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Intrepid Touring

Today's Travelers are Facing Rigor, Danger and Dread--and Loving It
Kevin F. McMurray
From the Print Edition:
J.P. Morgan, Mar/Apr 00

It would seem I was in a precarious position. All that was between my finned feet and 5,000 feet of blue Pacific Ocean were some chicken wire, a few welded aluminum bars and a plethora of ominously fleeting shadows. I was 15 feet below the surface and imprisoned in a cage of frightfully small dimensions. Sharing my confining quarters were two other divers with whom I continually collided. Our tanks clanged together. We stepped on each other's fins. A nightmare? Some cruel torture or a test of my ability to cope with creeping claustrophobia? Not at all. This was exactly where I wanted to be, for outside the aluminum bars patrolled 40 sharks in the grips of a feeding frenzy.  

The water around the cage was afloat with fish offal and tinted red with fish blood. Fish oil clung to my wetsuit like lint on wool and left its taste on my lips. I was smack dab in the middle of a shark picnic and enjoying every minute of it. How many people, I asked myself, get to see what most only watch on a Jacques Cousteau documentary from the detachment of an armchair?  

Seeing sharks in their natural habitat is just one of many available experiences that are guaranteed to enthrall friends and family as well as lift one's adrenaline to intoxicating levels. Chalk it up as another testimonial to the happy explosion of adventure travel.  

Once the province of the elite explorer class, the multibillion-dollar-a year industry has opened up a travel market that was unheard of just a few short years ago. James Trombly, a former vice president of marketing for Seattle climbing outfitter Mountain Madness, calls the phenomenon "living your dreams."  

Mountain Madness was one of the outfitters of the disastrous expedition to Mt. Everest in 1996 that claimed the lives of eight people and was the grist for Jon Krakauer's best-seller Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mount Everest Disaster. While claiming the life of its founder and inspiration Scott Fischer, the disaster, far from financially ruining the business, has put Mountain Madness on a heady roll. The small outfitter showed a profit for the first time in 1998, when it grossed more than $700,000, and fared equally well last year. Although the disaster was controversial in mountaineering circles, a waiting list of people is lined up to take part in the next expedition to Everest this year--at $65,000 a pop. Trombly doesn't see it as a passing phase.  

"You're seeing the results of the fitness craze," Trombly says. "Remember the running boom of the late '70s? This is a natural outgrowth. Everybody wants to be fit. Being competitive is a big part of it, too. There are people out there who think that just because those people failed [Everest] doesn't mean I will. The adventure travel phenomenon is about achievement versus vacation. More and more people are opting for rock climbing in Thailand rather than a trip to Disney World."  

Besides Everest and rock climbing in Thailand, Mountain Madness is filling trips to once exotic climbing venues such as Africa's Mt. Kilimanjaro, Argentina's Aconcagua, Switzerland's Matterhorn, Alaska's Denali and Nepal's Ama Dablam.   Trombly admits the money-flush baby boomers' well-known thirst for new experiences fits into the equation as well. You can analyze the trend to death, but what it comes down to is simply having fun on your free time, and fun is what I was having 60 miles out in the ocean off of San Diego. Here are some adventures guaranteed to get your heart pumping while raising your anxiety level.    

SHARK DIVING  

A three-day trip to the offshore island of San Clemente with San Diego Shark Diving Expeditions promises an opportunity to spend some quality time in a reverse zoo situation. San Clemente is owned by the U.S. Navy, which uses the island for target practice (as evidenced by the burned-out shells of tanks and aircraft that litter the target zone and the circling supersonic fighter aircraft).  

Drifting in the gentle current two miles offshore, the dive operators secure a shark cage to a mooring line, slowly empty air from the ballast tanks to sink the cages to the desired depth, and begin the process of chumming the water with chopped-up mackerel. It isn't long before the first blue shark approaches the boat and nudges the chum box with its prodigious snout. Once a number of sharks circle the boat, the dive leader dons his steel mesh suit, arms himself with a bang stick and escorts one diver at a time down into the cage. Buoyancy vests are deflated to anchor the divers to the floor of the cage.


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