A Special Gravity

A cold start

365 days on and I’m back in Alps. It was New Years Eve, the sun was shining and the wind slept. “Perfect conditions” Alastair said excitedly, “I’ll be there in 45 minutes”. He arrived in his van, collecting me from a small town in the French Alps where I had been ski touring a few days previously. We hadn’t seen each other for 12 years, in which time Alastair had won the skydiving world championships, recorded a wingsuit commercial for Chevrolet and is now renowned and respected in the global base jumping community.

He’d converted his modern VW into the envy of any true Alpinist. Compartments tidied away parachutes, climbing gear and skis whilst the rear seats folded down into a double bed above a heater fed directly from the fuel tank.

We worked our way towards Morzine at a speed you’d expect from a Frenchman ready to throw himself off a cliff! The weather still held as we arrived. Luring the eye with a clean, empathic line, was a towering rock face leading up to the town of Avoriaz.

Spotting the exit point

Alastair explained where the exit point and landing zone would be, which was basically a snow covered farmers field about 200 yards away. Back in the van we snaked up the pass towards Avoriaz and using our GPS / Google Maps combination we estimated the roughly where we were in relation to the exit point.

I gather my ropes, gear and lenses and we walked down to tree line. We descended steeply for 500 yards to the edge of the cliff. The exposure was unnerving and every move forward felt like stepping on graves. Alastair, baring his parachute, was obliviously hoping from tree to tree in search of the best exit.

GPS via iPhone

He slowly walked down a little further to check more closely. “We were in the wrong place”, he said. Technically there is no official exit point but this simply wasn’t suitable. The ground was at a 45 degree angle right to the edge and the snow was deep. The most dangerous part of any base jump is the exit so a flat, positive and stable platform is the ideal. In the end, every jump boils down to conditions versus desire. Ensuring you’re on the right side of this fine line is the difference between a long or short base jumping career.

100 yards of nervous traversing found us a suitable spot. It was still not horizontal but good enough for a ‘2-step’ jump. Enough at least to clear any obstacles . “How much freefall will you have” I asked, expecting an answer of around 3-4 seconds. “8 Seconds”. “You can’t be serious!” I demanded.

Final checks

I should have known the answer to this after 4 years of skydiving but it seemed unreasonable. Alastair didn’t need to rely on judgement. He new the height of the face and exactly how much freefall was safe before deploying. It didn’t stop me from frantically running the figures through my head however.

I rigged a rope system from a tree down to the edge of the cliff and adjusted myself until I was comfortable. Clearly I was taking a little too much time as Alastair showed his impatience. His window of confidence was closing fast. Any delay leads you to question your actions and 2nd thoughts are something that base jumpers cannot afford, either before or during the jump.

My nod of readiness was followed by a deep breath and a “3, 2, 1 See Ya”. All my weariness dissolved in a single sense of solace, a sense of awe. It was 8 seconds followed by a loud ‘Crack’ as his parachute opened. A very methodical and precise form of packing ensures the parachute not only opens quickly but on the same heading as you were facing when in freefall. An ‘Off Heading’ opening can be disastrous, leaving you very little time before a cliff strike!

A loud scream of satisfaction echoed down along the ridge one he was fully under canopy. A few small turns and he was in the field exactly where we’d agreed! I climbed back up, collected my gear and headed back to the car. It was a good 40 mins before arriving back to the carpark  to find him grinning from cheek to cheek…. “Once again!?”

Big smiles!

Although a respectable watch-maker for much of the year in Geneva, Alastair has a lifestyle that could be described  as  a counter-culture, belonging more to the periphery of society. He has seen close friends come and go but these cliffs still pull him here with a special gravity. The romance and excitement of the this sport easily captures the imagination, but Base is a way of life, deeply rooted in a his character.

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