Though we’ve become accustomed to the limits being constantly pushed in every sport—world records seem to be a dime a dozen—nobody's beaten Fred Rompelberg's 1995 absolute speed cycling record. On a modified bicycle, Rompelberg (pictured here during his track racing days in the late 1970s) pedaled across the Salt Flats of Utah behind a 800-horsepower dragster, using the zero-resistance pocket behind it to reach a staggering 167 mph. At this bone-shattering speed, we’re glad he managed to keep his wheels under him.
Norwegian-Italian daredevil Alexander Polli squeezed through the opening of a cliff face in the Roca Forafada Mountains in Montserrat, Spain. Documenting the incredible feat of precision with a GoPro camera strapped to his helmet, Polli donned a wingsuit and leapt from a helicopter before roaring through the “Batman Cave” at 155 mph.
In June of 2011, Australian marathon swimmer Penny Palfrey emerged from the sea onto the Cayman Islands, staggering, puffy-faced, arms held up weakly in triumph. She had just swam 40 hours, unaided, through 67 miles of shark-infested waters (she remembers kicking something solid), and was stung three times by jellyfish, leaving her tongue and mouth swollen severely. After arriving on shore, she was immediately taken to the hospital to be treated for severe dehydration, muscle tears and jellyfish stings.
In 1952, Dr. Alain Bombard (pictured, right) sailed across the Atlantic Ocean in a lifeboat. His goal was to prove his survival theories to the medical community, primarily that a person could live off nothing but small sips of saltwater, fluids from raw fish, plankton and the fish themselves. For 65 days, Bombard braved rogue headwinds, stormy waters and the relentless beating down of the sun. Sealed away on the boat in case of emergency, the provisions he kept were confirmed untouched when he hit land.
Pro climber Alex “No Big Deal” Honnold shocked even the hardest-core adrenaline junkies when, in June of 2012, he scaled over 7,000 feet of sheer rock face at Yosemite National Park in under a day, setting speed records while at it, with absolutely no ropes or harnesses to protect him if he slipped. Then, in March of 2013, he braved his toughest climbing marathon to date, linking up three consecutive big walls at Zion National Park; funny, though, no one in the media batted an eyelid. With a margin for error even thinner than the rocks he hoists himself up, the legendarily calm Honnold must maintain razor-sharp focus.
Though he couldn’t make the trip himself due to frostbite, expedition leader Ranulph Fiennes organized an epic, grueling trek across Antarctica in the dead of winter. Hauling two live-work trailers, a food sledge, and 14 fuels skids behind specially equipped tractors for the next six months, the 200-ton caravan was paid for by more than 200 sponsors. Currently in the midst of the brutal crossing, the team faces total darkness, -130º F air that can freeze lungs almost instantly and a difficult, crevasse-riddled landscape.
In 1978, Italian climbing legend Reinhold Messner defied the scientific community when he braved Everest without supplemental oxygen. Near the summit (a.k.a. "the Death Zone"), air is one-third thinner than sea level, bone-chilling winds howl at up to 125 mph, and frostbite happens all too easily, thanks to temperatures that dip as low as -40ºF. Though conditions at the summit are much better understood today, and the standard routes are well-trod, Messner's climb was considered a suicide mission at the time.
On October 14, 2012, Felix Baumgartner leapt out of a balloon-lifted capsule from the so-called "edge of space," at 128,000 feet. It was so high, scientists said, that if he were exposed to the altitude (just one percent of that at sea level), it would kill him instantly. In a live, televised stunt, Baumgartner used a specialized inflatable suit to bolt through the sound barrier (Mach 1. 24, or, 833.9 mph). What's almost more shocking is that his team leader—Vietnam pilot Joseph Kittinger—held the old freefall record for a ballsy 102,800-foot (Mach 0.91) leap way back in the relative technological Dark Age of 1960.
In August of 2008, Dean Potter created a new sport, combining free solo climbing (just you and the rock—no ropes), and BASE jumping (jump from tall stuff wearing a low-altitude parachute). He climbed the North Face of Switzerland's famed Eiger via the Deep Blue Sea (5.12+) route with nothing but a five-pound parachute on his back. After pumping through a technical arête and deftly avoiding loose sections of rock, he flung himself off the top and, with the pull of a ripcord, drifted gently to the ground, and safety. In doing so, Potter invented freeBASE and became perhaps the first-ever climber to purposely let go.
What can Austrian Herbert Nitsch, 43, the “Deepest Man on Earth,” say about his career high, when it was in fact, so very low? In June of 2012, off the Greek coast, he dived 800 feet into the murky depths of the Mediterranean, further than any man in history. In what is known as No Limits diving, the athlete uses a weighted sled-like device to descend and return as quickly as possible. On his way back up, Nitsch lost consciousness from the too-rapidly-expanding nitrogen bubbles in his veins, which also set off a series of small strokes in him. Since his miraculous journey, Nitsch has suffered memory loss, difficulty speaking, writing, even walking and running, which, he jokes, looks like “a cross between goose-stepping and the Lambada.” But he’s alive.
On May 5, 2013, Austrian thrill-seeker Valery Rozov leapt off the roof of the world, at 23,688 feet above sea level on Everest's North Face, and wingsuit-glided to a glacier 4,000 feet below, completing the highest BASE jump ever. And he did it despite a rushed schedule that cut his team’s time to acclimatize to the fatally thinner air, temperatures averaging -25º Fahrenheit, and the pressure of precisely jumping, flying and—most importantly, perhaps—landing on the mountain’s rare, calm-winded day.
Africa’s Congo River hosts some of the fiercest whitewater on the planet. In 2011, Steve Fisher and his team of totally insane brave paddlers successfully navigated the Inga Rapids—a 50-mile-long stretch of 40-foot-wide whirlpools, surf-worthy 20-foot waves and 15-foot-high boils, all of which conceal the jagged rocks that lurk just beneath the surface. That's not to mention the scores of man-eating crocodiles (one killed intended crewmember Hendri Coetzee less than a year before) that patrol the river alongside massive vicious hippopotamuses. A 7-man team tried to conquer the rapids in 1985, and all but one—whose body was found downstream—disappeared altogether.
Alain Robert, a.k.a. “Spiderman,” has scaled more than 85 buildings, most illegally and with no protection, often resulting in his arrest at the top. Some of his most famous facades are the Eiffel Tower in Paris, the Opera House in Sydney and the Sears Tower in Chicago. His tallest climb, however, was the Bhurj Khalifa tower in Dubai. Since the climb was to be broadcast, Roberts climbed all 2,716 ft. with a harness. Wuss or wildman? You decide.
It seems almost as though risk-takers have tested themselves on nearly every corner of Earth. Perhaps, then, the next great adventure doesn’t belong on this planet, but rather 35 million miles away, on the red planet. A worldwide lottery will be held this year to select 40 potential crewmembers who will test themselves in the desert for three months (they may even make a reality show of it). At the end, 10 will be chosen by Dutch company Mars One to lift off in 2023. Once on Mars (assuming they make it) they'll find housing where they're expected to live out the rest of their lives.
Though this one was technically an accident, free skier Fred Syversen launched himself off a 351-foot cliff drop in Norway back in 2008, earning himself a world record for the highest ski drop ever, as well as mild liver damage and a partially collapsed lung. In doing so, he surpassed Jamie Pierre's record 255-foot drop, which he did the same year in Grand Targhee, Wyoming.