I wrote this after my first real season jumping in Europe in an attempt to make sense of several friends not returning home. The title comes from a message my first skydiving instructor Karen Lewis wrote in my log book on the last page. I assume she thought if I made it that far I'd have learned how to survive. It was published in Blue Skies Magazine and The Great Book of BASE 2.
Years ago, before I was a BASE jumper and even before I was a sky diver I was given some advice about BASE jumping by a well known and respected jumper who I’ve not talked to since. He told me that if I were dead set on getting into BASE jumping that I should learn to protect myself, because no one else will care to. He said that the vast majority of jumpers had become so desensitized to injury and death that they wouldn’t think twice at allowing me to be in harms way. I took his advice to heart even though, at the time, I couldn’t imagine anyone being unaffected by someone dying. I still believe that, to a certain extent, a jumper passing on affects us all, even if we didn’t know them. As evidence I’d like to point out the euphemisms that we use like someone “bounced” or “went in” instead of describing a death by saying they “smashed face first into a cliff”. But if we all care when one of us dies and, I assume, we all are steadfastly dedicated to protecting ourselves, why aren’t we bounce proof? The simple answer is that we aren’t as good at protecting ourselves as we would think.
Looking back on 2013 our community has sustained more deaths than any other year in history. In fact, according to the B.A.S.E fatality list, we’ve clocked more deaths in 2013 than the entire decade of the 1980’s. While you’re thinking about that also consider that an exponential growth in our participants isn’t an excuse. The sport of Skydiving has exponentially increased its numbers since 1980 while steadily decreasing its deaths. In fact, with our roughly 1,800 registered B.A.S.E jumpers we’ve more than doubled the amount of deaths that occurred in an estimated 3.1 million skydives in 2013. So why aren’t we protecting ourselves? In a sport that preaches personal responsibility and carries death as an imminent consequence for not “following the rules” one would assume that its participants would be more safety conscious than any other sport. We can’t hide behind an assertion that the sport is inherently dangerous. Today our gear is better, our information more current and our training more rigorous than ever before, yet our death toll continues to rise. The question is why we are ignoring the information, bypassing the training and going outside the bounds of the gear. And while I’m writing this about BASE jumping, I think it’s equally applicable to skydiving or any activity where loss of judgment results in loss of life. Now let me say, before I continue, that I am not writing this to judge anyone and I certainly don’t exclude myself as an offender of safe practice. This is merely the product of many nights spent talking with other jumpers trying to figure out what is responsible for leaving my home town with several jumpers narrowly escaping a black death and several more who will never see another blue sky.
These conversations about safety began like most of my B.A.S.E jumps, with a conversation with myself about fear. Evolutionarily speaking, fear should keep us in check when we are not doing a good job of protecting ourselves. But have we learned to ignore or erase our fears to such a degree that they no longer dissuade us from leaping to our deaths? When I first got into this sport it was a goal of mine to erase my fear and anxiety and be completely calm on exit points. I thought that fear had no value and so I began by simply blocking it out. Along the way it became harder for me to tell if my fear and anxiety was a response to a real threat or merely an irrational response to a freighting situation. I soon realized that blocking out fear was an unhealthy response and ultimately less adaptive. I found that accepting I was afraid allowed me to work through my anxiety. My favorite part of jumping then became this internal struggle at the exit point. I would think about my fear and try to analyze if it was coming from a rational place. Was it due to the complexity of the jump? Maybe the weather conditions weren’t just right. Was I absolutely sure that I had the skill to execute the jump? Did I have contingencies in case something didn’t go according to plan? Eventually I could see through my body’s response and tell whether it was due to something that I truly should be afraid of. If my fear was a rational one, it was time to walk down and go home. Consequently, I started to recognize irrational fear and once it was revealed as meritless it seemed to dissipate easily. If you asked me now if I ever get scared before jumping I’d answer, “No, I only get scared before walking down”. I’ve come across a lot of people who will never get into BASE jumping, skydiving or anything like these sports. In my opinion (that is to say I have no proof with which to back up this claim) it's not the risk that scares most of them, but what the risk will reveal about them that is frightening. Ultimately, if we are not willing to face ourselves and instead we simply try to shut off our fear mechanism we will always be unsafe jumpers.
Fear, however, is just an emotional state: What motivates us to ignore it might be totally external. Is it recreating and posting the next viral video that has distracted us from imminent danger? Perhaps our need to be seen as part of the cutting edge makes us ignore the prescribed progression. One thing’s for sure, the writing’s on the wall when it comes to unsafe behavior so I went looking for people to help me read.
While I was in Switzerland for the B.A.S.E Race the word with the Swiss B.A.S.E jumping safety officers was that we were falling short in the safety department in the search for social media material. We have been given the moniker “YouTube Generation” and dismissed as a group of attention-seeking miscreants who are more interested in emulating the videos we see online than coming home safe. And while I agree that YouTube has launched many people into pseudo-stardom and probably motivated many of us to push the limit in order to share something amazing with our friends, I’m not convinced that envy explains our motivation to push our personal boundaries past the breaking point. After all isn’t this the same bogus argument that attempted to get every violent video game and movie taken off the shelf for fear the youth of tomorrow would rise up in a malicious, Mountain Dew-fueled onslaught of emulated crime? If anything social media has increased our understanding of the consequences of mistakes in our sport. Sure there are a lot of inspiring videos that are posted and without the initial exposure to the sport many of us would not even know it existed, but many more “fail” videos and cautionary tales can be found and serve to reinforce and further our understanding of what not to do.
If our indifference to safety can’t be blamed on media then maybe we as a group are to blame for propagating our bounce proof mentality. Many of us have taken the approach that it should be the responsibility of individual jumpers to keep themselves safe. Those that believe this might disagree with telling someone they are being unsafe and take the libertarian approach that less governance is the way to go. And while another group of us look at safety in a preventative sense by saying that we need to dissuade unsafe behavior by being more stern and overbearing, maybe we should instead be asking ourselves what we do to encourage unsafe behavior. Many of us, and I am certainly guilty of this, have encouraged unsafe behavior in subtle and almost unknowable ways. Every time we may be happy with how rapidly we were able to achieve a skill and brag about it, every time we talk down on progression, every time we lend confidence to someone by saying “I know you can do this”, every time we facilitate a BASE jump instead of teaching someone to correctly execute a jump, every time we start to answer how to preform a new skill with “oh, it’s easy” rather than “the risks to be aware of are”, and every time we laugh off our own mistakes we are cueing those that know less than us that being safe is not worthwhile. I was told once by a resident jumper of Twin Falls, Idaho after attempting an aerial that ended up going horribly right, that even though I executed a “safe” jump I should stop laughing off my mistake and just get better. The reality is that my casual dismissal of a jump that could have gone horribly wrong, however small an action, has a far reaching negative impact on how other jumpers may perceive risk and danger. I can’t advocate that we all start policing each other and sit every new jumper down to read him the riot act, but I am saying personally I have done my best to police the ways in which I promote danger.
After I began progressing in BASE jumping and had enough skill to be truly dangerous I was lucky enough to have several people in my life that cared enough to tell me when I was messing up. I say that now, knowing full well that much of their advice was not appreciated at the time. It’s fair to say that I arrogantly misinterpreted their concern for my wellbeing as ego driven nonsense aimed at suppressing my generation of jumpers and keeping us from our destiny of forging ahead of our predecessors. Through most of my jumping career I carried this disdain for “advice”, or what I refer to now as the “whoa bro” speech (named for how this advice usually starts). For example “Whoa bro, I don’t think a triple gainer for your sixth jump is a good idea”. For a long time I was adamantly against giving other jumpers advice. I can only assume that most of my generation of jumpers feels the same way because I very rarely see someone get called out for unsafe practice. I won’t say that there aren’t instances where people overstep their expertise and “whoa bro” someone who doesn’t deserve it. But I will say that it takes a lot of courage to come forward and tell someone that they are doing something wrong. I have recently gained new respect for those who put themselves on the line and risk being unpopular in order to help a jumper back on the path to safety. If we’re lucky, once in our lives, we’ll be there for a friend when it really matters. As jumpers we put ourselves in harms way more than most and so this opportunity to help is afforded us more than the average person. So it’s important that we not be intimidated from speaking up when the time comes. And even though I may not agree with all the advice I’m given, my first response to any advice has changed from asking “what gives this person the right to question my behavior?”, to asking, “what could I have possibly done to make this person feel strongly enough to come forward and try to help me?” Personally, I have started to heed more warnings than I used to, if for no other reason than to avoid someone being able to say at my funeral, “well, I told him that was a bad idea”.
In the past the majority of advice came from a mentor, a more experienced, trusted jumper friend. It was brought up several months ago in the first ever San Diego safety meeting that a lack of a proper mentorship program is responsible for the lack of safety among newer jumpers. I can certainly relate. When I started B.A.S.E jumping, mentors were all but non-existent. I’m not sure if this was due to the unwillingness of established jumpers to clog up their hometowns with new jumpers or if they just didn’t want to take the responsibility of shepherding an inexperienced jumper. This left most of us relying on the skills we learned in our first jump course to keep us out of the hospital. However, a B.A.S.E jumper does not a first jump course make. If I could consider myself anything after my course it would merely be a “__ . __ . S. __” jumper, which is to say that the skills necessary to jump the other three objects contained in the BASE acronym were not fully developed in the course. This fact eluded me and my good friend and rock climbing partner who took the course with me. We set out to figure the rest out for ourselves. We made mistakes. We made these mistakes out of ignorance and not arrogance, which, I suppose is infinitesimally more acceptable, but nonetheless harmful. With the wealth of information available today and the number of experienced people actively jumping this seems like a fixable problem, especially when we consider that newer jumpers are going to be jumping with or without help from established jumpers. If I had to go back and progress all over I would definitely check my ego, use better judgment and not be so quick to chase the whole acronym.
I read once that an excellent jumper will use his excellent judgment in order to avoid using his excellent skill. If I were to re-write this advice to reflect how I felt during my more dangerous days as a jumper it would read as follows: The excellent jumper wantonly disregards his excellent judgment in order to showcase his excellent skill. At the end of the day none of us will know what went through a jumper’s head before they made the last decision of their life. We can’t know what motivated their actions, but we can strive to know what motivates ourselves. All I can tell you is that at times I have been motivated to make bad decisions in order to be part of a group. I can tell you that I have thought I was too good for the recommended progression. I can tell you that I’ve been motivated by the desire to be thought of as an equal by those that I looked up to, and borrowed confidence in order to push myself beyond my boundaries. I can tell you that I was more motivated by being able to tell an epic jump story than being able to tell the story of an epic jump career. And I can tell you that all of these motivations kept me from being bounce proof.
We may not ever be bounce proof, but if we do “go in” we should endeavor to make it a striking death. A death that leaves our friends and family knowing we flamed away forerunning the limit of the human experience after preparing in every possible way to do so. Be hard on your motivations: they are the only thing that separates being remembered as adventurous from foolhardy.
If this article seems like I’m just grabbing at straws in order to try to explain why jumpers are unsafe it’s because I never set out to give any answers. My hope is that this is the start to a longer conversation that all of us carry on until we can understand ourselves enough to erase the death in our sport due to bad judgment. Please talk to one another, dissect my ideas, but above all else talk to yourself. “The life you save may be your own” – Point Break (1991).
See you on the edge.