The Men Who Jump Off Cliffs

I never want to witness a suicide, but I think I just did.

My hands are shaking, my knees wobbly. I am too scared to look over the edge—not only because of what I might see but because the edge of the cliff is nearly 2,000 feet high.

One minute there were five of us up there, a bunch of guys laughing and joking on a precipice of grey rock. The next minute, I am alone—the air silent, only my heart thumping in my chest.

My toes rustle an inch closer, and pebbles tumble from the edge. My eyes follow, and squinting I can see them all down there, four swirling skirts of color—neon orange, fluorescent pink, ink black, and then bright yellow. The parachutes spin down at different heights, then collapse like falling flower petals onto the green farmer’s field so far below.

It is all very beautiful—I almost want to jump down after them. I want to be a part of what just happened—men diving from the edge of this cliff like it’s the highest high dive on Earth, falling from the sky, soaring out over the valley and then, one by one, the colorful bouquet of parachutes exploding into life.

It is so beautiful because they are all alive. So am I, but I am still on the edge of a cliff and must take the long way back—uphill on foot for twenty minutes and then by cable car back down to the Alpine town of Lauterbrunnen.

“This is a BASE jumping mecca,” explains Justin Miller, an avid skydiver and BASE jumper from my own hometown of Washington, D.C. I ran into Justin the day before when he was walking back from a jump and he and his friends were kind enough to let me tag along for a day.

Justin claims that Switzerland is one of the best places in the world to BASE jump.

“You have at least 40 exit points in this valley alone,” says Justin. An exit point is a determined spot where jumpers can launch from a cliff and the landscape of Lauterbrunnen is one-of-a-kind. Vertical cliff walls hang on either side of this narrow glacial valley in the Swiss Alps, just outside Interlaken.

Adding to the perfect topography is the bonus of public transportation. The wide-reaching system of cable cars and trains allows jumpers to practically ride to the exit points. Nowhere else on earth offers that kind of access—typically BASE jumpers must first climb any mountain they hope to launch from.

That explains why Lauterbrunnen is a dream destination for BASE jumpers. Official numbers suggest there are at least 25,000 jumps per year in this valley (unofficial estimates peg it closer to 35,000). The jumpers come from all over the world and they form a rather strange and close-knit brotherhood.

“Everybody knows everybody,” says Justin. “We all get along because we have the same thirst for life.”

At night, the jumpers take over the Horner Pub in the middle of tiny Lauterbrunnen. Some are younger—almost teenagers it seems—and some are much older. They come from Australia, France, Belgium, Russia, and Spain. They come from America and they come from Canada, too.

“I live in Canada, which is extremely beautiful, but this place is just breathtaking,” says BASE jumper Gabriel Hubert, from Edmonton, Alberta. He is on vacation with his wife—after a week or so of jumping off cliffs in Switzerland, they will head to Paris for a “more romantic trip.” The couple have young children back home and I wonder what that’s like for them. My own dad likes to oil paint, but their father jumps off cliffs.

Another Canadian jumper, Kris Watson, explains the balance of his home life and taking part in one of the most dangerous sports on earth. “I have two young children and a wife and a home—a real life. But this is what I love to do. So I’m careful, I’m very conservative.”

Kris is not who I expected to find jumping off cliffs—an engineer from Calgary, one might quickly explain his BASE jumping hobby as a typical male reaction to turning forty, but watching Kris jump shows me that it’s more of a mid-life celebration than a crisis.

For Kris, BASE jumping is a ritual, from beginning to end. He packs his parachute with the scrupulous care of—well, an engineer—and checks and double checks every line, strap, flap and fold. As we ride up the cable car and train towards the exit point, he is already in another world, listening to jubilant and outdated pop music on his headphones, closing his eyes and imagining the jump to come.

High up on the cliff, he sings along to his headphones and mimics his launching pose—a stationary dive into nothingness.

“It’s about accepting one’s vulnerabilities,” he explains, and at the edge of this 2,000 foot-high jump known as “the High Nose,” Kris readily shows his fear. All of them do—their voices tense, their movements become careful. In a way, I am comforted to see that every single one of these BASE jumpers is a little bit terrified. Feeling the fear is part of the sport.

“There are no beginner cliffs here,” says Justin, “So you have to put yourself in a category.” Good BASE jumpers assess their own ability and stick to jumps within their range. Overestimate your skills and you might die.

“My goal was to come to Switzerland and fly my wingsuit,” admits Gabriel, “but I didn’t feel comfortable with it yet and I don’t want to risk my life for it. The cliffs are here forever. I can always come back.”

“It’s not like skydiving where there’s a regulating body,” Justin pipes in. Like most BASE jumpers, Justin is a very experienced skydiver who first completed about hundreds of jumps from an airplane before he ever attempted parachuting from a stationary object.

“BASE jumping in Switzerland is self-regulated—everyone here plays by the rules.” Then he shakes his head, “I wish back home was more like this.”

Back home (in the USA), BASE jumping is mostly illegal with a few noted exceptions. The sport is only a few decades old and because of the obvious dangers and history of fatalities, BASE jumping is not without controversy.  In a place like Lauterbrunnen though, the community welcomes the jumpers and asks only that they abide by local rules. This includes purchasing a 25 CHF “landing card” and calling in for clearance to fly before each jump.

“Everyone shares this airspace, “explains Gabriel, as he phones the local air service for clearance. “There are tandems [skydivers], helicopters, and paragliders—and us BASE jumpers.”

The “B.A.S.E.” of BASE jumping is an acronym listing the objects the parachutists can jump off: Building, Antenna, Span, and Earth. Once a jumper has completed successful jumps from all four categories, he or she writes a letter to some of the veteran practitioners of BASE, who issue an official number. Justin Miller’s BASE number is 1,511, which reveals exactly how limited a band of brothers this is.

For the record, there are plenty of women in the sport, but the presence of female enthusiasts does not change the underlying testosterone that is inherent to BASE jumping. Up on the High Nose, staring at the guys dressed in their purple and orange wingsuits, its hard not to see a resemblance to the superhero dream every one of us had as kids.

I think all of us want to fly deep down inside—and BASE jumpers have come about as close as humans ever will to real flight. From the 1,910-ft High Nose, a jumper can expect about ten seconds of freefall before pulling his chute.

“It’s reasonable to pull at about 300 to 400 feet—that’s about average,” says Gabriel. Wingsuits are relatively new to the sport and the gear continues to evolve, allowing jumpers to become human aircraft that zip across the landscape. In a wingsuit, a jumper might increase his airtime to around 45 seconds.

So what’s it like? Jumping off a cliff?

“You go through a series of feelings,” Gabriel ponders. “A bit of nervousness and anticipation on the exit to when you launch—you get a surge of confidence,” he smiles for a moment, then explains the science of falling objects. “When you jump off you start at zero speed, then you freefall and you build speed as you go—you speed up exponentially. One of my favorite parts is when the speed builds up, you instinctively start tracking or flying. It’s business time—you gotta get away from that wall. That wall is your number one obstacle.”

Tracking—or projecting forward in freefall—is critical when BASE jumping from cliffs. The large majority of BASE fatalities occur on cliffs, since jumpers must compensate the slope of the cliff and clear lower ledges. The attraction to jumping in Lauterbrunnen are the cliffs are relatively vertical—some even inverted with overhanging shelves.

But despite the optimal cliffs, several people have died jumping from this very spot.

“The cliff I jumped off today has killed people before,” reflects Gabriel. Not one of the BASE jumpers I talk to ever flinches at the mention of death in their sport.

About 30 BASE jumpers have died jumping in Lauterbrunnen—a sobering statistic, yes, though 65 mountain climbers have died attempting to scale the north wall of the famed Eiger, a nearby mountain in the Bernese Alps.

“I had a good friend who died,” says Justin, explaining how the man’s gear malfunctioned on a jump. Even with all the technical preparation that goes into BASE jumping and the special attention that goes into a jumper’s “pack job,” accidents still happen.

Gabriel frankly points out that, “Mistakes in BASE jumping are not very forgiving.” One small oversight or mishap can be fatal. Nearly every BASE jumper I speak with knows someone who has died jumping, or had a few close calls themselves, yet they all accept the risk of what they do.

“Sometimes one of them dies, and that’s just part of it,” shrugs local athlete Phillip Bohren, who lives in neighboring town of Grindewald. Although he’s never done it himself, he views BASE jumping as just another of the many adventure sports that people practice in the Alps.

In the nearby mountain village of Mürren, I ask tour guide Anne-Marie Götschi what she thinks of all these people traveling to her valley to jump off the cliffs.

“We like the jumpers!” she exclaims—it’s become part of the valley’s identity. Then she points out how more and more Swiss are taking up the sport.

“You know, our lives are so regulated nowadays, I think is this is how they choose to spend their free time—by being totally free.”

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Whatever the reason, BASE jumping is becoming more popular. Chris Mort, also from Washington, D.C., is fairly new to the sport, but sill prepared for many years before coming to jump in Switzerland.

“After a lot of skydiving, I went and got instruction in BASE. I began jumping off bridges, because those are the safest.”

This trip to Switzerland marks Chris’s first time Europe and he says he loves it. Part of the fun is that all the jumpers in Lauterbrunnen knows everyone, at most by one degree of separation. “We’re all brothers now,” says Gabriel, then points to his forearms, “That just gave me goosebumps.” Indeed, these BASE jumpers are brothers, and call each other just that: brother.

A minute before he jumps off the High Nose in his bright purple wingsuit, Kris Watson explains the strong and mysterious bond that ties BASE jumpers together.

“Sharing vulnerabilities causes this deep connection,” he says. Kris cannot hide the fact that he is afraid. Neither can the other jumpers waiting to jump from the High Nose. Each one has his own style of launching himself off the cliff: some wait poised at the edge, inhaling deeply, bending slowly at the knee and then slowly pushing off into a swan dive. Others countdown quickly and just go.

“I’m actually afraid of heights,” confesses Gabriel. “I don’t like to hang around on the ledge—once I’ve jumped, I’m fine, I feel in total control.”

The four men jump, Chris and Justin separately, then Kris and Gabriel together. I am still afraid for them, suffering the anxiety off negative possibilities as I listen to the whistle of bodies in the air, the instantly relieved when I hear the snap of parachutes opening far below.

After they’ve landed, the men are giddy and swearing like schoolboys—like a high school football team that just won a game. Less than one minute has passed, but in those few seconds, these men have sped through the cycle of mortality: the great fall, the sureness of death, and just at the point of no return, a sudden second chance of life—the thrill of rebirth, the radical joy of being alive.

I don’t think any of us can really understand BASE jumping until we try it, and most of us will never try it because we wouldn’t be very good at it. But after spending a day with these men who jump off cliffs in Switzerland, I can report that they are not insane lunatics with a death wish. On the contrary, these guys love life.

Suicidal maniacs don’t pleat their parachutes with the precision of a nurse making hospital corners. They don’t plan out their survival in such great detail and check one another again and again to make sure every little thing is in order.

Real lunatics do not chase life downhill—They do not thrill at the joy of flight, and they do not smile and rejoice when life rushes at them like the hard earth below, slowing down just in time for them to float gently back down and land on two feet.

Now I am alone on the High Nose, still terrified of the precarious edge, yet deeply content. After hearing so much about this thing—I have finally witnessed a real BASE jump. More importantly, I feel like I have witnessed the miracle of life.

All four jumpers are alive.

All of us are alive.

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