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Extreme ironing

They burst on the scene in the 1990s — brash, risky new sports and older activities done with a high-octane twist. Snowboarding, skateboarding, BMX riding, wakeboarding and similar pursuits became infused with a counterculture credo of making up rules and pushing the limits. But soon big business came courting the outlaw athletes. CBC Archives looks back at the recreation revolution and how savvy marketers helped push the extreme into the mainstream.

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Why would two men lug an iron and an ironing board up the side of Mount Everest, set it up at 5,440 metres and give the Union Jack a good pressing? "Why not?" is the reply from Ben Gibbons, half of the British pair who just set a high-altitude record in the silly sport of extreme ironing. The extreme sports movement, it seems, has outgrown sports. 
• John Roberts and Ben Gibbons hiked 300 kilometres over seven days to the spot about 150 metres above the Mount Everest base camp in Nepal. The previous record was 4,100 metres above sea level. A friend had dared them to break the record. The iron wasn't actually powered.

• Their high-altitude ironing record was broken in eye-popping style on Aug. 14, 2003. A team of South Africans ironed on top of Mount Kilimanjaro - Africa's tallest mountain - at an elevation of 5,895 metres. The team leader added an extra flourish, ironing the South African flag while completely naked.

• Extreme ironing was born in 1997 in Leicester, England, when Phil (Steam) Shaw returned home from his job at a knitting factory. Dismayed by the pile of ironing that awaited him, he set up a board to iron outside. When a housemate asked what he was doing, Shaw replied: "I'm extreme ironing." The recreational rock climber then had a brainwave to combine his hobby with the mundane household chore.

• The word spread from Shaw while he was travelling and through a website and media attention. Since then, "ironists" in many countries have filmed themselves ironing under water, in deep crevasses, on oil derricks and at the North Pole.

• A German iron company sponsors the Rowenta Trophy for photographs of extreme ironing. The 2003 winner showed two men putting the finishing touches on a shirt while dangling above a 30-metre gorge in South Africa. Second place went to a man who parachuted off a mountain in Australia carrying a board and iron, while third place was won by a man who ironed deep inside a cave in England's Yorkshire Dales.

• Other people have been inspired to parody the extreme-sport ethos. In 2005, the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants, inspired by the ironists, launched a website showing "extreme accounting." It features photos of people engaged in accounting while waterskiing, parachuting, scuba diving and other perilous situations.

• Businesses not associated with sport have picked up on the "extreme" label. Canadian firms include Extreme Self Storage, The Extreme Pita and Extreme Yard Makeovers.
• No statistics are available for extreme ironing injuries.
Medium: Radio
Program: As It Happens
Broadcast Date: Jan. 23, 2001
Guest(s): Ben Gibbons
Host: Barbara Budd, Mary Lou Finlay
Duration: 5:41
Photo: Courtesy the Extreme Ironing Bureau

Last updated: March 7, 2014

Page consulted on September 15, 2014

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