Peering over the edge, it’s difficult to make out where the stone just tossed into space hit the deck. So another one is selected and cast airborne, in sync with the stop watch button being pressed. “That was a 2.7 second one” Josh announces, and he glances over at me with an expression on his face that suggests implications are being weighed up in his mind concerning his next ‘step’. For that step is heavily laden with consequence should the calculations not quite work out. “I didn’t give that one much of a push. Will try another”. 3.6 seconds this time. “I’m going for it”. We earlier scoped another site across the way, and with much humming and hawing it was deemed a no-goer. Though I am pretty sure he said that one was a 3.7 seconder…
He looks across at me to check I am ready with my camera and my positioning, gives me the thumbs up, and with that leaps out into the abyss. By all accounts I feel I am the one with the most nerves and shout for joy when the ‘chute opens and I hear Josh whooping crazily as he wrests control over his rig and glides out of sight along the dramatic Lakeland crag. I wasn’t even the one committed to that semi-suicidal act.
Josh has just, in the parlance of his ‘tribe’, ‘opened up’ Bow Fell to BASE, and I was privileged to be along for his ride, in the sense of accompanying him on this odyssey of madness to find new sites to launch, leap, jump, however you want to label this act, from. As far as I can gather from getting to know little more about this close-knit community, there aren’t that many officially opened up sites in the UK, and significantly fewer prior Josh’s industrious efforts in recent months. His intention being to push the number beyond 100. Not long after I first made his acquaintance last summer, he sent me videos of opening an exit near the summit of Ben Nevis, highest mountain in the UK. The first of which looked utterly incredible from his GoPro perspective, sailing down above the north face for around a 4 minute canopy flight. I was relieved on seeing his landing and the fact he had accomplished this safely. A few hours later I received another video – he had climbed back up and done it again!!!
Hanging about (literally as it happens) with Josh came at an opportune time for me, as I had spent the summer doing just that on the sea cliffs of the Great Orme above the splendid Victorian resort town of Llandudno. Having done a little sea cliff climbing previously I was pleasantly surprised to find some dramatic headlands, and some fascinating sea caves that I decided were great for photo opportunities and to consolidate my rope ascension skills. It was ironically on a pleasant summer day when I was purposefully NOT climbing or hanging about, but on a family picnic, that I chanced upon Josh, his mate, Andy, and his dad scoping ‘exit points’ for a pioneering jump in these parts. I didn’t even realise it was possible to jump these cliffs, though they are dramatic in the right places. A recent jump they had done from a roadside point requiring the tide to be out and a couple of extra metres of drop by launching from the top of their van. This is pretty out there stuff!
So, fortuitously, I struck up an erstwhile partnership whereby I offered to come along on various of these excursions. This would be good to hone my adventure photography skills, make use of my rope skills in getting into exciting positions, and also if required (as on Bow Fell) to facilitate getting Josh into positions where it might be awkward to do so without the aid of a belay and some fella who just happens to have turned up with loads of climbing gear! That first jump at great Orme I witnessed was pretty mind-blowing stuff, with little more than 100ft sheer drop, and requiring something of a push out from the crag to give sufficient clearance.
Since then I have had many opportunities to go along for the ride as it were and witness firsthand what it takes in terms of nerve, skill, composure and good judgement to open up new exits in the UK mountains. In my next post I will recount a recent experience collaborating with Josh to document BASE jumping, and delve a little deeper into the psychology and brain functioning that is implicated in extreme sports / environments activities.
Figuring out how to get decent shots of the epic moment of a new BASE exit involves some complicated logistics. Being new to this game, and learning on the fly, here are some of my observations of the process. I will focus more from the photographer's perspective in this article rather than from the viewpoint of the BASE jumper per se (to be covered elsewhere). As well as capturing novel perspectives, I enjoy the thrill of being vicariously involved in the subject of the shoot, as near as possible to doing the activity myself (hopefully that time will come as well!). I have been fortunate to gain an opportunity to combine my love for mountains and wilderness with the excitement of being involved in a pioneering adrenaline-fuelled activity in such spectacular locations. By and large the focus of the BASE is to find an edge of something (mountainous, clifflike), which isn’t always as easy as it sounds. For despite a perceptual conception about the verticality and size of mountain cliffs, often the mountain 'edges' are stepped and graduated rather than sheer. This is of course a question of scale, for 10m is in itself steep, sheer sideded etc. but that isn’t enough to BASE jump from. Typically around 30m should ‘suffice’, hopefully entailing some sloping steep ground beyond rather than a dead, perpendicular, stop.
This means that finding a decent drop off point is harder than it might be expected, even up a vertiginous mountain face. It’s frankly a challenge to locate and find the decent cliffs big enough to jump off. It doesn’t mean they are few and far between, just difficult to locate by simply strolling to the ‘edge of the mountain’ as it were. So a degree of scouting around, downclimbing/scrambling will often be required to locate a decent enough drop point. Some technical equipment and skills come in handy to facilitate descent to the jump point as well as to create safe positions from which to take the pictures from the most compelling viewpoint. The ideal might change from one exit to the next. Whilst my ‘go to’ (and yet to be accomplished) shot might be an aerial view alongside the jumper (and behind/slightly above) with the full depth of the landscape beyond, and conveying the vertiginous height below, this might only work in certain circumstances.
What I have found generally so far for photography's sake, is that the terrain and aspect of the background scenery, typical of British mountain terrain, involves a lot of ‘busy’ green/brown/grey terrain – grassy, rocky, cluttered undulating features, perhaps including streams and small waterfalls. The decision to make is how much of this background to include to enhance the perspective of the main focal subject – the jumper himself. One might wish to include this for a sense of scale, but that can be tricky with the contrasting colours of the hill, as well as the compact nature of scene. Heights aren't huge in the scheme of things, with maybe a few hundred feet at best, and the hillsides fairly close together. As opposed to a shot in some vaster, more Alpine terrain where a glacier stretching into the distance can give a great backdrop into which the jumper is launching (a good example is that achieved by Scottish photographer Hamish Frost showing Tim Howell in mid flight).
This gives rise also to consideration about which lenses to use to capture the best aspect one wants to attain. I currently work from a fairly limited toolkit, not long sice graduating from a basic DSLR (18-55mm lens) to a mirrorless,micro-4/3 compact systems camera (std 14-42mm lens). This gives me more versatility. is lighter weight and has better image quality capacity. I am now exploring use of a prime lens (F1.7/25mm) that gives a much sharper output and greater performance across manual settings and scope for the various shots I am after. This is starting to pay dividends. With caveats. For instance, not having the capacity to zoom in, and being less wide angle than the std lens, I am having to be even more mindful of positioning than previously. This really helps in terms of composition and thought into the framing of the shot than the more ‘opportune’ use of the variable focal length lenses used previously.
I’ll come back to that in a moment, but first return to the subject of setting up positioning and exploring different angles/vantages. There is a point to make here regarding equipment, and alluding to the effort required to get to the place where a decent image can be achieved. I started off with the aim of experiencing the thrill of being ‘over the edge’ in order to capture that bird’s eye climber’s/jumpers POV. Tto some extent early on that somewhat hindered/biased my approach, and involved unnecessary slog with an increasingly heavy rucksack....
The first few jaunts involved two ropes (one for anchor, one for abseiling down/hanging off) – including the heavier static 50m (because of course I couldn’t wait to descend 50m into the abyss and then 'enjoy' the experience of jumaring back up – that soon wears off). Then the ‘bosun’s chair’ my mate threw together (beautifully) in the workshop, so I can sit comfortably whilst hanging about in space indefinitely. Add in various bits of trad gear for anchors of different sizes, slings etc.climbing helmet, winter tools as the weather changed, and then of course various cameras of shapes and sizes, tripod… Whilst it has by and large all come in handy at one point or another, particularly to drop over the side of this or that cliff to have a look at the potential for jumping (like I really know or want to be the one to say ‘yeah this looks fine, go for it…’), it isn’t always necessary at all. Therein lies the dilemma/challenge of figuring out (much as a skeleton rack might come in handy on a mountaineering/scrambling day out to protect an easy pitch) how much of this kit to actually take along. Also to bear in mind, being the 'luxury' accompanying partner of your BASE buddies, you might also come in handy to carry any extra bits of kit down that they don't have capacity to carry (be it ice tools, or spare rope used in rigging the exit...). What goes up must come down (the long way!) Fitness and strength is essential in this - as a rule being able to run ahead of the others to set up one's position to minimise time taken additional to prepping the jump site (a pipe dream in my case, haring after fit young lads full of adrenaline!!).
As to the point of what kit is or isn’t needed, and when, it varies. On a recent jump from the top of Ben Nevis (in winter conditions with soft, deep snow), whilst the original planned jump might have required abseiling to the jump site as well as for photographic vantage, the eventual site chosen was much easier to access straight from the summit plateau. I considered dropping over the edge, but the actual site I chose to shoot from afforded a spectacular view from a distance, encompassing the scale of the north face of the Ben in its winter coat. This made the subsequent shots truly epic. Had I chosen to drop down and fiddle about with technical kit I wouldn’t have had the same aspect at all. One of the benefits of this longer shot, using my prime lens, and another judgement call, was that I could not only scale the shots against this amazing backdrop, but could also crop in relatively close and tight to the main subject (jumpers in various states of descent). This obviously comes down to the viability of the lens and capacity to crop in without losing too much fidelity and sharpness. The epic scenery was essential in this case to frame the action, and emphasise the narrative of the situation. This is as opposed to the other shots I have mentioned where the scenery surrounding may have detracted from the subject being too close in or the colours not being interesting or contrasting enough.
That leads on to questions around settings – to blur or not to blur (the background). I sought out the prime lens in order to bring my aperture settings right down (it’s F1.7) so I could create that background blur and convey primarily the sense of space as of the subject in flight in ‘air’. Yet ironically it has earned it’s value by allowing me to get the whole sense of scale and background detail into focus. I deemed the day of the Ben Nevis shoot to be a perfect coming together of weather, light etc. conditions and aspect – had we gone to the original planned site just below the summit trig point it might have been a very different experience and series of shots, almost certainly losing the same epic scale and I would have inevitably ended up a lot closer to the subjects. This might have reduced the impact of the scene to more generic jump shots against a more indeterminate background (or blurred out completely). Setting up a more technical position could have caused added stress and compromise the nature of the composition and set up of the shot. Key though in terms of setting is judging distance from the subject, deciding how much sharpness to preserve with respect to the wider scene (higher F stop) but also importantly capturing the motion (higher shutter speed) as well (probably less of an issue if further away…?).
My first proper attempt at capturing the subject on a pioneering jump exit did require roped access, firstly to deposit the jumper to a viable position on an airy ledge, and then facilitate my own position alongside. This was on the north side of Bow Fell in the English Lake District in autumn 2018. Initial scoping of some cliffs down from the summit involved abeiling down some greasy slabs that proved not viable (couple of seconds rock drop). However, we found an outcropped pinnacle that involved some scrambling onto and over then dropping down somewhat to a rocky ledge. When the subject was ensconced and had rigged up a static line/safety rope to his lofty perch, I abseiled down onto the edge of a sloping rock ramp and set up my stance at about 60 degree lean standing on the edge. Tilting back at this angle facilitated a more or less parallel side on view of the subject. I found this especially nerve wracking for it was the first time I had actually been up close and personal and involved in a jump. I was ‘probably’ more nervous than he was (or so if seemed!). I was certainly massively relieved and adrenalized when the chute opened. The shots were quite satisfying, but prior to my acquisition of the better lens, looked quite flat in terms of motion and the scenic but cluttered background. The biggest toil for me was trying to get back up the mountain from this stance, involving faffing about between abseiling and jumaring. I had to traverse across the ledge to undo the static line rope, climb up to untether it and get back over and up the greasy rock to my anchor point. This was all whilst the light had started to fail and the fog had rolled in. This also points to the other challenge of being the accompanying photographer – getting down (in the dark) hours after the jumper has joyfully floated back to the car (more or less!).
There’ a lot of detail in the above so I will stop there for now. Suffice to say it’s an incredibly interesting and rewarding subject to be photographically involved in, and requires juggling various different technical, physical (and psychological) challenges to pull off anything half decent. It is of course important to not compromise the integrity and safety of the jump. Surely the last thing the jumper wants is to be stood on the edge psyching himself up waiting for the cameraman to faff about setting up the shot and fiddling with ropes!!! A subject I will shortly discuss concerns shooting a more ‘cinematic’ experience of what goes into planning, finding and executing jumping from a new exit. As befits the ‘CognitvExplorer’ ethos of this site, I will also elaborate further from a scientific perspective, observations about how the brain functions in the context of extreme sports / environments and not only mitigates against the intense stresses that entails, but also grow and prospers from this exposure.
The mainstream public’s appetite for adventure films and documentary style features has never been more well catered for than is currently the case. Jimmy Chin’s epic film, Free Solo, about fearless climbing whiz Alex Honnold has reached audiences far and wide and escalated the art of extreme filmmaking to the Oscar’s party in 2019. In the modern age of all-pervasive digital image capture and the YouTube generation showcasing ever more daring exploits to the masses, one might be forgiven for deeming the market saturated. However, there is a group of individuals pushing boundaries in impressive ways and in new territories that one might have not expected. In the relatively compact and ‘small scale’ wilderness regions that still tenuously retain their hold against the encroaching landscape of the UK, these adventurers are pushing the envelope in the hazardous realm of BASE jumping.
One typically thinks of Norwegian or Swiss big cliffs, or the canyonlands of Utah as the natural realm of the BASE athlete. The iconic natural features found in these regions allow for exhilarating free fall opportunities and long canopy rides across vast landscapes. But there is a secret about to unfold, that actually here in the UK there is a wealth of equally spectacular sites where an unsung community of individuals is quietly pushing the boundaries of this extreme pursuit. If you know where to look.
In fact a misconception of the sport is that one needs a huge sheer wall in order to confidently plunge over the cliff edge with sufficient margin for safety. Sheer is good, but you might be surprised at how feasible it is to jump from much lower height features. Albeit frequently in still epic surroundings. With the assistance of pilot chute, occasional static line openings, and actually the odd bit of freefall, there is a wealth of options to tap into the marvels that are to be found if you know where to look.
I first came to appreciate this when I met Josh (@MountainManBase) scouting for exits on the precipitous slopes of the Great Orme, near Llandudno in North Wales. As with many people, I had no idea that anyone would even contemplate jumping at such low altitude, or that in fact there were cliffs sheer enough. And I had spent the summer doing some sea cliff climbing in these parts, or to be more accurate, practising rope ascension techniques on this spectacular stretch of coastline. I was fascinated and intrigued to witness Josh in action, and captured my first shot of his new exit, around 120ft or so drop, his whooping shouts of excitement as the canopy opened and he sailed out of site to the grassy slopes that abut the crashing waves. And so was born an opportunity to pursue our combined interests further: my foray into the world of adventure photography, putting into practice my rope-rigging techniques, and giving me the impetus to get into exhilarating positions on the cliff edges (and below) alongside. To be privileged to share in the moment of the jump, and to attempt to convey through image capture what it is like to leap out into the unknown and pioneer new jump exits.
Since then I have accompanied Josh and his colourful band of associates on various jumps across the British Isles. I will elaborate in due course on my observations from a photographer’s point of view as well as in my capacity as the ‘CognitivExplorer’, with research interests in the psychology of extreme sports performance, seeking to understand how the brain operates under stress in extreme environments…