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The void calls

Why are some people compelled to rappel down slot canyons, surf big waves or -- at the far end of the danger spectrum -- jump from cliffs and bridges? Maybe they're wired that way, Charles Duhigg reports. Is that a bad thing?

June 29, 2004|Charles Duhigg

It was a bridge like this that killed Karin Sako's boyfriend. Seven months after his death, Sako stands on the wrong side of the railing separating pedestrians from a 486-foot drop and leans into empty air, her neon backpack stark against the gray canyon walls.

The arch bridge shakes as trucks rumble into Twin Falls, Idaho. Sako glances right, where her friend Jeb Corliss is perched -- also on the wrong side.

Corliss was with Sako's boyfriend when he died. He wiped sweat from his own cheeks and discovered it was his friend's blood. Now Corliss looks back and he too leans over the emptiness.

Sako pushes onto the balls of her feet and tightens her hands on the metal guardrail. If she falls unchecked, her body will hit the water in just over five seconds.

A terrified gaggle of girls watch from the canyon's edge. Why are they there? a pigtailed pre-adolescent whispers to another.

But if you pose the query to Sako, who has risked hundreds of jumps like this one, she'll say only: "You never have to ask anyone that question in this sport."

Pull of peril

Since Adam and Eve's slip-up in the Garden of Eden when mankind became mortal, we have been fascinated by risk and its consequences. The instinct to confront danger pushes skiers from the bunny slopes to the double diamonds and propels day hikers to slippery granite peaks.

It's a fascination familiar to big wave surfers, deep divers, backcountry boarders and people who like to jump from high places. In the last decade geneticists, psychologists and armchair philosophers have labored to understand why. Some say brain chemistry causes a few to leap toward rather than avoid danger. Others say daredevils are programmed by genes and childhood.

Ultimately, Sako and Corliss claim, simply asking the question means you cannot understand its answer. It is a response cliched, inevitable, and ultimately, as dangerous as Adam and Eve's challenge to God.BASE jumping -- the acronym refers to the Buildings, Antennas, Spans, or bridges, and Earth, or cliffs, from which adherents leap -- is an amusement rooted in the possibility of death. For those who crave flight, there are planes, hang gliders and skydiving. BASE jumpers, however, typically leap from heights far lower than the 1,800-foot elevation at which regulations require parachutists to deploy their canopies.

Their flights last only seconds. An estimated one in 82,000 skydives is fatal, reports "Parachuting, The Skydiver's Handbook." Approximately one in 1,000 BASE jumps ends in death, according to statistics complied by industry leaders. Which may be one reason why so few people routinely fling themselves off cliffs, bridges and the like -- just 3,000 or so worldwide, says Todd Shoebotham, co-owner of a company that produces parachutes.

Euphoria's slave

"It's what's known as a life experience," explains Corliss, describing a jump from a cliff in South Africa where he broke multiple ribs, his back in three places and sat immobile in freezing water for an hour awaiting rescue while crabs ate the flesh around his back wounds. "Not all life experiences are fun, but I wouldn't change it for the world."

Corliss, 28, is every parent's nightmare and many daredevils' idol. His speech is a torrent of words punctuated by a high-pitched, out-of-place laugh. He hasn't worn a piece of clothing in any color but black since he was 12 years old, he says. He has a theory for everything, all delivered at top decibels, and, due to contracts with film and television producers, makes more money than some physicians. He shaves his head and wears sunglasses that make him look like a bug. He doesn't care what you, or anyone else, thinks of his choices. He still lives with his parents. Fifty years ago, Corliss' infatuation with dangerous sports would have been dismissed as a death wish. But research in the last half-century has challenged many of psychology's traditional explanations.

In the mid-1970s, psychologist Bruce Ogilvie tested 250 athletes like Corliss from a variety of sports, including skydiving and race-car driving, and found many risk-takers possessed superior intelligence, emotional stability and independence when compared with the population at large. He also discovered that, paradoxically, high-risk athletes made concerted efforts to minimize the dangers associated with their sports.

Ogilvie's findings are consistent with other studies. A 1994 paper followed juvenile criminal offenders enrolled in a dangerous cliff-climbing course. Graduates of the program reported higher self-confidence afterward, and recidivism dropped by 50%. Another study exposed single mothers on welfare who refused to enroll in college courses to a four-day program of risk-taking activities. Seventy-three percent of participants signed up for vocational education afterward.

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