A few travel agencies cater to very rich people seeking scary, exclusive adventures. As Alex Christian reports for Wired, some millionaires and billionaires – mostly men – pay top dollar to challenge themselves on expensive journeys that feature risk, hardship and even outright danger. When the Titan submersible imploded near the Titanic’s wreck in June 2023, the passengers who died had paid $250,000 each and signed a waiver accepting the possibility of dying. One adventure traveler says the adrenaline rush of cheating death is part of the appeal of a high-cost, high-risk exploit.
- Deciding that just going to the North Pole was too tame, British entrepreneur Jules Mountain undertook an even more dangerous helicopter trip.
- The exclusivity of death-defying adventure trips has spurred their growth.
Deciding that just going to the North Pole was too tame, a British entrepreneur undertook an even more dangerous helicopter trip.
British entrepreneur Jules Mountain decided that a trip to the North Pole was not challenging enough. Instead, he decided to fly a Bell 505 light helicopter 4,000 miles (6,437 km) across the Atlantic Ocean from Montreal to Guernsey. He was the first person to make the trip in a helicopter with a 350-mile (563 km) range. After a fuel stop, he was on the second leg of his trip when he found himself in “freezing fog” at an altitude of 14,500 feet (4,450 meters) barely able to breathe, with his machine quickly icing up in the -140C (6.80F) air. The journey took eight long days.
“My previous goal was to trek to the North Pole, but it felt too easy. It didn’t feel dangerous enough: You could get rescued at any moment. Whereas with this challenge, flying over icebergs and forests far from civilization, an engine failure might mean death. And that’s when the adrenaline rush hits — it’s when you feel most alive.” (James Mountain)
Mountain, who has climbed Mt. Everest among his other exploits, is one of many extremely rich people, mostly men in their 50s and 60s, who eagerly risk their lives for thrills. An increasing number of companies meet that demand by providing hazardous adventure trips for very wealthy clients.
In June 2023, British billionaire Hamish Harding, wealthy Pakistani British businessman Shahzada Dawood and his son Suleman died when the Titan submersible imploded near the remains of the Titanic at 12,500 feet (3,810 meters) below sea level. Stockton Rush, the head of OceanGate, which owned the submersible, also died, along with the trip’s expert guide, famed marine scientist Paul-Henri Nargeolet. OceanGate charged clients $250,000 for the trip, and they had to sign a waiver that stressed the possibility of dying on the vessel – which did not open from the inside.
“No one onboard would have been under any illusions that it was safe. That’s part of the appeal: The wreck is incredibly inaccessible, dangerous to visit and steeped in mythology. And very few people have done it.” (Jules Mountain)
Mountain explains that part of the appeal of going on the Titan was the prestige of becoming one of the few people who’d seen the Titanic’s hulking wreck. Deluxe comfort was not a motive; despite the trip’s hefty price tag, the submersible was cramped and uncomfortable. Concerns about its safety, construction and seaworthiness first emerged when it underwent quality control checks in 2018.
The exclusivity of death-defying adventure trips has spurred their growth.
Garret Madison, owner of Madison Mountaineering in Seattle, offers $75,000 expeditions to Everest as well as trips to “unnamed, unclimbed” peaks in the Himalayas. One client bought out an entire expedition to the Antarctic for $200,000 and took his friends on his private jet. Madison offers some luxuries, like hot showers at Everest base camp, and he focuses on safety, working with expert guides and providing logistical support, including extra oxygen, good food and reliable communications gear. However, he finds, his wealthy clients want to “suffer a little bit – that’s how they feel alive.”
“Pleasure and purpose tend to determine happiness, and it used to be about material purchases and philanthropy. Over time, redistributing wealth still provides purpose, but pleasure is harder to attain.” (Professor Grace Lordan)
Other companies also provide “luxury extreme tourism.” For example, White Desert Antarctica provides fancy pods with private chefs near the South Pole for $15,000 per night. Harding visited several times.
Grace Lordan, an associate professor in behavioral economics at the London School of Economics, explains that highly risky adventure travel has replaced luxury merchandise for some “thrill-seeking entrepreneurs.” As expensive products saturate the mass market, the superrich are turning to exclusive experiences open to very few people. In her analysis, ego also motivates these high-risk-seeking entrepreneurs.
Madison agrees that his clients are seeking thrills by risking their lives. Instead of being in an office, they want to “perceive death” to get an adrenaline rush. Mountain admits his solo helicopter trip was crazy, but he feels “very driven” as an entrepreneur. He faced possible death during his flight to prove himself and demonstrate his capabilities.
“These challenges will always come with risk. Otherwise, everyone would be doing them.” (Jules Mountain)
The cost of such escapades is prohibitive, but Mountain believes the triumphant terror of dodging possible death is part of their appeal to wealthy businessmen who have already conquered so many other heights.
About the Author
Alex Christian is a freelance writer featured in WIRED and on the BBC.