Letting Go: What BASE Jumping Feels Like
A glimpse into a sweaty-palmed, stomach-in-your-mouth, death-is-at-your-doorstep jump off a cliff
I had dreamed of this moment many times, often while standing on the edge of a cliff or building and looking down while lying on my stomach. I hate the edges of cliffs and buildings—they terrify me, but not because of the risk of falling off. No, what always scares me is that I could, for an instant, lose control and run lemming-like off the edge.
The edge is attractive in many ways; it’s a boundary between the known and the unknown, the tame and the wild, the sane and the mad. I think a lot of exposure isn’t fear of the drop itself, but fear of losing control and getting pulled off the edge in a fit of madness.
I’ve resisted that voice of unreason for my entire climbing career, my whole life. But here I was, ready to jump. World-famous BASE jumper Miles D. spoke eloquently: “When you get out on the edge of the railing, it won’t be butterflies in your stomach. Those will be BATS, big ones, fluttering around!” Miles was wrong; I had pterodactyls splitting my chest open as I stood and balanced with one hand 500 feet above the ground and prepared to leap into space with only a hastily packed parachute to save my life.
The void below me was remarkable in that there was nothing in it between me and the ground. No trees to maybe grab, no place to stop before the dirt and rocks, just terrifying air. You can’t stop something from happening or hide in mid-air, I realized, and then I also realized that these profound thoughts were not getting me any closer to letting go of the bridge railing. I wanted to jump, really, but my hand just wouldn’t let go. I opened my hand to release the railing, then watched it strike out cobra-fast and grab it again. I once did the same move while standing on a ledge high on a big climb; if I hadn’t grabbed the anchor I’d be dead.
My brain finally won the battle with my hand, and I let go of the railing and fell off the edge. The rest of the jump and the landing was a blur. Most of the action in BASE jumping, at least at the novice level, occurs before the actual jump. Once you jump you’ve got maybe five seconds to live if you don’t throw your chute, and maybe 30 seconds of airtime until you land if you do.
BASE jumping is the crack of adventure sports. Some people can handle crack, but I quit after 10 jumps, mainly because I could see that to survive as a BASE jumper you had to have a lot of skills and a strong mind. And even then the odds are bad enough that you had better really, really love falling to your death until you save your life with that parachute.
Will Gadd is a world-renowned ice climber, mountaineer and paraglider pilot. Read more from him—and catch up on his latest exploits—at willgadd.com.
This essay originally appeared on explore.