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5 Places to Almost Die Before You Die

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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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The Hospital in the Rock
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History
Budapest’s Former Top-Secret Hospital Inside a Cave
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The Hospital in the Rock

At the top of a hill in Budapest, overlooking the Danube River, sits Buda Castle, a gorgeous UNESCO World Heritage site visited by thousands of tourists every year. Directly underneath the castle, however, lies a less-frequented tourist attraction: a series of ancient, naturally formed caves with a colorful and sometimes disturbing history.

The entire cave system is over six miles long, and most of that has been left unchanged since it was used as cold storage (and a rumored dungeon) in the Middle Ages. Between 1939 and 2008, however, a half-mile stretch of those caves was built up and repurposed many times over. Known as Sziklakorhaz or The Hospital in the Rock, its many uses are a testament to the area’s involvement in World War II and the Cold War.

At the start of World War II, the location served as a single-room air raid center, but operating theaters, corridors, and wards were quickly added to create a much-needed hospital. By early 1944, the hospital had officially opened inside the cave, tending to wounded Hungarian and Nazi soldiers. After less than a year of operation, the facility found itself facing its largest challenge—the Siege of Budapest, which lasted seven weeks and was eventually won by Allied forces on their way to Berlin.

As one of the few area hospitals still operational, the Hospital in the Rock was well over capacity during the siege. Originally built to treat around 70 patients, close to 700 ended up crammed into the claustrophobic caves. The wounded lay three to a bed—if they were lucky enough to get a bed at all. Unsurprisingly, heat from all those bodies raised the ambient temperature to around 95°F, and smoking cigarettes was the number one way to pass the time. Add that to the putrid mix of death, decay, and infection and you’ve got an incredibly unpleasant wartime cocktail.

A recreation inside the museum. Image credit: The Hospital in the Rock 

After the siege, the Soviets took control of the caves (and Budapest itself) and gutted the hospital of most of its supplies. Between 1945 and 1948, the hospital produced a vaccination for typhus. As the icy grasp of the Cold War began to tighten, new wards were built, new equipment was installed, and the hospital was designated top-secret by the Soviets, referred to only by its official codename LOSK 0101/1.

Eleven years after facing the horrors of the Siege of Budapest, in 1956, the hospital hosted the casualties of another battle: The Hungarian Uprising. Thousands of Hungarians revolted against the Soviet policies of the Hungarian People’s Republic in a fierce, prolonged battle. Civilians and soldiers alike lay side-by-side in wards as surgeons attempted to save them. During the uprising, seven babies were also born in the hospital.

Surgeons lived on-site and rarely surfaced from the caves. The hospital’s chief surgeon at the time, Dr. András Máthé, famously had a strict "no amputation" rule, which seemed to fly in the face of conventional wisdom, but in the end reportedly saved many patients' lives. (Máthé also reportedly wore a bullet that he’d removed from a patient’s head on a chain around his neck.)

The Hospital in the Rock ceased normal operations in December 1956, after the Soviets squashed the uprising, as the Soviets had new plans for the caves. With the Cold War now in full swing, the still-secret site was converted into a bunker that could serve as a hospital in case of nuclear attack. Diesel engines and an air conditioning system were added in the early '60s, so that even during a blackout, the hospital could still function for a couple of days.

The Hospital in the Rock

The official plan for the bunker was as follows: In the event of a nuclear attack, a selection of doctors and nurses would retreat to the bunker, where they would remain for 72 hours. Afterward, they were to go out and search for survivors. Special quarantined rooms, showering facilities, and even a barbershop were on site for survivors brought back to the site. (The only haircut available to them, however, was a shaved head; radioactive material is notoriously difficult to remove from hair.)

Thankfully, none of these nuclear procedures were ever put into practice. But the hospital was never formally decommissioned, and it wasn’t relieved of its top-secret status until the mid-2000s. For a while, it was still being used as a storage facility by Hungary’s Civil Defense Force. The bunker was maintained by a nearby family, who were sworn to secrecy. In 2004, it was decided that responsibility for the site fell solely on St. John’s Hospital in Budapest, who were seen as the de facto owners in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union.

By 2008 the bunker was renovated, refurbished, and ready to be opened to the public. Today it operates as a museum, with exhibits detailing life in the hospital from various periods of its history, as well as the history of combat medicine as a whole. The sobering hour-long walk around the hospital concludes with a cautionary gaze into the atrocities of nuclear attacks, with the final walk to the exit featuring a gallery of art created by survivors of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings.

Another part of the caves beneath Buda Castle. Image credit:Sahil Jatana via Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

The caves beneath Buda Castle have certainly had a bumpy history, and walking through them now is chilling (and not just because they keep the temperature at around 60°F). A tour through the narrow, oppressive hallways is a glimpse at our narrowly avoided nuclear future—definitely a sobering way to spend an afternoon.

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Thomas Quine, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
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Weird
Take a Peek Inside One of Berlin's Strangest Museums
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Thomas Quine, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Vlad Korneev is a man with an obsession. He's spent years collecting technical and industrial objects from the last century—think iron lungs, World War II gas masks, 1930s fans, and vintage medical prostheses. At his Designpanoptikum in Berlin, which bills itself (accurately) as a "surreal museum of industrial objects," Korneev arranges his collection in fascinating, if disturbing, assemblages. (Atlas Obscura warns that it's "half design museum, half horror house of imagination.") Recently, the Midnight Archive caught up with Vlad for a special tour and some insight into the question visitors inevitably ask—"but what is it, really?" You can watch the full video below.

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