“For Sale: Whitewater kayak. Gently Used.”
If you’ve been amongst it, there’s those moments that keep you awake at night. The ones where you just made it. And now the gear is a reminder. Things go wrong out there. It gets spooky, dropping into lines so steep the Earth disappears beneath you; surfing gigantic seas, jumping off incredibly high stuff. But we do it anyway; for the joy, the lessons, the sensory experiences that lead to a calmness and satisfaction within that can only be matched by…drugs?
And we do an incredibly good job rationalizing our participation in sports that take us to the edge. We know that heart disease, cancer, stroke, and respiratory disease will kill us before an accident outdoors, according to the Center for Disease Control.
But assuming dropping a waterfall really is more hazardous than crossing the street, statistics aside, which extreme sport is actually the most dangerous? We collected as much data as we could, both empirical and anecdotal, to determine which of the “extreme” pursuits is the gnarliest. Here’s our ranking:
1. BASE Jumping, Wingsuit Flying, and Hang Gliding
Pretty much every outdoor athlete we talked to agreed that wingsuit flying is the most dangerous of the extreme sports. Even the burliest big wall climbers, paddlers and surfers seem to soften when discussing it.
“It certainly qualifies amongst the most fun activities that a human can engage in,” explained JT Holmes, an aerial stunt coordinator/performer and an award-winning coordinator of BASE jumping commercials. He’s also one of the best extreme skiers of all time. “We achieve acceleration akin to race car driving, but in a pure fashion, by flying our bodies, or by simply letting gravity do all the work and going along for the ride.”
Not only is flying the most counter intuitive action sport to our survival instincts, but there’s absolutely zero margin for error. Your single parachute system is the only brake you have. “Toss it out strategically and well balanced and it works brilliantly,” Holmes continues. “It is simple and easy and it works every time. The problem lies within the human. Over time, we tend to botch the sequence.”
BASE jumping is often considered one of, if not the most, dangerous extreme sports, with overall fatalities in 2002 (current numbers are difficult to source) estimated at approximately one fatality per 60 participants. Comparable to that is space travel, with a 1 in 57 chance of being killed on each flight, according to The Explorer’s Journal. Hang Gliding will kill 1 in 560 participants, according to researchers at the Postgraduate Medical Journal, compared to, say, SCUBA diving, where only 1 in 34,000 will perish.
Outside magazine also listed BASE jumping as the “most dangerous adventure sport,” followed by free diving. Diving to 400 feet below sea level creates a sense of oxygen-deprived euphoria – and for many athletes, this sense of euphoria is recreated when operating in the red zone, when consequences are most serious.
“We have no role cages, no harnesses, no proven courses, no SNELL-rated helmets scientifically designed to protect us if things go wrong,” Holmes said. “And most notably, we don’t have readily available brakes. Our brakes are a one-shot deal and our gas pedal gets pinned to the floor the moment we cross the line into freefall. I think of it like a bottle of champagne that has been shaken up. Once you step off the edge, you have popped the bottle. There’s no stopping that speed… and you don’t want to, because like fine champagne, it’s grand. It tastes good, feels even better, and leaves you refreshed but wanting more.”
Climbing is hard on the human species. Above 6,000 meters in the Himalayas the pursuit is statistically the most dangerous mountain sport with 10 to 12.6 deaths for every 100 mountaineers.
Climbers in Nepal have an estimated annual mortality risk of 1 in 167, says the Centre for Applied Psychology in Liverpool, yet recreational climbers only risk dying 1 in 1,750 times they go out. Expert climbers overall should expect to lose .0145 friends per 100. And about 30 climbers die each year in the United States from falling, rockfall and other causes — about the same number of skiers and snowmobilers killed annually by avalanches in the U.S., according to Climbing magazine. The same report says you’ve got a 1 in 25 chance of dying above base camp on Annapurna.
This is to say nothing of free soloing, which is, relatively speaking, such an obscure sport it doesn’t statistically enter the radar, although pretty much everyone agrees it’s the “most dangerous.” Said Boulder’s Brad Gobright, an up and coming free soloer, “You often have to experience danger to enjoy the sport and put yourself in desirable positions, like El Capitan or the Himalayas. Some of my biggest goals in climbing are on fantastic routes where danger is something you just have to face.”
“The fact that climbing is so dangerous is what makes it so special…Fear is a form of self-preservation – I never turn my fear button off,” alpinist Conrad Anker told a standing-room-only audience in Boulder, Colo. last year. Anker, of course, is famed for many first ascents and for recovering the body of George Mallory from Mount Everest in 1999.
Author and alpinist Jon Krakauer, who speaks eloquently about risk in Anker’s 2015 film Meru, added, “The great question is how to justify climbing when something goes wrong.”
The Postgraduate Medical Journal found that for Yosemite trad climbers, the chances of dying when “climbing actively every third weekend for two days during a year” is 1 in 429, assuming the estimated number of climbers at 37,500. The mortality rate among trekkers in Nepal was .014 per 100 during two periods between 1984 and 1991 while .308 mountaineers per 100 will die on Denali and 0.031 per 100 mountaineers will perish on Mt. Rainier.
3. Whitewater Kayaking
Ask a climber what scares them the most and they often say drowning. But statistically, only one in 10,000 canoeists (that term includes kayaks internationally) will die each year.
Said professional whitewater kayaker Eric Jackson, former Olympian and president of Jackson Kayaks, “There are old kayakers and bold kayakers, but there are no old, bold kayakers… everyone eventually learns about their own mortality and realizes that there is a path that can only lead to disaster. There is a fine line between that path and a wonderfully challenging, adventurous path that leads to a lifetime of learning and fun — barring unforeseen issues of course.”
“Class 5 kayaking is more dangerous for one person than another, based on skill and being careful,” Jackson adds. “I’m comfortable with all extreme sports, in that running within your skill level is challenging, but not overwhelming, most of the time. However, accidents happen in all sports and to be careful is the key…letting your guard down is the mistake.”
Laurence Gonzales said in his definitive book on the subject, Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why, that 90 percent of people will panic or freeze when confronted with a life-threatening situation. “I think the most dangerous sport is the one you aren’t prepared for,” explained five-time Everest summiteer Melissa Arnot, whose Nepalese climbing partner was swallowed by icefall right in front of her eyes while on recon a few years ago
4. Extreme Skiing and Riding
The skiing fatality rate is 1 in 1.4 million participants; snowboarding is just 1 in 2.2 million. The Postgraduate Medical Journal puts downhill skiing (surveyed at Utah ski resorts) at 2.46 deaths per million exposure days. But that’s not really the kind of skiing and riding we’re talking about.
“I’ve had some close calls over 20 years of playing in serious terrain,” said professional snowboarder and big mountain pioneer Jeremy Jones, star of numerous TGR films and founder of Jones Snowboards. “I’ve made mistakes where I can make mistakes — and that’s really important.”
“Ironically, when it comes to the no-fall, no-mistake zone, I really respect those, and because of that, that’s not where the close calls have happened to me,” Jones continued, asserting that more accidents happen on intermediate backcountry terrain than on extreme terrain. “The deal with backcountry skiing and snowboarding is that its very complex and reading avalanches is really tricky, and the most extreme terrain can be safer than intermediate terrain. That’s just an example, but if you die in an avalanche, you’ve made a mistake, and some are more blatant than others. I’ve made thousands of good calls, but one bad call can negate that. It’s not a clear science — the mountains did not go to the same avy course that you did.”
Eric “Hende” Henderson, former Valdez Heli and Jackson Hole Mountain Resort Ski Guide broke his back in three places on April 17, 2009, while skiing Meteorite Peak near Valdez, Alaska. “It changed my life entirely, from being at the leading edge of ski guiding to being within millimeters of paralysis, a shattered neck and exposed spinal cord. I felt absolutely ashamed, like I was letting my operation down, letting clients down, I was embarrassed in a lot of ways, and the emotional roller coaster of surviving is pretty difficult.” Hende was so broken, he said, he couldn’t imagine ever skiing at that level again. Five years later he went back and climbed Meteorite under human power and skied that line, documented in the film From the Road.
“Today is a great day not to die in an avalanche,” said Jones. “I think being reckless is really stupid, but I also think that too much of society is obsessed with making it to 100 years old and living in these super-padded safety bubbles, and I don’t think that’s doing any favor to society.”
5. Cycling, Road and Mountain
While a sport like bicycling may seem fairly benign, with 7.1 deaths per one million participants, or 1 in 140,845, according to the National Safety Council, on February 29, 2016, VeloNews reported German pro cyclist Arnold Fiek plunged 39 feet off a bridge during the GP Lugano in Switzerland, bouncing off a wall and landing in Lake Lugano. He survived. What other professional sport results in 50 mile-per-hour crashes onto pavement with no pads and guaranteed broken bones every race?
“People always say, ‘Oh, you do this bike racing, (you) backcountry ski, isn’t that so dangerous? You’re so crazy.’ I’ll tell you what,” said ski coach and former U.S. Road Biking Champion Timmy Duggan, “The most scared I ever am for my life is driving with my wife and kid on board, surrounded by a bunch of yahoos on their iPhones driving 4,000-pound steel boxes.” According to the Harvard School of Public Health, your risk of dying in a car accident is 1 in 6,700.
One study estimates up to 800 cyclists per year are killed and 40,000 injured in the U.S. Duggan, who during his pro career suffered a half dozen broken collarbones, broken elbow, broken shoulder, broken tibial plateau, ribs, scapula, and a TBI with subarachnoid hemorrhage and subdural hematoma, believes that risk is “how accepting you are of the unknown.”
“If you are very confident in your skill, preparation and the environment you are in, you may not be taking much risk at all,” said Duggan. “For me the sport that blows my mind the most is the Red Bull Rampage style freestyle MTB events…I just can’t wrap my head around the risks those guys are taking, and the insane level they are performing at.”
Big Wave Surfing
And what of big wave surfing, you ask? Well statistically, it just doesn’t register. That’s not to say it isn’t inherently dangerous. It’s very much so. Mark Foo’s and Sion Milosky’s deaths in the big wave realm loom large over the community. But accidents like those are relatively rare in surfing—a sport that boasts a much larger participation rate than most action sports, simply based on ease of entry (softtops at Doheny anyone?). Why aren’t more people dying in the sport of big wave surfing? Thankfully, they’re not, but esteemed surf writer Brad Melekian looked at this very subject for The Surfer’s Journal:
Statistically, surfing deaths are incredibly rare, despite the grip they seem to have on our collective imaginations. Though they’re not as sexy, there are a number of more deadly aquatic pursuits than surfing, each of them more blasé than the next. The most deadly water sport, according to the United States Coast Guard, is angling, far and away, which accounts for nearly 200 deaths each year. And when you include landlocked sports, it seems that most of your high school athletics are more dangerous than surfing—including cheerleading, gymnastics, and pole vaulting. There are fewer than 50,000 pole-vaulters in the United States, for instance (compared to five million surfers), and for at least two decades they have steadily had at least one of their legion die each year, according to the National Center for Catastrophic Sports Injury Research.