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5 Places to Almost Die Before You Die

1. Tiankeng Sinkhole, Xiaozhai, China

When I was 18 years old, I took a trip with a few buddies of mine to Lake George in upstate New York. We had heard that there was a great spot for cliff jumping on the far side of the lake, and we found it without too much trouble. It was a fifty-foot sheer rock wall that dropped straight into deep water. Hyped up on adrenaline and Red Bull, we scrambled to the top.

"Me first!" my friend shouted, running to the edge. He quickly stopped. What seemed like a short drop from the bottom now seemed like a very large drop from the top. This, mind you, was fifty feet into water. I cannot imagine jumping 2,164 feet into the world's largest sinkhole.

The Tiankeng sinkhole near Ziaozhai, China, attracts some of the world's craziest individuals. I'm not referring to lacrosse goalies, drummers, or Tom Cruise. No, I'm talking about B.A.S.E. jumpers, the wild individuals who get their thrills from parachuting off extremely high platforms (including buildings, antenna, spans, and earth, hence the acronym B.A.S.E.). The extreme sport is considered one of the most dangerous in the world, with an estimated one fatality for every sixty participants.

The sinkhole itself is the shape of an inverted bell and was created over time as an underground river eroded the limestone walls. From the top, it looks like an underground rainforest. From the bottom... well, I couldn't tell you.

2. N57 40.390 E12 29.000, Västra Götaland, Sweden

When bored, I often try to Google fun activities in my area. Unfortunately, a search of "fun things to do in Durham, NC" doesn't return much but advertisements for strip clubs.

One day, however, after searching through a few pages, I found something interesting. As it turns out, one of the most extreme geocaches in the world is located in Durham's storm drain system. I didn't know what a geocache was, but the words "extreme," "world," and "system" caught my eye. I turned to Google once again.

As it turns out, Geocaching is a sport that roughly resembles an international treasure hunt. Officially started in 2000 by David Ulmer of Beavercreek, Oregon, the game is simple. Someone posts clues and the coordinates of the cache, or treasure, and someone else tries to find it using a handheld GPS. Then, he/she takes what's inside the cache and replaces it with something else. There are caches everywhere: putting my zip code into geocaching.com revealed over thirty within a five-mile radius of my position. After some more research into Durham's extreme cache, I came to the conclusion that it was extremely dangerous. The Durham cache seems like child's play, though, compared to the extreme cache in Vastra Gotaland, Sweden.

The description on geocaching.com makes it pretty clear that the Vastra Gotaland cache is not for amateurs. "No cache is worth dying for!" it says. It further discourages anyone from attempting to find it unless he or she "has a serious death wish, is immortal, has more than three lives left, or is very stupid and not afraid of heights."

With a description like that, how could you afford not to snag this cache before you die?

3. The Graveyard of the Atlantic, Cape Hatteras, North Carolina

I wish I had a cool shipwreck story to start off a blurb entitled "The Graveyard of the Atlantic." Sadly, however, I don't. I was once almost kidnapped while on a cruise ship, but the ship never wrecked and the kidnapping was botched. Besides, who hasn't almost been kidnapped these days?

Instead, I'm going to jump right into the Graveyard of the Atlantic. Figuratively, of course. It's not known as a graveyard for nothing: in the past 600 years, more than 600 ships have been wrecked along this small strip of North Carolina coast. For those of you who don't speak math, that's an average of one shipwreck every year for the last six centuries. For an area that's generally known for its warm, sunny beaches, that's a lot of sunken ships.

The turbulent waters around Cape Hatteras are a result of two great ocean currents meeting and are responsible for the area's nickname. From the north comes the chilly Labrador Current, and from the south comes the toasty Gulf Stream. When the two meet, they create a sailor's nightmare in the form of rough waters and shallow sandbars.

Inclement weather also contributes to the abundance of shipwrecks. Hurricanes frequently move up the North Carolina coast, and storms are a common occurrence.

Granted, nature is not solely responsible for all of the shipwrecks off Cape Hatteras. Piracy has destroyed many boats, the Civil War took a few more, and German U-Boats added to the collection. From the shore, tourists can often see the eerie masts of long-sunken ships rising out of the water. While Cape Hatteras might be a beautiful spot to vacation, it might not be the best place to try out your new yacht.

4. Space, Space, The Milky Way Galaxy

There are a lot of images that come to mind when I think of space: aliens, lasers, horrible death at the hands of alien lasers. Needless to say, none of them are very pleasant. Which is why, for the life of me, I cannot understand why anyone would pay $200,000 for a visit.

Yet that's exactly what approximately 300 people are currently signed up to do with Sir Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic. On December 7, 2009, Branson revealed the SpaceShip Two, his newest rocket plane. While it hasn't been put into operation yet, prototypes look both frightening and awesome.

The sixty-foot long SpaceShip Two will be able to travel at Mach 3, providing clients with approximately six minutes of weightlessness during a two and a half hour journey. Up to six passengers can fly at a time, meaning that you can bring friends. The ship can also accommodate two pilots, which seems like your best bet for experiencing weightlessness if you don't have 200,000 bucks to blow.

From the vantage point of space, views are supposedly spectacular. There are, however, several risks incurred when traveling beyond the Earth's atmosphere. Other than the aforementioned aliens, there is the possibility of the craft malfunctioning. Indeed, astronaut is one of the most dangerous jobs in the world. While the experience is sure to be out of this world, there is one important thing to remember: in space, no one can hear you scream.

5. Annapurna, Himalaya Mountain Range, Nepal


Image via Wikimedia Commons user Leridant

I have often found that the craziest things in life come in sixes. For instance, I once met a group of fourteen-year-old sextuplet orphans who ran a circus. The six of them put on some of the most ridiculous acts I have ever seen. There are six basic animal groups, and animals are pretty wild. There are also six peaks that fall under the name "Annapurna," and they are the deadliest (by percentage) mountains in the world.

Annapurna I is the highest of the six peaks, the others being Annapurna II, Annapurna III, Annapurna IV, Gangapurna, and Annapurna South. Of all the places to visit on the list that could almost kill you, Annapurna is the most likely to actually do the job.

Since the first summit by Maurice Herzog and Louis Lachenal in 1950, forty-one percent of the people who have attempted to summit the mountains have died. Although more people have been killed on Everest, its eight percent mortality rate makes it seem easy by comparison. Even K2, the second deadliest mountain in the world, only has a twenty-five percent mortality rate.

Avalanches are primarily responsible for the mountainous deaths, although climbers have also been killed by extreme cold and falling ice. For the roughly 130 people who have actually succeeded in summiting Annapurna I, the views are probably similar to looking out the window of SpaceShip Two. For the rest of us, backpacking around Annapurna is typically said to be some of the best in the world.

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Chris Jackson, Getty Images
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environment
There's Only One Carbon Negative Country in the World (Here's How They Do It)
Chris Jackson, Getty Images
Chris Jackson, Getty Images

In 2017, the small nation of Bhutan became the first and only carbon negative country in the world. That's right: not carbon neutral, carbon negative.

In an article on the subject, the Climate Council—an independent, Australia-based nonprofit organization dedicated to educating the public on matters related to climate change—defines carbon negative status as occurring when a country's carbon emissions are not only offset, but are actually in the negative due to the generation and exportation of renewable energy. There are several reasons for this impressive feat.

Bhutan—a small, landlocked country in the middle of the Himalayas—has a population of approximately 813,000 and produces 2.2 million metric tons of carbon dioxide per year. The country is 72 percent forest, and those forests trap more than three times their carbon dioxide output through a process called carbon sequestration, the long-term storage of carbon in plants, soil, and the ocean. This means that Bhutan is a carbon sink: It absorbs more carbon than it releases as carbon dioxide. Specifically, Bhutan is a carbon sink for more than 4 million tons of CO2 each year. In addition, the country exports most of the renewable electricity generated by its rivers, which is equivalent to 6 million tons of CO2.

Bhutan is also exceptionally environmentally friendly. This is partly because it takes a holistic view of development, measuring it with the Gross National Happiness Index instead of the Gross Domestic Product Index, like most countries. Instead of only prioritizing economic improvement, Gross National Happiness balances it with sociocultural and environmental improvement. The eco-conscious country invests in sustainable transport, subsidizes electric vehicles, and has an entirely paperless government.

Bhutan has pledged to remain carbon neutral for all time, and it's safe to say it's doing pretty well so far.

[h/t The Climate Council]

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History
How an Early Female Travel Writer Became an Immunization Pioneer
Lady Mary Wortley Montagu by A. Devéria
Lady Mary Wortley Montagu by A. Devéria

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu was a British aristocrat, feminist, and writer who was famed for her letters. If that were all she did, she would be a slightly obscure example of a travel writer and early feminist. But she was also an important public health advocate who is largely responsible for the adoption of inoculation against smallpox—one of the earliest forms of immunization—in England.

Smallpox was a scourge right up until the mid-20th century. Caused by two strains of Variola virus, the disease had a mortality rate of up to 35 percent. If you lived, you were left with unsightly scars, and possible complications such as severe arthritis and blindness.

Lady Montagu knew smallpox well: Her brother died of it at the age of 20, and in late 1715, she contracted the disease herself. She survived, but her looks did not; she lost her eyelashes and was left with deeply pitted skin on her face.

When Lady Montagu’s husband, Edward Wortley Montagu, was appointed ambassador to Turkey the year after her illness, she accompanied him and took up residence in Constantinople (now Istanbul). The lively letters she wrote home described the world of the Middle East to her English friends and served for many as an introduction to Muslim society.

One of the many things Lady Montagu wrote home about was the practice of variolation, a type of inoculation practiced in Asia and Africa likely starting around the 15th or 16th century. In variolation, a small bit of a pustule from someone with a mild case of smallpox is placed into one or more cuts on someone who has not had the disease. A week or so later, the person comes down with a mild case of smallpox and is immune to the disease ever after.

Lady Montagu described the process in a 1717 letter:

"There is a set of old women, who make it their business to perform the operation, every autumn, in the month of September, when the great heat is abated. People send to one another to know if any of their family has a mind to have the small-pox: they make parties for this purpose, and when they are met (commonly fifteen or sixteen together) the old woman comes with a nuts-hell full of the matter of the best sort of small-pox, and asks what veins you please to have opened. She immediately rips open that you offer to her with a large needle (which gives you no more pain than a common scratch), and puts into the vein as much matter as can lye upon the head of her needle, and after that binds up the little wound with a hollow bit of shell; and in this manner opens four or five veins. . . . The children or young patients play together all the rest of the day, and are in perfect health to the eighth. Then the fever begins to seize them, and they keep their beds two days, very seldom three. They have very rarely above twenty or thirty in their faces, which never mark; and in eight days' time they are as well as before their illness."

So impressed was Lady Montagu by the effectiveness of variolation that she had a Scottish doctor who worked at the embassy, Charles Maitland, variolate her 5-year-old son in 1718 with the help of a local woman. She returned to England later that same year. In 1721, a smallpox epidemic hit London, and Montagu had Maitland (who by then had also returned to England) variolate her 4-year-old daughter in the presence of several prominent doctors. Maitland later ran an early version of a clinical trial of the procedure on six condemned inmates in Newgate Prison, who were promised their freedom if they took part in the experiment. All six lived, and those later exposed to smallpox were immune. Maitland then repeated the experiment on a group of orphaned children with the same results.

A painting of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu with her son, Edward Wortley Montagu, and attendants
Lady Mary Wortley Montagu with her son, Edward Wortley Montagu, and attendants
Jean-Baptiste Vanmour, Art UK // CC BY-NC-ND

But the idea of purposely giving someone a disease was not an easy sell, especially since about 2 or 3 percent of people who were variolated still died of smallpox (either because the procedure didn’t work, or because they caught a different strain than the one they had been variolated with). In addition, variolated people could also spread the disease while they were infectious. Lady Montagu also faced criticism because the procedure was seen as “Oriental,” and because of her gender.

But from the start, Lady Montagu knew that getting variolation accepted would be an uphill battle. In the same letter as her first description of the practice, she wrote:

"I am patriot enough to take pains to bring this useful invention into fashion in England; and I should not fail to write to some of our doctors very particularly about it, if I knew any one of them that I thought had virtue enough to destroy such a considerable branch of their revenue for the good of mankind. But that distemper is too beneficial to them, not to expose to all their resentment the hardy wight that should undertake to put an end to it. Perhaps, if I live to return, I may, however, have courage to war with them."

As promised, Lady Montagu promoted variolation enthusiastically, encouraging the parents in her circle, visiting convalescing patients, and publishing an account of the practice in a London newspaper. Through her influence, many people, including members of the royal family, were inoculated against smallpox, starting with two daughters of the Princess of Wales in 1722. Without her advocacy, scholars say, variolation might never have caught on and smallpox would have been an even greater menace than it was. The famed poet Alexander Pope said that for her, immortality would be "a due reward" for "an action which all posterity may feel the advantage of," namely the "world’s being freed from the future terrors of the small-pox."

Variolation was performed in England for another 70 years, until Edward Jenner introduced vaccination using cowpox in 1796. Vaccination was instrumental in finally stopping smallpox: In 1980, it became the first (and so far, only) human disease to be completely eradicated worldwide.

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