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Dispatches : Surfing

The Most Dangerous Games

Why do we seek out the gnarliest singletrack, the murkiest whitewater, and the steepest ski runs? Why don't we just sit on the beach and watch the waves roll in rather than surf them? It's called the element of danger, and it's what pumps up our adrenaline and makes the finish line so sweet. While it's impossible to totally eliminate danger from any outdoor pursuit, good fitness, prudent planning, and a little bit of skill can minimize it. But there are a few trips out there where danger—and even death—are a serious possibility. Here are some of the U.S. and Canada's riskiest adventures, and our strategies for surviving them.

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The Most Dangerous Trips: Hiking Long's Peak

Wake up before sunrise on a summer morning in Estes Park, Colorado, and the most abundant wildlife you’ll see is bleary-eyed hikers heading off to the trailhead for the Keyhole Route up 14,259-foot Long’s Peak, the tallest summit in Rocky Mountain National Park.

The 15-mile roundtrip up Long’s is not really a hike. It’s more like a gauntlet of fickle weather, lung-withering climbs, and long drops capped with a brutal 1.5-mile technical scramble through a boulder field to the summit. At least 57 people have perished trying to knock off the mountain since 1968, an average of one to two deaths per year. Luckily, the last two years have been relatively safe, but in 2010, two peak-baggers fell to their deaths from 300-foot ledges in separate instances on the Keyhole Route.

Stack the odds in your favor by starting early and turning back at the first sign of foul weather, lightning, or altitude sickness. If you lose the trail, which can be hard to follow in some locations, backtrack until you find your way—sheer drops can be hiding behind any boulder.

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The Most Dangerous Trips: Climbing Denali

Denali is deceptively short for a man-eater. At 20,320 feet, it's a fraction of the height of peaks like Everest or K2. But Denali’s 18,000-foot vertical rise from its base plateau makes climbing it a three-week slog, one that takes its toll on would-be summiteers. Of the 1,200 or so adventurers who attempt the mountain each year, the vast majority on the West Buttress Route, a little more than half make it to the top. And while most of them make it back down, a disconcerting number don’t. During 2011, seven climbers died, and in the 2012 season six mountaineers lost their lives, including four Japanese climbers who were caught in an avalanche and a Finnish man attempting a ski descent of the mountain.

What makes Denali so deadly? For one thing, climbers underestimate the peak because of its height. But its high latitude and complex weather patterns make Denali unpredictable. And climbers' sheer exhaustion on the descent has made Denali Pass, a 45-degree slope on the way back to high camp, a veritable graveyard for tired mountaineers.

Keeping safe on Denali means turning back at the first sign of trouble. Signing on with a guide service like Alpine Ascents International ups your chances of success and survival. But even that is no guarantee—in 2011, a rope team led by a veteran guide took a tumble, killing two clients.

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The Most Dangerous Trips: Paddling the Forks of the Kern

You’ve been warned—at the entrance to Kern Canyon, an information sign tallies the number of deaths on the river since 1968. At last count, it stood at 266. That stat hasn’t dissuaded thousands of paddlers from braving the 22-mile stretch of classic Class IV and V rapids just north of Bakersfield, California, over the decades. The body count is so high for several reasons. First, the risk is worth it: the Forks of the Kern, which originates in the Golden Trout Wilderness and rolls through the Sequoia National Forest, is one of the most beautiful and challenging river trips in the world. Second, many of the Class V monsters are unscoutable, meaning paddlers literally don’t know what they’re getting into.

Most of the river’s fatalities come from unprepared newbies, swimmers, and jackasses taking on the river with pool toys. Still, last year two rafters drowned on the river. In an editorial, Bakersfield Fire Chief Douglas Greener implored everyone to stay vigilant. “I recall my own Fire Department swift-water rescue training years ago and the impression the Kern River made on me,” he wrote. “What appeared to be a relatively calm surface concealed angry momentum and force. It only takes being battered and bounced around once to know that endeavor should be entered into tentatively.”

Even better, enter into it with professional help. There are half a dozen world-class guide services operating on the Kern, and in the last 30 years only two people have died on guided rafting trips. Kern River Outfitters is a good bet.

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The Most Dangerous Trips: Surfing Pipeline

Pipeline at Banzai Beach on Oahu’s North Shore is the world’s most iconic surf break, and a strong contender for most dangerous. The wave, which averages eight to nine feet but can hit up to 20, is known for it’s perfect tube. It's also famous for being shallow, with a hard lava reef lurking just feet below the surface. A wipeout can lead to a severe case of reef rash, a head wound, or worse, can grab and hold you under. To compound things, a rigid pecking order at Pipeline means pros and locals are entitled to the best, cleanest waves. Visitors and Pipe virgins have to fight for unpredictable “scrap” waves. That’s what got aspiring Japanese pro Moto Watanabe in trouble in January 2010. He launched into what looked like an average swell only to have the wave mutate into a massive curl, driving his head into his own board. He died 11 days later. While the Pipeline averages one death per year, it’s indiscriminate, taking pros and novices alike.    

If you have the brass to challenge the Pipe, start out on a day with smaller swells. Not only will you avoid some of the jostling at the lineup, you’ll get a crash course in how to survive it. When the wave catches up to you—and it will—make sure to keep clear of your board, which can cause injuries, and go down feet first in case you get slammed into the reef.

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