Mountaineering, hang-gliding, parachuting, canyoning - these challenges return the modern middle classes to the realm of risk and heroic action but in a way strangely and perhaps perversely uncoupled from either private or public commitment. Here the opportunity to exhibit courage is to be found in abundance, but always with the slight frustration that despite the adrenaline and the self-esteem that comes with mastering fear, something is missing; we are not searching for WMDs or returning a country to democracy or even exploring the extremities of the globe. There is not even any pretence of exploration or discovery.
Product of a domesticated and disillusioned world, extreme-sports man yearns for the moment when his adventures will push him to the brink, when it will all become real. One need only read (or watch) Joe Simpson's Touching the Void, about a mountaineering expedition that became a terrifying ordeal, to appreciate all the ambiguities here. Having survived, Simpson is clearly not unhappy that things went so badly wrong; he learned so much about himself. At the same time, the expedition remains completely cut off from any larger concerns, in a way meaningless, and hence a curious sadness hangs over it.