Let a hawk be your paragliding guide. (©Jennifer Juliet/Shutterstock)
Mention extreme sports, and most of us conjure up images of base jumping, skydiving or exotic car racing. But for the most hardened of hard-core adrenaline junkies, bungee jumping above crocodile-infested waters, being strapped onto the wings of a biplane while in mid-air and climbing up the side of a mountain with no safety gear whatsoever are but a few of the extreme sports du jour. Are there some things that still put the fear of death in you? These might not be for you.
Parahawking is a new sensation in thrill-seeking, made popular by specials aired on the BBC and the Discovery Channel, involves an aerial adventure literally driven by birds of prey. Parahawking marries the art of falconry with the techniques of paragliding: since both paragliders and birds of prey both use thermals—rising currents of warm air—when they fly, the birds guide their tandem paragliders to these thermals. The gliders then reward the birds with food, and it's off to the next thermal.
This unique experience was developed by bird trainer Scott Mason as a rehabilitation program for rescued raptors in addition to educating people about the challenges birds of prey face in the wild.
It's the most adventurous—and dangerous—way to ski. Those who embark on a heli-ski excursion are delivered to a mountaintop via helicopter, allowing them to access powder virtually untouched by others. It's similar to back-country skiing in that paths are unmarked and the risk of avalanche is greater, but skiers are able to reach heights they only dreamed were possible—the high altitude record for a helicopter was achieved in 2002 at height of more than 42,000 feet.
And while heli-skiing may seem like a new phenomenon, it's been around for more than 50 years; Austrian Hans Gmoser is credited with commercializing the sport in Canada in 1965.
Ice swimming, a sport that's been practiced for decades in Arctic countries such as Finland and Russia, has become so popular there's an association that organizes the icy races, meets and events. A successful ice swim is one in which the swimmer swims one mile in 41-degree Fahrenheit water.
But the dangers of this extreme sport are very real: in water temperatures between 50-60 degrees Fahrenheit, the body's cold-shock response can be extreme; the body can go into convulsions, hyperventilation is common and heart rate and blood pressure go up. This is why those who pursue the sport need to aclimmate themselves slowly; training for months before their first swim, in an indoor pool, is a must.
In addition to Scandanavian countries, ice swimming is popular in Germany, South Africa and the United Kingdom.
For some of us, watching an active volcano erupt is one thing. But for the steel-nerved, could anything possibly be better than sandboarding down the volcanic ash?
It's possible on Nicaragua's Cerro Negro, the youngest volcano in Central America and one of that region's most active (take heart, it's closely monitored and hasn't erupted since 1999).
After making an hour-long trek up the side of this steep volcano—it's got a 42-degree slope—you can either slide or surf down the side on a wooden board in three thrilling minutes. The sport has been a boon to the Nicaraguan economy, bringing in an estimated 20,000 additional visitors to the country a year.
The risks of bungee jumping have been well documented: the possibility of spinal injuries as your body is pulled back upward by the bungee cord, and eye injuries due to the increase of blood pressure inside the blood vessels of the eyes. That, however, doesn't stop thrill-seekers from taking it a step further: taking the plunge above crocodile-infested waters.
Africa's Victoria Falls is the spot thrill-seekers flock to; the waterfall, which marks the border between Zambia and Zimbabwe, is known as the "greatest curtain of falling water in the world."
It's the art of tightrope walking taken to the extreme. Highlining involves rigging a one-inch piece of webbing (similar in consistency to a rubber band), thousands of feet in the air, usually between two mountains. There's no net, however, and no pole for balance.
Even when tethered in (the bravest highliners, such as Dean Potter, who holds the world record for highest walk, work with no safety harness), the risks for injury are great; if the highliner falls too close to the start, they can be smacked back against the rocks, and if they fall off the middle of the line, the possibility of snapping the line is great. Then there are the swirling winds to contend with. Every year there is a highlining festival that takes place in Moab, Utah.
There are many variants of climbing, but the most extreme lies in free-solo climbing, in which a climber undertakes an ascent without a partner or safety equipment of any kind—no ropes, harnesses, etc.—in which a fall would mean certain death. Usually a chalk bag is the only climbing aid used.
While most free-solo climbs are done in natural surroundings, there's also the urban free-solo climb, when a climber scales skyscrapers instead of mountains.
Among the peaks climbed by Alex Honnold, the world's preeminent free-solo climber, are El Capitan, a 3,000-foot tall, mile-wide cliff known as the "Mount Everest of rock climbing"; the 2,500-foot northwest face of Half Dome, also in Yosemite, in addition to peaks in Patagona, France, British Columbia and Morocco.
Big-Wave Surfing With Sharks
For the surfer, the pursuit of the ultimate wave and the bragging rights that come with it create an undeniable draw. But only those with the strongest constitutions have undertaken big-wave surfing, in which not only do the waves rise some 40-feet tall, they happen to be in the world's most shark-infested waters.
South Africa's Dungeons, in Capetown, is known as a breeding ground for Great White sharks. Its waves break from a mile out; swells have been recorded at 46-feet tall. Some surfers have rode out these waves 1,000 feet or more. The waves are at their highest during the South African winter, from June to September.
A staple of the flying circuses and air shows of the 1920s, wing walking quickly became a way for daredevils to wow crowds. Today, its undertaking is a more personal of thrill, although family and friends are typically invited to watch those who strap themselves atop a biplane for this unique adrenaline rush.
In wing walking, the thrill-seeker harnesses in for a ride of 10-30 minutes with top speeds up to 140 mph. Depending on the wing-walking location, rolls, loops and other acrobatics are included. Wing-walking flights are available in the UK and also on Washington's Olympic Peninsula at the world's only wing-walking school.