"Pardon me boy, but is that the Chattanooga Choo-Choo?
No it's just the Snowdon Mountain Man BASE Boogie!!"
Glen Miller (slightly paraphrased)
A question that is often (almost never) asked is: what is the collective noun to describe a gathering of BASE jumpers?
A murder…(far too portentous)?
A flock…(they are too individualistic to be collectivised thus)?
A maverick…(getting closer to the spirit)?
A BOOGIE…(let’s settle on that term for now).
Morning light spreads lazily across the summit of Snowdon on Saturday, and reflects the mood of those snoozing atop the cliffs of Clogwyn (Cloggy) Du’r Arddu. The outcrop on which they are sleeping is enshrouded in thick mist and the only sounds to be heard are the murmurings of a handful of creatures emerging out of the gloom.
Normally the province of stalwart sheep and the occasional crow, a new species has migrated momentarily to these parts. Unique fauna, their characteristics include an excited demeanour, a penchant for flouting convention and a tendency to suddenly vanish whence they came, generally over the mountain’s edge.
Here they convene for a special migratory occasion, to establish their domain, to leave their scent upon this territory, though hopefully not to mate (!).
Often nocturnal, the BASE species may be sometimes found amidst the bright lights of urban communities, high up, silhouetted against the sky, and flightily moving between the shadows. But today they have emerged into daylight for this rare opportunity to bond, to compare plumages and to test each others’ capacities for flight.
The chattering increases in volume as the curtain of mist shows promise of drawing aside to herald the encroaching dawn. And the window for displaying their wares is cracking open.
Those compatriots who nested here during the night stir and stretch their limbs, and begin to interact with the others who have hoved into camp.
They engage in customary greeting calls and begin to collectively and instinctively organise into hierarchical dominance behaviour patterns.
An orderliness occurs as plumage feathers are arranged about the ground to preen and prepare for eventual flight.
Then, it is time to launch.
The group forms a line, a train, with tail feathers held aloft by the member behind, part of the facilitation process. The first of the bunch steps up to the edge. An acknowledgement is made bringing the group into time-locked alignment, and he springs forth into the haze below. One by one as wings burst forth in a colourful bloom of fluttering materials, each jumper plunges into the void.
The train that looked so ungainly on land (!!) takes on a majesty as it soars in coordinated arrangement through the mountain air, swooping alongside huge pinnacles and buttresses above a glassy blue lake.
And one by one in perfect formation each alights far below at the shore of the lake, wings drifting gracefully to the ground. The sound of a gentle breeze whispers across this desolate scene high up above in the nesting ground, and the far off chatter recommences as this new species of fauna revels in the bonds created in this special occasion. They then disperse and scatter back to their own territories, individual at heart.
Snowdon has just witnessed the annual migration of a Boogie of BASE jumpers.
“The mind of man is capable of anything.”
― Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness
As an ‘adventure psychologist’, I seek to put myself in positions out in the ‘wild’ to observe adventurous individuals in their natural habitat. With my somewhat unique access to ‘lunatics’ on a regular basis who revel in dancing with mortality on the edge of cliffs, I gain special insight into the nature of courage and ‘drive’. I am talking about BASE jumping, at the boundaries of the ‘extreme’. Whilst this pursuit will hopefully never become ‘old hat’ through repeated exposure, I suppose I am becoming somewhat slightly inured to the process as I regularly stand at the edge, camera at the ready, and witness jumpers like Josh cycling through the procedures and protocols and leaping into space. Only insomuch as it’s become ‘normal’ to be part of this routine as a photographer and companion and documenter of these pioneering exploits. Though I still experience the same rush of adrenaline and relief as he departs terra firma and then safely glides down back to earth. But the feats that push the envelope further never fail to surprise me and reinstate in mind that this takes a very special mindset, composure, and indeed act of courage to execute.
On Sunday I was blown away. Josh and Andy performed an act of skill and bravery that I have never seen before. Up on Falcon Crag in Borrowdale, Lake District, repeating a jump made previously but in a very distinct fashion. This shall henceforth be known as the Borrowdale Roll-Over…
This technique requires deft judgement, nil wind, and total commitment.
I tenuously secured myself to a stake and sling to try and stand as close to the edge and directly alongside as each took centre stage upon a pointed rock with little more width than their feet could stand upon. This jutted out over a drop of perhaps 150ft+ sheer.
Very slowly, they each in turn lowered their canopy and rigging lines over the edge, taking utmost care not to tangle the lines, or snag the canopy upon the cliff wall. The slightest of winds could blow the rig back against the wall. Bent forward executing this precise task, surefooted balance was required to not pitch forward prematurely and to certain doom!
When time was nigh, and with customary countdown, I watched first as Josh brought feet together, leg involuntarily twitching and loading up for take-off. The he made a committed dive forward, past the canopy in arc. As he attained equal distance beyond, he flipped back into vertical position as the canopy unfolded successfully and he whooped for joy swooping off into the distance. (I did likewise, as much out of relief). Then Andy’s turn.
Andy lowered his rig, remarked casually there was a slight twist but composedly adjusted, awaited abatement of a wisping breeze that passed by, and cast himself aloft. Another beautifully executed act.
I must say this was a remarkable exhibition of courage and technique in a dire position (albeit voluntarily entered into – but then that is also what makes it so impressive, to choose to do this). And a first achieved here in the Lake District!
All I can expound upon second hand bearing witness to this is that drive and motivation are paramount to undertake such a feat: total assured confidence in ability, marked by years of experience jumping and handling canopies. But that is not to take away from the sheer courage that was required (particularly where this was the first time the technique had been attempted here – and not from a free standing structure such as a bridge!). There was palpable tension, concentration, and decision taken to ‘go-ahead’. From my acquaintance with these individuals these are not the actions of sociopathic individuals who have no emotional capacity or regard for consequence. Now the question is, how can such observations and insights be applied more transferably – what can we learn from this, and what principles can be derived to help foster such courage, motivation, drive, and accomplishment in others?! I suppose you might have to jump over the edge to find out, there’s no excuse for it…
So, let’s hear it everybody: hip hip for the Borrowdale Roll-Over!
Devon holds an air of mystery rooted in her wild indented coastline nestled in this corner of England that is redolent with tales of pirates, smugglers and the allure of the ever present sea washing against dramatic cliffs. Here there is a prominent edifice that watches over the vast landscape. The Great Hangman himself. He looms high on the coast, watching over nearby Ilfracombe and casting a stern eye over the Bristol channel, a sentry gazing suspiciously across at that other land of myth and legend, southern Wales. Today the executioner hosts an ominous spectacle. For a modern day highwayman is to be adjudged in respect of his right to freedom…
The highwayman is the maverick of history, an outlaw amongst his kind, choosing to flout the mores of normal society, living in the shadows, roaming the roads choosing his own destiny, perhaps like Robin Hood electing to extol the virtues of freedom from constraints of civilisation. In pursuit of a ‘nobler’ way of life that may ruffle some feathers but inspire others to break free and live life to the fullest in harmony with nature.
But now let us settle back and wait with bated breath as the noose is lowered, the defendant slips his neck in and the executioner prepares to pass his solemn judgement.
A wisp of breeze blows through, rustling the heather and fronds of grass that cling to this cliff edge. The sky is a pale blue, blending into the sea far below, a haze blanketing the horizon. The sun peers down, as if in trepidation of the pronouncement made, the trapdoor swinging open, the body plummeting through…and halting with a violent judder.
But today fortune smiles upon the Highwayman. Before judgement is passed, he has elected to bolt forth, arms extended, launching into space. His head is free of the noose, he has no intention of waiting for his fate to be determined by the rule of the land. The Gallow’s Pole is a platform from which to attain great height and a leap to freedom, not an instrument of sentence.
He seems to freeze mid-air, then swan dive elegantly, before another cord strains and snaps with tension, and the motion is abruptly arrested. But this is not to be his end, unceremoniously yanked from existence. For the cord has pulled forth wings that give him glorious flight out over the azure sea, gliding gracefully over this resplendent land. He becomes a speck far below, arcing, twisting, soaring. The Highwayman has escaped the noose! The Great Hangman sighs as his quarry has escaped. But secretly he smiles, weary with the weight of past judgement. He revels momentarily in the beauty of liberty disappearing into the horizon.
Devon has witnessed an achievement that adds to the modern day narrative of her mystery. She has through her grand and dramatic demeanour facilitated groundbreaking experience, an opportunity seized by a maverick with a penchant for the spectacular. These are the highest sea cliffs in England, along the magnificent south west coast path. And a first has just occurred. For this has been a pioneering example of BASE jumping by a proponent at the cutting edge of the sport…
Next time you wander along this epic coast, and ponder the heritage of pirates, smuggling, adventure, you might just be lucky to witness new myths in the making! But careful you don’t lose your concentration and slip over the side or you may be not so lucky to escape the Hangman’s noose..!