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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

That's thanks to customers such as Neil Jones, the sole Canadian taking part in the Everest jump this month. An admitted "adrenalin junkie," Jones, 35, of Abbotsford, B.C., has done plenty of edgy things on his own - he earns a living teaching skydiving and performing as a stuntman for Hollywood movies.

Yet he has also been a frequent client of extreme-tourism operators who can package unique experiences more easily for him. The appeal, he says, is simple: As with any other kind of trip, "you just show up and enjoy."

Through Incredible Adventures (which is handling North American sales for the Everest jump), he has swum with sharks and taken a ride at Mach 2 in an English Electric Lightning fighter jet. Post-Everest, he will keep working his way through company brochures. "I'm game for whatever, anywhere in the world," Jones says.

But risk-taking isn't the preserve of only the testosterone-fuelled: Women make up around half of Incredible Adventures' clientele. And industry watchers say interest in heart-pounding family fun is also rising.

British Columbian dive instructor Mike Lever admits that he has "taken an enormous amount of criticism" for putting very young children - including his own son and daughter, now 6 and 8 - into cages near the Mexican island of Guadalupe, which around this time of year teems with white sharks.

But the annual family shark-diving trips that Lever's adventure tour company, Nautilus Explorer, inaugurated last year have proved popular, and he feels a profound sense of purpose behind the dives.

The idea was inspired by his son: He got into an argument at daycare with a classmate who dared suggest that "sharks are mean," and then bugged his father for a year to see them up close.

"My son was sticking up for the sharks and I thought, 'You know, there is such a lesson in this,' " Lever, 46, says of their critically endangered numbers. "We wanted to get kids in the water to see that these are beautiful, intelligent creatures, and to go home thinking how we can save them."

Nautilus Explorer's tours combine the thrills of a face-to-face shark encounter with plenty of creature comforts. Its $3-million, 35-metre dive boat has a crew of 10 - including a chef - and features an envy-inspiring collection of microbrews, a hot tub and unlimited hot showers. For fun, there are five diving cages: four at the surface and one 12 metres down. The deeper cage is linked by video feed to the ship, to let those deckside keep an eye on the action below.

Lever accepts children of any age. Last year, his son, Charlie, his daughter, Emily, and fellow divers as old as 9 practised scuba in the hot tub on the way to Guadalupe. At 6:30 sharp the first dive morning, everyone was in the water. And facing off with a five-metre shark.

"It's hard to appreciate how big that is until these amazing animals are coming right at you," Lever says. "Going face to face with a white shark, so close you can reach out and touch him, is an adrenalin rush you want again and again."

Choose your adventure

Everest Skydive

The organizers High & Wild ( http://www.highandwild.co.uk)

When Next jump spring 2009

Cost From $27,500 (U.S.) for an individual jump, $36,500 (U.S.)

to jump "in tandem" with a

skydiving pro

Details Make your own way

to the rendezvous point in

Kathmandu, Nepal

Perks The view from atop the world's highest mountain, without frostbite, oxygen deprivation or a heavy pack to lug

Five-day survival skills

and bush craft safari

The organizers Extreme Safari ( http://www.extreme-safari.com)

When Upon request

Cost From $1,500 (U.S.) a person

Details Search for water, handle guns and avoid prides of hungry lions

Perks Learning from guide

Phil West, a host on Discovery Channel's I Shouldn't Be Alive

'submersible pilot training' and diving in the

SAS Super Aviator

The organizers Incredible

Adventures (www.incredible-

adventures.com)

When Various dates

Cost From $15,000 (U.S.)

Details Complete at least three flights in creature-filled waters off Grand Bahama

Perks The sub's winged design lets you "fly" horizontally through the water instead

of sinking and rising like a

traditional sub

White Shark cage-diving family extravaganza

The organizers Nautilus Explorer of Richmond, B.C.

( http://www.nautilusexplorer.com)

When Starts Sept. 27

Cost From $3,185 (U.S.) for adults and $1,995 (U.S.) for children

Details Over five nights, watch with microbrew in hand as your offspring warm to the ocean's most feared predator

Perks Feasts of fresh-caught

crab on the boat's upper deck; roasting marshmallows under

the stars

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