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10 Extreme Adventures That Resulted in Fatalities
On Sunday, June 18, Stockton Rush, CEO and co-founder of OceanGate, a commercial endeavor that provides submersibles and crew for ocean tourism as well as exploration and research, dropped his 23,000-pound (10.432-kilogram) submersible Titan onto the HMS Titanic’s final resting place. He took with him four people, most of whom paid $250,000 to see the wreck through a small, reinforced portal with their own eyes.
But something catastrophic happened to the carbon fiber and titanium submersible on the way down, and all five perished. The imploded hull of the Titan was found not far from the Titanic’s debris at 2 miles (12,500 feet or 3,810 meters) below the surface. It would be easy to be critical of those who take risks and spend small fortunes for little more gain than the thrill. However, many of us like watching a scary movie, riding a rollercoaster, or skydiving to lift us out of the mundane. These people simply take it to the next level. Some activities are riskier than others, but the five people who climbed aboard the Titan submersible thought the risk well worth a once-in-lifetime experience.
“It’s a kind of sickness, like a venom in your veins that makes you want to go,” said adventurer Tomaž Rotar, “Because you want that beautiful feeling that comes when the danger is over and you know you have achieved something. And then you don’t even know how you lived before that, so you go back, and you do it again.” Another said, “If nobody died and it was 100 percent safe, that’s not an adventure.”
Here are 10 adventures that sadly resulted in death.
Related: 10 Creepiest Tales of Cave Diving
10 Climbing Mount Everest
It’s been 70 years since Tenzing Norgay and Sir Edmund Hillary became the first to climb Mount Everest, the world’s highest mountain at 29,000 feet (8,849 m) above sea level. Between 1953 and 2022, there were 2,222 expeditions to the summit, including 15,964 visitors guided there by 13,675 Sherpas, Himalayans living on the borders of Nepal and Tibet, renowned for mountaineering.
About a third of them successfully reached the summit, and 300 non-Sherpas and Sherpas lost their lives, roughly 1% of the total. Almost 84% of these deaths occurred on the descent after reaching the summit or after quitting before reaching the summit. The most prevalent causes of death for non-Sherpas were falls, exhaustion, illness associated with low levels of oxygen (about 30% of what is breathable at sea level), exposure to extreme cold, and avalanches and rock/ice falls. For Sherpas, avalanches were the cause of 44% of their deaths, with 16 of them dying in 2014 alone.
The climb up Everest starts at Base Camp at some 17,700 feet (5,400 meters) up the face of the mountain, and as the climber moves toward the summit, there are camp stops along the way. Camp 1 is called the Valley of Silence and is at 20,000 feet (6,100 meters). Camp 2 is about 1,000 feet (3.5 meters) higher at the foot of the icy Lhotse Wall. Camp 3 is actually on the 4,000-foot (1,200-meter) Lhotse Wall. Camp 4 is on a plateau at 26,000 feet (8,000 meters). There, the sky is a dark, icy blue as the climbers find themselves closer to outer space. The final leg of the journey is a 3,000-foot (914-meter) climb through the “Death Zone.”
“Death Zone” is an apt name for the final leg of the journey, as it is here the climbers face far greater dangers. In early May 1996, Adventure Consultants, a company that specialized in shepherding people to the summit, set out with 11 clients, three company guides, and an unknown number of Sherpas from Base Camp. One of the clients was 47-year-old Yasuko Namba, a woman intent on becoming the oldest person to reach the summit and the second Japanese woman to reach the last of the Seven Summits (the tallest mountains in all seven continents). One of the company guides, Andy Harris, was struck in the chest by a boulder the size of a television as he climbed the Lhotse Wall on May 8. He refused to quit.
Just after midnight on May 10, the party set off from Camp IV to the summit, but with some in the party struggling, it was not until well after 2 pm—the cut-off to safely begin descent before nightfall—that the party reached the summit. Most of the party was still descending when a blizzard hit at 5 pm, trapping them in the “Death Zone.”
One of the guides and co-founders of Adventures Consultants, Rob Hall, was able to contact his wife thru a SAT phone the next afternoon to tell her, “Sleep well, my sweetheart. Please don’t worry too much.” Hall and three others—including Namba and Harris—died in the blizzard. Hall was found frozen, and Harris’s body was never found. Four more died during that blizzard in another group.
9 BASE Wingsuit Jumping
BASE (an acronym for launching points, i.e., Buildings, Antenna or radio towers, Spans or bridges, and Earth or cliffs) jumping is considered the most dangerous recreational activity you can do, with an estimated one fatality for every 2,317 participants. Which is why it is outlawed in many places. And if the jumper is wearing what looks like a flying squirrel suit called a wingsuit, it allows them to fly or glide at 140 mph (225 km/h) before they pull their parachutes. At such speeds, the number of objects the participant can potentially collide with rises from one (the ground) to dozens, raising the risk exponentially to one in 500 participants.
Despite the risks, BASE wingsuit jumping is very popular, especially when movies like Point Break (2015), Transformers: Dark of the Moon (2011), and Fate of the Furious (2017) make it look cool. Almost from the beginning, wingsuit jumping has been killing people. Franz Reichelt, an Austrian-French tailor and inventor, was the first to attempt a wingsuit jump. Obtaining a special permit, Reichelt jumped off the first platform of the Eiffel Tower in 1912, only to have his wingsuit and parachute fail to deploy. He fell 187 feet (57 meters) to his death.
In June 2023, a retired British engineer named Mark Andrews, 65, stepped off the ledge at a popular BASE jumping site in the Italian Dolomites. According to some reports, he collided with the rock face before plunging 1,300 feet (400 meters) to his death. He’d only been BASE jumping for a few years, but he had more than 600 jumps under his belt. “He came to base jumping quite late. He’s only been doing it since 2014, but he packed a lot into those nine years,” a friend and fellow BASE jumper said.
8 Bungee Jumping
Bungee jumping is relatively straightforward: an elastic cord is attached to the jumper’s ankle or a harness at the waist. They then jump off a high static perch or a moving one (such as a helicopter), dropping most of the way until the elastic cord reaches its stretch limit. It was inspired by the ancient tradition of “land diving” practiced by the Vanuata tribe on Pentecost Island. The Oxford Dangerous Sports Club used this practice to inaugurate the first modern bungee jump in 1979 off the Clifton Suspension Bridge in Bristol, England.
Bungee jumping is relatively safe, with one in 500,000 fatalities, about the same as skydiving. But the crew attaching the bungee cord needs to be experienced and responsible. They need to check the rope for imperfections or potential breaks. On New Year’s Eve in 2011, Australian Erin Langworthy bungee jumped off a diving platform over the crocodile-infested Zambezi River, and the cord snapped, sending her 360 feet (110 meters) into the water. She survived.
The cord also needs to be the proper length. In 2000, an American vacationing in the Swiss Alps bungee jumped from the gondola of a cable car. However, the organizers gave him a cord that was too long. He fell 330 feet (100 meters) with a cord meant for a 590-foot (179-meter) jump. He died on impact.
And the organizers need to communicate effectively with the participants, which did not happen in Columbia in July 2021. Nearly 100 people were lined up along the railing of a 150-foot-high viaduct, waiting to be given the signal to jump. Yecenia Morales, 25, was beside her boyfriend near the end of the line. One of the organizers signaled the boyfriend to go ahead and jump, but Yecenia mistakenly thought the signal was for her. But she did not have a bungee cord attached yet, and she was dead before EMTs could get to her.
7 Shark Cage Diving
There’s something exciting about pitting ourselves against apex predators, and sharks are certainly that in their environment. Despite the media hype, shark attacks are relatively rare, with about 2,786 confirmed unprovoked attacks in the 60 years between 1958 and 2018. In the first decade of the 21st Century, an average of 4.3 people died yearly from shark attacks. The truth is, of the 450 shark species in the world, only a dozen have ever attacked humans, and only three—tiger, bull, and great white sharks—have at least 10 fatalities attributed to them.
Ever since the famous oceanographer Jacques Cousteau introduced shark cages in 1956, no one inside a shark cage has sustained more than minor injuries while in one. There have been close calls. In 2005, a Brit named Mark Currie had just dropped into the cage from a boat just off the South African coast when an 18-foot (6-meter) great white began tearing through the cage bars. When it bit the buoys that kept the cage afloat, it began to sink. Currie desperately lunged for the top of the cage and was pulled safely aboard the boat.
Two years later, off Guadalupe Island, a shark broke through the bars of a cage a diver occupied. Once entangled in the bars, it panicked, thrashing until it freed itself and swam away. The diver was unhurt. In fact, the sharks are more likely to injure themselves attacking a cage as one great white did in 2019 when it impaled and killed itself on a cage’s steel bars.
But shark cage diving is not without risks. In 2015, tourists boarded a shark cage excursion boat, and shortly after dropping anchor off the South African coast, they were about to deploy the cages. Then a freak wave capsized the boat. Nineteen people were thrown into the water, and three tourists—two Americans and one Norwegian—drowned. There were no sharks reported in the area during the mishap.
6 Deep Submersible Diving
Deep underwater tourism is relatively new, and the Titan accident was the first documented accident resulting in tourist fatalities. However, deep-underwater commercial and research submersibles themselves have been in use for decades, and there has been one recorded tragic accident.
In May 1972, the destroyer USS Fred T. Berry was purposely scuttled in waters off Key West to provide an artificial reef. A year later, the Johnson Sea Link, a 23-foot (7-meter) research submersible for the Smithsonian Institution, dove onto the wreck to retrieve fish traps and ascertain how well the new reef was developing. The Johnson Sea Link was designed for lockout diving, allowing scuba divers to leave and return to the sub without flooding the pilot’s compartment. Two people—seasoned diver Albert Stover and Edwin Link, son of the sub’s designer—rode in the sealed aluminum aft lockout compartment as mere observers, wearing shorts and shirts instead of dive suits.
The dive was supposed to last only an hour, but the submersible became entangled in the wreck’s cables and debris. In the growing cold, it was suggested that Link and Stover might open the lockout compartment and make a controlled free dive to the surface—360 feet (110 meters) above them. But ultimately, it was determined a free dive at such a depth was too risky. Trapped there for 24 hours, the pilot’s bubble-like compartment was insulated against the 40°F (4.4°C) water temperatures, but the aluminum aft compartment was not. The cold reduced the effectiveness of the chemical carbon dioxide scrubbers, and Link and Stover succumbed to carbon dioxide poisoning. The two divers in the pilot compartment survived.
5 Hiking the Antarctic
Antarctica has, for over a century, been the location for some to boast that they were “first.” Consider Ernest Shackleton, an officer in the mercantile marine service and a part of Robert Falcon Scott’s British National Antarctic Expedition of 1901–1904. Scott’s expedition failed to reach the South Pole, but Shackleton nevertheless caught the “first” bug.
Shackleton returned to Antarctica in 1907-1909, hoping to be the first to reach the South Pole, and did become the first to reach the polar plateau. But they were facing starvation and were forced to turn back just 97 nautical miles (112 miles or 180 kilometers) from the South Pole. He did manage to claim an eastern plateau, Victoria Land, for England, garnering a knighthood and being made a Commander of the Royal Victorian Order.
Before Shackleton could return, Norwegian Roald Amundsen’s party became the first to reach the South Pole on December 14, 1911. In his second attempt to reach the South Pole, Robert Falcon Scott arrived five weeks too late. Worse, while Amundsen’s party returned safely, Scott’s entire party was caught in a blizzard and perished.
With the South Pole already claimed, Shackleton set his sights on a far more ambitious feat: the first to cross the entire Antarctic continent. But, in 1914, his ship Endurance became trapped in ice on the Antarctic’s northern coast, and Shackleton never started his cross-continental journey. The ice carried the ship west and north before crushing and sinking the ship 10 months later. Shackleton managed to evacuate the entire crew onto ice flows and floated on them for an additional five months before arriving on Elephant Island in the South Shetland Islands.
But Elephant Island was remote and rescue unlikely, so Shackleton and five others risked an 800-mile (1,300-kilometer) voyage in a commandeered whaleboat to South Georgia, an island frequently visited by commercial ships. After reaching South Georgia, Shackleton led an expedition back to Elephant Island to rescue the rest of his crew and, miraculously, managed to bring his entire expedition home without loss of life. Shackleford died in 1922 on the way again to the Antarctic. He was just 47.
Shackleton was a personal hero of Retired British officer Henry Worsley, and he commemorated the centennial of Shackleton’s first expedition to the South Pole in 2008 with an expedition that followed the same route. Worsley returned in 2011 to follow Amundsen’s and Robert Falcon Scott’s route to the South Pole commemorating that centennial. He was back again in 2015 for the centennial of Shackleton’s aborted trans-continental expedition.
The Antarctic had been crossed before. It was crossed by tractor in 1957-58, by ski and dog sled in 1989-90, and solo on skis in 1996-1997. But it’s far more complicated. Antarctica is irregular-shaped, with the western half narrower than the eastern, meaning it’s a shorter distance to traverse the continent to the west. So explorers began to differentiate their crossing by whether it was to the west or east. Did they start or finish actually on the continent, or did they also travel the ice shelves that jutted out into the sea? Did they do it with the aid of dog sleds or kites or just their own boot leather? Did planes drop resupplies off along their route, or did they have to carry everything their entire journey?
Worsley intended to be the first to cross the continent solo without airdrops or resupplies and without sled dogs, kites, or any assistance. He started the journey in November 2015 and traveled 913 miles (1,469 kilometers) in 69 days, with just 30 miles (48 kilometers) to go when he radioed for help. He’d come down with bacterial peritonitis, a serious infection, and he was airlifted to Chile for surgery. He died the next day of organ failure.
After calling for help, Worsley made his final broadcast to his fans: “When my hero, Ernest Shackleton, was 97 [nautical] miles from the South Pole on the morning of January 9, 1909, he said he’d shot his bolt. Well, today, I have to inform you with some sadness that I, too, have shot my bolt.”
4 Walking a Highline
A tightrope is a heavy steel cable pulled tight so that it doesn’t bend or move laterally very much. A tightrope walker usually uses a pole to maintain balance and sometimes uses a harness, a net, or both. A slackline is a tubular nylon webbing that’s hollow like a straw which makes it much more flexible to bend and swing. Slacklines are stretched between two points just a few feet off the ground. Highlines are slacklines but stretched over heights, dozens or even hundreds of feet in the air. Highline walkers use their arms for balance and can use a harness, but they are often too high up to utilize a net.
Highlining has its origins among rock climbers in Yosemite National Park in the mid-1970s. Climbers found that walking parking lot chains and handrails strengthened their legs and core for the climbs they were about to make. Eventually, ropes were hung, and then, by the early 1980s, rock climbers Adam Grosowsky and Jeff Ellington used their climbing nylon webbing to walk on and found it superior to rope.
From that, slacklining was born, and in 1983, other rock climbers took the extra step of suspending the nylon over insane heights in Pasadena, California. Today, there are actual contests to do stunts—back flips, jumps, rope skipping—called tricklining.
But highlining is not without its dangers. High winds or even moderate winds can be deadly. In October 2018, in Brazil, a highliner stepped out onto a highline 65 feet (20 meters) in the air. As he reached the far end, thunder roared, and a light rain began falling. The highliner began pulling himself back to the starting perch in what is known as a hangover device when 62 mph (100 km/h) winds buffeted him so hard he could not hang on. When his harness came undone, he fell 42.5 feet (13 meters) to the ground. He was taken to the hospital and died three days later.
A year later, again in Brazil, a highline was rigged across a valley that dropped to as much as 164 feet (50 meters) in the middle. On one end, the highline and backup line was anchored to a pillar with bolts. On the other end, the highline and backup line was attached to a sling that was wrapped around a 1-ton concrete block at the top of a ridge. Three people walked the highline without incident, but for some unknown reason, the lines were re-rigged with the lines attached to two bolts atop the concrete block.
According to investigators, the weight of the fourth highliner pulled the block forward, throwing the highliner down the valley. After the fall, the highliner stood up, apparently unhurt, his harness still attached to the highline. But the concrete block continued down the slope, passing the highliner and dragging him the rest of the way down the ridge. His injuries were extensive, and he died afterward.
3 Cave Diving
The risk of dying while SCUBA diving is about the same as driving a vehicle, and about 5% of diving fatalities happen in submerged caves. By far, the greatest cause of death is running out of oxygen before reemerging from the cave. The rule of thumb is to start heading back to the cave entrance when you have a third of a tank of oxygen remaining, but it’s not that simple. In the darkness, in poor visibility, in the twists and turns of a cave, it is easy to get lost.
Just one area—Mt. Gambier in southern Australia—demonstrates the risks. In just 14 years between 1969 and 1983, there were 13 fatalities in six separate accidents in the area. In 1972, two inexperienced divers entered the Picanninnie Ponds spending 30 minutes of their air exploring the main chasm and cathedral. With just a third of their air remaining, they made the mistake of exploring a small cave. They did not have guidelines—ropes spooled out as they entered to follow on their way out. Nor were they using good silt management, and within minutes the cave was totally engulfed in silt. They lost contact with each other and their exit. One of them, after a few minutes of desperate searching, did find the exit. The other did not.
That same year, four divers decided to explore a cave just east of Mt. Gambier. The most experienced of the group told the other three to wait while he made sure it was safe. Again, they did not have guidelines. The first diver had barely entered the cave when the other three disregarded his warning, immediately silting up the entrance. Only one of the three divers found their way out.
A year later, eight divers entered a sinkhole known as “The Shaft” south of Mt. Gambier. The sinkhole opens into a large cavern with tunnels spoking off in different directions. The divers were experienced ocean divers but had zero experience in cave diving.
To give them a static reference point to the surface, they secured a diving shot line, basically a weighted line attached to a buoy. But the line extended only to 150 feet (46 meters) while the main chamber went to a depth of 460 feet (140 meters). They did not have guidelines or enough lamps (torches), nor were they mindful of the silt they stirred up. Four of the divers became disoriented—partly due to the extreme depth—and died. It took 11 months for their bodies to be recovered.
2 Orbiting the Earth
It’s probably unnecessary to recount how dangerous space flight can be, especially when billions are spent making such flights safe, and dozens of films and documentaries are aired recounting when they failed. Thirteen astronauts and cosmonauts have died while testing or training for space flight, including the three astronauts of Apollo 1 in 1967. Eighteen people have died going to, during, or leaving low Earth orbit. Fourteen of the fatalities were Americans, and four were Soviets. Seventeen of these were career space jockeys. And one was a civilian.
It’s true Christa McAuliffe did not ride the Shuttle Challenger for the simple thrill of it. She had a mission as a finalist in NASA’s Teacher in Space Program and was expected to broadcast live classes to schools all over the U.S. while in orbit. She was tapped to inspire kids to participate in the space program. McAuliffe had been a middle and high school teacher for 15 years, had a master’s degree in education, and sat on several local, state, and national councils and associations. And yet she would not have applied to the Teacher in Space Program if she didn’t want the rare experience of reaching low Earth orbit.
Today it’s not so strange for civilians to take a trip into space. In fact, in 2021, a billionaire procured four seats on SpaceX’s Inspiration 4 in the first all-civilian space flight. But in the shuttle days, civilian transport into space was new and relatively rare. The first civilian in space was a Utah Senator just nine months before McAuliffe’s flight, followed by a Saudi Arabian prince and a congressman.
On January 28, 1986, McAuliffe and six other members of STS 51-L climbed aboard the Challenger Shuttle. At lift-off, the O-rings in one of the two solid-fuel rockets failed, allowing hot gas exhaust to leak out, eroding the struts holding the rocket to the shuttle. The rocket fell away, its exhaust igniting the external fuel tank. The explosion was catastrophic, killing all aboard. NASA would not send another civilian into space for 13 years.
1 Completing Multiple Extreme Adventures
One of the men who perished in the submersible Titan on June 18 was Hamish Harding, a billionaire entrepreneur and ardent adventurer. And his list of adventures is impressive. He has frequented both the North and South Poles, helping to establish the first regular business jet service to the Antarctic in 2017. To the South Pole, Harding accompanied the oldest person to reach it, Apollo 11 hero Buzz Aldrin, 86, and the youngest, his own son Giles, 12.
To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing (2019), Harding made the fastest circumnavigation of Earth pole to pole. In 2021, Harding took a submersible to the deepest point on Earth’s surface—Challenger Deep in the Mariana Trench—setting records again. In June 2022, Harding went into space riding the New Shepherd rocket on its fifth Blue Origin mission. Unfortunately, Harding’s dive to the Titanic would be his last adventure.
No one should be surprised that many of these adventurers like to compete, and there are a number of benchmarks and goals they can pursue. We’ve already discussed the Seven Summits, which is not without controversy. Politically, there are seven continents, but geologically there are only six, with Europe considered a peninsula of the Eurasian continental plateau.
There’s also controversy as to which summit should be considered the highest in the Oceania continent: Mt. Kosciuszko in Australia or the Carstensz Pyramid in New Guinea. Richard Bass became the first to reach all seven summits in 1985 using Mt. Kosciuszko, while Patrick Morrow completed it using both summits more than a year later. Which should be considered first? As of 2016, there have been 416 climbers of the seven (or eight) summits: 345 men and 71 women. And eight deaths. https://7summits.com/info/7stats/statistics_all_basic.php
Another benchmark goal is Guinness World Record’s “Explorers’ Extreme Trifecta,” which stipulates a person must reach extremes on land, sea, and air. Specifically, they must climb the highest point on Earth, Everest, dive to the lowest point at sea, Challenger Deep in the Mariana Trench, and fly up above the Kármán line, the official dividing line between Earth’s atmosphere and space: 330,000 feet (62 miles or 100 kilometers).
Only two people have completed all three; the first was American Victor Vescovo in June 2022. Vescovo and Hamish Harding not only dove together to the Mariana’s Trench but also flew in the same New Shepherd rocket on Blue Origin’s fifth mission. In the very next Blue Origin mission rode the second person and the first woman to achieve the Trifecta, Vanessa O’Brien, British executive director for Bank of America, Barclay Bank, and Morgan Stanley. And she achieved the Trifecta a year and a half faster than Vescovo. If Harding had lived to climb Everest, he too would have joined this small, elite circle of adventurers.