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I am standing on top of a 300 ft building in the dark, with my BASE rig on. I'm shaking like a leaf and thinking to myself “why am I doing this?!” The weather is perfect, the landing area big and technically the jump is well within my abilities… However, I decide to take my rig off and leave without jumping.
This happened to me in 2006 not long after losing a good friend of mine who died from a wingsuit BASE jump. It took me months before I regained my mojo enough to jump.
What made me return to the sport instead of selling my gear? Base jumping is like nothing else I have ever tried and perhaps that is the main reason why I returned and why I am still keen for new experiences. There have been times in my life where I could say the sport was obsessive for me and it all started from a Static Line Parachute Jump at Skydive Hibaldstow in 1993 and my first base jump in 2000.
I have often tried to quantify to myself and others why I jump; and what keeps me still jumping despite the danger and high mortality rate? This is what I came up with:
If you could find a sport which few others did, was unique and required a great amount of skill to achieve, would that attract you? Well for me, it most definitely did and still does. I feel the need to tread a new line, one where you have ‘first experiences’ that no-one else has ever had, one where you have to have your wits about you just to land without injury.
I find risk an attractive thing, not something to avoid. I think that risk is a scale of acceptability. At one end are those people who are very risk-adverse - they wouldn’t ride a bicycle or fly abroad because they deem it to be an inherently life-threatening activity. In the middle of that scale are people who would happily ride on the back of a motorbike or eat seafood from a roadside cafe in an exotic country. At the far end of the scale, are the extreme sports enthusiasts such as skydivers, base jumpers and those who go to work to provide humanitarian aid in war zones or Ebola-affected countries. The danger is ever present and a conscious and consistent effort is needed to stay alive.
That sense of self determination is one of the things I really love about BASE. It is also possibly the biggest cause of fatalities as well.
To me risk is attractive; I recognise base jumping is dangerous, but there is a difference – I try not to be foolhardy and to manage the risk.
When I compare skydiving to base, I still firmly believe there is risk there, but significantly less due to the managed processes, controlled landing areas and additional equipment. But the fact remains - I cannot eliminate all the risk each time I don my parachute. Each year, safety conscious skydivers are injured or killed. The differences are: the odds are less and I have others who help to look after me.
I love the fact that I am completely responsible for my own safety. I must assess each exit point, airspace, landing area, my own ability, the present meteorological conditions and my equipment configuration before jumping. There is no Chief Instructor to look after me, just my own survival instinct. That sense of self determination is one of the things I really love about base. It is also possibly the biggest cause of fatalities as well.
The majority of recent deaths are wingsuit-related and can be attributed to base jumpers reducing their parameters of acceptable risk until it becomes probable that a small mistake will lead to trouble. That might be how close they fly to the rock, or the size of the vertical rock drop they will accept in which time they need to get flying, or something else. Many jumps are literally do or die. You have to nail the exit or it is game over.
Being the first person to do a new exit gives me a great sense of endeavour. It is a pioneering step into the unknown. That doesn’t mean to say I am a pioneer, it just means that particular jump has never been done before.
Too little fear and you become complacent. Too much and you risk being like a deer frozen in the headlights of an approaching truck
BASE is actually an acronym – Building, Antenna, Span (bridge) and Earth (cliff). That phrase was coined a long time ago at the birth of our sport. However, there are many more unusual objects these days which do not quite fit into that model:
• Wind turbines
• Colliery head stocks
• Slack line jumps
• Cooling towers
• Boat masts
I think respect plays a small part in the reason why base jumpers practice their craft. For some, it really is a “look at me, look at me” approach, for others they largely keep it a secret. Even for those who participate in secrecy, I reason they still feel a sense of self worth, respect and personal achievement.
My old mentor once said to me, “Every time you step off the exit, you are both dead and alive at the same time.” That is incredibly liberating. Further, it is very exhilarating to see the rock whizzing past your feet and it makes your few kilograms of flesh look pretty insignificant. That triviality puts your place on the earth in perspective, but it also inexplicably gives you a sense of achievement at the same time.
Every time you step off the exit, you are both dead and alive at the same time
I have met some unique and amazing personalities in both skydiving and base jumping. That is a big attraction to both sports. I can remember being at the top of a gas flare stack somewhere in Europe. It was midnight, there was a full moon, the ground was completely snow-covered, yet I was toasty warm just a few meters under the gas flame with a group of locals who had kindly showed me this object in the middle of nowhere. I could go on with many more surreal stories, but they all add up to the many amazing adventures I have had within the base community.
It is common practice to visit the objects of other jumpers in other countries. It is a great opportunity to make new friends and they will often act as a 'tour guide' showing you some of their local objects. This works both ways.
Travelling is another key part of the sport. I have seen the aurora borealis in Norway, jungle water falls in Brasil, remote sea cliffs in Scotland and beautiful cityscapes at night; it is the places that make it so special.
I hate the feeling of being scared on the edge and feeling like I'm going to die - but I love the feeling of how alive I am after my canopy opens
You could argue that a 200ft scraggy antenna is not beautiful, but I would disagree. As you climb the ladder, the world around you changes from a somewhat 2-dimensional perspective to that of being above it. Looking down from the exit point, you are inexorably connected to the world below you via a latticework of steel stretching out below. Other than the odd telecoms engineer and urban explorer, you are seeing the world from a seldom-visited angle.
Standing in my wingsuit at the top of a 6000ft mountain is scary. This could be my final moment on the earth. Earlier in this article I talked about risk being a scale, well so is fear. Too little fear and you become complacent. Too much and you risk being like a deer frozen in the headlights of an approaching truck. In the middle is a place where you are 'in the zone', the fear is controlled and you can perform. Getting yourself into that mental place is a challenge and an achievement in its own right. Conquering one’s fears is an exploration of self and one’s own potential.
The last reason I keep base jumping is because it’s so much fun.
We all have our own thoughts on what we get out of this sport…
“A huge part of why I enjoy base is watching others overcome things, even if they are no longer scary to me.”
“I live in a constant dilemma. I hate the feeling of being scared on the edge and feeling like I'm going to die - but I love the feeling of how alive I am after my canopy opens; and that I am addicted to it. That's the bit I remember after the jump and why I keep going back for more!”
There are many criteria for a successful base jumper - one who has a lot of jumps, is well-rounded, makes a living from it, has travelled the world, has achieved some technically difficult jumps or is simply still alive. Maybe a successful base jumper is one who knows when to walk away from a jump – or even the sport as a whole!
I have accumulated a reasonable number of jumps and a wide variety of objects; but that doesn't in my opinion make me a successful base jumper. There are plenty who spend one week jumping in the Valley, Switzerland each year, doing the same jumps and their approach is just as valid as mine. Perhaps the word ‘successful’ is the wrong one to use; instead I would say I am a ‘survivor’. Over 30 base jumpers I have known (many I would call friends) are sadly no longer alive and that is depressing.
In reaction to this, I have created a jump methodology which helps to keep me safe, as much as it can be. It is constantly evolving as I speak to others and learn more. But I do recognise, I could make a mistake and that might be that.
A day will come in the future when I will stop base jumping and hopefully it will be my choice and not forced upon me. Knowing when to walk away, I hope will come naturally for me. One of my friends Rich Aveyard who gave up a few years ago, said this:
“I was winding down with the base jumping, and I knew that. I went to an exit called Nose 3, and got weathered out on the walk in, so I turned back. I wasn't that fussed … At that point I realised that if I wasn't getting a great deal from what is a high risk activity, it is time to stop.“
I would summarise the above as: “It is time to give up base when the risk outweighs the pleasure.”
I find it hard to imagine my life having never had all my BASE experiences. Other than my Christian faith, I wonder what else could have provided me with such emotions, friends and adventures. And that is applicable to skydiving as well.
Famously, George Mallory was asked why he climbed Everest. He responded “because it's there”. I would say “why not?”