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Leap of faith

When you are a BASE climber, you not only ascend a steep mountain but also hurl yourself off it. After all, what goes up must come down -- it's how you do it that counts. Photo by AFP

travel Updated: Jan 06, 2010 23:34 IST

What would possess someone to climb up a mountain and fling herself off it? That's a question every single BASE climber has probably been asked by disbelieving spectators. 

BASE climbing is an offshoot of BASE jumping, a sport in which a person jumps from buildings, antennae, spans and earth (hence B.A.S.E). Instead of jumping off a moving aircraft as one does in skydiving, BASE jumpers have four other 'bases' to jump from. In BASE climbing, the person climbs the base. It could involve climbing up a cliff or a snow-clad mountain and then jumping off it, using a parachute to land safely.

What many don't realise is that BASE climbing and BASE jumping are extreme adventure sports that require rigorous training on how to use a parachute and other equipment, detailed understanding of wind and geographical conditions, and a tremendous degree of mind control.

We spoke to the world record holders of the Highest Altitude BASE jump on a mountain, located incidentally, in the Garhwal Himalayas in India. The Australian couple, Heather Swan (47) and Dr Glenn Singleman (52), climbed Mt Meru in 2006, and jumped off its northern cliff face from a height of 6,604 metres. Singleman holds the world record for the highest wingsuit jump (11,476 m) too.

The expert BASE climbers tell us why they did it, how they did it, and how scared they were while taking that leap.

Heather, you left your corporate job to become an adventure sports enthusiast at the age of 38. What led you to take that decision?

H: I've written a book about it called No Ceiling. In it, I describe my journey of making a big dream come true. Glenn, who had set a world record in 1992 when he jumped off the Great Tringo Tower, a mountain in Pakistan, was looking for a higher cliff to jump from when we met in 1995. After our marriage, I challenged him to teach me mountaineering and BASE jumping so we could attempt a world record together.

What training did the two of you have to undergo?

H: In 2000, I began learning how to skydive, BASE jump and climb mountains. I even left my job in September 2001 to concentrate full time on training. In 2004, Glenn and I began to train with a wingsuit, which has wings between the legs and between each arm and the body to aid in flying.

G: In a wingsuit, even the slightest movement of the hands, legs or shoulders can cause your direction to shift. Heather and I wanted our hands to touch while we were flying down Mt Meru, and to do that takes a lot of training. We practiced 150 skydives -- 60 with a wingsuit. Heather and I also spend an hour every day in some fitness activity or the other. Heather rides horses, we mountain bike, run or go abseiling. So, we were fit too.

What made you pick Mt Meru?
G: We spotted the almost vertical north summit of Mt Meru in a photograph in a mountaineering magazine. In 2005, we came to India for a recce. We trekked to the base and took a lot of pictures. We also got in touch with a local company for guides and camping equipment. A year later, we returned to jump from the peak.

Describe that experience for us.

H: We started our climb on May 1, 2006. The weather conditions were bad and we often got snowed out. On May 17, we set up camp at 6,200 m, from where we decided we'd climb up to the ledge at 6,604 m and transfer our equipment and wingsuits. For six days we'd climb to the ledge and return -- either there was too much cloud cover, or we'd face a snowstorm. Finally, on May 23, we reached the ledge, changed into our wingsuits and wore our parachuting gear. We were ready to jump.

G: We were descending at a speed of 70 kph and flying at 200 kph. We flew up to 1 km away from the cliff, which took about 43 seconds, then opened our parachutes, so we were down the cliff in a few minutes. It took us 3 weeks to climb the cliff, we had three base camps, and we'd climbed up a face of the summit that had a 45 degree incline at the base and a 70 degree incline at the top.

What was going through your mind just before the jump?

H: At that time, the foremost thought in our minds was to focus on doing the right thing and being safe. We'd been training together for six years for this.

G: Fear of heights is a primeval instinct. But all the adventure training we have done in the past years, all the knowledge, experience and reason worked together to reduce fear. When Heather and I looked at the summit, we thought, 'what an amazing challenge, how can we do it? What skills do we need to do that?' and not 'Gosh! We can't do that!'

One needs to understand the real risk, not the perceived risk.

So what are the real risks of BASE climbing?
G: One of the risks is the parachute failing to open, or opening up facing the cliff. In such a case, you need to learn how a parachute works. If it opens facing the cliff, you learn how to turn the parachute deftly, and never to jump when the wind is high. You need to identify the right cliff to jump off, with no jagged outcrops, and about safe landing areas. I have done a short degree in Parachute System Technology from MIT to get that bit right. Then you need to acquire skills like mountaineering, and the techniques of how to launch and when to jump. If you're using a wingsuit, you need to master that too.

Once you know the real risks and prepare yourself against them, then you know the real award. In our case, it was being able to fly off one of the most beautiful mountains in the world.

What was the feeling of jumping off Mt Meru like?

G: It is the most incredibly peaceful and moving experience. Climbing is one of the most beautiful and spiritual ways to interact with the environment. Jumping heightens that experience. No one on the planet had jumped off Mt Meru, so it's not like anything anyone has experienced -- literally. The sensation, the rush, is overwhelming.