Epidemiology of Injury in Adventure and Extreme Sports (Medicine and Sport Science)

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Autoethnography is now a well-established technique in psychological research Anderson, ; Chang, ; Jones et al. For these components, I complied with: the autoethnographic research protocols put forward by Tolich ; the Human Ethics Research requirements and procedures of Griffith University; and the Australian National Code of Conduct for Human Ethics in Research.

As an autoethnographic study, conducted in a public space, with no interviews, no inducements, no identification of any observed persons, and no experimental behavior modifications, this research is compliant with all of these protocols without the requirement for specific approvals or consents.

Many adventure activities are available through guided commercial tours or non-profit recreational groups. Most of these are at a low-skill, low-risk level where participants are drawn as much by externally oriented social motivations, as by internally oriented achievement and self-esteem Buckley, , , ; Pomfret and Bramwell, ; Rantala et al.

Except in rare cases, the design of these activities provides large safety margins, even for inexpert and inexperienced practitioners. Examples include: guided single-day hikes or walks in easy terrain and comfortable climates; fully equipped and guided raft trips, in warm climates, down short sections of rivers that include only easily swimmable rapids; single-day sea-kayak trips in calm subtropical seas; and so on. While these may be marketed as adventure, and may indeed be perceived as adventurous by urban participants with no relevant prior experience, they would not be classified or marketed as extreme.

At the other end of the scale, there are individual exploits that have been attempted only rarely, or in some cases only once, and which would be regarded as extreme both by expert practitioners and by the general public. Through social media and the greater availability of lightweight digital video recording devices, many of these are now much more visible to the general public than was historically the case. The same applies to skiing solo across Antarctica Levy, , or skiing the length of the sub-Antarctic Georgia Island, or skiing down Mount Everest Nyznik, , or speed-skiing with a kite down the mountain ranges of Alaska Red Bull, In whitewater kayaking, there are rivers such as the main gorge of the Yarlung Tsangpo in Tibet Shangri-La River Expeditions, , or the Inga Falls section of the Congo Fisher, , that have only ever been attempted once or twice; and others such as the Grand Canyon of the Stikine in Canada that have become legendary tests of skill and courage Spring, These examples, and many more, show that we can indeed recognize cases that are extreme, and cases that are merely adventurous.

But these examples alone do not define the dividing line between the two. To take a few examples, is a guided climb to the summit of Mount Everest adventurous or extreme?


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Difficult and dangerous, certainly; but available as a purchasable product Boukreev and De Walt, What about sky-diving onto the North Pole, or steep-slope heli-skiing in Alaska? These are also available commercially, but only to skilled and experienced clients.

Anyone can paddle out, but they would be foolish indeed unless they already had ample experience in powerful surf elsewhere. Indeed, in the largest surf they will also need a very experienced tow-in jet-ski driver, a specialized tow-in surfboard with footstraps, and extensive practice with both.

Frontiers | To Analyze Thrill, Define Extreme Sports | Psychology

Anyone can launch a kayak, but without considerable prior experience and expertise, they may not survive. There are commercial tour operations on some of these rivers, but only in less dangerous sections, and only for appropriately qualified clients Expediciones Chile, ; Last Descents River Expeditions, So, there is a zone of uncertainty between the adventurous and the extreme.

They are not distinguishable automatically. In the next section, therefore, I consider a range of different outdoor recreation activities commonly included in the literature of adventure and extreme sports, and attempt to distinguish features or levels of intensity that would distinguish the extreme from the merely adventurous. Examples of adventurous and extreme options for different outdoor activities are summarized in Table 1.


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For most of these activities, the author is at intermediate adventurous level, nowhere close to extreme. For a few, the author has on occasion and long ago ventured slightly into the extreme bracket for some activities, but barely, rarely, and sometimes inadvertently. In whitewater kayaking, the author has never been routinely capable of tackling rivers and rapids considered as extreme, but has, on one or two occasions, paddled rarely run and dangerous rapids that might be considered in that category Van Beek, TABLE 1.

The epidemiology of injury in adventure and extreme sports.

Adventurous cf. Examples from hang-gliding include: cliff takeoffs, night flights, one storm front, and aerobatic maneuvers known as wingovers. Cliff takeoffs are risky because they involve running off cliffs blind, at full speed, without knowing what airflow one will encounter. Even with a spotter to watch the movement of vegetation below the cliff as an indicator of airflow, and assistants to steady the hang-glider wing-tips before the run, this is a relatively high-risk move. The author has witnessed one accidental death during a cliff take-off. Night flights were at a ridge-soaring site with a reliable wind and an easy top-landing site, using headlights from two parked cars to mark the cliff edge.

This is fine, as long as nothing goes wrong. The storm-front case was not deliberate, but it involved emergency maneuvers to survive a very powerful and turbulent wind.

Wingovers are described in the next section. General features of extreme cf. In summary, extreme level activities involve higher skill, focus, and risk. Adventurous activities also involve skill and risk, but if the skill proves inadequate, the consequences are unlikely to prove fatal, unless the participant is unlucky. Extreme activities involve the continuous application of highest-level skills and concentration in order to avoid any error, and any failure is likely to prove fatal, unless the participant is especially lucky. In many activities, any error is likely to cause an immediate and irremediable disaster.

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Falling on a free solo climb, or hitting a cliff during proximity wingsuit flying, commonly permits no recovery or rescue. This provides a distinction that corresponds to that adopted in previous phenomenological research Brymer, , unpublished , but is itself independent of the psychology of the participants. We can therefore use that definition to examine the psychology of thrill, without risk of circularity.

TABLE 2. General distinguishing features of extreme cf. If we define extreme sports through the consequences of any mistake, that raises two further issues. The first is that participants in some voluntary outdoor adventure activities sometimes die not through any mistake of their own, but because of unexpected adverse environmental circumstances that occurred despite accurate prior assessment of low probability. The five men who died on their return from the South Pole were overcome, ultimately, by an unlikely set of weather conditions, that they had no means of predicting or preparing for.

Similarly, the death of famed Russian high-altitude mountaineer Anatoly Boukreev in an avalanche was not through any mistake of his own. The factors likely to lead to avalanches are predictable, but the actual occurrence of any avalanche is stochastic. The longer that any individual spends in avalanche-prone terrain, the higher the cumulative risk of being caught by one, irrespective of expertise. These examples, however, do not conflict with the definition of extreme sports as derived above.

There are well-known examples involving multiple deaths, where different individuals, or indeed adventure tourism guides and companies, made different assessments of risks and rewards.

admaceanesif.ml These include cases such as deaths during commercial climbs Boukreev and De Walt, or canyoning tours Lashmar and Karacs, The second issue is that some individuals may die through accidents even during low-risk adventure activities, even where the activity is routine and oft-repeated, and even where other participants were uninjured.

This, however, does not imply that those activities are extreme, but rather that particular individuals were unlucky, or in some cases behaved foolishly. That is, I argue that the distinction drawn here between extreme and adventure sports, based on the likely fatal consequences of any mistake, is still valid overall, even though: a some participants in extreme activities die without any mistakes; and b some participants in adventure activities die even though the activities are not extreme.

In support of this argument, and to illustrate the precise dividing line between adventure and extreme, I now present one autoethnographic incident that could be judged as barely extreme, and one that could be judged as barely adventurous.

I should emphasize that there are very many activities and participants far more extreme than this example, but that I do not have personal experience of them. I describe these incidents in some detail, in order to convey the sensations experienced from the participant perspective. This is the same approach as that adopted by Buckley , who used one rapid on one river to illustrate the type of incident available to identify broader scale patterns.

The first example is from hang-gliding. It took place many decades ago. A hang-glider is a double-surface aerofoil wing, constructed from fabric over a frame of aluminum alloy tubing braced by wires under tension. The wing exerts substantial drag, and maximum speeds are low compare to cockpit gliders. Hang-gliders have no moving aerofoil surfaces, and they are steered solely by weight shift. The pilot hangs in a harness under the wing, grasping a control bar that forms part of the rigid frame of the hang-glider. During ridge soaring, pilots can easily recover altitude, and can therefore practice different maneuvers, such as flying at different speeds, and making tighter or more open turns.

This maneuver creates substantial G forces and requires concentration, but is relatively safe. A more risky maneuver is a wingover, a partially inverted aerobatic move. To achieve this, the pilot first gains altitude, and then puts the hang-glider into a steep dive to gain speed and momentum. Once maximum safe speed is gained, the pilot pushes the control bar forward so the wing begins to fly sharply upward, and then banks the wing hard either to left or right, so as to create a steep turn from upward flight.

That is, it is a partially inverted turn like a diagonal loop, half-way between a steep turn in normal flight, and a fully inverted loop. A few pilots have indeed completed full loops in hang-gliders, but not using normal flying harnesses. A wingover involves significant risks. If the pilot does not have sufficient speed on the short section of upward flight, the wing will stall while inverted, causing a crash.

Most hang-glider wings can recover from a soft stall during level flight, although there have been fatal accidents when they did not. They cannot, however, recover from a stall when inverted. I did once find myself falling from the sky on top of an inverted hang-glider, and it did not recover, but crashed upside down. Fortunately, on that occasion the distance fallen was small, since I had merely crashed into the top of a tall tree, and fallen out backward.

But it does seem that in a hang-glider, stalled inverted flight is unrecoverable. In a hang-glider wingover, airspeed drops rapidly during the brief period of steep upward flight. The pilot must make an instant judgment, based only on the sound and feeling of airflow, whether or not they have adequate airspeed to support a fully banked turn, allowing for further loss of airspeed during the turn itself.

If they do, they can perform a successful wingover.