Up We Go
I still remember the feeling vividly. Mid-June 2016. I sat alongside five or six others in a tiny fuselage. It was a small plane…no bigger than your average Subaru (okay, maybe a little bigger). I peered out one of the windows…nothing but a vast grey canvas stretched out before me…clouds as far as the eye could see! Outside the plane the air was breezy and cold. Beams of diffuse light shined down through the sky, yet we couldn’t feel the sun’s warmth. My stomach sank. The pulse in both my chest and forearms raced. Deep breaths, I told myself.
I was embarking upon one of the archetypal adventures that modern people seek out! How high had our plane risen? 15,000 feet? 17,000 feet? 20,000 feet? Had we reached the cusp of outer space? Nope. We had only reached an elevation of 5,000 feet. Oh my! It took about 10 minutes before we reached our intended altitude (13,000 feet above sea level). The little portal opened, and out everybody went…one by one.
Prepping to Fly
My turn came. I looked at my tandem partner/instructor (I don’t remember his name. We’ll just call him Mike). Mike was good. He had this all under control; he readied his backpack and harness. “Hold on, one moment. I just need to make sure the parachute is properly secured,” he told me. I’m kidding. He didn’t say that. But imagine if he did! He secured my harness, locked his belt-buckle with mine, and stood behind me as I approached the plane’s tiny opening. Blue skies and gravity waited for us.
And then…. WHOOOSH!! Out we went. The earth- so far below and yet so attracted to our beauty and energy and grace- pulled Mike and I with breathtaking force towards it. Truthfully, it wasn’t like a plumb dropping. It really was like flying!! My lips flapped in the wind…not unlike a candy wrapper caught in the open window of a car zooming down the highway…and my mouth was bone dry!
The clouds parted, and the verdant, summertime terrain appeared before us. We could see each distinct tree branch and twig from our position (I’m kidding). We were approximately 1-3 thousand feet above the earth. Mike yanked on his parachute. This was the critical moment! If it failed, we’d both smash into the earth and the infinite void that follows (and, yes, I would literally have to ghost-write all my articles). Thankfully it didn’t. The parachute opened with ease. We glided gracefully into the ground (feet first). “That was fun. Let’s do it again!” I can imagine the 7-year-old version of myself saying. It was very exhilarating, though, and I would really recommend it (you know…unless you suffer from severe acrophobia!).
To the Extreme
Extreme sports…the domain of daredevils and adrenaline junkies. Am I one? Perhaps. But, if so, I’m more of a “measured” adrenaline junkie. I have a cousin who’s more extreme than I am, though (he’s married with kids, so probably less now than he once was, but once an adventurer always an adventurer!) A pure outdoor connoisseur, my cousin would zip down ski-slopes on one leg (blind-folded). He’d traverse chasms and waterfalls on tightropes, he’d scale glass skyscrapers with suction cups, and he’d “smoke jump” out of planes into forests raging with wildfires. Okay. The last part is true. The rest I made up (although he and his family are very gifted skiers!).
When it comes to my potential adrenaline junkie “cravings,” though, bungee-jumping, indoor rock climbing, and, yes, skydiving will suffice. If someone paid me to climb up one of those sky-high lightbulb or satellite towers, I might also do that…one careful footstep at a time. It is something of a cliché to say that “the closer to death you are, the more alive you feel.” It’s kind of tacky, but in some situations, it really is spot-on. The way our nervous systems approach reality varies from person-to-person. Not for everyone. Most of us are the same. But let’s look at those for whom the variation really is enormous. Some of these individuals become firefighters. Others become Navy SEALS, and somewhere along the line is our group of extreme sports athletes.
Evel Knievel‘s Background
Several prominent names leap out (no pun intended). Let’s begin with the one who is arguably the most famous extreme sports daredevil of all time—Evel Knievel. Robert Craig Knievel was born on October 17, 1938, outside Butte, Montana.1 He spent his youth frequently incarcerated for stealing motorcycles and hubcaps (including a Harley-Davidson at age 13).1. Legends circulated that his brushes with the law drove the police to nickname him “Evil Knievel.”1. Knievel liked the nickname, modified it to “Evel,” and took it as his legal name.1. Knievel dropped out of high school and took several odd jobs (including one in a Butte copper mine).1. One story has it that, while attempting to do a wheelie, Knievel caused a power outage when he crashed an earthmover into the city’s main power line.1.
Evel Knievel’s Stunts
Knievel performed his first motorcycle stunt in his late 20s.1. He wanted to stimulate business for the motorcycle shop he co-owned, and, as part of the stunt, he jumped over rows of parked cars, a caged cougar, and a box of rattlesnakes.1. Knievel, who always arrived at every stunt clad in his trademark, star-spangled red, white, and blue jumpsuit, performed with his troupe—Evel Knievel’s Motorcycle Daredevils—from 1965-1968.1. Knievel eventually went solo and performed over 300 jumps.1. He claims to have broken nearly every bone in his body at least once.1.
In 1968, Knievel performed what is perhaps his most famous stunt—a spectacular jump over the fountains at Caesars Palace Hotel in Las Vegas (later parodied in The Simpsons).1. He botched the landing, fracturing his skull and going comatose for a month afterward.1. Knievel performed many well-publicized stunts after his recovery.1. He jumped over 50 cars at the Los Angeles Coliseum (1973), unsuccessfully attempted to soar over the Snake River Canyon (Idaho) using a rocket-powered motorcycle (1974), cleared 13 buses at Wembley Stadium in London (1975), and leapt over a shark-filled tank in Chicago (1976).1. Knievel died from diabetes & idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis on November 30, 2007.
“Man on the Wire”
What discussion of daredevils would be complete without mentioning Philippe Petit? Petit, born in Nemours, Seine-et-Marne, France on August 13, 1949, was truly a colorful person. His father was an army pilot. At an early age, Petit discovered climbing, magic, and juggling. At 16, he took his first steps on a tightrope wire. As he once told a reporter:
Within one year, I taught myself to do all the things you could do on a wire. I learned the backward somersault, the front somersault, the unicycle, the bicycle, the chair on the wire, jumping through hoops. But I thought, “What is the big deal here? It looks almost ugly.” So, I started to discard those tricks and to reinvent my art.2.
Petit performed numerous unauthorized high wire walks throughout his storied career (no pun intended). These stunts included one between the towers of Notre Dame Cathedral (Paris) in 1971, the Sydney Harbour Bridge in 1973, and the Twin (World Trade Center) Towers in New York City on August 7, 1974.3. “Le coup,” as he referred to it, took place 400 meters above the ground.4. Petit rigged a 200-kilogram (440-pound) cable between the two towers, and he used a custom-made-8-metre (30-foot) long, 25-kilogram (55-pound) balancing pole throughout his performance. He stayed atop the wire for 45 minutes (dancing, laying down, and kneeling to saluting viewers), and he made 8 passes along the wire.
Petit’s Prowess in New York City and Elsewhere
Petit, who has since lived in New York City, has been an artist-in-residence at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine (which he has put on numerous aerial performances for). He teaches workshops on the art of tightrope-walking and has tried his hand at various other pursuits—equestrianism, fencing, carpentry, slacklining, and bullfighting. In 2008, director James Marsh produced a documentary (Man on Wire) about his Twin-Tower performance. Robert Zemeckis would later dramatize the story in 2015’s The Walk, with Joseph Gordon-Levitt.
Philip Petit has conducted additional highwire performances at the Centre Georges Pompidou (Paris), Museum of the City of New York (New York City), Lincoln Center (New York City), the Louisiana Superdome (New Orleans), and in Frankfurt, Switzerland, Vienna, Jerusalem, Tokyo, and Belgium. He expressed tremendous grief and sorrow alongside his fellow New York City residents that fateful September morning when one of his primary highwire venues came crashing down!
On March 15, 2012, Austrian daredevil Felix Baumgartner completed the first of two test jumps from 21,818 meters (71,581 feet)- right at the edge of space (stratosphere). He spent an approximate 3 minutes and 43 seconds in free fall and reaching speeds of 580 kilometers/hour (360 mph) before opening his parachute.
In 1982, truck driver Larry Walters engineered an incredibly creative stunt of manufacturing and then putting to use his own homemade flying machine.5 Walters, who lived in San Pedro, California, called his aircraft- an ordinary lawn chair rigged to 45 helium weather balloons- the Inspiration I.5 He intended to use a pellet gun he carried with him to shoot out some balloons and make a graceful descent back to earth.5. However, he ended up climbing to an altitude of 15,000 feet.5. After 45 minutes of flight, he shot down a few balloons, drifted back to earth, caught his vessel in some power lines, and caused a major blackout.5. Having traveled unauthorized into federal air space, authorities arrested him, and, when they asked why he did it, Walter simply responded: “A man just can’t sit around.”5.
Eddie Kidd, a famous daredevil & stuntman, undertook over 3,000 death-defying motorcycle jumps (including one for Pierce Brosnan in the 1990s Bond films).5. Kidd famously jumped 120 feet over a Hanover Street railway span in 1979, over the Great Wall of China on a bike, and 80 feet over a gap in a 50-foot-high viaduct.5. He suffered a tragic accident in 1996 at a motorcycle rally in England and spent six weeks in a coma.5. Although he used a wheelchair, he made a solid recovery and vowed to return to the world of bike racing (which he did so in June of 2007).5.
Annie Edson Taylor and Charles Blondon
63-year-old schoolteacher Annie Edson Taylor was the first person to go over Niagara Falls in a wooden barrel.5. Charles “The Little Wonder” Blondon (a.k.a. “The Great Blondon), a 19th century French acrobat and tightrope walker, spanned a 160-foot-high gorge beneath Niagara Falls on a tightrope (1859).5. He did so blindfolded, pushing a wheelbarrow, wearing stilts, cooking/dining on an omelet, and carrying a man on his back.5. Frenchman Alain Robert pioneered the highly dangerous and often illegal sport of “urban climbing,” scaling over 85 structures and skyscrapers (including, but not limited to, the Eiffel Tower, Sydney Opera House, Sears Tower, and Petronas Towers).5 All climbs were free-handed.5.
The famous magician Harry Houdini performed various stunts in which a participant would handcuff or lock him in a crate/glass box and lower him underwater.5 This required Houdini to hold his breath for over 3 minutes as he made his ingenious escapes!5. Other dangerous tricks of his included the so-called “Chinese Water Torture Cell” and the infamous one in which participants buried him alive under six feet of earth (he barely managed to escape with his life)5.
Distinguishing Between Real and Manufactured Terror
All the above daredevils are fun to read about and watch. Films like The Walk (2015), Free Solo (2019), and even 127 Hours (2010)- a darker survival tale about real-life mountaineer Aron Ralston (whom James Franco portrays)- have an undeniable appeal. These stunts, though, are the “adrenaline junkie” equivalents of hard drugs like fentanyl or heroin. Proverbial marijuana/cocaine will do just fine for me. Upon critical self-evaluation, though, this proclivity of mine for “extreme” activities (bungee-jumping, skydiving, rock-climbing) clashes with the warier side of my personality. It is a side that is far more apprehensive about other ominous realities…realities like the uncertainty of the future and the inevitability of death!
Or…perhaps that is the very reason such a proclivity exists in the first place! “Extreme” activities provide something direct and apparent. Roller coasters can elicit the feelings of potential fear and then actual reality within the confines of a relatively safe and singular experience. Skydiving, indoor rock-climbing, bungee jumping, and downhill skiing/snowboarding can accomplish something similar. Fire up the amygdala. Give it a robust workout. But don’t let it take the wheel. Finish up whatever activity you do and feel a sense of both relaxation and accomplishment.
The opposite…the kind of “adrenalized experience” many of us undergo…is far worse. It’s not excitement we feel but “anxiety.” Not the kind of anxiety you might have when giving a speech or taking a test, but the kind that lingers indefinitely. The face of it is never clear. The adrenaline is prepping for something…but what?!? We don’t know. An unforeseen accident? A scary diagnosis? The collapse of the world’s economy? The slow-moving disintegration of one’s marriage? Nothing about these floating, omnipresent fears are useful or desirable in any way, shape, or form. They merely shorten one’s lifespan. The heart-pounding sensation of leaping out a plane or scaling a rocky precipice, though…I think my cousin and I would both agree that those make life very interesting in a good way!!
 Tomkins, Calvin, “The Man Who Walks on Air,” New Yorker Magazine, 1999, excerpted in Life Story, by David Remnick, Modern Library Paperback edition, 2001.
 Lichtenstein, Grace (8 August 1974). “Stuntman, Eluding Guards, Walks a Tightrope Between Trade Center Towers”. The New York Times. Retrieved 18 April 2008. Combining the cunning of a second-story man with the nerve of an Evel Knievel, a French high-wire artist sneaked past guards at the World Trade center, ran a cable between the tops of its twin towers and tightrope-walked across it yesterday morning.
 Marsh, James (Director) (2008). Man on Wire (Documentary).