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!