Into The Vacuum

For most of us it is enough to just look down from an observation tower and get shaky knees and that sinking feeling in the pit of the stomach. Others want to take it to extremes: they yearn for dizzying heights to experience the ultimate adrenaline rush

The spectacular flight by the five wingsuit athletes from the Red Bull Air Force across the roofs of Manhattan took all of two minutes. They launched at an altitude of 2,300 meters and their speed was at more than 190 kilometers an hour.

Athletes, reputed adrenaline junkies, are always inventing new sports to catapult themselves to the limits of their mental and physical powers. They hurtle themselves off rock faces in wing suits to fly like birds, balance on high lines across a yawning abyss, or base jump off wind generators, bridges, radio antennas and cliffs. Why? Are they crazy or possibly suicidal? No, they are not. Extreme athletes believe they know exactly what they are doing and what risks they are taking; they look for “controlled danger”.

Hannes Kraft, for example, is one of those people who just can’t get enough of free falling. Since his first jump from a hot air balloon in 1995 the 51-year-old loves the “feeling of falling in a vacuum. If you parachute jump from a helicopter you feel like you are jumping from a speeding train; it is really noisy,” the base jumper explains. “But if you jump from an inanimate object everything is quiet and wonderfully calm. You fall into something indescribably empty, it is an extraordinary experience; there is nothing you can compare it to. I can’t describe it any other way.” Kraft, one of the base jumping scene’s pioneers and passionate parachutist, has taken many more than 1,000 jumps and prepares for each one of them painstakingly. “This is an ultra-dangerous sport, I am aware of the risks. If the conditions aren’t hundred percent, because the weather might not cooperate, I leave it be.”

“If you jump from an inanimate object everything is quiet and wonderfully calm. You fall into something indescribably empty, it is an extraordinary experience.”

Kraft holds an administrative position as his day job. Is his fascinating hobby possibly a counterbalance to his boring job? Psychologists believe this to be one of the motives of extreme athlete, though Kraft denies it. “I’ve worked for many years as a construction manager, that’s enough stress,” he says, laughing, “I don’t need any additional stress. But,” he adds, “everyone should do what you are destined for. And base jumping fills me with passion, not fishing or playing chess.”

Sensation seekers love the extremes

There are people who embrace the extreme as lifestyle. The best-known attempt to explain the phenomenon is by Marvin Zuckerman. He developed the sensation seeker concept. People with this personality disposition have a close to 60 percent genetic predisposition programming them to pursue powerful excitement and unusually stimulating experiences and exploits. “The central nervous system of sensation seekers does not respond with a protective reaction; they are able to withstand intensive excitement,” explains sports psychologist Oliver Stoll. “These individuals take calculated risks in their sports, such as a Formula 1 driver or a downhiller hurtling down a slope on his bike. They are aware that loss of control will result in potentially life-threatening consequences. Yet they are definitely not suicidal, trying to do themselves in.” It is likely that the mortality rate among soccer players is higher than among paragliders, Stoll speculates.

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In Mexico, Hannes Kraft jumped into a 400-meter-deep cave, a seemingly bottomless black hole. “Of course I meet such a challenge with the utmost respect. I know what risks are involved and what could theoretically happen,” he admits. “Yet the anticipation of the experience, of what will transpire, is stronger than fear. Curiosity triumphs. Fear simply must not dominate you when attempting such a jump. At best it is there to hone the focus for judging and overcoming the situation. For example, you have to know exactly when to open the chute, and you must not hesitate even for a split second.”

It seems that extreme athletes have learned to pursue their passion with the fear and integrate it into their sport. Scientists agree. Neurobiologists also believe that the dopamine reward system has a considerable impact on the handling of extreme sports challenges. The dopamine neurons (nerve cells) act sort of like forecast neurons: they measure the difference between expectation and result. If the expectation turns out to be spot-on, the body is rewarded with a flood of dopamine making the athlete feel good. If the result does not occur or is less than expected, the dopamine level in the brain remains the same.

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Click-through records onYouTube

Another amplifier is the recognition that follows the challenge. While many athletes desire self-affirmation rather than public accolades, there are those who want to become famous by all means, breaking one record after another. After all, the opportunities for presentation in the media are perfect, and the public is very interested. More than eight million viewers were glued to YouTube watching Felix Baumgartner’s jump. The Austrian jumped from a balloon capsule in 39 kilometers of altitude, hurtled towards Earth at a speed of more than 1,340 kilometers per hour, and broke the sound barrier. Jeb Corliss, who started dreaming of flying at age six, donned a wing suit to fly across Upper Sankt Gallen in 2011. The extreme athlete from California almost collided with a cliff, and the video has been viewed over 28 million times to date. In 2013 slackline pro Lukas Irmler set the world record in the Andes of Peru by crossing a 21-meter-long highline in 5,222 meters of altitude.