For the “I’ll Try Anything” column in the April issue (now online), Popular Mechanics asked me to drive a tank over a car. I said, “Okay.”
More video after the jump.
[This article originally appeared in the December, 2012 issue of Travel + Leisure.]
Midwinter dusk falls as gently as snow on the mountain village, its timbered buildings huddled beneath the towers of its twin medieval churches. Shop windows spill their light onto snow-dusted sidewalks as I make my way through the archway of the town’s ancient gate, then pause to let a team of carriage horses clip-clop past. Stepping quickly through the winter cold, I slip down a pedestrian passageway, hang a right on a narrow cobbled street, and soon arrive at Hans Frauenschuh, a shop built in the traditional Austrian farmhouse style, with long wooden balconies on the upper floors and a pitched roof, now laden with snow. A friend who grew up in the village has insisted that I drop in: this, she promises, is the real Kitzbühel. Read the rest of this entry »
Every year Kirby Chambliss, a five-time national aerobatic champion and Red Bull racer, performs his airshow routine for the crowd at the EAA Airventure fly-in at Oshkosh, Wisconsin. It’s a gut-churning spectacle, an aggressive, low-altitude sequence of end-over-end tumbles, tail slides, flat spins, at what have you. Having ridden along with a few aerobatic pilots in the past, my main thought while watching Chambliss has always been: Thank God I’m not in that plane.
Then a few days before this year’s show I got an email from a PR representative at GoPro, one of Chambliss’ sponsors, asking me if I wanted to go along for a ride. My first reaction was to shudder. But as someone who writes a column called “I’ll Try Anything,” I feel a necessity to keep an open mind about things. So I said yes.
I met Chambliss and his team at 8am at a hanger at the north end of the field. The plane, a half-million dollar custom job that’s entirely built in the United States, was a gleaming work of art in aluminum tubing and carbon fiber: Strong, powerful, precise. “No matter what you do to this plane in the air, you can’t break it,” Chambliss assured me. I zipped into a flight suit, strapped on a parachute, and climbed into the front seat.
The drawback to flying at Oshkosh is that there are always a ton of airplanes trying to land and take off, making for long waits in the sweltering heat. By the time we finally were ordered to lineup on the runway, the prospect of getting up into the cool clean air with Chambliss was actually starting to seem appealing.
We climbed to 3000 feet, and the show began. Read the rest of this entry »
This past Saturday, four people died trying to summit Everest, making it one of the deadliest days ever on the mountain. This weekend, another crowd of some 200 climbers are expected to push for the summit, meaning that the death toll could well rise still further.
What makes Everest the most dangerous mountain on Earth? The extreme environment is only part of the equation. Yes, the summit zone is fantastically cold and storm-lashed, and the air is so thin that an unacclimatized person would die within minutes. But all of that would be only moderately dangerous, were it not for a fourth, more elusive factor: the psychologically warping effect of the summit itself, a phenomenon I call a “mind trap.” In this kind of situation, our ability to make a correct decision becomes dangerously skewed, so that a small error can quickly snowball into an irrecoverable fatal accident. There are different kinds of mind traps, that can snare victims under different types of circumstance, as I wrote about in a recent Psychology Today article. The one that tends to claim Everest climbers is a variety called “red lining.”
Mountain climbing at extreme altitudes is a race against time. Human endurance is severely limited in the face of extreme cold and limited oxygen, and windows of good weather can shut abruptly. Lingering too long is an invitation to disaster, so when preparing their final push to the summit, mountaineers need to set a turn-around time – a “red line” that they must abide by it strictly.
But anytime we plan a mission that requires us to set this kind of safety parameter, there’s a risk that in the heat of the moment we’ll be tempted to overstep it. Divers see an interesting wreck or coral formation just beyond the maximum limit of their dive tables. Airplane pilots making an instrument approach descend through clouds to their minimum safe altitude, fail to see the runway, and decide to go just a little bit lower.
In the case of Everest, many climbers have spent tens of thousands of dollars and endured long, tough training to get within striking distance of the summit. They’re a self-selected group, driven and goal-oriented. As the turnaround deadline draws near, the temptation to push beyond it can be overwhelming. “In some cases, they don’t even heed the suggestions of their Sherpa guides,” Zimba Zangbu Sherpa, president of the Nepal Mountaineering Association, told The New York Daily News. “The Sherpas can’t advise them otherwise because their clients will think ‘I’m so close to the mountain, why shouldn’t I try a bit more?’”
The pressure has become even greater in recent years due to the ever-increasing crowd of would-be summiters. The route to the top is only so big, so on promising days hundreds of climbers can be seen threading up in single file. The biggest traffic jam of all awaits at the Hillary Step, a rock face just short of the summit that requires a technical climb. As each climber waits his turn, often for hours, his oxygen supplies are dwindling and his feet and hands are growing ever cooler. With each passing minute, the danger grows greater, and so does the perceived urgency to press on.
In the heat of the moment, it’s easy to think: I’ll just go over a little bit. What difference will it make? The problem is that once we go over the red line, there are no more boundaries. Nothing’s calling you back to the safe side. And in a brutally tough environment like Everest, once mother nature’s jaws slam shut, there may be no one to help you.
You can study the psychology of fear until the cows come home; it’s not going to do much to keep your heebie-jeebies under control when you’re about to jump into a gap in six-foot-thick sea ice.
I shuffle closer to the edge of the five-by-five foot hole that’s been chainsawed into the ice. I have no real reason to be jumping into the frozen-over Hudson Bay. I’ve come up here for a totally different reason—to do a story about igloo building for a men’s magazine. But the trip’s organizers added a couple of extra days onto my itinerary so that I could get a taste for the local Inuit culture—riding on a dogsled, eating raw caribou meat — oh, and going scuba diving under the sea ice. Care to give it a try, Mr. Wise?
I couldn’t say no. Stunts like this are basically what I do for a living. I’m a magazine writer specializing in experiential adventures like skydiving, surfing, and survival training. Along the way, I developed an interest in the psychology of intense pressure and wrote a book on it. So though the idea of scuba diving under ice scares the crap out of me, that’s all the more reason I should do it.
And it does scare the crap out of me. Immersion in 32 degree water sounds bad enough, but to be trapped under six feet of ice as well? There’s a section of my book about how deadly that kind of thing can be. If a diver panics, the instinctive response is to rip away anything that blocks the airway – in this case, the regulator. In an enclosed space far from the surface, there may be no chance to recover from that mistake. Ironically, just knowing that the possibility exists makes it more likely to happen. “Well, let’s see how it goes,” I tell the organizers.
I’m being weasel-y, but with good reason. Read the rest of this entry »
For me one of the most disturbing aspects of the Joplin tornado, which left at least 117 people dead when it struck southwestern Missouri on May 22, is that it was pursued by at least two teams of storm chasers, one of which was filming for a national TV show. Some might argue that storm chasers serve a valuable scientific purpose in gathering data that will allow the destructive forces of tornadoes to be better understood and predicted, so that lives will be saved in the future. And it’s true that after the Joplin tornado, as is often the case, storm chasers were among the first on hand to help the survivors, arriving well before EMTs and firemen. But for me it’s impossible to overlook the fact that for most who undertake it, storm chasing is strictly a recreational activity. The emotional reality is that storm chasers enjoying immersing themselves in a force of nature that takes lives. Indeed, their activities may actively contribute to the death toll.
It’s been 12 years since I went tornado-hunting myself. I was reporting a story about weather junkies for a now-defunct magazine. I spent a long day driving around Oklahoma with Cloud 9 Tours (which was one of the outfits on hand for this year’s Joplin twister), then got caught up in reporting the aftermath of that year’s deadly tornado, an F5 twister that tore through the town of Moore, Oklahoma. It was one death in particular that made me forever question the morality of storm chasing. I was never tempted to go again. Read the rest of this entry »
Just spent the morning doing something I’ve been wanting to try for years: Fly a jetpack. JetLev, the unit’s manufacturer, just completed the first production model and let me be the first media to experience it first-hand. Instead of a rocket expelling hot gas, you’ve got twin nozzles shooting out high volumes of water at low pressure. You’re tethered to the surface by a 33-foot-long flexible hose. It’s a total hoot. Note that I’d only been flying this contraption for a few minutes when the video was taken. I got better — a little — after logging about 30 minutes total flying time; I was able to go higher and keep the thing under better control; the demo pilots can pull off some really impressive flying. I’ll be writing about the experience soon for Popular Mechanics.
I’m currently in northernmost Quebec, in the Inuit village of Puvirnituq. The seemingly endless expanse of snow and ice, the biting subzero temperatures and the howling wind, powerfully drive home the resourcefulness of the Inuit, who for over a thousand years thrived in this unforgiving landscape with only stone-age technology. But what powerful technology it was: fire, seal-skin anoraks, snow-carving knives for making igloos, and above all, dogs. Yesterday afternoon I went for a dog-sled ride with expert musher Jean-Marie Novalinga, whose team pulled us across a flat, wind-scoured landscape. Unlike dog teams in Alaska, those in this part of the Arctic are harnessed in a loose fan formation, as if one were being pulled by a feral pack of dogs. One there in the empty expanse, man and dog working together, the partnership feels like a very primal relationship indeed.
It is, at heart, both a practical relationship and a deeply emotional one. “You have to feel connection to your dogs,” Novalinga said. “It’s the only way to work together.”
Anyone who has ever lived with a dog knows what he means by connection. Humans and dogs have a way of intuiting one another’s emotions – of feeling like we know what the other is feeling — that is unique among all the species on earth. But how they can achieve it is something of a biological puzzle. After all, dogs and humans are not particularly closely related species. Our last common ancestor lived far back during the age of dinosaurs. Dogs are more closely related to whales than they are to us. We are more closely related to mice than to dogs. So why should we feel such a powerful and unique bond? Read the rest of this entry »