When Sports Become Too Extreme

Surf's Up

As some of the best professional big-wave surfers in the world looked out over 40-foot waves crashing onto the shore of Oahu's Waimea Bay, the decision seemed disappointingly clear: The Quiksilver Invitational surfing competition had to be cancelled. The waves were just too big.

But on that same late-January day, relatively unknown big-wave rider Greg Russ had to be physically restrained by lifeguards from launching out into the biggest surf in more than a decade. The guards were interfering with his "constitutional right" to make money, he said.

The incentive: $50,000 from the surf-equipment manufacturer K2 to anyone who can ride the biggest wave of the year and get it on film.

For many obscure surfers, the contest was a chance to buy a house, achieve stardom, and get the ride of a lifetime. But lifeguards and rescue personnel view it as an unstructured nightmare that encourages surfers to risk their lives for money.

From ice climbing to mountain biking to big-wave surfing, more people are becoming extreme athletes, putting their lives in danger for the ultimate rush. But the K2 contest, and the growing popularity of extreme sports worldwide, has raised questions about the financial and human consequences for athletes and the rescuers who watch over them. For many, the incident at Waimea perfectly illustrates the dangers unleashed when big money, big egos, and big challenges are mixed.

"I feel K2 is very irresponsible to put out this money with very few limitations," says Jim Howe, chief of Oahu lifeguard operations. "It leads us into a whole new series of challenges and into having to rethink and retool how we are going to manage the ocean for public safety."

But K2 contest director Bill Sharp - himself an amateur big-wave surfer - denies that the Big Wave Challenge is creating any new dangers. "To say there is a mad rush over the edge in big-wave surfing is naive or incredibly unaware," he says. Back in the 1960s, Waimea "was packed with these guys on giant boards they could not control. The sport is far safer today."

Although exact figures on how many extreme athletes exist are hard to come by, isolated statistical evidence and virtually all anecdotal evidence point to a rapid increase. For example, the number of climbers attempting the summit of Alaska's 20,300-foot Mt. McKinley - the tallest peak in North America - has increased from 695 in 1984 to 1,110 in 1997.

"It's a numbers deal, and clearly there are more people getting hurt in the backcountry than there were when I started doing rescues 20 years ago," says Dan Burnett, a mission coordinator with the all-volunteer Summit County Search and Rescue Group in Colorado. "We're responding into areas now that even four years ago I would have thought we didn't need to check because nobody goes there."

Several factors are pushing adventurers out into places where no one ventured before. Crowds on the slopes and in the water have forced those in search of prized solitude farther from the beaten path. Technological developments have made extreme sports easier and seemingly more secure. In surfing, lifeguards who patrol the coasts of Hawaii on jet skis enjoy greatly improved range and response times, and surfers with leashes seldom have to swim far to retrieve their boards. Backcountry mountain bikers and skiers carry cell phones, figuring they can call if they get in trouble.

The extreme-sports industry itself has likewise stoked the fires of adventurous people in search of bigger profits by glorifying outrageous stunts. And the media have eagerly gone along for the ride: On the judging panel for the K2 contest are editors from both of the major surfing magazines.

But beneath the glamorous photo-ops lurks the dark side of extreme sports. Mr. Burnett has had to recover the bodies of 28 people killed in accidents, some of whom were friends and neighbors. "For corporate sponsors to push for irresponsibility for the glitz of it is crazy."

Furthermore, the technology, according to Burnett and Mr. Howe, has built an unhealthy reliance that is anathema to true outdoorsmen who have always pledged complete self-sufficiency. "We would never hire lifeguards who can't swim, but we see people paddle out there to surf who are marginal swimmers but don't worry about it because they are wearing leashes and lifeguards are on jet skis," says Howe.

Some strides have been made toward creating a safer extreme-sports world. Three years ago, Denali National Park in Alaska, for instance, instituted a mandatory $150 fee for climbers seeking to ascend Mt. McKinley. The fee pays for an educational program that park rangers credit with dramatically reducing the number of search-and-rescue missions and fatalities. And the system has arrested skyrocketing rescue costs.

On Oahu, lifeguards take extra care to intercept surfers before they paddle out on big days and make sure they understand what they are getting into.

But as athletes seek to push farther into the outer realm, they are rapidly approaching a point where no one will come to get them. "It hasn't come yet," says Howe, "but there is going to be a day when we will say, 'No way - it's too dangerous for a rescue.' "

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