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March 28th, 2013

It used to be virtually unbelievable: humans deftly making their way up near-vertical cliffs and even slippery-sided tower blocks, with little or nothing to secure them. Some take a scientific approach to climbing, some speak of passionate pursuit of freedom; some seem slightly mad.

Frenchman Alain Robert is a fifty-year-old rock and urban climber who uses no equipment except chalk and climbing shoes. He’s been arrested many times, and has had numerous serious accidents. He is so used to gripping on to ledges, he can no longer fully-straighten his fingers.

Sasha DiGiulian is a twenty-year-old American who took part in her first climbing competition aged nine. Sasha competes internationally and made history as the first American female (and third woman ever) to climb the fearsome overhanging rock wall of Era Vella in Margalef, Spain.

The late Michael Reardon of California was a solo free climber, whose passionate commitment led him to manage without harnesses or ropes. Accomplished and very daring, he became a motivational speaker and film-maker on the subject…but ultimately met an untimely end when a large wave swept him off a cliff in the west of Ireland.

Switzerland’s Ueli Steck is a legend in his own time, having set many records, most significantly his speed-ascent of the Eiger’s north face. This formidable wall of ice, overhangs and constant rock-falls traditionally took teams three days to climb; Steck managed it in under four hours.

Accomplished British professional climber Lucy Creamer supported Dr Jonathan Foyle in his BBC history documentaries, set on towering bridges and buildings. Dr Foyle was no chicken, but as the following clip shows, he doesn’t seem to be a natural spider-man either!

March 15th, 2013

Athlon. Not a word you often hear, but you can appreciate the idea: situations where several different events are combined, to test competitors’ versatility across various disciplines.

Reminiscent of James Bond, the Biathlon is perhaps the simplest and most thrilling, with the speed and purity of a snowbound mountain scene, where skiers in the peak of training show their speed and skill in reaching points at which they fire rifles at targets, before skiing on.

The Triathlon may be the most arduous. How much rest can there be between the stages…a mile swim, twenty-five miles on a bicycle, then six miles’ running? Shattering, but indicative of the competitors’ extraordinary resilience.

Pentathlon retains an attractive old-world theme of self-defence and personal mobility; it includes pistol-shooting and fencing, horsemanship, running and swimming. And the photos look like posters for a Hollywood time-travel fantasy.

Of course, there might be even greater entertainment from these ultimate contests, if less obvious events were combined. How about Tree-climbing, tobogganing and javelin? Judo, cycling and tightrope-walking? Or perhaps the “Monte Cristo”: wall-climbing, cliff-diving and swimming?

Olympic BMX surprised many people with the sheer pace at which the riders attack a virtual steeplechase. Clearly, it’s accepted that a traditional flat track isn’t the only way to compete on bicycles…

…so is there room to develop other sports too? Chess Boxing sounds like the ultimate competitive combination of mind and muscle. It’s gaining popularity in the UK and Germany…

…but that’s relatively safe and slow compared with underwater hockey, where swimmers take deep breaths to move the puck inches at a time. However, the weirdest and surely the most fun, is from Finland…beer-fuelled wife-carrying races, as seen here:

March 5th, 2013

Steeple-jacking, tree-climbing, tall-ship sailing, mountaineering, even Shard window-polishing will give you plenty of fine views, challenging climbing and a really memorable experience of the world in three dimensions.

But there’s no doubt that in our junior years, the concept of just lifting off the ground at will and floating to another place, has always filled and thrilled many minds…and some have never grown out of it.

Most of us have either skydived for fun or charity, or perhaps more willingly enjoyed Champagne in the capacious basket of a manned hot-air balloon, enjoying the height without the responsibility of knowing where the wind is blowing us to.

But a popular advance (arguably) from the skippered variety, is the ‘hopper’ balloon. These are so minimalist, even the basket is dispensed with, leaving just a seat strapped to a propane tank. Very independent…

…they may become more popular than big rigs, required to lift whole parties off the ground. Hoppers only need a map, a lighter (in case the burner goes out) and a bottle of whisky for whoever owns the property they land on.

The hang-glider is one of those unpowered, exciting, frighteningly free, fragile-looking contraptions which actually only cause as many deaths as tennis! Figures indicate it’s a full fifty times safer than base-jumping.

Ah, base-jumping! An economical route to extreme highs, as long as you don’t object to very sudden come-downs. And keep an eye on your life-insurance quotes.

For safety, how about the reassurance of landing in water? Kite-surfers go very fast on a smooth surface; the sport came close to replacing windsurfing for Rio de Janeiro in 2016. And when kite-surfers hit waves, the sky’s the limit, as seen here:

March 4th, 2013

Heights never hurt anyone…it’s the ground that gets you, every time! It’s an interesting reflection that height itself is safe, if it can be maintained. On the other hand, going deep underground is definitely risky. There’s no equivalent of a parachute.

In caves close to the surface, nature always has a grip, greenery groping ever-upward for available light; but deeper caves are hangars for millions of bats, and for the scary things that prey on bats, definitely older and fouler than ‘orcs’.

Caving takes us to extraordinary, unimagined places; complex subterranean mazes, torrential pitch-dark rivers, vast echoing cathedral-chambers, all far below the surface of the earth.


Potholing is often confused with caving. Caving is generally horizontal exploration, while potholing is the riskier descent through vertical passages. Not that either is strictly safe; and cave rescue, like fire-fighting, endangers the teams of helpers as well.

There is much to be wary of. Loss of orientation, unpredictable rock-falls, passage-collapses, exhaustion, the cold, sudden flooding, and the constant timeless darkness, in which even a powerful lamp can be no more than a brief flicker.

Happily, the budding caver’s claustrophilia and desire for a dark challenge can be fulfilled in safety, in an artificial cave. These fibreglass mouldings bolt together, forming something like a dinosaur’s digestive tract, perfect for caving practice in an above-ground setting without insects or rats, bears or bats. Or orcs.

When the time comes to experience the real thing, it’s strange and fascinating to reflect that caves were known long ago, even to prehistoric man. That enduring excitement goes as deep as the exploration:

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