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Vacationing on the edge Add to ...

Some time late this month, 34 tourists - including a Canadian - will soar into clear skies above the 8,848-metre summit of Mount Everest. Then they will step out of the plane.

This group will make the first-ever freefall in front of the world's tallest mountain, alighting on the world's highest drop zone at 3,764 metres.

Several participants have never skydived before: They will jump "in tandem" with a licensed partner. There is an osteopath, a designer, an information technology entrepreneur, a bioscientist, even a member of the Hells Angels. The youngest is pushing 30, the oldest a septuagenarian.

Call these people crazy and they would probably take it as a compliment. "I'd be very upset if you thought I was normal," says Nigel Gifford, at 62 an accomplished skydiver, trekker and Everest veteran whose British-based tour company, High & Wild, spent two years organizing the historic jump.

The participants, who have paid a minimum of $27,500 (U.S.) each, are typical of a growing niche of tourists chasing the ultimate adventure,

Gifford explains. "They have this

spirit of wishing to be first into the unknown," he says. "They push boundaries."

And yet they're doing so with the help of a tour operator. Like an increasing number of travellers, the jumpers are buying risky and physically demanding experiences while letting other people do the organizing. Sold as adventure travel or extreme travel, these trips - from outer space to the bottom of the sea - have become an accessible alternative to resort vacations.

Research by the Adventure Travel Trade Association suggests that mainstream resort-style holidays are losing some ground to other trips - and many in the industry see edgier travel as an important slice of the pie.

For the modern adventurer, African safaris are so yesterday, unless the point is to ditch the comfy Range Rover and head into the bush for a Masai course on defending against spitting cobras, courtesy of British-based Extreme Safari.

Closer to home, Gravity Adventures, of Nelson, B.C., guides climbers up the Yukon's 600-metre sheer granite slab known as Lotus Flower Tower (which Gifford, incidentally, climbed in 1981 and rates as "one of my top three adventures in the world").

Years of reality TV shows have helped to put risky and demanding trips into the mainstream. Now, films such as last December's The Bucket List - starring Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman as cancer patients determined to drive race cars and climb the Pyramids - are inspiring ever-more creative real-life trips, experts say. Growing demand for such travel has created a boom in affordable adventure packages, which make easy substitutes for resort stays.

"Nowadays you get online, you make a decision as to who to hire and you go, no advance preparation required," says Kenneth Iain MacDonald, a cultural geographer at the University of Toronto who studies the social and environmental impacts of tourism. "It's remarkable."

Few may have the $200,000 (U.S) needed to blast into suborbital space next year with billionaire Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic experiment - or enough to buy two places, as Vancouver software entrepreneur Dick Hardt said he did this week.

And actually staying in space, with the Russians on the International Space Station, will run you about $30-million (U.S.).

But for $5,197 (U.S.), you can

experience weightlessness aboard a modified cargo plane chartered by

Incredible Adventures, of Sarasota, Fla.

And $15,000 (U.S.) buys three days in the SAS Super Aviator, a newly launched, Canadian-built submersible resembling an underwater glider.

Vancouver sub expert Phil Nuytten, of Nuytco Research, has completely stripped and redesigned an existing winged, two-seat vessel, adding everything from high-definition cameras to new life-support systems and a reverse parachute - a buoy system that, when triggered, pulls the sub swiftly upward.

The 15-month refit was finished in April, and the first tourists embarked last month off south Florida and the Bahamas. They learn to pilot the sub themselves to the limit of ambient light at around 150 metres - about 120 metres deeper than a scuba diver can safely go.

"You're going into the most biologically diverse part of the universe, which only a fraction of humans have explored because it's as unforgiving an environment as space, at a fraction of the cost of space exploration," says Jay Wade, a co-founder of Sub Aviator Systems, which owns the sub.

And while such trips are not cheap, tough economic times have not kept customers away, says Incredible Adventures president Jane Reifert. Despite a difficult U.S. economy, the company, an established "extreme tourism" player, is on track for its best revenues ever.

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