An Austrian daredevil named Felix Baumgartner plans to break the world record for highest skydive in August. After taking an air balloon to 120,000 feet, he'll step out of his helium cocoon at the edge of space and break the sound barrier on his way back to earth.
Sound exciting? It's already been done. Here's a list of eleven impossible stunts pulled off by very real human beings.
1. Joseph Kittinger
Kittinger was Baumgartner's inspiration and the current record holder. As the head of an Air Force program called Project Excelsior, Kittinger made several extremely high jumps to test new parachute designs. In August 1960 he made his highest ascent, to 102,800 feet. At 43,000 feet the pressure lock on his right glove failed. His hand, which was basically being exposed to outer space, swelled enormously. He carried on without informing his base, then jumped from the balloon once it reached target altitude. Fortunately, the hand returned to normal size back on earth. He went on to volunteer for duty in Vietnam, where he was shot down and spent almost a year in an NVA prison camp. Watch the dive video:
2. Reinhold Messner
Before Ben Folds Five unknowingly appropriated his name for an album, Messner was mostly known as the world's most famous mountain climber.
He was the first person in the world to climb every mountain taller than 8,000 meters, and in 1978 he pulled off a feat that was thought suicidal: he climbed Mount Everest without oxygen tanks. Hysteria ensued in the climbing community and, to silence his critics, he did it again in 1980. Alone. No one has repeated his feat since. Below, a clip from his and Peter Habeler's 1978 ascent of Everest without oxygen tanks.
3. William Trubridge
Trubridge is perhaps the world's best free diver, which is the art of diving without SCUBA gear. With only the air in their lungs while submerged, free divers see how far down they can swim. According to the official free diving website, Trubridge recently passed a landmark depth: he descended 101 meters in an unaided free dive. That's 331 feet down on a single breath. Watch the official video of the record-setting dive:
4. John Stapp
Stapp tested the limits of gravitational endurance by repeatedly exposing himself to G forces beyond what was thought possible to survive. He led a series of Air Force tests in rapid deceleration, the last of which exposed him to forces in excess of 40 g. His eyes bled, he suffered two broken wrists, and dust particles caused rashes on his body, but he sustained no permanent injuries. His work paved the way for the use of crash test dummies, and he later championed the inclusion of seat belts in automobiles.
Col. Stapp in a helmet that measures G forces. Image from the David Hill collection via The Ejection Site.
5. Philippe Petit
This French high wire artist was profiled in the Oscar-winning documentary Man on Wire (trailer below). After successfully tightrope walking the cathedral at Notre Dame and the Sydney Harbour Bridge, Petit set his eyes on the newly erected World Trade Center towers in 1974. In a fascinating feat that was as much a heist story as it was a physical accomplishment, Petit and his team successfully bypassed security at the towers, then fired a rope from one rooftop to the other with a bow and arrow (they first used fishing line). Petit danced on the rope for forty-five minutes as a crowd gathered below, making eight passes in all. He was arrested as soon as he stepped off the line, but charges were dropped in exchange for another show in Central Park.
6. Jordan Romero
Romero has climbed the peaks of the highest mountain on every continent. That might not sound very outlandish until you hear that he summited them all before age 16—the youngest to ever do so. He climbed Everest before his 14th birthday. Controversy erupted afterward about whether people so young should be allowed on such a dangerous mountain. The Chinese government then imposed an age requirement (18) for all climbers. Romero's record isn't likely to be broken anytime soon.
7. Martin Strel
Strel has swum the length of the world's greatest rivers: the Danube, the Mississippi, the Yangtze, and, most notoriously, the Amazon. Aside from the challenge of swimming 50 miles per day, the native Slovenian had to contend with Dengue, sunburn, extreme currents, and Candiru—blood-sucking parasitic catfish that invade their host's urethra. Strel said, "I was attacked by piranhas a few times — at one point they were eating my back." His team's solution? Pouring buckets of blood in the water nearby, diverting their attention. To unwind from the enormous stress of the river, Strel drank up to two bottles of wine each day. He completed the Amazon swim in 66 days, as seen in Big River Man (trailer below).
8. Alain Bombard
This French physician crossed the Atlantic Ocean in a rubber dinghy named l'Hérétique that was equipped with a sextant, oars, a singlesail, and the works of Shakespeare and Montaigne to keep him company. Bombard tested his ideas about survival while stranded at sea by sailing 2,900 miles from the Canary Islands to Barbados in October 1952. After bidding his newlywed wife and baby girl adieu, he went to sea alone. He speared fish with a homemade harpoon and ate surface plankton that he caught with a net. For fresh water, he pressed water from the bodies of fish, sometimes mixing it with a small amount of ocean water in a cocktail he called "a very pleasant drink, not unlike Vichy water." When he arrived in Barbados 65 days later, he had lost 55 pounds. He and his wife had four more children.
Two of the covers for Bombard's 1958 French-language book about his experience, Naufragé Volontaire.
9. Charlie Engle, Kevin Lin, & Ray Zahab
In 2006, this trio ran from Senegal to Cairo—right across the Sahara desert. Their route took them over 4,300 miles through six countries. They ran to highlight the lack of access to clean water in North Africa. A documentary crew financed by Matt Damon accompanied them. They planned to complete the run in 80 days, but ended up taking 111. If that sounds like an underachievement, consider that it still works out to a rate of almost 39 miles a day, in 120 degree heat. Each runner used roughly 25 pairs of Nikes. Engle reported that he drank 1,411 liters of Gatorade. Aside from urinating in minefields and braving Col. Gaddafi's Libya, the trio ran along the "Highway of Dead Animals" in Mauritania, where roadkill littered the asphalt because drivers exceed 100 MPH. Watch their journey in Running the Sahara (trailer below).
10. Felicity Aston
Aston very recently became the first woman to complete a solo crossing of Antarctica. The 1056 mile journey took 59 days, with Aston carrying all of her gear behind her on sleds. Through it all she tweeted updates to followers about how the journey was going. After making it back to civilization and having her fill of cake and ice cream (she had lost 18 pounds), Aston tweeted about one of the biggest re-adjustments to normal life: "Having to remind myself of the rules now I'm not alone; no peeing wherever I stand, no talking to the sun, no snot or dribble on my face..." Below, the video she recorded when she reached the end of her journey.
11. Lewis Gordon Pugh
Pugh is the only person to ever log a long distance swim in each of the world's major oceans, and that isn't even his biggest accomplishment. In 2005 and 2007, he went for one kilometer dips at both the North Pole and off the coast of Antarctica. His attire? A Speedo, swim cap, and goggles. Through a neat trick he calls "anticipatory thermo-genesis," Pugh is able to raise his body temperature to 101 degrees right before a plunge in freezing waters. Despite this unique ability, his temperature dropped to 91.4 degrees immediately after his swim in Antarctica. Some swimmers fear sharks, but in Pugh's environment, his greatest fear is different: leopard seals. Below, the official video from his North Pole swim.