The Angry Corrie 48: Jan-Feb 2001

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For the high jump

We've all strolled up any number of gentle grassy hillsides - but only a very few of us have ever then stepped over the cliff at the back. Gordon Smith reviews a recent Channel 4 documentary on people who do this, and more:

IT STANDS FOR Buildings, Antennae, Spans and Earth, in case you were wondering. Spans, though, really means Bridges: this emendation would change the name of the sport to BABE jumping, which sounds a whole lot more attractive than leaping off a high tower into cold air and an uncertain future. Channel 4's Cutting Edge programme Seconds from Impact was an engrossing and, for this acrophobe at least, occasionally queasy look at the world of BASE.

BASE is an exclusive club, made up of the ultras and arditi of the extreme sports world. Aspirant members must make a freefall parachute jump from an example of each of the four categories: a luxury hotel, for example, a telecom tower, a suspension bridge; and maybe a vertical mile of cliff in Norway. The problem for wannabe dangermen is that it's illegal in the UK to dive from most of these locations. So BASE baggers are forced to go about their business surreptitiously, under cover of darkness or in mufti.

Rob and John, for example, are planning the wizard wheeze of jumping from the roof of London's Park Lane Hilton. Unfortunately for Rob and John, someone has tried it before them, but landed in Mayfair at the speed of a flying flat-iron. Do not pass Go, do not collect 200. Understandably, the hotel management does not wish to see a repeat of this sort of thing, and security has been tightened accordingly. So our two heroes swap fleecy jackets and trackies for somewhat anachronistic 80's yuppie suits. We can imagine them barking I don't wanna hear that, do I? into mobile phones as they enter the top floor bar of the Hilton, their mission to case the joint for obstructions and to pick out a landing zone. Rob, looking rather like the bastard child of Terry Butcher and Will Self, is satisfied that landfall can be made on a grassy square across the road from the Hilton. The jump is scheduled for 5am. Our inebriated braves then continue their furtive preparations by secretively marching about the hotel accompanied by a television crew, crossing the road to the LZ and having a discreet Oliver Reed / Alan Bates (still Armanied, though) wrestling match in full view of the public.

As if this were not odd enough behaviour, the Lacedaemonian lads then expatiate on male love. "I'd never cuddle a bloke in a million years," Rob assures us, before contradicting himself. "But when I'm on the edge, I have a little cuddle with John ... it might be the last time. We ain't faggots though." John aims a playful but manly punch at Rob's nether parts. "Oi! Don't touch me down there!" Rob protests - but methinks the laddies doth protest too much.

Comedy soon gives way to tragedy, however. Off we go to Norway, where some aspects of BASE (namely, the E) are legal. Jumpers of the world pine for the fjords and their 1500-metre sheer (almost) cliffs. Come to join this mile-high club are Alan, a sky-diving in-structor, and Terry, ex-SAS, now a stunt organiser for the movies. Terry has the look of ageing Action Man, run slightly to fat, hair combed forward to camouflage a receding hairline. We get the vague impression that he's not really enjoying the whole business, that he's really rather tired of danger, and that at his age he should be settling down a bit: but at the same time his eyes betray a fear of showing fear. His physical courage, we feel, is his all: losing that would be a fate worse than death.

Terry looks a bit worried even on his practice jump, which involves a drop of around four feet. A leg buckles, and he complains of a bad knee. When it comes to the real thing, he is clearly hesitant. He steps up to the cliff edge a bit gingerly and one leg trails behind he goes over the side: you don't need to be Dr Jennifer Melfi to interpret this as a certain ambivalence about what he is doing. And he who hesitates is nearly lost: the less-than-convincing leap results in a close encounter with the rock face, and he ends up splashing into the cold waters of the fjord.

"Missed a ledge by inches," he tells the camera, "but I'm still here." Interviewed later among his peers in a log cabin kitchen, Terry philosophises: "It's all about survival, but my kind of survival. We've all had our conversations with the Grim Reaper, and in a way enjoyed them. But I don't want to meet him face-to-face just yet." Sadly, Terry's personal interview with Mr D takes place on his eighth BASE jump. Our last sight of him is from a distance, as his lonely figure is seen shuffling towards the cliff-top. At least his courage did not desert him at the end: stranded badly injured on a ledge, it's reckoned he tried self-rescue by throwing himself over the edge and trying to deploy an emergency 'chute.

Watching this film, and in particular the helmet-cam footage of free-falling G-forced faces, it's easy to conclude that BASE jumpers are crazy, mad, a danger to themselves and others. But it ill behoves this lowly hillwalker to name-call, given that I've been called the same things for going on the hill in winter, in darkness, or even in the rain. It's all a question of degree, I suppose - but, in the ranges of risk-taking, BASE is like piling Ossa on Olympus, and Pelion on Ossa.

Come to think of it, what a jump that would be for Rob and John and Alan and Terry.

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