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Healthy Traveler

Cutting Risks of Adventure Sports

April 12, 1998|KATHLEEN DOHENY

Want to bungee jump, sky dive, conquer a raging river, climb a mountain?

Get in line, please.

"In the last 10 years, adventure travel has more than doubled," said Jerry Mallett, president of the Adventure Travel Society, a trade association based in Englewood, Colo. Americans are spending $220 billion a year on adventure travel, including tours and equipment.

What's the draw? Psychologists suggest that some people are adrenaline junkies. Then there's the supposedly shorter attention span of the MTV generation. And every adventure trip organizer seems to have a story about accountants or lawyers hoping to transform their image from buttoned-down and boring to unpredictable and daring.

If adventure sports have one common denominator, it is in being potentially hazardous to life and limb. As Casey Dale, president of the U.S. Bungee Assn., puts it when talking about bungee jumping hazards: "Obviously, the major risk is death."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday April 19, 1998 Home Edition Travel Part L Page 6 Travel Desk 1 inches; 34 words Type of Material: Correction
Health risks--Due to a reporting error in a Healthy Traveler column ("Cutting Risks of Adventure Sports," April 12), the statistic for fatalities in bungee jumping was misstated in some editions. Eleven deaths have been reported since 1991.

But Dale and others involved in such pursuits also point out that risks are relative. When viewed statistically, extreme sports can appear less risky than lounging in your own backyard. In 1995, for instance, 85 people in this country were killed by lightning, according to the National Safety Council. That's three times the number of fatalities attributed to sky diving.

One point is indisputable, experts say: Adventure travelers who prepare themselves for the activity, know the risks and choose a tour group or guide wisely can substantially reduce injury risks.

Here are the risk factors and advice for reducing the danger in half a dozen popular adventure travel pursuits.

Bungee jumping

Dale, of the U.S. Bungee Assn., estimates the risk of death at one per 350,000 jumps. In 1991, he said, 11 deaths were attributed to bungee jumping in North America. But nine involved crew who may have gotten complacent, tried risky maneuvers or both on their own jumps.

Whiplash is a common complaint of jumpers, as is "bungee slap"--an injury such as a split lip or a black eye from the cord hitting the jumper in the face.

To minimize risk, Dale advises travelers to make sure that the jump site they choose has a site operations manual that includes safety protocols. At a legitimate site, every jumper is weighed first and the bungee cord is adjusted accordingly, said Dale, who is an owner or partner of three jump sites and about 50 jump towers.

Before the jump, "at least two people should check your system, anchors and attachment points," Dale said. "If only one person checks, and that person has had a bad day, you are going to have a worse day."

Sky diving

In 1997, there were 3.25 million jumps in the U.S., where fatalities have been averaging about 30 per year, said Dany Brooks of the U.S. Parachute Assn.

Nonfatal injuries most often occur while landing, she said, and include broken ankles, back injuries, and leg and foot problems.

To minimize risk, jumpers are advised to use a USPA-affiliated drop site. Affiliated drop zones must follow certain standards. And USPA-certified jump masters have had standardized instruction.

A first-timer's common mistake, Brooks said, is to get too little sleep the night before the jump.

Hot-air ballooning

Deaths from hot-air balloon mishaps number about three per year in the United States, according to a study published earlier this month in the Journal of the American Medical Assn.

Dr. Clayton T. Cowl, a Mayo Clinic epidemiologist and hot-air balloon pilot, and colleagues reviewed all hot-air balloon crashes reported to the Civil Aeronautics Board and the National Transportation Safety Board from 1964 to 1995. In all, there were 92 deaths that resulted from 495 crashes involving 1,533 people. Pilot error or incapacitation contributed to 85.1% of the crashes. Collisions with power lines were blamed for 27.7% of crashes and 44.6% of deaths.

The Mayo researchers recommended education programs for operators and safety improvement by manufacturers to reduce risks.

White-water rafting

Three or four deaths per year occur on organized white-water rafting trips in the U.S., said David Brown, executive director of America Outdoors, a trade group for adventure travel in Knoxville, Tenn. There are 4 million guided white-water rafting trips per year in the U.S., he estimated.

White-water rafters are more commonly injured on land than in the water, he said. "They slip on rocks or run into trees."

Brown encourages travelers to ask in advance about the difficulty of the river they're interested in rafting and to know how fit they are expected to be. Anyone with a medical condition should ask the outfitter if he or she has dealt with that condition.


Often, trekking injuries involve the inability of the traveler to adjust to high altitude, said Tom Stanley, manager of the medical program for Mountain Travel Sobek, an El Cerrito, Calif., organizer of expeditions. He knew of no statistics on trekking fatalities.

The trekkers who most often get into trouble, he said, are those who travel without a guide and ascend too rapidly. Lack of physical fitness also increases risk of injury and mishap, he added.

Potential trekkers inquiring about Mountain Travel Sobek trips are given fitness guidelines. "About a dozen people a year are turned down because of fitness issues," Stanley said.

Mountain climbing

In 1996, 31 fatalities were attributed to mountaineering accidents in the U.S., according to the American Alpine Club, the national organization for climbers.

Choosing an experienced guide is the best way to minimize risk.

The Healthy Traveler appears the second and fourth week of every month.

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