Although I wrote this account in 1989, it has remained unpublished until now. In the intervening years, much has changed in the world of Building, Antenna, Span, Earth (BASE) parachute jumping- not the least of which has been the development of specifically designed parachute equipment.
Nowadays, it’s common for jumpers to use sites that an earlier generation of BASE jumpers might have considered crazy – ironic, given that during the 1980s most mainstream skydivers dismissed us BASE jumpers of that era as crazy.
My jump described here involved the use of the standard skydiving equipment of the day with just a few changes to the parachute packing method to produce a faster, and supposedly more reliable, opening, together with a somewhat wimpy opening method known as a ‘direct bag’ deployment which was suited to an inexperienced BASE jumper such as I was. Nevertheless, it produced the same endorphin rush that contemporary BASE jumpers still enjoy (and probably greater levels of risk and terror – Ed). So, in the interests of reminiscence and self-aggrandizement, I have resurrected this dusty account of what I subsequently realised was the first BASE jump off Frenchmans Cap by a born and bred Tasmanian.
APRIL 1988 This adventure starts at 6.30am on a cold foggy Sydney morning. I’m standing on the parapet of Northbridge, looking down at the playing fields 55 metres below my feet. I’ve just seen Doug go, and now it’s my turn. My knees are shaking and it’s got nothing to do with the cold.
“Look at it”, I remember being told, “savor the experience, immerse yourself in it”. I take a deep breath, trying to calm my racing pulse and centre my attention. “Ready, set, go!” I spring out from the bridge, trying to thrust my chest out towards the horizon, arms and legs spread-eagled. This has to be the ultimate leap of faith.
Two eternal seconds of freefall, then I feel the familiar jolt as my parachute opens perfectly. Look at it, grab the brake toggles, quickly flare the canopy, and I’m skidding to a fast but safe landing on the wet grass. I’m ecstatic, jabbering with euphoria. I’ve just done my first BASE jump and I feel good, really good! (It was the endorphins, see?)
BASE (an acronym for Building Aerial Span Earth) jumping is a non-regulated, often clandestine activity. Part of its appeal lies in the fact that it is a less competitive, more individualistic activity than skydiving from aircraft. BASE jumpers need to be very self-reliant and capable of taking full responsibility for their own actions.
Since no two BASE sites are the same, just being there can contribute to the adventure as much as the leap itself. That’s why, although BASE jumping has been described as the ultimate urban adventure, one of Australia’s best BASE sites is found in the wilderness of western Tasmania: the 400 metre high overhanging east face of Frenchmans Cap.
JULY 1988 Heavy rain fell all day, grey and monotonous. We started in the pre-dawn darkness, crossing the Franklin River on the ‘flying fox’ with eerie torchlight glimpses of the boiling black floodwaters below. The Loddon Plains were awash. All around, rain-swept hills merged softly with the lowering grey clouds. Buried within our parkas and bent beneath oversize packs, we were three tiny wet figures lost in the expanses of a bleak and wild landscape. The long hours merged as we trudged stolidly through the downpour. The rain continued for several days after we reached the dry comfort of Lake Tahune hut, sheltered below the cloudy mass of Frenchmans Cap. We whiled the hours away. Doug was restless, unused to so much inactivity
. I wondered why I was here. With only one previous BASE jump, was I ready for Frenchmans yet? My 270 skydives were virtually irrelevant here. Simon and Doug waited impatiently for the weather to clear, making optimistic forecasts with a pathetic success rate. Simon, by then a veteran of 900 skydives and 40 BASE jumps, could be called “The Father of Frenchmans Cap BASE jumping”. He was the first person to jump the east face in 1986, and this was now his fourth jumping expedition there. Doug, at the time one of Australia’s most skilled skydivers, had 2500 skydives behind him, and had represented Australia in world competitions. Doug had already done another ten BASE jumps since we did our first one together at Northbridge in Sydney.
Tired of the hut, we wandered in the rain towards the scenic rock shelter of Davern’s Cavern. We sidled around steep bluffs and scrambled up precarious wet slopes. Rambling along ridge tops in the mist, we looked out over the deep forested valley between Sharland’s and Philips Peaks. Cliffs rose 200 metres or more above the forest, their tops disappearing in cloud and their bases strewn with titanic fallen blocks. Simon was tantalized, but sadly concluded that they were not jumpable due to the lack of safe landing areas. The weather slowly changed. In the secret depths of the night, a calm settled over the hut. I stepped outside – the massive bulk of the cliff gleamed in the starlight, its great jutting prow framed by a brilliant cluster of stars. It was too real.I shivered and crept back inside, to the warmth of my sleeping bag.
Dawn was clear and still. Soft tendrils of mist hung in the valleys. Gently curved ridges stretched away, silhouetted in the golden light. Great white quartzite ramparts towered over the still dark lake. The cliff waited. We climbed, up to the bleak North Col, and then along terraces of alpine herbs and ice-scoured rock. The wilderness spread out beneath our feet, its vista of mountains and dark forested valleys stretching vast and mysterious in all directions.
Beyond that distant horizon there was a world of crowds, regulations, conformity and mind-numbing mediocrity. But here and now, amongst these ancient echoing cliffs, our lives had a clear purpose. We were free – to be outrageous, to test our mortality on this uncaring rock. No rules or licenses governed us here, just our own judgment and boldness. We were totally responsible for ourselves.
BASE jumping is a blend of minutely detailed planning and preparation, and of an exhilarating leap into freedom. Each BASE jump must be individually planned according to the nature of the site. Sometimes a five hundred metre high jump site can be safer than a eighty metre site. Each jumper has the ultimate responsibility of assessing their planned jump – no rule book can give the answers. And a BASE jumper needs to be able to back off if the place, the weather, the equipment or the mental attitude are not 100% right. We stood on the launch point, contemplating the abyss.
Once you have rationally calculated you can do it, fear must end – its distraction can cause terminal errors. Once you are committed and off, a BASE jump is total flowing attention.
Doug, eager as ever, went first. A quick thrust forward and he was airborne, launching into a quiet, vacant nothingness so different from the noisy wind rush of an aircraft exit. The cliff exploded into view as his peripheral vision expanded, absorbing everything in a visual rush of heightened awareness. Four seconds of freefall, and as he began to feel the wind rush he came level with the rock we called “The Flake”.
He pitched his hand-held pilot chute and his parachute opened, a perfect on-heading opening, flying quickly away from the cliff. Simon mentally prepared. When the moment was right he launched, quietly and precisely, arcing out from the cliff in perfect control. Four seconds of intense freedom, four seconds of eternity, and then he was under canopy, flying serenely across the jumbled rocky landscape. His jubilant cries slowly faded as he disappeared far below, to land out of sight on a grassy patch beside the lake.
I was left alone on the cliff top, a little numbed. I had seen something “impossible” done, another example of the human capacity for transcending our limitations. I picked up the empty packs. The air felt cold; my boots crunched on the sparse patches of snow.
Loose rocks rattled down the steep path as I scrambled back down to the hut where Doug and Simon were already brewing up a cup of tea. More bad weather followed. We sat in the hut reading, writing, playing cards and cooking huge meals. Bloated, we reclined on the floor listening to Doug’s tales of the world skydiving championships. Long hours passed away. We gazed out at the cliff, appearing now and then out of the mist and rain. Doug felt cranky, frustrated with the wind and cloud. He wanted another jump.
Packing a parachute in the narrow confines of the hut was not easy, but with some trouble it was done. We climbed again to the launch point, to stand in the mist with the cliff base only just visible and a 20 knot wind blowing. Simon decided not to jump. Doug chose to jump. Conditions were not ridiculous, only marginal.
As Doug took his stance on the launch point, Simon said to me “OK, if anything happens one of us will have to get down to him while the other gets the radio and medical kit!” “Thanks guys!” Doug thought as he launched into the thin mist. His parachute opened, but one of his brake toggles had released accidentally and the canopy was swinging around towards the cliff. His hands were on the risers while the canopy was still opening, and as soon as he saw the problem a quick pull on one riser brought it out of its turn. Doug now had to contend with the strong wind, and was battling to keep the parachute from backing up into the cliff. We watched; there was nothing else to do.
Then suddenly, vaguely through the mist, we saw the canopy collapse. “I’m OK!” Doug shouted. Between a rock and a hard place, but he’d landed safely in the scree below the cliff. Climbing back down, we met Doug on the terraces below the North Col. “I feel good!” he shouted across to us, “I feel real good!”
The expedition began to feel over. Simon and Doug had done what they came for. I had come to observe, maybe to jump, but conditions were far from ideal and it didn’t feel right yet. We decided to leave the next day. But Doug and Simon still had something special to try: a dual launch.
Conditions were mild the next morning as they left early for the mountain. I headed up to the col below the cliff, to see the jumps from another perspective. A 15 knot wind was blowing from the north, but up on the launch point conditions seemed quiet. They were tiny silhouettes upon the launch point, side by side above the oceanic wall of rock. With a rhythmic shout they launched simultaneously, momentarily suspended against the sky before beginning their downwards plunge. A brief sideways geek at each other, and they pitched their pilot chutes, one slightly above the other to stagger their opening heights and avoid a collision.
Doug’s canopy was open first, with a slight turn but a clean deployment. Simon was in a slightly head down position, but there was no time to correct it. His canopy deployed unevenly. His end cells were slow to inflate, and he found his canopy beginning to swing and turn uncontrollably. He still had plenty of height, but there was also the vast wall of rock only metres away. This was no place to fiddle with a malfunction; Simon acted. To our knowledge no reserve parachute had ever been deployed on a BASE jump in Australia up to that time.
So it was another first for Simon as he flung his small “tertiary reserve” sideways to allow it to inflate free of the main canopy. The reserve was a non-steerable parachute, drifting at the mercy of the wind. There was nothing to do now but wait. Simon yelled “I think I’m in trouble!” About seventy metres from the ground the relentless wind finally pushed him into the cliff. Several hundred metres away on the col I heard the sickening thump of Simon’s first cliff-strike.
Miraculously, he survived it – curled into a fetal position he presented his right side to the rock and bounced off again with nothing broken. Swinging under the reserve, he bounced off the cliff another two or three times before finally coming to rest on the scree only metres from the foot of the huge wall. Battered, bruised and alive, he sat beached with his two canopies spread around him. Doug was still airborne.
While Simon’s drama had been unfolding behind him, Doug had been riding the ridge-lift blowing up from the north side of the col. He was now trying to fly over the col to land beside Lake Tahune, but the headwind was too strong. He headed towards a sixty degree slope of scrub and rock with even steeper gullies beside and below. Landing fast and rough he thumped in and rolled backwards down the slope, finally coming to rest in a precarious head-down position. Delicately, he extricated himself.
The sore and bleeding pair crept back to the hut. Simon’s whole right side was bruised and swelling from his cliff-strikes, while Doug was suffering from an old knee injury which the heavy loads and rough landings of the last few days had inflamed. We packed and left the hut by midday. It was over … or was it?
Simon had a wicked gleam in his eyes … “It’s not over until the fat lady sings!” he said. Simon and Doug hobbled in slow aching pain to Barron Pass. We huddled on the pass talking about radioing for a helicopter. But as much as we enjoy flying, to need a rescue would have been to give up our responsibility for ourselves. We walked on, each at his own pace. There was pain – but there was a deep satisfaction too. Simon and Doug had tested their mortality on the mountain, and come away more alive than ever. Their cups runneth over; life was good.
This was why so much time, effort and even suffering was worth expending for those few seconds of rushing freedom: to know those brief seconds is to know an extra-ordinary freedom and exhilaration, to experience life to the limit. The most intense experiences always seem to be the briefest, the orgasms of existence. The ignorant view that BASE jumpers must have a death wish of some sort is only held by those who haven’t bothered to find out that BASE jumping is in fact a celebration of life’s richness and potential. We descended slowly through the dimming forest under our huge loads, each stoically silent and alone. Afternoon passed into night.
Our tiny lights illuminated a few metres of mud and tree roots; the wet, dark forest closed in all around. Hours into the night we finally staggered into the welcome Lake Vera hut. The final day was easier, the long flat plains passing at a slow steady plod. And so we reached the road. Then Hobart and party-time. The search for a singing fat lady. Simon and Doug stirring up the natives like the interfering mainlanders they were. And a fat lady was found to sing for us. It was over.
EPILOGUE – APRIL 1989
At last I’m standing on the launch point, with 400 metres of space yawning below my feet. A few hours ago I was pumping with nervous energy as I watched the others jump; now it’s me and I feel calm and ready. It’s really happening. I force the moment to its crisis and I’m off, plunging into the abyss. Time expands – I feel like I’m falling for four or five seconds, but really it’s less than two seconds before I feel my parachute snap open. Looking up, cliff and canopy fill the sky.
The parachute has opened ninety degrees off heading and is flying parallel to the cliff heading for a buttress only metres away. There’s no panic, just a calm instant awareness of the problem and I’m pulling the risers, turning the canopy away from the cliff. Exultant, I fly the canopy down to a soft landing on a grassy patch beside Lake Tahune. I walk slowly back to the deserted hut, deeply content as the endorphins kick in. Everything is beautiful. I lie back on the grass and dream as I wait for the others to follow me down through space.