When Evel Knievel tried to jump the Snake River Canyon in 1974, stunts were kind of an oddity. “Now, that’s every Red Bull commercial,” says Grayson Schaffer ’01, editor at large at Outside Magazine and a co-founder at the production company Talweg Creative. After all, he points out, when the public has seen it all, the only way to grab the limelight is to up the ante, usually with a brand paying the way.
Schaffer, who has covered people doing everything from climbing Everest without oxygen to kayaking down waterfalls, is frequently interviewed by national media about the world of adventure, but he knows he hasn’t seen it all—not yet. As a recent example of death-defying acts that push the limits, he points to climber Alex Honnold’s ascent of the sheer vertical wall of El Capitan without safety gear. “You’re bringing no equipment,” he says, “just your climbing shoes and a chalk bag, and you end up climbing 2,500 feet with no ropes, no way to retreat, no way to bail out—I mean, that’s pretty crazy.”
That’s an extreme case, but among people of means, Schaffer believes, the quest for thrills is becoming the ultimate expression of conspicuous consumption. “You’re seeing the benchmarks of what people view as wealth and success shifting,” he says. “Instead of a fancy car and a big mansion, people are spending huge sums of money to be able to show off an enviable Instagram feed.” Enabling such thrill-seeking, he says, will be the growing ranks of highly skilled professional guides who can provide a measure of safety for people trying their hand at everything from backcountry skiing to summiting Mount Everest.