Creaking knees, bleary eyes. Back groaning under the weight of an overloaded pack grinding up along an airy ridge. Déjà vu…Here I am again on another wild-eyed venture into the mountains looking for somewhere to facilitate my associate’s desire to swan dive over the edge. Scotland last month, Lake District a couple of weeks ago. This time it’s Wales. Hard to keep up. But with a companion this driven to find ever more un-jumped exit points you keep pace or fall behind! I am getting used to the routine now. Short notice summons, last minute change of plans, opportunist weather. Arrive, brew up, catch up on the latest antics, chew the fat later than intended, pack chutes in the dark, prepare cameras, safety kit for tomorrow’s inevitably early start. Go to bed knowing that fulsome sleep is out the window, and functional slumber is the best one can hope for. Alarm goes off after fitful ‘night’, with barely 2.5 hours snatched…how can that be the time? Ah well far too excited, wary, expectant to sleep anyway, and one has to seize the day.
More food next time, and water! Splitting it three ways, plans awry, sun, calm, gusty wind, too hot, clag, too cold. We have it all today up in the Snowdon massif. The weather is trying to settle into a Spring high but it’s not being overly amicable about it. We set off finally around 6.30am after a ‘leisurely’ breakfast (Josh’s porridge is a godsend as I find I always neglect to eat on these full-on days and this at least lines the stomach for the day’s demands). Today we are looking to complete a trilogy, ‘officially’ started in the throes of winter in Scotand (the infamous ‘Ben’ jump), transitioning into a preview of Spring up Scafell Pike in The Lake District, and culminating hopefully at the highest point in Wales. Josh has learnt of a likely exit point set to be the highest yet to be achieved on the Snowdon horseshoe. It’s all systems go. The ‘plan’ is to quickly ascend in the morning before winds pick up, to find a spot on the ridge of Y-Lliwedd, a spectacular peak in the massif that trends an impressive north to north-east facing wall of crags that plunges almost sheer to stunning blue Llyn Llydaw at the heart of the Snowdon range. But plans generally can not be relied on.
It’s along here somewhere. On this adventure today there’s Josh, resident jumper-extraordinaire, seeking to add to his impressive resume of UK cliffs (70+ new exits and counting), myself with my increasing abundance of cameras, tripods and rope-stuffs, and James who is going to bring his film-making acumen and drone piloting skills to the party. We are full of high spirits despite the lack of sleep, scouring the face all the way along for the prize jump site rumoured to be somewhere round here. We meet a middle-aged couple hailing from Stockholm who are raving about this fine landscape on their first trip to Wales (“we’ve been to the Highlands a lot but we did not realise Wales was like this!”). They aren’t aware yet why we are here. No need to alarm them as yet. As the ridge wears on we find we are struggling to find anything sheer enough. As is often the case with UK mountain cliffs, though the exposure is impressive, the mountainside is super steep but somewhat slanting and broken up into smaller crags that are incrementally stepped.
We have almost given up on a decent drop, the wind has picked up, and a mountain rescue helicopter is ominously buzzing us for some reason, when a possibly viable site hoves into view. Towards the end of this ridge there is a sudden drop off, but we can’t quite see beyond a small pinnacle a few metres below. The problem with these sorts of locations is that one has to sometimes explore further over the side to get a clear view of the terrain below, as ledges may regress outwards not visible from higher up. So with that I volunteer to pick my way down a short scramble and shuffle gingerly onto the outcrop, straddling the drop either side. It’s an airy position just allowing me to lean carefully forward to peer over the side. A rock cast aloft takes maybe 3 seconds to make landfall on another outcrop below. To our right the mountainside angles leftwards, creating a v-shaped cleft. If the wind hits across on exit, irrespective of the marginality of the height and obstacles in sight, a ‘cliff-strike’ is largely inevitable…I push these thoughts to one side and retreat back up the scramble to firmer ground and confer with the team. Josh goes and has a look, with his laser sight. There is a considerable period of deliberation as the wind periodically whorls around us. It’s getting fairly cold and fingers are going numb. I get my gear out, offering to pitch over the side, but the rope has got hopelessly tangled and takes forever to sort out. By which time Plan B has been decided on…
There’s really no point in pushing it with margins for error this slim, so despite the prospect of a significantly longer day we decide that there’s more of a ‘dead cert’ on the other side of Snowdon. Which means slogging up and over the top. Groan. Today’s ambition to finish around midday (still a good 5-6 hour mountain day) is evidently going to be considerably longer (no surprise – to head into ‘uncharted territory’ is to court the unexpected and adapt to circumstance!). We scrutinise one more last ditch pinnacle precariously situated (and another straddling position) before resolving to get on with it and head upwards.
Snowdon is a popular mountain, even on a midweek day at midday, early in the season, and true to it’s unpredictable form is clagged out and gusting at the summit. We quickly head away from the crowds and on to our destination – the truly spectacular mountain terrain of Clogwyn du’r Arddu. Josh has jumped several locations before but there is one that looks particularly epic, easy to access and in a great photographic position. And this will be the officially highest Snowdon jump exit yet. Furthermore, the weather this side of the summit is significantly more accommodating, the sun is coming out and the wind dropped considerably. I have spoken elsewhere about the process of documenting these jumps, and now as I have become more conversant with this I set about placing cameras in various locations to gain different perspectives that can be spliced together. But this takes a fair amount of time, not helped by the fact these epic surroundings offer multiple grand vistas. This means setting up 4 cameras at increasingly spread out locations, one of which is much higher up the hillside, and my final stance is on an outcrop with a vertiginous drop that I have to carefully scramble around to, and secure myself to a boulder right on the edge so I can concentrate on the shot not the empty space below!
These missions are just that, requiring planning and communication to get the best out of the footage capture as well as of course the safety of the jump – let’s not forget that!! The jump site is on a grassy ramp that gently inclines from the smooth hillside here and abruptly falls off with an undercut rocky underside. This gives it spectacular aspect with a glassy blue lake below and grand Welsh mountains retreating away in the background. I set a camera up facing this view then dash back to place a couple of different angles right at the end of the ramp, to witness the jump first hand. Then I dash back over to the other side onto the aforementioned outcrop to set up the main shots that will capture Josh against the huge steep cliffs that lead up towards the main summit. James the filmographer also has his video camera set up and prepares his drone for key shots at the point of action. Coordinating our three ‘roles’ to time the various set ups we get ready for action! At the appointed moment I have to run up to the far off camera, set it on remote, run back to my stance, await the signal from Josh that the exit is imminent, and James’ cue to launch the drone.
Ok that’s the photography angle out of the way, now onto the main event!!
The wind is starting to gust a little bit disconcertingly now. As ever, poised in our photographic positions, we vicariously experience the jump. Breath is bated, in limbo waiting to press the shutter but also ‘empathising’ with Josh on the edge of the precipice. He signals thumbs up, shouts the familiar ‘three-two-one-see ya!’ and pitches over the edge.
A flurry of activity. Plunging figure. Static line rope tenses and releases, pilot chute pulls up and chute deploys. One eye squinting through a viewfinder, other eye seeking to pick out the subject, hastily trying to track the form as it hurtles then slows and sails off on a trajectory determined on the wing. These moments are hard to reconstruct, and its safe to say I have never really witnessed a jump as it’s always mediated through a lens and my own focus on getting the shot, not enjoying the spectacle. This one is a bit different. I have written elsewhere about the psychological, cognitive aspects of operating in extreme environments (from an hypothesised perspective of observing the jumper). But there are interesting perceptual aspects to being the ‘involved observer’ – i.e. in terms of capturing the moment photographically, as well as being involved in the ‘safety’ or rigging aspect. This is with respect to helping get the jumper into a position (not required this time) or being poised in a vertiginous position requiring careful set up and awareness whilst taking the picture.
Now though I had to try and track Josh with my left eye as my viewfinder had developed a fault and was blurred, so I couldn’t actually see what was happening to keep track through that, yet needed to still orient it intuitively and to adjust any settings on the fly. So my attention was split. This did mean however I saw the events unfold more ‘directly’ via my left eye, which seemed to make the experience more vivid and memorable. The second aspect of this jump not before witnessed was due to the wind conditions. Normally my perception of these events is a rapid exit, a swift opening, followed by a decisive trajectory off into the distance, quickly requiring me to adjust focus and aperture to try and capture images of this object as it gets smaller and further away. But a curious thing happened, for as soon as the chute opened, Josh seemed to stop.
What actually happened (as related later), was that the wind coming into the cliff inflated the canopy and with brakes on caused uplift. As Josh pulled on his toggles and exerted control, the rig buffeted, rose up and then achieved something of a status quo against the prevailing conditions. At this point he ‘hovered’ just below my position, juddering but stable. His flight path took on a staccato like aspect as he headed off along the cliff face. I strove to snap some more pictures but with heart in mouth was disconcerted given what I was seeing, not being used to this ‘soaring’ type of trajectory. Nevertheless it was going to his plan. He headed off further into the distance, and momentarily I paused my camera work trying to process what was actually happening. It was difficult to tell if he was heading into the cliffs from the perspective I had, but I was mightily relieved when he about-faced, soared back some then headed quickly down towards the lake and an eventual landing…
I sprung into action to disengage my camera position, then ran up to the other cameras to retrieve all the equipment from the various locations, including rope set-ups from the jump. I also ‘fended off’ (!) enquiries from a bunch of fellows who had wandered over to see what all the commotion was about. I am becoming accustomed to this aspect of pursuing BASE jumpers round the country! As ever people were confused (at the prospect of jumping off things in this country) then excited and fascinated to find out more…
Thankfully josh decided that a planned second jump might be best avoided, given the time, our collective hunger and fatigue from not drinking or eating enough (it’s easy to forget haha in these circumstances) and mindful of wanting to get back down. It was also too windy now and the jump had taken it’s toll, being evidently quite an effort to fly according to the flight plan. With that we marched back up and over Snowdon again and got heads down for the couple of hours or so back to the van. In all a highly successful and exciting day, with great footage and shots achieved and in retrospect a wild experience to witness and be part of! That’s another one ‘ticked off! Where next…Ireland?!! (Over to you, Josh.)
"Nature is beautiful because it looks like Art; and Art can only be called beautiful if we are conscious of it as Art while yet it looks like Nature" - Immanuel Kant
A dream job would be that of film location scout. Imagine having to 'drag' yourself out of bed to head out by helicopter day by day to find spectacular cinematic landscapes fit for The Lord of the Rings…Or what about the makers of Lost having to trawl the length and breadth of Hawaii to for desert island beaches and pristine jungle with mountain backdrops…I suppose being an adventure photographer disposes me somewhat towards fulfilling this fantasy. I get to look for appropriately engaging locations where I can hope to create a narrative angle in cinematic perspective! I am fascinated by the craft of film-making and delve into the literature for inspiration and to uncover some of the hidden gems of detail about how certain memorable shots were achieved. It always adds something when I discover a little known fact about a place I already have an affinity towards, and which captures my imagination and elevates the status of this place to more mythical proportions.
An area I came upon a couple of years back and had no idea existed sits in a corner of an island I was never particularly stimulated by. Though over time it is growing on me as I explore further. If anything less for it’s inherent grandeur as the views it affords of the mainland. I am talking of the Isle of Anglesey off the north-west tip of Wales. Being a neighbour of Snowdonia national park, which scenically punches above its weight, the jewel of north Wales, I have perhaps not given Anglesey the benefit of the doubt in the past. It is largely flat or gently undulating for a start. I seek height, mountains, spectacle. What it does have is a stunning coastline however, and in places, spectacular cliffs, particularly around the climbing mecca of Gogarth, and the drama of Rhoscolyn and Holyhead mountain. It could also rightfully claim to be a world-class destination for sea kayaking and general water-borne adventure activities!
An intriguing anecdote attracted my attention recently whilst reading an account of the filming of perhaps my favourite film of all time, 2001: A Space Odyssey. The author, Michael Benson (Space Odyssey: Stanley Kubrick, Arthur C. Clarke, and the making of a masterpiece), recounts how a junior member of the production team (literally the tea boy), hit upon the perfect opportunity to elevate status, find favour with Stanley Kubrick, and launch his career in the film industry. Andrew Birkin, who went on to later find success as a director and screenwriter, capitalised on a technical problem that the visual effects department were having in rendering background landscapes to complement interior shots of some opening scenes in the movie. This centres round the prologue set in a prehistoric period of human evolution, some 4 million years before the present, and representing the African desert. Kubrick, the obsessive genius, was renowned for his reticence to travel. Though hailing from New York, he lived in quiet seclusion in Hertfordshire, would not fly and insisted on driving everywhere at a steady 29 miles per hour. Nevertheless, he sought to use locations within the UK for any necessary exterior scenes, irrespective of where this was meant to portray - on this world or any other. (His later film about the Vietnam war, Full Metal Jacket, used a gasworks near central London to portray war torn in-country ‘nam, as well as Cambridgeshire locations standing in for a US Marine training camp.)
Now Kubrick had already dispatched a team the length and breadth of the country, and in particular to northern Scotland to ‘find a desert’. This was clearly based on a somewhat naïve belief that such a thing could be found in the British Isles (especially given the north’s proclivity for incessant wet weather!). To no avail, and to much cost and time spent by production assistants. Yet the young Birkin saw an opportune moment to step in, when observing that the art department’s matte background paintings looked too much like…well, paintings. He had seen in a book his mother kept at home a landscape somewhere in Wales that he was convinced would be the desert that Kubrick was seeking. So the anecdote goes, he headed up on a train out of London into Wales, with 20 pounds in his pocket, and before the day was done had located his ‘desert’, taken numerous polaroids from different perspectives, and headed back to London and Borehamwood studios, depositing these on Kubrick’s desk. This greatly impressed the auteur and immediately elevated Birkin to the status of official location scout for this huge Hollywood movie destined to be a monument of 20th Century cinema.
So where was this ‘desert’? I was pleasantly surprised to find the name ‘Newborough Warren’ cropping up in this account. I had discovered such a place in a book myself a couple of years ago, and checked it out as a pleasant diversion on a blustery day. Expecting a thin stretch of sand, some dunes, and a grey Irish Sea that is redolent of these parts, I was quite blown away with what I found. The place tantalises from the offset as one approaches down a stretch of road through a large tract of forest that leads right to the sand. The beach at Newborough stretches for some miles left and right in a wide sweeping bay. To the north this curves round to a spit of land and from thence into a large and barren estuarine plain of. This encompasses a largish tract of forestland (the preserve of red squirrels), and it’s equally large tract of sand dunes and marshland being a designated Site of Special Scientific Interest. https://www.visitanglesey.co.uk/en/things-to-do/activities/wildlife-newborough-forest-and-warren/#.XH8FC4j7Q2w
What really crowns this natural area of beauty is this spit of land that strikes out into Caernarfon Bay and is known as Llanddwyn Island (for it is tidally accessible). This is a grassy spur with rocky inlets and small but impressive crags. These seem as if battlements for a prominent lighthouse, as well as hosting various whitewashed cottages and outbuildings. Looking south from here across the surf an impressive scene encompasses a backdrop of Snowdonia’s distant mountains. On a sunny day with rippling blue sea one could be forgiven for thinking one is somewhere (even) more exotic in far off lands, tropical seas and mysterious mountainous isles. Hence it’s potential as ‘stand-in’ for far off climes…
The ‘Warren’ that Birkin found, accurately refers to an area to the south of the main beach, being a long sand bar that stretches for miles. This is boundaried by the Menai Straits reaching out into the Irish Sea. By all accounts, and by the magic of cinema and the imagination facilitated through crafty use of lens and camera angle, this area was deemed most suitable by the fledgling production assistant. To the extent that the World’s Greatest Film Director thought it the perfect ‘desert’ needed to stand in for 4 million BC Africa!
I must confess to not having seen the connection in my mind’s eye, but it is impetus to revisit and look afresh on this scenery. But the point being made is how we can bring to a landscape, or any scene in the real world, a novel perspective fuelled by the imagination and framed through our perceptual apparatus. And with this we can revel and immerse in the unfolding scene to create a fresh and meaningful narrative that inspires and motivates further opportunity for exploration. To paraphrase the philosopher Immanuel Kant, the doyen of Aesthetics: to appreciate beauty in nature (or indeed art) one brings one’s imagination to bear upon the scene to unlock that beauty. I have written elsewhere (see ‘SCIENCE’), about the notion of ‘environmental affordance’. This refers to how the world ‘out there’ provides key information that, catalysed by the brain and our mechanisms of cognition and perception, enables a perspective to be formed regarding functional (i.e. what can I do within and to the environment) and aesthetic (what is the impression is has upon me, emotionally, artistically) aspects of the environment we are privy to.
I draw upon filmmaking as well as photography to view landscapes and interesting natural scenes through the lens of the imagination. This can give new purpose to visiting locations with great potential for adventure activities, and embellish the experience in vivid ways. It also helps to think upon how others with creative vision have ‘repurposed’ the landscape to fit into a grander picture and narrative. A valuable component of perspective is of course trying to envisage how others have seen a place, not just for what it is inherently, but what it could be, what it could represent. In my next post I will continue this theme of film location scouting. This concerns how the same fellow pushed the envelope further into more adventurous photography for some of the most pivotal scenes for which 2001 was famous. This time in the far north of Scotland, and to especially ‘psychedelic’ purposes. I’ll also briefly mention how I recently got involved in a professional shoot involving glorious Lake District locations using that most modern of technologies, Virtual Reality, and so did somewhat fulfil my fantasy on location…(see also my blog piece under SCIENCE concerning the utility of VR in changing perspective and behaviour and understanding perceived experience).
“It is not down on any map; true places never are."
A few years back, as with Captain Ahab, the stirrings of a fixation with The Whale began to take root. I found my Moby Dick in the shape of a great gaping icy black eye that gazed up at me from frozen depths. It was whilst I journeyed across a sea of sorts. Known as the ‘Mer de Glace’ this was a sea of ice flowing down a great cleft bounded by huge Alpine peaks. I was making a foray into the surrounding mountains looking for routes to climb, to take a mountaineer’s perspective up high, yet what ultimately secured my interest was what lay down below and beneath.
Myself and my climbing companion (by coincidence named 'Wael') had spent the night up above the glacier in a refuge perched precariously on the sheer side of huge cliffs, overlooking the immensity of the north face of the Grandes Jorasses. This was up above a tributary of the Mer de Glace, the Leschaux Glacier. And we had spent the night ‘accidentally’ in the refuge on this spectacular platform. We had been aiming for a different refuge, expecting warm beds and even more warming hot meal and relative creature comforts offered by French hosts. In fact we had gone off course, seduced by the site of this gleaming shelter in the distance. We had climbed up steep and airy ladders to get to this eyrie only to find it deserted and disconcertingly less hospitable than our intended destination. Fortunately we were able to gain access to a simple dormitory to bed down for the night and had to make do with eaking out our cold rations as sustenance. Scanning the vista from the balcony I spotted the actual refuge we should have arrived at across the valley and higher up still above an even more sheer system of ladders and gantries. It would have to wait till tomorrow to travel onwards. Sleep took us despite the disappointment of no warming food and wine, and the alarming rumble of rockfall across the Jorasses massif that punctuated the night quietude.
The next morning did not welcome us with Alpine blue skies and searing sunlight but instead low cloud and heavy rain interspersed with thunderous bursts and sporadic lightning strikes that made the metal structure around us sing and buzz. Ominously. We pressed on, travel plans set, and made a cautious descent of the wet ladders, trying not to think too much about the lightning zinging around us.
We descended onto the glacier and trended down a middle line to avoid the slog of moraine-trudging at its edges. This also allowed us to gain a good sense of the aspect of terrain and to pick out the correct line to the Egralets ladders that led up to the refuge we were seeking out. It was a short way further down the Leschaux that I could discern the impressive sound of tumbling water, and see that the stream trickling from the ice floe higher up had started to channel into something of a torrent which carved out a deepening groove on the glacier. The source of this became soon evident as I stumbled upon a gaping maw where the river now plunged away into a large shaft into beckoning darkness. This is where a source of regret that would stay in my mind for some years to come took hold.
I was drawn towards this chasm and in two minds about fixing ropes and heading over the side to explore the unknown below. I had some tools, ropes, axes, and a degree of enthusiasm tampered by a fearful reserve, and mindful of the need to press on to our refuge, and the inclemency of the weather. But I should have just gone for it.
In the intervening years I often thought about this missed opportunity, and mulled over the forces of nature that would perhaps eradicate any evidence of this spectacular feature. For the glacier relentlessly rolls on, smoothing over all traces of previous sculpture. Though it does create new features in it’s wake. I was eager to return to Chamonix and find this object of increasing obsession. And I did so a couple of years later. On that trip I failed to find any feature of note that came close to this. Whilst I had an enjoyable trip climbing back up the same ladder systems as before and doing some rudimentary ice climbing in the vicinity, never really scratched the itch that was distracting me.
Then in 2017, returning with my good friend and climbing partner, Daz, we headed back up purposefully to the Leschaux refuge. This time the destination was intended – and most hospitable it was too! After some scouting about at the head of the glacier, and some of the pinnacles and seracs of the Mer de Glace, we decided we had had sufficiently fun times climbing up out of small crevasses and practice techniques out on the ice. The ladders for the Leschaux were approaching and time was good. It was at this point, when having given relinquished thought of finding ‘moulins’ (as the ice shafts on glaciers are known), that I stumbled across once again upon my Moby Dick…
It may have been in a slightly different location than before. It certainly had some similarities of features but was in all likelihood a different structure to previous. But this was my quarry and there was no way I was going to pass up the opportunity to seize the day! With water diving gracefully over the lip, the moulin was a large funnel high on one side and with a slightly lower slope on the side I was currently approaching from. I was able to rig up a rope anchor and carefully back over to the edge and peer into the gloom. I could not see the bottom and felt a strong tinge of nervous excitement and trepidation. I had to do this, despite some deep seated survival urge to turn tail and retreat to more secure ground!! Anyway I would trust my rope system, my belaying partner, and my capacity to climb back out using my ice axes. If all else failed I had some vague idea about using assisted rope ascension techniques. With that, I stepped over the edge and lowered down.
I had recently seen some incredible images of the interior of moulins in a periodical such as National Geographic or similar, and I felt compelled to gain access to such an environment and to strive to capture images for myself. So I was thrilled to find one of my ‘very own’. As I lowered further in, the colours of the shaft transfixed me. The ice took on a tinge of blue, glittering in the sunlight with a sheen of icy crystals. This contrasted with the blackness below, though as I descended and my eyes accustomed to the darkness, the colours and shades were more nuanced – blue-white tinged.
I began to make out more detail below and saw that there was a ledge part way down and then an apparent bottom in sight where the hole tapered to a point. Where the waterfall continued beyond was not so clear. I reasoned that the hole was perhaps 25m (or 80-90ft) deep and finite in it’s depth, though perhaps the gateway to a complex labyrinth snaking away into the bowels of the glacier beyond. The Stygian gloom had a profound effect as I dropped further, psychologically enthralling but oppressive at the same time in a way that had conflicting effect on my psyche. I tested the composition of the walls around my with my ice axes and found that the smooth ice was rock hard, and marble-like. In fact the first few attempts to gain purchase were rebuffed as my tools glanced off and sent thudding impact down my forearms. There came a point at which I decided, having had my taste of this awe-inspiring environment, I should attempt to climb back out. The struggle became quickly apparent as repeatedly my tools bounced off the hard surface and my crampons had minimal success gaining foothold. The walls were almost vertical, and in ice climbing terms this can feel a lot more like an overhanging pitch. My arms burned as I thrust upwards with repeated attempts to bury the sharp picks in the ice, and recourse to brute strength to slowly make headway. I was thankful that I was on the end of rope and not leading this desperate route at the sharp end as it were.
Back outside I was exhilarated to have had a glimpse of the interior of the moulin and to have this thrilling experience chalked into my memory banks to look back on. At the same time I felt humbled and unnerved by the scale of the glacier, it’s immensity of scale and hazardous character. In future I shall return and seek to drop further into the depths of some similar feature, armed as I am now with broader skills and equipment to allow me deeper access. The experience was akin to gazing into the soul of my ‘whale’, looking into it’s dark and cold eye, and reflecting back some glimpse of the depths of my own psyche…
“And if thou gaze long into an abyss, the abyss will also gaze into thee”
The alarm jars me awake as I am just getting the hang of (literally) mastering canopy handling, swooping and gliding above fantastic mountain scenery and exhilarated by the freedom this entails. As the vestiges of sleep fade away I realise that it’s the middle of the night and I am still lying in my van. The dream is a recurring one that at some point will tip over into reality and I can stop being a passive spectator to the escapades of my BASE jumping companion and actually try it for myself! This is becoming a common facet of hanging about with Josh who is an active pioneer of new exits from UK cliffs. I’ll get some spur of the moment text saying the weather is looking great at the weekend, tomorrow, NOW and we need to go climb such and such a mountain in Wales, the Lakes, Scotland (delete as applicable). Juggling work commitments, energy levels, and swept along by this infectious enthusiasm to leap off nerve-wracking ledges and cliff edges, I inevitably drop everything, sling my overpacked bag into the van and head off on the next adventure!
I find myself now parked up near the Wasdale Head on a February early morning pre-dawn struggling to awake, apprehensive about what is in store that day, but eager to get some great shots of Josh in action. We are hoping to build on momentum from a recent Ben Nevis jump that got widescale coverage in the national press (5 jumpers along with myself documenting it) and gifted incredible wintry conditions on the north face of Britain’s highest mountain. The aim today is to jump from the summit or thereabouts of England’s highest peak (Wales soon to follow for a triple header?!). Conditions couldn’t be any more different, it having been a balmy day (for February) yesterday, and today is already shaping up to be unseasonably warm as we set off around 5.30am in darkness for the couple of hours ascent. The hills are stripped of all snow and look barren and bare as the glorious morning sunlight bathes the fells in hazy summer-like glow. It is surreal in this aspect, most pleasant to be out at this hour having Scafell Pike to ourselves, but confusing given the time of year, and making one ponder just what is going on with respect to global warming?
Josh has jumped in the vicinity before, some surrounding cliffs accompanied with friends (including Broad Stand on Scafell, the Pike’s sister peak) yesterday, and once before solo from near the summit of the Pike itself, a few months back. My aim is to capture his Scafell Pike ‘first’ to the best of my photographic capabilities! The site itself is just down from the summit cairn to the east side. The views are tremendous, looking east there is a regressing montage of hazy, silhouetted peaks and it really could be May or June with the temperature verging on pleasantly warm, despite being 8am. The ground falls impressively away all around with various sheer rock walls, pinnacles and buttresses. I busy myself scouting areas to place cameras for shots from different angles and distances whilst Josh prepares the prospective jump point. This is a downward sloping rock feature on the edge of a grassy spur of shattered boulders.
In my capacity as companion photographer I gain a unique perspective on the process of BASE jumping on these UK cliffs that have relatively low height drop-offs and slim margin for error. I aim to get into the best position to capture the moment of take off incorporating background scene features that convey the scale and excitement of the jump exit. I have talked elsewhere about the challenges of this, so now wish to elaborate more about the actual jumping (from a bystander’s perspective!). For this jump, as with some others I have mentioned previously, I was pretty close to Josh, as I was able to rig up a roped stance just across and parallel to his exit point. Leaning over the edge I could fully appreciate the precipitous drops below and witness first hand how he manoeuvred into the orientation to propel himself outwards.
At moments like these I am distinctly nervous, being very mindful of the exposure. With heart in mouth, I watch the painstaking process of preparation. This involves kit checks and jump drilling as he disengages himself from the security of the static line rope into a free-standing position ready to leap. I am also poised with my eye in the camera viewfinder, tweaking settings and checking composition and lighting to make sure I can get the exact moment where jumper separates contact from rock face! I can’t speak directly for the state of mind of the jumper himself so my observations are biased and influenced by my own stance relatively close by. But it is a supremely unnerving period of time. From a psychological / cognitive perspective, the processing of information at this juncture is certain to have some different characteristics relative to ‘normal’ functioning. The minuatiae of pre-jump checks require focusing of attention on the task at hand, following well drilled skills. These mental and physical checks will be reinforced in memory from countless previous instances of being in this position. This will all focus the mind into a special state that is truly ‘in the moment’. This has been written about elsewhere, notably on the ‘flow state’ for instance, in which the brain manages attentional resources streamlined towards pure goal-driven task. See for reference Stephen Kotler’s book about extreme sports performance – The Rise of Superman: Decoding the science of ultimate human performance.
It is imperative at this moment in time that all superfluous thinking, rumination, focusing on task-irrelevant thoughts, must be banished. The singular goal now is successful accomplishment of the task – staying alive! – and nothing must interfere with that. That might sound somewhat sensationalist, but there is very real risk in this activity, particularly in the circumstances of opening new exits, on ‘low’ cliffs (the summit of Scafell Pike may attain an altitude of 978m or 3209ft, but the jumpable cliff exits such as today’s objective probably does not exceed more than say 150ft). From a psychological standpoint, one’s attentional networks will be ‘directed’ towards this task, in a motor-oriented state of being. At the same time, activity in other areas normally associated with a wandering and distracted (or overly anxious) mind are likely to be de-activated to a degree. This is part of a mechanism for achieving optimal performance (survival-oriented in this case). In this so-called ‘flow state’ (which one might hypothesise is where Josh’s mind is at this point), brain areas including the Pre-Frontal Cortex may be experiencing changes in blood flow, with reduced activation particularly in those regions which are aware of ‘self’. This corresponds to noted states where people lose all sense of self when absorbed in a task, and there is a lack of awareness of the passage of time. One’s sense of time is very much calibrated to awareness of one’s self-involvement in the proceedings! For further information, references include Dietrich, (2004), on the ‘Neurocognitive mechanisms underlying the experience of flow’; also the author’s ‘transient hypo-frontality’ hypothesis, and a more indepth academic area overview by Bruya (2010) on ‘Effortless Attention’.
Back to the moment… In the final seconds prior to ‘lift off’, as I witness them, there is a process of mental rehearsal, repetitive checking of kit set up and mimicking of actions with respect to eg. deployment of pilot chute or the body positioning to be adopted in flight. In this instance I am particularly nervous as Josh has to lower himself from a seated position on the edge of the rock to a precarious standing position and orient himself relative to the static line release and his chute attachments. I hold my breath – involuntarily due to the impending take off but also serving to steady myself for the shutter release of the camera! With a “three-two-one” he hunkers down, loading his legs to jump, bent forward, and makes a firm and committed outward dive, arms splayed out in the classic skydiving position. At these moments I think I may also be in ‘flow’, being totally focused on getting the image. My own awareness of my precarious stance with big exposure below me is non-existent. I experience these moments through a kind of tunnel vision (or ‘perceptual narrowing’) similar to what one might experience in survival type situations (and as the brain mechanisms channel the systems into a singular focus state). However, as obviously I do not have the same life or death moment of being that the jumper goes through, my perception is more literally narrowed through the viewfinder of my camera. So I witness the jump in a slightly detached and restricted format, snapping away to try and keep up with changing position and trajectory as the jumper plunges past. I hear rather than see the sound of canopy snapping open, with a rush of air, and then become aware of the brightly coloured rectangular shape as the velocity slows and Josh gracefully glides off into the distance.
Suffice to say the release of adrenaline is intense (for me that the endeavour was successful!), and often Josh will be whooping for joy as he sails off and enjoys the canopy ride down…At this moment of time one can speculate that the brain is now shifting it’s processing priorities slightly, still mindful of skilful execution to guide to landing, but with the added rush of neurochemicals such as dopamine (associated with reward and pleasure) flooding the system. This will serve to enhance cognitive functions and enrich perception, creating intense memories of the experience and motivation to do it all again in the future!
In the end it has been a highly successful day out on the highest point of England. I once again get to vicariously experience what it is like to commit to the leap of faith (bolstered with skill and good judgement) required in such pioneering circumstances. I am fortunate to see such boldly executed skill and competence in action here in beloved UK mountains. It showcases another facet of UK adventure potential, and inspires me to see how an individual can compose himself under the extreme stresses and hazardous potential of BASE jumping. Hopefully throughout the course of this collaboration my images can attempt to do some of this justice! It also serves to provide extreme insights into the workings of the human brain and how it deals effectively with challenges in the most precarious of environments!