Dave GallagherPhotographer, writer and filmmaker, documenting UK BASE jumping as a member of Mountain Man BASE. He is also an Adventure Psychologist, researching how the brain functions under stress in the context of extreme sports performance.
Standing at the edge of a cliff preparing to jump off is something of a head game – so says Andy Guest, pioneering UK BASE jumper. He’s not wrong, as I’ll soon find out. It’s not all about thrill seeking for its own sake. Far from it. Andy talks about the voices that battle in your head prior to the moment when these calm down, and it’s good to go. You’ve got this.
I got to experience this for myself recently, in the summer of 2022, back at Beer Head in Devon where Andy completed his first UK BASE qualifying jump some 40 years previously. Beer Head was the first earth (cliff) site deemed suitable to complete all the BASE objects in the UK (the others being buildings, antennae, bridges etc. So it was fitting that another pioneering event in UK BASE take place here – the first tandem jumps.
I’m not a BASE jumper myself, but I have been closely following the BASE scene for a few years now, in particularly the modern collective known as Mountain Man BASE, who have exponentially increased the number of exits in Britain in recent times.
I’ve gained insight into the process, and mindset, behind this extreme activity, accompanying my associates on countless jumps in varied locations across the UK. I’ve documented their escapades, keen to explore what it is about this perilous endeavour that attracts people to throw caution to the wind and commit to – should it go wrong – such a consequential act.
What has surprised me along the way is the careful, cautious and thoughtful approach taken by all concerned, to ensure everything goes to plan. Indeed, this is crucial in moving to the next level – tandem BASE.
BASE jumping requires a degree of proficiency and experience gained from skydiving to demonstrate effective canopy control and response to unfolding events that happen very rapidly. You need to be specialist to entertain jumping off a fixed object such as a cliff. That much is absolute.
Tandem BASE meanwhile requires that in spades, for the person in control, but it also offers opportunity to take a passenger along for the ride.
Whatever you think you know, from observation, from theory, doesn’t really hold up till you experience, feel for yourself
I’ve been fortunate to be able to bear witness to many jumps now, so have a degree of knowledge about what to expect. As an adventure photographer I am also versed in the sensation of being around cliff edges and over the side on a rope. I had been as close to being part of jumps as could possibly get without actually doing one myself. Now I had the opportunity to take that next step and really appreciate firsthand what it feels like to jump off the cliff I am normally firmly secured to.
Whatever you think you know, from observation, from theory, doesn’t really hold up until you experience it, feel it for yourself.
Mountain Man BASE had been planning the tandem project for over two years. This involved assessing viability of sites to jump and sourcing specially designed kit from an exclusive supplier – there are only a handful of tandem operations in the world. To acquire such kit requires being a verified team with the appropriate skills to undertake tandem BASE jumping. Tests were conducted using weighted bags prior to jumping with live humans!
It was fitting that Beer Head passed muster, given its heritage as the first UK Earth site jumped back in 1982.
So it was that in August 2022 on a balmy summer evening, with the sun going down on the Jurassic Coast, and the full moon rising over the sea, that UK tandem BASE went live.
The very first jump on August 8th involved two of the teams’ experienced BASE jumpers, Hans and Josh, with myself photographing the action. Preliminary preparations were made to coordinate the jump sequence, as there are two people involved! There was barely a breath of wind. The conditions were perfect.
Doing something for the first time when there is risk involved is bound to create nervous anticipation. The Devon Coastguard were conducting a training exercise close by and stopped to watch proceedings. We had informed them of our intentions, as we do on any sea-cliff related jumps to avoid any public consternation! A small crowd of passers-by also gathered to see what was unfolding.
The first jump went perfectly.
Next day it was my turn. We were to wait until the evening for ideal conditions. This of course gives plenty of time to think about what you are about to undertake. As the time approached, I thought about my motivations in all this.
As well as being a documenter of Mountain Man BASE exploits, I am also a research psychologist studying human performance at the extremes. I am uniquely positioned in this regard to investigate the mindset required to take risks and control the response to stress that is an occupational hazard in this game.
The question I address is not so much why people do this, but how. It’s easy to dismiss people who push the boundaries as daredevils, or a bit crazy, or wired different. That they do what they do because of some deep drive, or existential purpose. To me it’s more useful to wonder how they manage to overcome an instinctive urge to run away, to manage fear, to keep emotions in check. For these are all things that can be helpful in life when facing any adversity or things that provoke stress and weaken our resolve.
Indeed, there is scientific evidence from studies showing experienced skydivers, for example, have an enhanced ability to control the so-called fight or flight response. Instead, they experience excite and delight! Basically, whilst some situations inevitably provoke stress, especially when there is a risk to life and limb, we can choose to enjoy them, and feel alive and more in control by doing so. This is something called a challenge mindset, which allows us to put a positive spin on what would otherwise be perceived as a threatening situation. I now drew on this knowledge to put principles into practice.
Facing the unknown is nerve-wracking! But there is something wildly exciting about this, if you can keep your urge to panic under control. A leap of faith is liberating, empowering, if you can calm yourself and approach the edge with purpose. So I stilled my racing thoughts, took deep and slow breaths –there is evidence that this can dampen the stress response and keep the higher centres of the brain online.
We’d already prepped, back from the edge, the sequence required to move together to the exit point. Now we did this for real.
Attached to Hans, I found myself stood, front, right at the edge of the cliff, looking straight down at the shingle beach and lapping waves 280ft below. It was a surreal, yet perhaps better described as hyper-real, moment. Moments like this are few and far between, and should be grasped and savoured! Or all you have is fleeting memories. The air was crystal clear, no sounds apart from my breathing.
A leap of faith is liberating, empowering, if you can calm yourself and approach the edge with purpose
Hans asked if I was ready – I asserted I was. ‘3-2-1…’
We stepped forward as one into space, and plunged down. Time seemed to slow down, the freefall, in reality less than 3 seconds, felt much longer as I attempted to process the thoughts in my head, the sensation of being untethered from the ground.
The canopy snapped open, we banked right, lined up our course to the landing area. ‘Legs up, LEGS UP!’ commanded Hans, then ‘LEGS DOWN FOR LANDING!’ and we all but ‘stood it up’ on the soft shingle below.
Over in a flash!
Immediately I burst into a high-pitched squeal of jubilation! We’d done it! I’d had my first taste of BASE jumping. I finally could recognise what it feels like!
A new era of BASE jumping in the UK has been heralded in. When Andy Guest and his maverick band of associates established the British scene 40 years ago, it involved innovating slider-down techniques to facilitate lower altitude jumps than were previously customary. So much so, that Carl Boenish, American founding father of BASE jumping proclaimed he had ‘made the world jumpable’. Back here at Beer Head another pioneering achievement has been made, successfully demonstrating the viability of tandem jumps in the UK, another innovation achieved in auspicious surroundings.
All this has been possible due to team work, and the pioneering spirit to pull it off. For my own insight and research, it is amazing to be able to be part of this and experience firsthand what it takes to jump over the edge, a leap into the unknown.
Life is about embracing challenge in order to move forward. There is so much these days to get stressed about, it takes a certain mindset to continue to push beyond the limitations and constraints that hold us back. I find there is much to learn by hanging around – literally – with the extreme sports community, not least of which is being given opportunity to step into the fray myself. We can only truly learn what we are made of by ‘having a go’, pushing our doubts to one side and learning to remain calm amidst a storm of uncertainty.
Stress is a given in life, but how we embrace it and harness it can determine success and fulfilment. Adventure, as has been said before, is after all, a state of mind! So make that leap.
Onwards and downwards!
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