BASE #1863 / Trauma Fellow / UK
Following the desperately sad and high-profile deaths of Dean Potter and Graham Hunt in May this year, BASE jumping once again hit the headlines. Polarising opinion across the world of extreme sports, it’s never been without its controversies and tragedies. The BASE jumping community is tight-knit, and one which would, by its own admission, balk at recommending its own sport to anyone. The road to jumping is neither quick nor easy, and here BASE #1863, a Trauma Fellow in Scotland, gives us some poignant insight into what it’s like for those who make the choice to jump.
If your friends jumped off a bridge…
On a sunny, blue-sky day in September of 2014 I sat alone with a pen and paper on a quiet street in a small town in Idaho. I slowly and carefully wrote my letters, one to my fiancée and one to my parents and, on finishing, I sealed and addressed them before handing them to a man I had only met the day before. In those letters I told my loved ones that I had been killed. I told them how much I loved them, how much I wanted them to be happy and to move on with their lives, how I had died doing something that brought joy to my life and how only I could be blamed for what had happened. I wrote those letters with tears in my eyes knowing they would be delivered upon my death and it remains one of the hardest things I have ever had to do.
On that day I started along the path to becoming a BASE jumper. BASE is an acronym (Building, Antenna, Span and Earth) which describes the four broad groups of objects which participants jump from with a single parachute to save them. There is no back up parachute and even if there were, there wouldn’t be time to use it before impact. As a result BASE is known as the most dangerous sport in the world. In one study, a fatality rate of 1 in 2,317 jumps was recorded at a popular jumping location in Norway. To put this into perspective, the fatality rate for skydiving Is closer to 1 in 300,000 jumps.
I’m not entirely sure why I was so drawn to BASE in the face of these facts but fortunately, or unfortunately depending on your outlook, I couldn’t resist it. I had read around various internet forums, met up with a local BASE jumper to discuss all involved, and ultimately packed my bags and flew to the US for three weeks of BASE instruction.
The day after writing my letters I stepped into the harness of my self-packed parachute and walked out on to the 486 foot Perrine bridge along with six or so other beginners. As we reached the midpoint over the lazy Snake River below we paired off and gave each other a final check. There was nervous joking and laughter punctuated by the passing cars honking their horns or, less generously, shouting to us that we were idiots and were all going to die. The moment finally came and I climbed over the railing to face out over the river. It’s a strange sensation as you cross that line and put yourself right on the edge. There’s a sense of settling your mind, accepting what is about to happen, and letting the calmness flow through you if you can. As I reached that state I stood up tall, looked forward as confidently as I could and jumped away from those new-found friends.
Over the last year, I have experienced that incredible sensation over and over again. The initial fear and nervousness gives way to calm acceptance and ultimately the exhilaration of the jump itself. As I leave the edge everything is still and quiet but this soon gives way to the building rush of air streaming past your accelerating body. I reach back to the small parachute stored just behind my right hip and grip tight knowing I have only one chance to throw it properly. This small pilot chute, as it’s known, acts as an anchor in the air to pull the pins on the container holding the large parachute which will save me. A hard throw of the pilot chute out to my side and my fate is sealed. The bridle linking it to the container seems to trail out to eternity and time slows down. There’s a moment of curiosity as to whether the parachute will ever open, and finally, when I’ve almost convinced myself that I’m going to impact, there’s a sudden catch as I’m lifted upright and begin to fly. I can’t imagine anything will ever exceed the rush of that moment.
In the months after that first jump I became a true BASE jumper, having collected a jump from at least one of each of the four objects.
The flying doctor
All of those on that first course did indeed survive their jumps. There were however a number of injuries during those first few weeks; fortunately mine extended only as far as a meniscal tear from a botched landing. On my first day in Idaho before I had even started my course I was handed a trauma bag bought from an army surplus store and asked, as the only person with medical knowledge, to play the role of first aider for two new jumpers. These two members of the Indian Special Forces still managed to look incredibly, and understandably, nervous as they were about to complete their first jumps from a 300 foot cliff. It was a little nerve wracking for me too, standing at the bottom of a rocky talus stretching out from the cliff, waiting for the pair to jump. The first jumper exited cleanly and symmetrically with a nice straight and level parachute above his head, allowing me to relax momentarily while he gently flew down to the small landing area we had chosen. His colleague however worried me much more by landing with a leg on either side of a barbed wire fence. Fortunately no sensitive areas were harmed in the process and I didn’t have to become overly familiar with these new acquaintances.
Further into my course a good friend turned his parachute sharply close to the ground causing him to swing out to the right and land at high speed on his left side. I watched this happen from the footpath on the bridge above and there was little doubt that it was a hard enough hit to do some real damage. I rushed over to my mentor, ahead of the queue of waiting jumpers, and offered to jump down and check him out. I had hurriedly thrown on my rig and was about to climb over the railing when he pointed out that I had incorrectly tightened the gear – a thoroughly good reminder to take a breath and gather yourself before approaching a medical emergency. As my friend lay still on the ground below I finally righted myself and jumped from the bridge. A quick flight later and I was standing beside him, 500 feet below the others, where he was talking and joking but obviously in a good deal of pain. He was lucky, and in the end had only sustained a few broken ribs. Not so luckily for him he fainted while I checked him out, instantly losing all street cred. Many a joke was made at his expense for weeks after.
Impact, preparation and decision-making
There is no mollycoddling in BASE. Your decisions and the consequences arising from them are entirely your own and I love that. Nothing is handed to you on a plate and the feeling of accomplishment is directly proportional to this. The hours of planning, preparing and climbing soon stack up, but for that brief rush it’s all worthwhile. You have put yourself to the test, beaten back the fear, and survived to jump another day.
I’ve met some incredible people throughout my beginnings in BASE. It’s a close-knit family, a group of people who share knowledge of something that very few others will ever know. They come from all backgrounds, from high-flying professionals to blue collar workers, but all share a level playing field. In the end they are all the kind of idiots whose idea of fun is jumping off high things – those are the kind of people who will help you build a lifetime of weird and wonderful adventures.
If, after reading all of this, you decide that you too want to become a BASE jumper my advice, in order of importance, is as follows:
1 / If you can live happily without doing it then don’t do it. It’s selfish and stupid. You are impacting upon everyone you love by participating in this sport. I put my loved ones through hell every time I go jumping and my fiancée cried reading the first paragraph of this article alone. I regularly question my motivations for doing this and whether I should simply stop.
2 / If you must do it then prepare properly. Learn to skydive and get good at flying a parachute. Don’t rush this step. The ability to accurately and safely pilot your parachute can and will save your life. This is going to take a lot of skydiving, so enjoy that sport and see if you can be happy with it alone and avoid BASE altogether. The kind of person that will survive in this world is the one who takes pleasure in being knowledgeable and meticulous in their preparation. Aspire to be that person.
3 / If you still can’t get rid of the BASE itch after your hundreds of skydives make sure to speak to experienced BASE jumpers to get their advice on how to proceed. Heed their advice and be patient. You really know nothing. Accept that fact and be humble. You will profit from that mindset.
And remember, as I said, your decisions and the consequences arising from them are yours alone. That feeling of being without a safety net is terrifying, but without it the feeling of accomplishment would never be as great.
Good luck. Maybe we’ll jump together some day.