Adventure photography is a broad church and it’s essence extends beyond simply capturing nice scenic images of landscapes and action pursuits. At the heart of this is to convey drama, danger, risk, and to document this in all it’s vagaries. Being too emotionally invested in one’s subject matter and indeed subjects (eg. my BASE jumping associates) can impair one’s capacity to remain detached and dispassionate when watching the action unfold, hoping everything goes to plan. When things have gone wrong, as did on a recent shoot, although I thought I had continued clicking away, in fact on review of my footage I had actually stopped taking pictures when it became obvious things were definitely going south. I was admonished (more cajoled in the spirit of cameraderie) later for not having continued rolling as it were!
My recent travels were short on life threatening drama to photograph (despite ever present warnings about crocodiles and other marine hazards out in tropical Queensland I was there on holiday!) ! However, my return trip took me through Hong Kong and at a particularly fraught time of civil unrest given the recent protests that have been disrupting life on the streets and making international headlines.
I touched down on Monday and into a day of turmoil as violence escalated to it’s worst level yet, with shocking footage played endlessly on news channels and enough to put me off my dinner whilst ensconced in a ‘locals’ food establishment. A point blank shooting by a police officer of a protester dressed in the menacing black garb of the ‘official’ uniform of the protest movement. An argument with a pro-Beijing supporter suddenly erupting into literal flames as an unseen provocateur suddenly douses the individual in petrol from a squirty bottle and flicks a match into the proceedings...(and having reviewed other available footage online from the likes of BBC, CNN etc. with warnings of ‘graphic violence’ I hasten to add that these outlets have heavily redacted said footage compared to what is actually seen on the news in situ).
Based as I was in the central district where the situation was at something of a flashpoint (protestors’ strategy being to create disruption to the infrastructure at the territory’s heart by strewing rubble at key road and rail junctions), it was difficult not to find myself proximal to the ‘action’. Given my photographic (and photojournalistic) proclivities, coupled with a desire to be better informed of: a) where the danger was and therefore where to be in order to not become unwittingly involved in it, b) what is the situation all about, I exercised a cautious approach, camera at the ready to navigate my way through the city, and ultimately back to my hotel (I was flying out later that day so needed to be aware of how the situation would encroach on my travel plans).
As it happens, I was surprised to find that the Central Business District was party to a so-called ‘flash-mob’ protest that had ‘sprung up’ around lunchtime on Tuesday (protestors had vowed after the sickening violence – particularly with respect to the perceived heavy handed police action and subsequent shooting of an individual – to make a vocal stand through Tuesday and beyond). They were railing against Chinese authorities given a contention that they are gradually eroding the previous democratic freedoms that the Hong Kong territories have embraced due to special status arising from previous British colonial governance - the so-called ‘One country two systems’ dictum. Tuesday morning violence had again ignited on University campuses and also around the metro system (actually by the station next to my hotel though I didn’t witness the incident where a bystander was injured by objects hurled from the overpass above).
Now a huge crowd had gathered and the standard protocol was in place as chants swept through the masses and rose to crescendo, whilst rubble was hurled across busy intersections and organised chaos instigated.
What struck me initially as nervous anticipation built was how the throngs of people clamoured to see what was going on, and formed several layers deep audience on the gantries of the overhead walkways above the street. Crowd psychology is an impressive and unnerving thing to witness, particularly when one takes into account how a situation such as this can rapidly turn ugly as has been clearly shown to be a pattern in previous days and weeks.
I am not a fan of being in crowds, where one’s autonomy is at the whims of a collective energy that can sweep one aside or worse in a moment of unpredictable momentum...My own philosophy is to become very much switched on, skittish even like a wild animal scanning for danger, keeping moving, looking at all times for exits and places to seek cover. But at the same time to embrace the risk and try to steady nervous energy and see adrenaline as an enabler of performance!
Initially I did not know what was going on, and was reluctant to mingle in with the audience and become a sitting duck. One gantry was more open to the elements and I noted that there was a stash of bricks atop this and by a small group of black garbed and masked individuals. What was their intention? Perhaps to disregard any sense of public safety and create maximum destruction by pelting those below? In fact at one point as those at the vanguard on the street below hurled mortar onto the junction, one did in fact launch his skywards and up onto this balcony. I had moved on from it earlier but it was jam packed with rubber neckers. There didn’t seem to be a subsequent commotion so I can only assume that no harm was caused and the brick either landed miraculously in between people, or someone caught it and averted serious injury...
I can’t be sure who threw the missile up into the crowd but I did witness (and photograph) a somewhat manic individual who was striding out from the rest of the pack with a brick in hand and looking intent on casting it to some malicious purpose. He was pursued (and manhandled) by another more sincere looking individual who was striving to calm him and prevent him creating the flashpoint that would indeed bring the heavily tooled-up police into the fray. The guy did a good job to diffuse this incendiary situation. Interestingly I noted that the would-be agent-provocateur was of ethnic bearing distinct ethnic from the majority of the protesting crowd, and also by his manner seemed to be high as a kite and not on subjective appearance acting in the spirit of a meaningful, peaceful protest. The take home from this is that a precarious situation like this will attract elements who wish to revel in disruption, anarchy and the anonymity afforded by such a crowd to create mayhem and destruction for it’s own sake...possibly derailing the efforts of the sincere core membership.
A little later I found myself down amongst the gathering and began to appreciate more about the situation and the nature of the protest. Office workers, old, young, different mixes of demographic groups united in solidarity and the chants against the repressive edicts of the Chinese governing authorities. A lone and impassioned young man danced and cavorted before the world’s press (who were also togged up heavily in protective equipment, including gas masks anticipating reprisals from the riot police). He whipped the crowd into a fervour.
Groups formed under multicoloured umbrellas and gathered on the pavements, chiselling away at the brickwork to create more of an aresenal with which to blockade the traffic junctions. Items were strewn across the roads and petrol doused on boundary lines for later utility. I spied a molotov cocktail in a wine bottle again for later purpose...
Part of being an adventure photographer encompasses acknowledging risks or stepping out the comfort zone to get the best coverage that conveys the fundamental essence of the narrative. An adventure by its nature involves undertaking challenge, embracing novelty, uncertainty, and employing one’s skills to their best potential in order to be successful and to grow as a result. It was a difficult undertaking to get into decent positions and to sift through the complex scene components to attempt to capture meaningful stand out moments. A balance to strive for in photography is to become part of the scene: immersing sufficiently within it to understand the narrative and to give back a faithful rendition of what is occurring. Yet at the same time being somewhat dissociated and dispassionate in order to remain aware of the surroundings, adapt to the circumstance and also create that narrative to an extent, painting the scene with the brush that is the camera...
Only then can one hope to do justice to the unfolding story.
Sometimes adventures lead one in unexpected directions. But then that is kind of the point!
"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..!
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!
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.
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