The most terrifying moments of Felicity Aston’s trip came as she watched the plane that had dropped her off fly away. It finally sank in that she would be by herself for the next two months in a way that very few people in the world ever had been. Fifty-nine days later, she would become the first woman to ski across the continent of Antarctica alone. But at that moment, she just had to take her first step. “You’re looking at a landscape where not only is there no human life, but there’s no life at all,” she says. “Something about that moment, the tiny bits of DNA, the prehistoric me were saying, ‘This is really, really wrong.’ Conquering that fear was the hardest part.”
While overcoming that initial shock may have been the greatest challenge, it was only incrementally greater than the many others Aston knew she would face. Standing became almost unbearable, with every muscle in her body sore from spending 12 hours a day on skis. Sitting wasn’t any better; she had open sores, possibly from exposing her skin to temperatures of 40 below every time she went to the bathroom. Her ribs ached from the bloody cough caused by the dry, cold air. During blinding storms, she became nauseated because she was so disoriented that she couldn’t make out up from down. And at night, alone in her tent, she had difficulty falling asleep as she faced the dread of knowing she’d have to do it all over again tomorrow — and the next day, and the day after that.
It is easy to blame ignorance for attempting such a feat, but Aston knew exactly what she was getting into. An experienced arctic racer, she had spent three continuous years in Antarctica working as a meteorologist and wrote a book, Call of the White: Taking the World to the South Pole, about trekking to the South Pole with a group of women. Which, of course, begs the question: With full knowledge that not only would she be in intense pain but that she’d also be putting her life at risk, is Aston crazy for skiing across the South Pole?
The popularity of extreme sports, from big-wave surfing to ultramarathon racing to BASE jumping, has skyrocketed in recent years, and with this growth have come people who continually push the limits of what we believe the human body is capable of accomplishing.
But as these sports have matured, the image of those who attempt to master them has failed to catch up. The teens and 20-somethings portrayed in the nascent era of extreme sports, made popular in the early 1990s by shows like MTV Sports, are grown up now, and they are not the adrenaline-fueled death seekers that it is so easy to imagine them being, according to several consultants with the Association for Applied Sport Psychology (AASP).
“It’s simplistic to call what they are seeking an adrenaline rush,” says Sam Zizzi, a professor of sport and exercise psychology at West Virginia University and a certified AASP consultant. “I find them to be wired more like artists and people who want to experience a higher level of expression. Maybe they’re wired to experience life a bit more.”
Studies of extreme athletes have found them to be highly educated people motivated by the desire to continually develop their skills, a description that could fit many lawyers, doctors or bankers. They differ, though, in what they seek in life, and when they talk about their goals, your reaction might change from, “Are they crazy?” to “Maybe they are more sane than everyone else.”
As the developed world moves from a manufacturing economy to a knowledge-based one, the need for and opportunities to test one’s physical strength have diminished significantly. Whereas an assembly-line worker may have needed powerful arms to haul heavy equipment and received acknowledgment of his strength from his bosses and colleagues, many workers now are rewarded, in part, for their abilities to sit for most of the day staring at a screen.
“Many people’s jobs do not offer a way to feel fully human,” Zizzi says. “Pushing the potentials of the body is a natural fit in a world that is turning people into sedentary, obese creatures. It’s almost a reaction to the fact that our human existence is inside a box staring at a computer screen. To put your life at risk, to jump off a bridge with a parachute, can sound like a good idea.”
While hundreds of thousands of weekend warriors seek to escape the tedium of the daily grind by tackling a marathon or jumping out of a helicopter with a pair of skis on their feet, scant few throw away the steady paycheck, the 401(k) and the house in the suburbs for a life that allows them to pursue these innate desires with little interference from the traditionally stable path. The material sacrifices — living in a tent for months on end, no health insurance, an uncertain financial future — may seem as terrifying as a 60-foot wave to the average nine-to-fiver, but to those who take the leap, the rewards, be they physical health or spiritual fulfillment, are worth more than the steadiest six-figure paycheck.