Out of Bounds

The Inhospitable Matrix

I’m not surprised someone was selling trips to the Titanic, 12,500 feet below the ocean’s surface, but I find it baffling

By Rob Breeding

Like many of you, I learned last week that if I had $250,000 in spare change I could have afforded a trip to the bottom of the ocean to see the Titanic cemetery site.

Later in the week, I also learned that if I preferred to take my dirt nap at the bottom of the North Atlantic, that also cost $250,000.

I’m not trying to make light of the OceanGate tragedy, nor pile suffering on the family and friends of the five who died last week when the Titan submersible imploded. But I also refuse to ignore the foolhardy hubris of OceanGate’s founder Stockton Rush, who manned the Titan’s joystick controls, nor his customer “adventurers” who thought this a grand idea.

I’m not surprised someone was selling trips to the Titanic, 12,500 feet below the ocean’s surface, but I find it baffling. The top floor of the Empire State Building is 1,250 feet high, and an antenna reaches 1,454 feet. Depending on your math, the Titanic is nine or 10 Empire State Buildings down. 

No sunlight reaches that depth; the water pressure is more than 370 bars or about 5,300 pounds per square inch.

As far as humans go, the deep ocean is an inhospitable matrix. By matrix I mean the surrounding environment or medium. Like the movie, only that matrix was digital.

Another inhospitable matrix now attracting adventure tourists is space. Exposure to either matrix kills, quickly. During an implosion such as the one that destroyed the Titan, it’s instantaneous. Exposure to deep space means losing consciousness in seconds, followed by death in a minute or so. 

There are inhospitable matrixes that aren’t so immediately lethal. With oxygen tanks, mountaineers can linger at the summit of Mount Everest (29,032 feet) for a short time before descending. Everything above 26,000 feet is referred to as the Death Zone, however, so I think it’s fair to call it an inhospitable matrix.

Or maybe Rogers Pass on Jan. 20, 1954, when the lowest temperature ever recorded in the contiguous United States fell to minus 70? That’s pretty darn inhospitable. Someone had to do the recording, however, proving that shelter, or even just the right clothing, can create a hospitable matrix amid the inhospitable kind.

Filmmakers make great use of the inhospitable matrix as a dramatic device. Of course, there’s the 1997 disaster film “Titanic,” which depicts the tragedy that inspired another disaster. That movie gives me the creeps from the opening credits since I know what’s to come: humans slowly cast into the frigid North Atlantic where they’ll freeze to death or drown.

Space is also well-mined material. Stanley Kubrick’s 55-year-old “2001: A Space Odyssey,” remains the gold standard for realistic depictions of life in space, including Dave Bowman’s helmet-less escape back into the Discovery One spacecraft. 

Realistic, but he had mere seconds to defy the lethality of space.

When Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay climbed Everest in 1952, I doubt anyone anticipated the traffic jams of mountaineering tourists now common on the world’s highest peak during the spring climbing season. Entering these “death zones” has become something of an adventure sport.

Jon Krakauer’s 1997 book “Into Thin Air,” warned of adventure tourism and the compromises it creates for guides and the public agencies called on when rescue is necessary. 

Civilized society isn’t going to offer endangered adventurers a chef’s kiss and say “Que sera,” when their latest harebrained scheme goes awry. We’ll try to rescue them because it’s the right thing to do. But when the mega-wealthy put themselves where there’s a high likelihood they’ll need government assistance and the collective resources of society — kind of sounds like socialism  — who foots the bill?

More importantly, who knocks on the door of an emergency worker who died trying to save some boneheaded thrill seeker, to give that hero’s loved ones the tragic news?

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