In the space of two and a half hours, a balloon rose to a height equal to 100 Empire State Buildings. Felix Baumgartner stood in the doorway of a capsule attached to the balloon, then, stepped out into the void and started his 10-minute fall to Earth. At the peak of the descent, Baumgartner was cruising at a speed of 834mph–more than the speed of sound. Biggest danger with those G-forces? Your eyeballs can explode (his didn’t). In less than 10 minutes, Baumgartner landed in the New Mexico desert and wrote himself into the annals of daredevils who do crazy things simply for the sake of it.
Baumgartner wasn’t the first, of course–there is a rich history of men and women going higher, deeper, faster, longer–all for the sheer (and literal) hell of it. Here’s a selection of books recounting the most heart-stopping daredevil feats.
The One Who Came Before
Baumgartner’s epic freefall might never have happened at all–he was made so claustrophobic by the space suit he needed to wear to survive that at one point he bunked off from his training and took an airplane out of the country. He was ultimately helped by the man who previously held the freefall record: retired Colonel Joe Kittinger. Later to be in the next cell to John McCain as they both were held by the Vietcong, in 1960, Kittinger plunged 102,800 feet (19.5 miles), and hit a top speed of 614mph, a stunt recounted in his autobiography, “Come Up and Get Me.” Sunday, during Baumgartner’s adventure, Kittinger sat at the control booth calmly talking his protégé through his claustrophobia and a 40-point plan for what to do after he stepped off into the stratosphere.
Silent, Black, Endless Vacuum
Baumgartner’s fear of his spacesuit almost derailed the entire mission–let’s hope he never read Mary Roach’s book, “Packing for Mars,” about what it takes to prepare to go into space. As just one example, Roach recounts the tale of early aerospace isolation chambers, used to mimic “a silent, black, endless vacuum.” Not surprisingly, some pilots “‘reacted violently’ after only a few hours” in isolation.
Isolation seems to be a key component at some point during most daredevil efforts, either before (as reported by Mary Roach), during (Baumgartner) or even afterwards: At the National Air and Space Museum, Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, part of the Smithsonian outside of D.C. in Virginia, one can marvel at airplanes and space rockets and even a space shuttle, but perhaps one of the most extraordinary exhibits is the former Airstream trailer used to isolate the returning Apollo 11 heroes. Fear of possible moon-based pathogens caused the poor guys to be confined for three whole weeks–they even had to endure a visit from Richard M. Nixon.
So much for what’s up there in space–as a species, we still have yet to fathom what’s in the deepest parts of the oceans. The Chinese are currently planning a manned trip 23,000 feet into the Marianas Trench; that’s 4.35 miles, or a mere sixth of how high Baumgartner went. Jules Verne’s classic science fiction work, “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea,” published in 1870, imagines what folks like the Chinese might find in the deepest parts of the world. The tale of Captain Nemo in his Nautilus submarine remains a favorite to this day. (Note: The deepest the Nautilus plumbs is about 4 leagues, or 12 miles–the 20,000 leagues is how far the vessel travels while underwater.)
From One Astoria to Another
If going way up high or diving deep doesn’t appeal to you, you could always go round and round, or across something huge. In the latter category, we nominate William Least-Heat Moon. Having written about driving America’s backroads in his now-classic “Blue Highways,” he set sail in the late nineties on a boat he called Nikawa (“river horse” in the Osage language), sailing all the way across America, from the East River near Astoria, Queens, to Astoria, Oregon. Amazingly, the resulting book, “River Horse,” features a mere 80-something miles of portage–the rest of the trip is by some body of water or other, and filled with odd encounters (Heat-Moon has a knack for meeting amazing characters, and finding the wit in all of them) and stirring adventures.
Run, Don’t Walk
Though humble by comparison, foot travel isn’t shirked by record-breakers. British adventurer Rosie Swale-Pope has a history with doing extreme things: She has sailed around the world, and solo across the Atlantic, ridden 3,000 miles on horseback through Chile and completed numerous marathons and extreme runs. But when she lost her second husband to cancer, she decided to do the ultimate run: all the way around the world to raise money for research into the disease. Swale-Pope started on her 57th birthday, and the run took her just under five years. Along the way, she fell sick from a tick bite in Russia; wolves in Siberia ran with her for a week (how cool is that?); she got frostbite, cracked her hip, got two stress fractures of her legs–oh, and she stopped off in Chicago to compete in that city’s marathon. In the end, she raised a quarter of a million pounds for prostate cancer research, and for an orphanage in Russia. The book about her exploits has an appropriately laconic, British title: “Just a Little Run Around the World.”
Ground Control to Major Felix
But the last word must go to Baumgartner: The man literally fell out of the sky, bringing to mind the classic sci-fi novel of the 1960s (and later, a David Bowie movie), “The Man Who Fell to Earth.” But this daredevil was no alien: Dressed only in a space suit and, standing up there on the edge of everything, he was able to look down and say, “sometimes we have to get really high to see how small we are.”