Extreme sports offer a glimpse into the future Thrill seekers: The margin for error is minute, and the price of error is often your life. But today's extreme sports may well become tomorrow's mainstream recreational activities.

January 07, 1996|By Mike Steere | Mike Steere,UNIVERSAL PRESS SYNDICATE

"I have nothing to prove to anyone," Jan Davis says of her favorite outdoor pastime. "I do it because I enjoy it."

Lulled by the slow, warm voice -- she sounds like the grandmother she is -- you might imagine that the subject is orchid-growing or birding.

Ms. Davis is, in fact, talking about making a 3,212-foot parachute drop from a cliff at Venezuela's Angel Falls, the world's highest cataract. This harrowing leap, which Ms. Davis says about 80 people have made, is a quintessential "extreme" sport as the word is defined by risk-addicted outdoor athletes.

In extreme sports, the margin for error is minute, and the price of error is often your life.

"Smack into the object from which you jumped, and you die," Ms. Davis says of BASE (Building, Antenna tower, bridge Span, Earth) jumping, the incredibly unforgiving, no-airplane version of sky diving.

This autumn you, too, can jump Angel Falls on a trip led by Ms. Davis and her partner, Tom Sanders. The pair runs Aerial Focus, a Santa Barbara, Calif.-based company specializing in sky-diving cinematography, film stunts and exhibition jumps.

Aerial Focus started its Angel Falls trips at the urging of the owners' sky-diving friends. To take the plunge, you need to be a certified expert parachutist with about $5,000. (Cost is $3,500 from Caracas for the eight-day trip, which includes a night in Caracas at the beginning and end of the trip, a canoe trip down a jungle river, three nights at a jungle camp, scouting the falls, instructions, a preparatory helicopter jump and one jump at the falls.)

You also need nerve. More than 30 BASE jumpers have been killed worldwide, a few at Angel Falls. The sport is banned for recreational jumpers in the United States except in extraordinary cases, such as an annual jump at the New River Gorge in West Virginia.

By being extreme in the purist's sense, Aerial Focus' Venezuelan outing is a great rarity in commercial adventure travel, where risks to clients are almost always more apparent than real.

The sensations might be extreme on guided adventures, but the hazards usually aren't. Serious accidents are flukes rather than routinely accepted happenings.

Lately the word "extreme" has taken the path trod by adventure travel -- more high-adrenalin buzz than deadly danger. The word has gone commercial, too, crop-ping up in ads, on clothes and gear labels.

ESPN's "Extreme Games" is a weeklong Olympics of Generation X thrill sports like sky surfing -- sky diving with a board attached to the feet, the better to do aerobatic stunts. Competitors also water-ski towed by kites, race road luges (wheeled sleds) on mountain roads and try to outdo each other board-sailing, mountain biking and in-line skating.

These often-bizarre sports are thrilling to watch, and undoubtedly thrilling to perform, but they don't necessarily involve the serious risks to life on which extreme sport purists insist.

"Those of us who have some understanding of the meaning of the word, all we can do is sit back and laugh," says Eric Perlman, a California filmmaker and writer with extreme bona fides going back to the 1970s.

Mr. Perlman was one of the first U.S. adherents to a code of near-suicidal sports fanaticism established by French skiers and mountaineers. ("Extreme," like many English words, has French origins.) As it spread from the Alps, extreme came to embrace free solo climbing (no ropes or hardware) and the most difficult and risky forms of mainstream pastimes like surfing, river-running and mountain biking.

Mr. Perlman, who skied extreme (steep slopes in remote areas) and now chronicles death-defying efforts, says the word "extreme" has fallen out of favor among the outdoor elite.

But the spirit lives on. "BASE jumping is, by definition, an extreme sport," Mr. Perlman says, his voice full of admiration. Given the risks and necessary skill and composure, it will probably stay that way, defying mainstreaming forever.

Meanwhile, though, some activities that now seem just as bizarre and dangerous will cross over to wider acceptance. Sooner or later we'll be doing them on guided trips, thrilled, but not in terror for our lives. Much of today's commonplace outdoor recreation and adventuring was once considered extreme.

Equipment has gotten better and easier to use, so many can now do safely what were once daredevil stunts. New techniques have been devised. In some cases, the limits were mostly perceptual: Things just turned out to be much

less dangerous than they seemed at first.

River-running is a case study in how the extreme gets less so.

Until about a decade ago, the world's wildest runnable rapids were beyond the pale for commercial outfitters. The breakthrough was the self-bailing raft.

Before the self-bailer, only river-running's elite could take on monstrously rough rivers like South America's Bio Bio and Africa's Zambezi. First descents of such streams were potentially deadly plunges into the unknown, on the order of BASE jumping Angel Falls. Now they're scheduled trips.

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