I saw my first BASE jumper while hanging out 2000 feet up El Capitan on the unrelentingly steep ‘Dawn Wall’. After sunset, my partner and I were on our portaledges eating dinner. Suddenly, we were shocked to hear a freight train heading right at us. It was either that or a big falling rock was about to clean us off the wall and kill us. But as we looked up, we a saw not a freight train or a giant rock but a falling body—perfectly horizontal and perfectly composed. The body didn't make a "whishing" sound. Instead, there was a violent ripping noise as though the air was being torn apart. Before we knew it, the jumper had passed 30 feet away and was gone. We were terrified, gripping the edges of our portaledge with hands and feet. Then, once we realized we weren't going to die, we turned to each other and I said, "That’s the coolest thing I've ever seen!"
In the beginning, I had no intention of jumping. But my girlfriend did, and one night I went along and climbed a 500-foot power tower with her and her mentor who was giving her a first jump. After that, it seemed so easy to start that I just had to do it. I didn't even have skydives, which is of course how you’re supposed to do it. Standing at the exit point, I half hoped we could both just back off because of the sketchiness of the entire situation. But then it was my turn, and if figured… Sh#t, everything is worth doing once. And it was. While physical time is finite, mental time is quite elastic. Those two seconds before my canopy opened lasted forever.
After making a few BASE jumps I was into the sport but not grabbed by it. The rewards didn't seem to outweigh the risks. Then, I saw ‘SuperTerminal’, a video created by the Norwegian VKB jumpers. They were terrain flying with homemade tracking suits (modified wind breakers). Not only were they flying, they were flying CLOSE to stuff. That movie changed my whole perspective of BASE from a sport about falling to a sport about flying. Who doesn’t want to fly!? Clearly, I had found the inspiration to wingsuit BASE jump.
I’m a climber, and climbers always wish they were a part of the Golden Age: That period in the 60's and early 70's when all the big firsts were being done in Yosemite, and all previous standards were being shattered. That period in BASE jumping started with the first commercially available wingsuit in the late 90’s and will probably continue for another five years, or maybe a decade. After that, in all likelihood the progression will continue at a much slower pace. Climbing progression didn't end after the early 70's, But climbers with a sense of history realize that the sport will never again evolve that quickly and with that much excitement. The Golden Age of Wingsuit BASE is now.
When evaluating a jump, fear is your friend. It knocks some sense into you. However, once you have committed to the jump, fear just makes you tense and can reduce you to half of your self. At times, while standing on an exit, I decided to jump but my head was not straight. Sometimes, in those cases, I said, "Ah, f*#k it." Not because I really meant it - but because it cleared my head and let me relax. Once you have committed, you want to be like Robert Duval in the movie "Apocalypse Now." Bombs are going off all around him but he puts what he can't control out of his head, doesn’t seize up with fear, and generally kicks ass.
That being said, I, like many jumpers, had too many close calls. Most BASE jumpers usually have a brush with death within just a few years of jumping. For me, it was trying to out-fly a cliff band, realizing I wouldn't make it, and opening only 30 feet off the deck. There’s nothing like a three-second canopy ride to a boulder-field landing to wake you up… at least for a little while. But the truth is that when you’re motivated and progressing in BASE, a brush with death usually doesn't make you stop for too long. If anything, it reinforces your belief that things can be bleak for a split second… and then totally work out. This is a dangerous misconception.
BASE takes you way past an ordinary life and into a life of the endless unknown and countless possibilities. It’s no surprise that something so good comes at a hefty cost. Of the roughly 150 BASE jumpers that I’ve met, more than 10 are dead now. There is no escaping the brutal fact that if you meet a lot of BASE jumpers, in a few years a shocking number will no longer be around.
BASE jumping doesn’t seem to get safer with more experience. Sure, more experience can save you from making basic errors, but more experience also brings more confidence to push yourself farther. Once BASE jumping no longer has the same excitement it did originally, you look for new ways to make it exciting by trying new things. Even worse, that adrenaline you have when you first start—that mixture of fear and excitement that keeps you focused, eventually leaves. Things become routine, which is the last thing you want to happen. I realized this, and decided I needed to get out of the sport before I died BASE jumping. Here is what I realized:
• BASE jumping is probably the deadliest sport in the world.
• It is also probably the coolest.
• The best jumps are usually when you are just a little out of your comfort zone and pushing your own limits.
• The only way to be truly safe while BASE jumping is to not BASE jump.
Most jumpers will agree with the four statements above. Usually the first two rise up in your head while the second two are off to the side, creating subtle or not so subtle tension. It’s the conflict between those four statements that makes the sport so intense, complicated, and awesome. It’s why so many people love the sport, so many people quit after a few years, and so many people die.
Is BASE jumping worth dying for? If you have to ask, then the answer is probably no. When I found myself standing at the exit point wondering if it was worth it, then I sensed it was time to quit. I have this rule about jumping, and life in general: "If you’re faced with a big question and the answer is not Yes!!!!" then the answer is no.