“Everyone dies, don’t they – but not everyone lives” – Dan Witchalls
“It’s the closest to being a master criminal without committing a crime…” says Witchalls when asked what it is about the sport he loves so much. He has been bitten hard by the basejumping bug, but has no illusions about its dangers: “I think I might die every time…”
BASEjumping is not illegal in England, but trespassing is and it’s the combined thrill of the risk of being caught and the thrill of outwitting security systems to get onto a roof that is almost as big a buzz as the jump itself.
Throwing yourself off tall buildings is addictive to a basejumper, but since 1981 there have been 147 known deaths, including Witchalls’ best friend Neil Queminet.
The real risk with basejumping is not so much injury as death; most accidents are bad accidents, as one blogger on basejumping’s official website warns: “In my short time in this sport I’ve seen two life flight helicopters from the outside, two more from the inside, the back of a police car, several broken bones and a funeral. I’ve also spent three weeks in intensive care and 18 hours in neurosurgery.”
But is that enough of a deterrent? You would think so wouldn’t you, but “See that?” Witchalls says as he prepares to throw himself off a building but taking the time to scan the 360 degree view from his vantage point, “… The stock exchange. Done that,“ … as he busies himself with some final preparations... “over there, The Shard. Done that. Wembley Stadium. We did that. Security got us when we landed on the pitch.”
Remember that the BASE in basejumping is an acronym for Buildings, Aerials, Spans and Earth. There is a much venerated numbering system for basejumpers: you can apply for an official “base number” when you’ve carried out all four types of jump successfully. Currently around 1,400 base numbers have been allocated.
Sam Wollaston of The Guardian describes BASEjumping as “Russian roulette disguised as extreme sport”. Basejumpers themselves might disagree, but to the idle spectator it certainly looks that way.
Base jumping started out as an underground hobby formalised for the first time in 1978 when a Californian called Carl Boenish made a documentary film of his wife and two friends leaping off a rock in Yosemite National Park. Before long Boenish and his friends were jumping off bridges and electricity masts. They coined the name using the word SPAN for Bridge otherwise it would have been a rather laughable Babe Jumping!
Word began to spread despite Boenish’s own death in 1984 when jumping off a bridge. Some headline moments followed: in 1985 the James bond film A View to a Kill brought base its first big screen appearance, a villainous chase-scene leap from the Eiffel Tower. Five years later the sport made waves in the UK when an Englishman called Russell Powell jumped from the Whispering Gallery inside St Paul’s, a terrifyingly short drop. Two years ago Hervé Le Gallou and an unnamed man from Darlington jumped off Burj Khalifa in Dubai, the tallest building in the world. Le Gallou was later caught trying to repeat the jump and was detained by police for three months.
It is still a fairly shadowy sport because of the illegality of breaking and entering large buildings with the intent of jumping off the roof, but Witchalls is one of its least shadowy figures and the sport’s most visible public face in England. Previous portraits have tended to emphasise the contrast between his vertiginous hobby and the amiable normality of his daily life as an Essex roofer.
Twenty years on from its initial public emergence in the 1990s base jumping still feels like an act of personal rebellion, aligned in spirit with other extreme activities such as ultra-marathons, kitesurfing, and extreme skiing.
The bond of friendship between basejumpers is legendary. “You share incredibly intense moments, things that you don’t experience in normal friendships,” says Ian Richardson. The same sort of friendships can be found in war zones. Shared danger puts a whole new meaning to a good friendship; trust, support and back-up are part of the package.
Ian, however, has been injured twice in a year: a broken leg and battered head in Benidorm and then, having spent a lot of time mending, another injury in Switzerland where he suffered 3 broken ribs, a punctured lung and stuffed elbow. 12 months later, still too injured to jump, he has officially retired.
But they both agree, as would all basejumpers, that it’s like the most powerful drug in the world… despite injuries, it’s a difficult habit to break…
So it’s worth remembering this: if you are going to become a basejumper, it’s best to become a very good one!