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.)