BASE jumping: no licence, no regulation, only the earth is the limit
‘Moments of truth’ have an uncanny way of putting the rest of our lives in perspective
At 50, I’m quite an old fogey to be learning new tricks, especially out-there ones such as BASE jumping. But recently the stars aligned to make it an obvious thing for me to do.
In my case, it was always more about getting out of aeroplanes and into tight spaces than jumping off bridges, antennae, spans, and earth — that’s what BASE stands for. But the technology comes down to much the same thing, and a BASE rig is a whole lot smaller, lighter, and more comfortable to wear than a parachute.
So I start by asking some parachuting mates the obvious questions. Regrettably, they make it clear that BASE jumping should not be undertaken lightly. At the very least, they consider some focused instruction essential. An answer not to be taken lightly: these are people with a whole lot more knowledge and experience than me.
My second port of call, Google, quickly lets me know that Apex Base in Murrieta, California, manufactures the world’s finest and lightest BASE gear. I immediately fire off an e-mail asking for advice and a quote. Why not? After all, my very survival could depend on it. Even as I hit “send”, it gives me pleasure to know that this would truly be money well spent — canvas, cloth, and lines that would, I hope, repeatedly save my skin.
One of the attractions of BASE jumping is that it remains almost entirely free of interference by regulators. Unlike skydiving or flying, you can go and BASE jump off anything you like, provided that there isn’t a specific prohibition that applies to that place or object. What a relief. Also, there’s no licensing system of any kind. Heaven.
On the flip side, it turns out that the BASE-jumping community does have a few cultural guidelines of its own. I discover that Apex won’t sell me its gear unless I’ve at least some BASE experience. The recommendation is that I sign up for the “first jump course”. The idea doesn’t look too bad. It dovetails nicely with my skydiving mates’ advice, and, of course, it’s a damn fine reason to travel to Twin Falls in Idaho and hang out with a bunch of young adventurers for a few days.
It’s a challenge, though, to get onto the course. “How many skydives do you have?” Two hundred required. Hmm, not nearly enough. I don’t even have a skydiving licence. But then again, I’m a competent, indeed highly experienced aircraft pilot, and this is BASE jumping, not picnic packing. So I exaggerate a little and mail a couple of movies of me skydiving in the Namib desert. In no time, I’m in.
The next thing I’m 40 hours into an economy trip to Twin Falls via New York and Salt Lake City, driving my hired car the last 300km. I check into the Days Inn Motel, and I meet my fellow students and instructors. Minutes later I’m handed a plastic package — my BASE rig: shiny, new, and in separate pieces. I watch with trepidation as Apex co-founder Jimmy Pouchert demonstrates on the foyer floor how to set up and then pack the canopy into its container. I’m just discovering that all BASE jumpers are expected to pack their own rigs. It kind of makes sense, but I’m useless even at packing an ordinary parachute, which is much like stuffing laundry into a washing machine by comparison.
It’s not difficult to BASE jump, though it can be very unforgiving if you muck it up.
Pouchart has more than 4,700 skydives and nearly as many BASE jumps to his name. He’s assisted by Marta Empinotti, his wife and co-instructor who taught him the game. She has more leaps than you’ve eaten Sunday breakfasts. It does imply that the odds aren’t that appallingly bad, but it doesn’t make it any easier to harness my jet-lagged brain and make sure I don’t bugger up my own first pack job.
Later in the evening we check out the jump spot — the Perrine Bridge — which spans the Snake River on the edge of town. A beer down the hatch, and I suddenly feel young and indestructible. I’m healthy, 16,000 km from home, just 12 hours away from a sketchy leap off a 150m bridge, and surrounded by a group of excited young BASE students. It feels like young love: I even have that vaguely hungover, dizzy and exhausted feeling I so often suffered from as a university student. What more could I ask for? Later, lying in bed, I contemplate the variable tempo of passing time. While the hours stretch ahead, I’m also vaguely aware that quite suddenly the hour of reckoning is set to arrive.
And so here I am in the fresh morning air, balancing precariously on a 5cm protruding ledge, the wrong side of the railing, balls of my feet over the abyss, a group of strangers anxiously contemplating my each move. The air below feels sucked away; the river bank with rocks and trees beneath me seem artificial. All of my life — each joy and sadness, success and failure, disappointment and relief — lead to this moment of truth. What am I doing? Why am I here? Are my children back home in their beds? Am I going to do this right?
But the moment also presents its own answers. Right now nothing really matters — the love or indifference of my friends or family, my wealth or poverty, youth or age, courage or cowardice. It matters only what I do in the coming moments. And here it goes.
BASE jumping per se is probably no longer all that dangerous. Instruction is available, and the risks can be managed. Over the years, parachute-deployment technology has been almost perfected, and bridges (or aeroplanes) have wide open spaces below them, which allows even chaotic parachute openings to be forgiven. It’s not difficult to BASE jump, though it can be very unforgiving if you muck it up.
In my case it all goes just fine. Moments later, on the valley floor, the sun soaks my skin. I’m proud, relieved and invigorated. I can do this! Two days, five packs and six jumps later, my head feels clearer, my food tastes sweeter, and the world seems lighter.
On a brief stopover in New York on my way home, I briefly feel immortal. I notice the height and shape of the buildings, and I’m doing real-time calculations in my mind. Could I find a spot to jump off? No, it’s far too complicated.
But I’m armed with a skill and gear that I’m taking home with me. I’m not the same person I was three days ago: I’m able to do things that until last week were just concepts. My mind is full of subversive thoughts. I wonder what secret dreams are in the minds of the passing citizens of the Big Apple. No doubt they are all different, but perhaps, each in their own way, just as risky.