The fall of man
BASE jumping is now well established in New Zealand, where the glacial terrain of Fiordland presents grand walls up to 1300 metres high—ideal staging posts for jumpers courting ecstasy and tragedy in one of the world’s deadliest sports.
On January 27, 2010, a group of trampers snaked through the tussock and rock of Mount Aspiring National Park, their head torches casting diminutive halos in the early morning darkness. They bobbed over hummocks and through streams until they stood before ‘The One’—a 250-metre-high granite wall at the terminal of Rob Roy Glacier.
It took them another two hours to scale the escarpment to the west of the falls, heaving themselves, hand over hand, up placed ropes until the group assembled at the top. Then, calmly, one by one, they threw themselves off.
Craig Taylor was among those falling down the precipitous wall, his nylon suit crackling in the wind like a bonfire. For six glorious seconds he hurtled to Earth, accelerating under the pure pull of gravity, until he approached 160 km/h. The valley floor rushed up to meet him, and when death was just seconds away, Taylor pulled a small, meticulously arranged package from his hip and cast it aside. It fluttered in his wake for a fraction of a second, then snapped into shape with a report that echoed about the valley like a gunshot. Taylor was no longer a tumbling projectile; he was flying, scribing a great arc through the morning air to land at the base of a cliff he had surveyed from the top just moments earlier.
Taylor was jubilant. He had plummeted from a precipice, and sailed away in ecstasy—the pure and simple fuel for thousands of BASE jumpers the world over who step into oblivion, again and again.
“The feeling you get when you’re standing on the edge of a 3000-foot vertical cliff face is unexplainable,” said Taylor. “I think BASE jumping draws people who are after a sport that doesn’t just challenge you physically but tests you mentally as well, a sport where you need to have total control of your mind and be prepared for anything.”
Anything at all. Even death.
“It can be as safe as you want it to be or as dangerous as you make it,” said Taylor, a 32-year-old builder from Queenstown. “Every single jump is calculated, every jump has different variables and risks.
“Some days you get to the edge of the cliff and say, ‘Ya know what, guys, I’m not feeling it today. I’ll take the two-hour walk back down and meet you guys at the bottom.’ Like any sport, if you push the limits, or don’t have respect for it, you can get hurt.”
Last year, Taylor travelled to Terror Peak, a spire which presides over Milford Sound in Fiordland. It’s a higher and more technical jump than most, requiring jumpers to reach terminal velocity and ‘track’ using the angle of their bodies to glide for 13 seconds over a massive rock ledge halfway down. Once clear of that, they can experience another 10 seconds of freefall.
Taylor had made the jump a number of times before, and leapt off with confidence. But, in the first few seconds of descent, as he streaked towards the ledge, he realised that he wasn’t going to clear it, and he was too low over the terrain to open his canopy.
“This is a BASE jumper’s worst possible situation,” he said. Taylor was heading for solid rock at about
“I managed to track over the terrain but clipped my legs on the rock ledge as I passed.”
Now tumbling in open air, Taylor didn’t know if his legs were still attached to his body, or lying on the ledge now hundreds of metres above him. He opened his canopy, and was relieved to see his shattered legs swing into view.
“As far as I know I’m the only person in the world to live through a terminal-velocity cliff strike. It’s changed the way I look at jumps now. Having had a nine-month recovery from this accident, I now ask myself before every jump if the reward outweighs the potential risks.”
But in BASE jumping, this is an equation of poor odds. A study in the Oxford University medical health journal, Bandolier, put the risk of death at one in every 2317 jumps. (Sky-diving, by comparison, claims one life in every 101,083 jumps—about the same odds as dying while cycling). A British Journal of Sports Medicine study, based on worldwide data gathered between 1981 and 2006, found the overall fatality risk during a single year was one in every 60 participating in the sport.
This is, by any measure, one of the most dangerous sports in the world.
The acronym BASE was coined by American aerial filmmaker Carl Boenish in 1978. With his wife and two other skydivers, he formed a club whose participants had leapt from an object in four categories—Building, Antenna, Span and Earth. Membership numbers are handed out only upon application, and strictly speaking, unless you hold one, you’re not a BASE jumper.
The sport has since evolved from short jumps off low objects to a greater focus on the big wall jumps of the Norwegian fjords and European Alps. Boenish himself followed the sport’s progression, setting the world record for the highest BASE jump in history off the Troll Wall in Norway in 1984. He was killed on a subsequent attempt a few days later. These big jumps—some more than 1000 metres high—offer a longer freefall and better potential for ‘tracking’, allowing jumpers to reach terminal velocity, incline their bodies at an angle to the fall-line and generate enough lift to move away from cliffs, to control their fall, to track over terrain and over escarpments. The best jumpers can travel through the air like an arrow, harnessing gravity and bending it, until falling becomes flying.
In 1995, Taupo skydiver Ted Rudd was introduced to BASE jumping by a colleague in Australia (where BASE is now outlawed). At the time, the gear was crudely adapted sky-diving equipment, and Rudd didn’t pursue the sport seriously for another seven years, by which time the canopies and container systems had improved. By 2004, he was hooked, and travelled to the United Kingdom to be closer to the easily accessible big wall jumps in Europe. In 2009, he rented a house with friends in Sunndalsøra, Norway, so he could live right under them. There, from the 1600-metre-high peak of Hårstadnebba, he established a reputation as one of the most proficient and daring ‘trackers’ in the world.
“I like tracking because it needs to be angle-perfect from exit to deployment, within a three-degree margin,” said Rudd in an interview from Norway this year. “A good track feels like sliding down a slippery slope, which takes you anywhere you want within your range.”
Videos of Rudd posted on YouTube show him flying down rock walls like a paper dart and shooting through ravines mere metres from trees and rock faces at terminal velocity. The degree of control is striking, as is the speed. He seems more missile than man.
Rudd joined Australian sky-diver turned BASE jumper Chris McDougall, and the two toured the world together, jumping and promoting the sport. (They even shared the same birthday, and on April 18 last year, they celebrated it by jumping off a one-kilometre-high cliff at Baffin Island inside the Arctic Circle.)
“People seem to think we’re adrenaline junkies,” said McDougall, after landing from a BASE jump in Lauterbrunnen, Switzerland. “But a jump can actually be very calming, even serene. The better you can control your emotions, the better you will be. You choose what you focus on.”
Like McDougall, Rudd started pushing the limits of ‘proximity tracking’, flying faster and closer to the rocky terrain they jumped from, and dive-bombing down ravines.
“You always have to pick your line right because there’s not much margin for error,” said McDougall. “But the closer you are, the more fun it is, and sometimes it’s hard to pull out of that.”
As Rudd’s confidence and notoriety grew, the sport became an obsession, and his reason for being became wedded to the possibility of his death. But if he had found a way to reconcile his love of the sport with the risks, it was lost on his mother.
Watching a television programme on BASE jumping, Hazel Luetchford became convinced that the sport would ultimately claim her son’s life. She was further alarmed by a postcard sent to his grandmother, in which Rudd wrote that he had gained sponsorship and intended to take the sport “to a new level”. Luetchford believed that this would substantially increase the risks he was already taking.
“I fail utterly to comprehend how anyone who, to use his own words, ‘loves his life intensely’ could take such extraordinary risks with it,” she said from her home in Somerset, England.
In the end, she couldn’t countenance his chosen path, and the irreconcilable difference in values drove them apart. The two didn’t speak for four years.
Rudd travelled to New Zealand in February this year to jump from the country’s highest wall, the Kaipo, at the head of Sinbad Gully in Milford Sound. It had been ‘opened up’ in 2008 by Australian Jason Cyran and Taupo locals Benny MacPherson and Alan McCandlish, who had also chalked up the first terminal-velocity BASE jump and first wingsuit BASE jump in New Zealand that day—the new metrics of the rapidly evolving sport. Like tracking, where jumpers incline their bodies to glide, wingsuits have webbed sections between the legs and arms, increasing the surface area to provide a more efficient ‘wing’ that greatly improves glide angle and manoeuvrability.
At just 29, McCandlish is already a veteran of some 700 BASE jumps, and no stranger to injury. He estimates that over the decade he’s been BASE jumping, he’s spent close to 18 months recuperating from injuries.
“I remember lying in a hospital bed after a pretty bad cliff strike,” he says. “But there was no doubt in my mind that I would be back jumping again, and as I lay there hooked up to a morphine drip, I was already planning which new parachute to get and where I’d use it.
“All of my close friends and myself have been witness to a fatality. That’s the reality. We don’t dwell on it or fear it,” says McCandlish. “That sounds like a death wish or something, but for me it’s sort of a wish for life. Can I take that step, can I move past my fear? It’s only when we move past our fears that we feel truly free.”
On February 15, McCandlish, Rudd, Cyran, MacPherson and Nelson-based Prue Beams—one of the sport’s few female participants—stood at the top of the 1300-metre-high Kaipo Wall. It was a crystalline day—breathless, cloudless—and all were anxious to move before the warmth of the sun changed the otherwise perfect conditions. Snow crunched under foot as the jumpers went through their routines. Then, Rudd counted down, sprang off the ledge and disappeared down the face of the cliff.
Moments later, he appeared in the distance, a shimmering white dot rocketing down the valley, tracking using the angle of his body alone. His canopy cracked open and he sailed to safety. Beams followed, then McCandlish, MacPherson and Cyran in their wingsuits, searing through the Fiordland sky and into the throat of Sinbad Gully.
“The hours of hiking are a large part of my enjoyment,” said Rudd in an interview not long afterwards. “And being able to fly for a minute may seem like a paltry reward, but like Burt Munro said, ‘You can live more in those few seconds than some people do in a lifetime.’”
On June 13, 2011, Ted Rudd made a solo jump from Hårstadnebba, Norway. He was wearing a prototype tracking suit which he had been testing for some time, and chose a track that he had made on many occasions before, in view of his house. Rudd flew over an
escarpment and tore headlong down a deep ravine.
What happened next, nobody will know for sure, because the only person to witness the event was his flatmate Livia, watching from their backyard as Rudd attempted to deploy his chute early, then disappeared from sight.
Rudd was found hours later, suspended beneath trees and a partially deployed canopy with shattered legs and head injuries. It is presumed he was killed instantly.
In a strange inversion of the cautionary tale of Icarus, Rudd was killed because he flew too low. However, his sense of humour and notoriety within the BASE jumping community seemed to live on. In his will, Rudd stipulated that anyone attending his funeral had to wear a perm, aviator sunglasses, a headband and a fake moustache.
Rudd’s mother and family were not present. Estranged by his involvement in a sport where he risked everything, they would grieve in isolation. Even his ashes would be lost to the sport—distributed by members of the BASE jumping community in Norway and Australia.
“I knew that danger was Ted’s oxygen, and that the incalculable risks he took would end his life sooner or later,” says his mother, who has lost two brothers to cancer and watched them battle the disease with “courage and dignity”. But, she says, “I find no dignity in Ted’s death. For a parent, the loss of life in this manner is simply the most appalling waste.”
But McDougall, who attended the many ‘memorial parties’ held by the BASE jumping community in Rudd’s honour, disagrees. “We’re choosing this life,” he says. “I’ve lost 50 or 60 friends, 14 of them best mates. It’s just sad, it’s extremely, extremely sad.
“Ted knew that life wasn’t a practice run. He was aware of his mortality, and he lived every day like it was his last. He played the game he chose, and he played it till the end.”