In 1978, cinematographer Carl Boenish filmed the first jumps from El Capitan, an imposing rock formation in Yosemite National Park, California, and became the father of BASE – an extreme version of skydiving where jumpers exit from buildings, antennas, spans [bridges] and earth (BASE) rather than a plane.
Boenish died in a jump in Norway’s Trolltindane range in 1984, and BASE is still a dangerous pursuit. While no official records are kept, over 300 people are believed to have died BASE jumping in the last 30 years. An even more extreme version, BASE wingsuiting, emerged in the mid-1990s. Still launching from fixed points, participants extend their flights by increasing surface area with fabric stretched between their arms and legs. Royal Marine Tim Howell has been wingsuiting for two years, after four years of BASE and has completed hundreds of successful jumps. Here he shares some advice from hours in the air.
You have to start skydiving before you go BASE jumping. I did about 200 skydives before I was ready to start BASE jumping, and then you need to do another 200 wingsuit skydives before then you can wingsuit BASE.
It’s strange how much planning goes in to a minute-long flight. In the Alps you get foehn storms which really affect the thermals, air drafts and katabatic (downwards) and anabatic (upwards) winds. It’s also dependent on direction. If you’re in a wingsuit and the wind’s coming from behind you or in front of you that’s not too bad, but coming from the side on your exit you can definitely get blown off axis.
The most important thing is pulling the parachute. There’s a list of things that you want to do perfectly. You want to be opening stably. You want to opening away from the cliff. You want to be figuring out where you’re patterned to land your canopy because the wind can affect that. If you’ve got a very small area to land in, you want to be upwind so you can always fly downwind and not the other way around. But when things start to go wrong, your list gets smaller and smaller, until it’s just: “My only priority right now is to open my parachute, because that’s what’s going to let me live.”
It doesn’t take too much effort. The pilot chute, a small circular parachute, is connected to a line that’s then connected to a parachute. When you throw out the little parachute it pulls all the pins and releases the big chute. If you’re in a wingsuit you want to be doing that symmetrically, so it opens up symmetrically and you don’t get the line twisted or have any other problems with the canopy.
There are quite a few videos of people not throwing it properly, and in a wingsuit that’s quite a big problem. It creates dead air, like if you were driving behind a lorry on the motorway, and if it goes into that dead air it can just sit there. The smaller chute will just burble [sit in a vortex in the parachute deployment area] and not pull out your main parachute.
I’ve had that once. It’s quite a scary experience. Luckily on that jump I pulled high so I had that extra second leeway. When it happens sometimes you wait a few seconds and sometimes it’s a case of closing your wings and your leg wing, which means the air can rush past from the burble and then catch your pilot chute.
What you really get from skydiving is canopy control. You’re on a much bigger canopy with BASE jumping, so it’s easier to land, it’s more docile and you have to flare – you bring them down towards your knees and it stalls the canopy. At that point you’ve got less forward momentum and you can just step down onto the ground. Normally when you start skydiving you pull your parachute at about 5,000 feet, so you’ve got 5,000 feet of learning how to use your canopy. At BASE jumping I can pull my parachute at 70 feet.
In conversation with Mayer Nissim