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BASE jumping psychologist! Practicing what I preach.

When you set an intention and act on it, a rollercoaster of events and opportunities can present themselves. I decided to go airborne in 2022, choosing to learn to paraglide. Within a couple of months I had jumped out of a plane, and then, last week, did my first BASE jump! Careful what you wish for. Finally I got to feel what it's like after watching countless others do this. To truly understand something you have to act upon it rather than observe from the side lines. And that means exercising control over thought and action when the risks are high...

In my blogs I put forward ideas from Adventure Psychology to help people figure a way to thrive in uncertain times, and make sense of the crazy world. By adopting an Adventure Mindset (I'll gradually reveal how) you can approach the challenges of life with an adaptable resolve, and embrace the chaos knowing full well that it's a wild ride so you might as well enjoy it!

“one thing I have learnt is that sometimes the more you think, the less you do. It’s all too easy to conjure up excuses, to amplify the anticipation of an event in your mind, and back out....I stepped closer to the exit point and found that the thoughts died away. There was no room for thinking, it was just a case of going through the correct procedures in mind and action."

Don't think...act

It’s one thing to know. Another to feel.

The world is full of experts (particularly on the internet). We live so vicariously through the glittering lives and feats of others it’s as if these are part of our own lives.

But to really know you have to have the experience itself.

I professed intention to ‘get airborne’ in 2022. After several years of being close to others as they jump off cliffs it felt as if I understood BASE jumping to a degree (as close as I could get – even over the edge on a thin rope at the point of exit). I study people in extreme situations, and have some experiences of my own, in different environments, so I felt I had at least some inkling into the mindset involved.

But I now determined I needed to become more exposed to the sensation of being in the air, and the build-up to this from a first-hand perspective.

I opted to take up paragliding initially. But then, as often one opportunity can open up another, I was given the chance to learn to skydive.

Last week I did a BASE jump.

So much for sticking to one thing and gradually getting to grips with it!

Not one to turn down a chance to do something adventurous, I was raring to go (I think). Actually, I didn’t think too much – one thing I have learnt is that sometimes the more you think, the less you do. It’s all too easy to conjure up excuses, to amplify the anticipation of an event in your mind, and back out.

My research deals with the mindset, the brain processes that come into play when approaching a potentially perilous situation such as might be found in extreme sports. So it behooves me to try and understand the subject matter from the inside out.

In this way I can seek to translate insights gleaned to everyday life. I believe that there are learnings with respect to overcoming anxiety, depression, demotivation. In short how it is we can develop a capacity to not just cope but thrive on challenges and adversity. For these will inevitably come in abundance in a life well lived.

Ordinarily, BASE jumping is a solo undertaking, at least in terms of being responsible for oneself committing to the act. But in my involvement with pioneering collective Mountain Man BASE, a special project came into being over the last couple of years. Tandem BASE. There are only a handful of such operations in the world, be that in Europe or America. The UK had never borne witness to this before.

Not only was I to be doing my first BASE jump (tandem) it would be one of the very first live jumps in the UK (second one in fact - I was on standby for the first flight should the test pilot-passenger in question not turn up). Nervous? I should be.

There are defining moments that stick with you when you pause and pinch yourself wondering if this is really happening. It's when you feel that you are stepping up a level, accompanied by a sense of trepidation. What the hell am I doing here?!

I remember feeling that way on a trip to northern Russia many years ago, to take an ice diving course, arriving in this alien place in the dead of winter feeling ‘out of my depth’ and out on a limb (!)

But these are moments to grasp and pull close as they have potential to open up your mind to greater possibilities. Without risk there is little reward.

The first doubts sprouted forth from the recesses of my mind, like weeds corrupting a tidy garden, some metres back from the exit. This was where we were going through drills as to what to do and how to coordinate jointly our positioning at the edge. Also what to expect/do upon approaching landing. I felt the uncertainty of what I was about to commit to. My heart raced and my breathing quickened.

In my research I talk about reintroducing parasympathetic activity to calm the autonomic nervous system down and prevent a runaway stress response as sympathetic arousal runs rampant.

I employed breathing control techniques to restore some balance and slow my racing mind. This was a challenge to face, not a threat to my comfort zone. Curiously, the doubts and the control over my demeanor waged their battle whilst set back from the edge. But once these were ‘conquered’ (processed and filed away), I stepped closer to the exit point and found that the thoughts died away. There was no room for thinking, it was just a case of going through the correct procedures in mind and action.

BASE jumpers have told me that they focus on the technical aspects of the jump, the conditions, contingencies if this or that occurs – but positive steps to take. This fits with what the research informs us about how focusing on tasks and external requirements can sharpen the mind and keep performance on track. This as opposed to switching back inside one’s head and initiating a spiral of anxious thoughts that disrupt concentration and motivation. There is something from this to take back into everyday life when dealing with stressful situations – either when anticipating events or dealing with them when they occur (or even in the aftermath when reliving memories of trauma).

I knew my role, the steps were clear. My mind remained somewhat emptied and focused.

Hans, piloting the rig, secured the attachments that bound us together. We went through the motions of coordinating our shuffle to the edge.

This was the most vivid part for me, and the most curious of feelings. I didn’t feel scared per se (all thoughts as such were filtered away). I was looking forward to the act of commitment.

It was time to go, the customary three count, and we stepped off...

It is often reported that in emergency situations or high stress events, that perception can distort, along with time. It clearly did for me. I was outwardly aware of the visual scene before me, from a beach and sea far below (280ft to be precise) to a horizon stocked with sea cliffs and wisping cloud.

As I stepped off, my thoughts shifted into a mode of high-speed analysis.

I was thinking about why the parachute had not opened – some two to three times in repetition, then resigned to the possibility that it wasn't going to, and that “oh well it’s been a cool ride so far” (in life). And with that, the parachute opened. Within 2-3 seconds.

A flurry of activity occurred as we came under canopy control: a brief turn, a short flight and firm instructions to raise my legs, then lower them for a stand-up landing. Almost! A further flurry, now of emotions at the realisation of what just occurred!

It does us good to do things we have never done before. Even better if others have never (really) done such things before. Second tandem BASE jump in the UK achieved! (I was on standby for the first should my compatriot not be available – I don’t know whether to be massively relieved or slightly disappointed). And furthermore, these were contenders for lowest tandem BASE jumps (to be confirmed).

My journey so far in an adventurous life to date, has very much been about having experiences that give insight into mechanisms for coping with challenge and degrees of stress. (With a side helping of enormous fun.) Along the way I have been finding ways to uncover and measure these mechanisms, including for instance with wearable ECG. Ultimately it is a quest to live the science and the practice, push my own boundaries and understand from the inside out what it is to unlock that inner potential to live a fulsome life!

Watch out for my “Confessions of an Adventure Scientist” talk drawing together all of the learnings and applications on this subject!

2022, then, was the year I went airborne. Now didn’t I read somewhere that 2024 is the year NASA returns people to the moon...

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