go wrong?

Rob Lieberman, a heli-skiing guide, was killed in 2012 along with his snowboarding client in an avalanche near Haines, Alaska.

“I think my son really needed to get those rushes in life,” Robert A. Lieberman, Rob’s father, told the New York Times. “They meant a lot to him, and he felt very good about it, but I would tell you I’m sorry I ever showed him a pair of skis.”

But the risk, and sometimes the cost, are worth it to most extreme sports enthusiasts, although some do retire, shaken by the deaths of friends.

“Extreme athletes are willing to take great risks. Most extreme athletes have a complicated relationship with risk,” Kircher said. “They feel through a careful progression of skill, they are not risking as much as it may seem. I think this belief allows them to take further risks, and even to see what others might think extremely risky as just blasé.”

But blasé never looked so deadly.

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