We live in a culture that lionizes adventurers and risk-takers. And for good reason — without these people, we wouldn’t have explored the world, reached the highest peaks of the Himalayas, tested the limits of human endurance, and made the most of our epic discoveries. The risk-taking ethos is also fundamental in the philosophy of travelers. No matter how safe you choose to travel, wandering out your door is way more risky than staying put.
We tend to gloss over the one major downside of their risk-taking: Sometimes, it doesn’t pay off. Sometimes, it ends in death. These adventurers deserve our respect for their feats, but their deaths deserve our respect, too. We can learn just as much from their tragedies as we can from their victories. Here are some adventurers who paid the ultimate price adventuring.
Dave Shaw was a deep-sea diver and cave diver who set several records in South Africa’s notorious Bushman’s Hole. The Hole looks from the top like a puddle, but as you step into it, you quickly realize it’s actually a sinkhole. It’s one of the deepest sinkholes in the world (nearly 1,000ft deep), and also a particularly deadly one. In 1994, a diver named Deon Dreyer died during a dive, and his body wasn’t recovered. Dave Shaw found Dreyer’s body on a dive, and decided to set up an extremely risky body recovery attempt. SnapJudgment, a public-radio program, did this incredible report on the dive:
Shaw didn’t survive the dive, but he managed to strap Dreyer’s body to his. So when Shaw’s body floated to the top, he brought Dreyer with him, thus fulfilling his promise to return Dreyer’s body to his parents.
You’ve probably heard of Chris McCandless. He’s the subject of Jon Krakauer’s great book Into the Wild. Fed up with a life that expected him to conform to societal standards of “success,” and inspired by heroes like Thoreau and Tolstoy, McCandless donated all of his money to Oxfam and left his old life behind without a word to his parents.
He spent two years wandering around the country on a nomadic quest of sorts, until he finally reached Alaska. He hiked into the wilderness with inadequate supplies and a naive belief that he could “rough it” and come out alive. He did not.
Much controversy has surrounded McCandless since his death. Many see his naivete and hubris and believe that, at best, McCandless serves as a cautionary tale for what extreme idealism can result in when it isn’t coupled with experience. Others see him as an inspiration, a rare person who managed to drop everything he owned and abandon the rat race entirely — a boy who became his own man on his own terms.
It’s hard to argue with either camp. “The Edge…,” Hunter S. Thompson once said, “there is no honest way to explain it because the only people who really know where it is are the ones who have gone over.” McCandless went over the edge, and the rest of us are left wondering what he learned and whether it was worth it.
Hendri Coetzee was an adventurer and humanitarian who kayaked the Nile River from source to sea — a notoriously difficult feat — in order to raise awareness of the humanitarian situation in the countries along the Nile. In 2010, he organized a similar trip through the Congo, and was in a little-known part of the river with two American kayakers when a crocodile burst out of the water, flipped him over, and dragged him under. His body was never found.
Two weeks before Hendri died, he wrote the following on his blog:
“It is hard to know the difference between irrational fear and instinct, but fortunate is he who can. Often there is no clear right or wrong option, only the safest one. And if safe was all I wanted, I would have stayed home in Jinja. Too often when trying something no one has ever done, there are only 3 likely outcomes: Success, quitting, or serious injury and beyond. The difference in the three are often forces outside of your control. But this is the nature of the beast: Risk.”