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30 Years Experience

 

 Whenever I was asked what my long-term goals were I always replied, “make it to 30”.  It seems like an unconventional answer I know, but asking an extreme sports athlete what they plan to do long term  is like asking Wilfred Brimley what he plans to do with leftover ice cream  (he’s the spokesperson for diabetes if you don’t remember those commercials youtube it).  In both cases be it extreme sports person or insatiable ice cream disposal there isn’t much thought being put to the future. The focus is on ripping into life or Haagen-Dazs as righteously as possible until they both run out. Well, I made it.  I’m 30.  Many people were skeptical, but only time will tell whether I got here out of luck or skill. So to mark this occasion here are some lesson’s I’ve put together while ripping it with all of you:

       -       Peer pressure is a great thing so long as you surround yourself with awesome peers.

-       Money can buy happiness if you have the imagination to spend it on others

-       Everyone can sing, just adjust the music to fit the notes you know and get involved.

Here’s to another 3 decades with all of you. Sharing the road is the only real purpose I’ve found to this interesting and distracting game. So it’s with that in mind that I’ll close with my grandfather’s motto, “head to the top and grab as many people as you can along the way”. 

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WILDerness Survival Part 1: Basic Orientation

Stay alive. And recognize that you have to do much more than just avoid death.

Anyone out there participated in an orienteering race? Either way stay with me on this tangent for a while and I’ll circle back around to BASE jumping or whatever wild activity you’re into. Essentially an orienteering race is finding hidden markers in the wilderness with a map, and the first team to finish the course with all the markers wins. My brother and I have been doing this kind of race since we were kids, but I hadn’t considered until recently that the mapmaker’s advice was something worth sharing.

The language may change from race to race, but usually when we’re handed the map to the race, it comes with the advice, “Stay found”. And inside those two words is a subtle and enormously important difference from the advice, “Don’t get lost.”  The difference is not only being proactive rather than reactive, but also in our overall mentality toward putting ourselves carefully and not just brazenly into a wild and dangerous environment.

What is it to be “found”? When that race director hands us the map, we know exactly where we are. Our starting point is marked very clearly and usually surrounded with several easily distinguishable features so that we can orient our map properly with the direction we’re facing. My brother and I are found. Take one step in any direction and we can trace our progress on the map and stay found. In this way our safety on the course becomes proactive. As we take more steps toward a marker, all that’s required is that we continue rotating and tracing a finger across the map, so that at no time are we “not found.” This becomes increasingly important if we decide to start diverting from our planned route, taking a short cut or just wandering for a bit.

 The best way to get lost is to assume that just because your feet are moving, you’re getting closer to your goal.

So what is it to be “lost”? Just like “found,” it describes a very definite point. While being found is the ability to pinpoint your location, lost is defined by not being able to distinguish any features that would help us know where we are. Between lost and found, however is a vast gap created by: incomplete knowledge, speedy movement, guesswork, approximations and large mountainous features so far away that it leaves those who navigate with them in a limbo that is neither lost nor found. Being anywhere in that limbo we could proudly say, “We’re not lost”, but we definitely couldn’t say we were found.  It’s in this limbo that many of us jumpers have existed—not “staying alive,” but simply “avoiding death.”

When I started in parachute sports, I was found. I knew exactly where I stood in my knowledge base and skill-set, quite simply because I knew nothing. The map I held was given to me by Karen Lewis, my skydiving first jump course instructor, and I followed it step by step until I reached the edge of that map.  Looking around, I sought out a new map, but as the roads to my goals diverged from the standard disciplines, and less and less information was available, it became much more difficult to stay alive. It’s hard to navigate a small step when only using a mountain in the distance to shoot a bearing. Just so, it would be difficult to know what the steps to wingsuit BASE jumping are if all you focused on was footage of Scotty Bob field-goaling trees.

From then until now I’ve passed through limbo, gotten lost, and wandered around, but for the most part, with the help of my jumping partner Ian, stayed pretty found. Now I find myself watching more and more jumpers avoid death rather than stay alive, and still a scary number of them do neither.

So keep this in mind the next time you gear up:
“There is a difference between staying alive and avoiding death.”

 If you find yourself questioning whether you’re going to pull off that first gainer, if you’re wondering whether the wingsuit pilot you’re following is going to lead you safely through the terrain, if you can’t pinpoint exactly how (and more importantly why) you’re going to stay alive through a jump and explain each step required by you to do so, then you’re pushing closer and closer to “avoiding death.” Eventually you won’t avoid it. No one is immune to this idea, especially not the extremely experienced that are navigating territory where maps have still yet to be written.

This is the sport of life. Stay alive out there.

 

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Never Lost, Always Found

Rest easy, loved ones—you’ll never lose me.

True, you might misplace me for a moment… so here’s how to find me. You’ll find me waiting for you to realize why I said I love you in the first place. I said it simply because I love who you are, flaws included, eccentricities added—I love you for all that you are and perhaps more than you see. 

I paid no mind to whether this feeling was reciprocated, because my love for you is unconditional. I don’t expect I will get to enjoy all of your company for the rest of my days. I set you all free the moment I said I love you, and am grateful when our paths cross, but don’t require that they ever do. Separated by thousands of miles or an inch, I love you for life, and though my body may be lost at some point, the fullness of my love resides in your ability to recognize you’ll have it forever. 

We don’t lose the people who loved us. Ever. We may never hold them again, but the feeling we got from their love should be there as long as we can remember why we had it in the first place.

For all the people who wish us safe travels, fear not, we love you. Let us instead be afraid we haven’t shown you all the love we have to give. And if you ever miss us, go do something that fills your heart and find that we’ve been waiting for you there all along

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Final Words to Ian Flanders

In the wake of the release of the memorial film produced by Anson Fogel entitled "When We Were Knights" several people have asked to read the whole letter I had written Ian Flanders. I wrote this letter in case I died unexpectedly so he would have some final words from me. Here it is in it's entirety.

The Video is available in the video link on this webpage or by this link
https://vimeo.com/167054481

 

Well Ian,

If you’re reading this it means I’ve had a bad day and probably means that you’ve had several following it, but if you are reading this then it also means that you’re okay so…silver lining?

I don’t quite know where to start so please forgive this letter reading a bit disjointed. There is no way I can sum up the life we lived together so I’m trusting that you know all the things I may leave unsaid.  First let me begin by saying I’m sorry. You’re the only one whose letter contains an apology. I know you held us to a higher standard and I’m sorry I couldn’t hold up my end. Know that, in my mind, no matter what happened in the end, you held up yours. Please make sure that no one is held responsible for what happened to me, my Dad will help you.

I hope that If I saw it coming I went out screaming “I regret nothing”, I know we joked about that, but “One cannot regret the things they’ve done, only those they did not do.” Look up who wrote that they’re probably worth of notation. You know, now that I think about it I don’t think this quote actually works for me because I should regret everything in life I can’t do now that I’m gone. Or maybe dying itself is something I did, so I can’t regret it. Hmmm…figure that out for me, for now I’m going with I lived with no regrets, sounds better.

Man am I glad I went before you.  I mean I always expected us to get old together, raise shredder kids and then when we were eating strained peas in some old folks home huck off one last BASE jump without parachutes, but if we didn’t go together I would literally have no idea what I’d do without you. I mean shit man every detail of my final wishes I’ve left to you so it kind of imperative I die first.

Thank you for being you Ian, you were never anything, but that and I always respected the hell out of you for it. Too often we allow ourselves to be the chameleon in the room or in a relationship and, I don’t know how you pulled it off, but you always left it to the room to match your colors. I’ve not met a single more genuine human being than you, and it doesn’t look like I will in the future.  Thank you for keeping our motivations clean. Having clear uncompromising motives is the one consolation I’ll be taking to the grave. Thank you for holding onto enough integrity for both of us. In our game integrity sells for so little and with so much at stake I don’t know what I would have done without you.

I know that we left a lot of projects unfinished and walls unclimbed, but I could not have hoped for a better partner. A while back someone asked me what made you the best climbing partner and the reply was simple. I said that often a team’s downfall is one’s partner believing that their contribution toward a common goal is most important, but that you understood that your contribution toward strengthening your partner, me, was the only thing that mattered. We made it farther together than I could have imagined alone.

Know that I learned too much from you to put into this letter and these lessons unequivocally changed my life for the better.  Know that you’re loved by more than me, but loved by my family as well. They’ll always be there for you. Not because you were family to me, but because you were family to them. Spend as much time as you can with them, you’re the closest thing they’ll have to me.

Love,

Mat 

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Into the Wind

Why do you BASE jump? I get this question more than any other. I think the answers to this question are innumerable and ever-changing, probably for all of us, but one that I continually add to the list is that I BASE jump to conquer myself (a notion made famous by the first man up Everest, Sir Edmund Hillary). This statement might seem general, so to be specific, what I’m talking about is the ability to have full control over your emotional and physical reactions. To keep your head clear and hands steady when the world is coming down around you. 

Up till now I had no bar for this until one was exemplified by the tragic magnificence of Rami Kajala. For those who are unfamiliar with this incident, Rami was BASE jumping Bixby Bridge—a sea cliff bridge on the coast of California featured in countless car commercials—along with fellow jumper Katie Connell.

The conditions for the jump were high risk due to inclement weather and overhead high surf. Katie jumped first and while attempting to make a safe landing on the diminishing beach landed in the outflowing river. She was immediately entangled with her parachute and, as she fought to clear herself, was swept off her feet by a rising tidal wave, which ripped her out into the rocky cove.

As this was happening Rami leaped off the bridge to come help. He made a hard landing on the sand and, without hesitation, stripped off his rig and ran into the surf to save her. Neither of them made it back to shore. Fully clothed and fighting high surf in windy conditions to attempt to rescue Katie, Rami drowned alongside her.

Looking back, anyone can say that the odds were heavily against him. Some may even say Rami shouldn’t have attempted the rescue (among whom were the fast water rescue team who refused to attempt a rescue until the surf subsided). But whether Rami should have gone is irrelevant to my point, which is that he was ABLE to go. Un-paralyzed by fear and undeterred by the slim odds he was going to make it back to shore, he was able to dive in headfirst to attempt to save someone he loved.

At one time or another, most of us have shied away from situations where we may have perceived potential harm. Some make excuses when emotions are on the line for things as simple as asking someone out, taking a job interview, or getting on a stage. However, some avoid chances of physical risk like leading a rock climb, going for a tandem skydive, or even stand-up paddle boarding.

We spend too much time wishing we could crest the hurdles of self-doubt, irrational fear, and locked limbs to make the first step toward perceived danger. Rami, facing down actual danger in what I would estimate as a 90% chance of failure, with full knowledge of this fact, still had enough self command to run into the surf. Whatever you may think of his decision, his ability to do so is beautiful and worthy of the highest admiration. When you can stand on the edge of life, un-intimidated by the consequences of your actions, anything is possible. And in my mind, you have attained a level of human excellence worthy of the life we’ve been blessed with.

I’m not advocating that we all seek out dangerous situations. I’m also not advocating that we chase the slim odds when life and limb or even our emotions are on the line. I’m merely hoping that one day I have the wisdom to distinguish between perceived and actual risk, the courage to act when I value the goal and the ability to live up to my full potential the way Rami has done. I am advocating that we all have the ability to be this bold if we can find the desire to progress and the self-advocacy to believe in our ability to change for the better. I am advocating that Rami’s ability to act as he did is worthy of emulation. And it is a bar that has been set for me to understand whether or not I have conquered myself.

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Sri Lanka 2016

The trip to Sri Lanka didn't go according to plan and certainly there were a lot of ridiculous and upsetting things that happened that are fun to vent about, but here's the real story from my perspective

What did we do in Sri Lanka? Well…it’s a long story, but among it all we did one good deed that I’m going to hold onto until the end of my days. We helped a man in a wheelchair cross the street. And it was worth traveling all the way to Sri Lanka to do it. Now before you discount this task as everyday let me explain that we met this man trying to cross the busiest downtown street in front of the Sri Lankan World Trade Center building. Teaming with unlicensed taxi cabs, buses with wooden brake pads and an army of cockroaching scooters looking for any hole through traffic this man was fully committed to beating the Frogger high score in order to reach an open field on the opposite side of the street. The other pertinent detail to understand here is that it’s actually legal in Sri Lanka to brutally run someone down with your vehicle so long as you honk prior to turning them into Jackson Pollock hood art.

The choice we made was simple and yet had never occurred to any Sri Lankan as a viable means of solving this problem. We elected to take him up the service elevator to the top of the World Trade Center building with us, strap a parachute to him, chuck him off the roof and FUCK if he didn’t fly his ass right the hell over that busy street. It was a bold move, I admit. It was also one of the proudest moments me and everyone involved had ever lived. This man’s name is Lonnie Bissonnette (a professional BASE jumper who had been paralyzed in a jumping accident and rather than call it a day, continues to enjoy as much air time as his parachute will allow. I credit him and Gareth Parry with one of the greatest moments of my life and for organizing an event that allowed my to get involved in his jump.

Several days later as I exited the World Trade Center the doorman stopped me to tell me in reference to Lonnie’s jump he smiled and said,

“Sir, thank you for coming to Sri Lanka. You have changed the way I see my country and you’re group have also changed Sri Lanka”

So after that did the whole trip fall apart? Well, a little bit. Did our own tour company kidnap us and threaten to leave us in the middle of nowhere? Yes (an act still described by Elliot Bat Rose as a regular captain of a merchant ship trying to hijack a ship full of pirates). Did several locals extort us for amounts of money that would constitute grand larceny in the states? Absolutely. Did Chris Carnahan jump willingly into not 1 but 3 metaphorical snake pits to bail out our group? You better believe it. Were the police reports that were glue sticked into ledgers from the 1920’s ever going to make it to the proper authorities so we could recoup the massive travel expenses we incurred? Probably not. Did we lose a little faith in the Sri Lankan people? Maybe. But I and 24 other BASE jumpers helped a man in a wheelchair cross a street and I’m unequivocally and irrevocably putting that in the win column.

So thank you to Lonnie and Gareth for taking the risk and breaking through the wall of legal urban BASE jumping in Sri Lanka. The first ones through the wall always get a little banged up, but they also create the hole for the rest of us to see the light on the other side. And thank you to all my friends who stayed for the ride, I now know you all the better that having shared these confusing moments.

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Kuala Lumpur Dangerous

So what is the Kuala Lumper tower BASE jump all about? On the surface it’s 100 of the most talented BASE jumpers from around the world coming together to jump off one of the most iconic buildings in the world, but that’s not the whole story. For me the whole story was told simply and in one moment by Chris “Douggs” Mcdougall, while no one was wearing a parachute.

 

Around midnight 60 of us found ourselves at a bar down the street from KL tower in the heart of the Malaysian city-scape celebrating the end of the tower jump event.  Drinks were going down faster than the bartenders could pour them and in the height of the action I took refuge in a corner seat next to Douggs and a crew of friends.

 

As people brushed passed the group, one stranger stopped to eye fuck the shit out of Douggs. He was a tall European looking man, well dressed with purple nail polish and coolly sipping a martini. The stranger brushed up against Douggs in an aggressively romantic move, but as soon as Douggs gave him his full attention the new comer backed up sheepishly with a half-hearted challenge for Douggs to come flirt. The next several moments were spent with the two men squared off, Douggs waiting for this man to make a move and the stranger frozen in indecision; too scared to get closer and at the same time too attracted to walk away. After several moments it became clear that the stranger was too afraid to go any further down the rabbit hole.  Now as far as I know Douggs is straight and had no idea who this person was. It’s also entirely possible that my recollection of this incident is a bit hazy, but what is absolutely clear is the image of Douggs grabbing this man by the cock and balls, pulling him in close and French kissing him. It happened so quickly that no one, not even the stranger had time to register what had happened. So, with his wife and the rest of us looking on at full attention, Douggs did it again.  And in that moment Douggs was more comfortable being someone he was not, than that man was being someone he dared to be.

 

Douggs has always been a teacher in my eyes. He taught me then and there, that the more comfortable you are with yourself, the more capable of bringing joy to others you’ll be. For me this is what the KL tower jump is all about. We B.A.S.E jump for ourselves all the time. But this event is about passing on as much joy as we receive. It’s about showing an observer, in one of the most regulated places in the world, first hand how to take the fast way down. It’s about exemplifying the freedom one can have by being completely comfortable with who they are and unabashedly kissing a stranger in celebration of a single moment which is happening right now and will never be again.

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Burning Man 2015

This year I attended Burning Man. It was the first music festival I have ever been to. Whatever you may think of it, if you haven’t been there, you have no idea. It’s the greatest party in the world. Period.

Before I begin, I have to thank the Moab Monkeys for throwing that amazing party last year, survival of which gave me the courage to attend Burning Man. Equally, I have to thank Lawrence De Laubadere for pushing me over the threshold of adventure where I belonged. You are all true friends.

To begin, I will state as an empirical truth that Burning Man cannot and should not be put into words. It’s an experience. And so it goes that all the photos, all the recordings, and all the retellings put together cannot replace you being amongst it.

So rather than try to recap the unmitigated awesomeness that is 70,000 people showing up in the desert with the sole purpose of putting smiles on as many faces as they can, I’m going to share with you (in no particular order) the two prominent revelations I had while I was home so far from home.

           First:  Wander out to do amazing things. Wander by yourself. And when you come across something you could never have imagined, when you start feeling something you couldn’t anticipate and are overwhelmed by the awesomeness that is life, you will think of a few people you wish were there to share the moment, for the moment cannot last. Keep those people close for as long as you can because they complete what life is all about.

           Second:  Fate is real. Fate as I like to understand now. The mistake I used make is to think that fate was going to determine my future, while it is clear that fate instead has led each and every one of us inexorably to the moment we are in right now. All of my choices, knowledge, predispositions, and motivations have put me in the exact place I sit--and as much as I may try to, I cannot run from my motivations, my desires, or my fears. We cannot run from who we are.

While I was at the Burn there were literally infinite directions I could travel and incalculable amounts of interactions that were possible. And while I could discount some of the opportunities that were presented to me as coincidence or chance, they were more than that. They were fate.

Those experiences and people who just so happened along my path were there because each part of who I am played a distinct and important role in leading me to exactly that moment. The only thing left to do in that moment was simple: Accept that that moment was for me and jump down the rabbit hole.

Remember to choose well when you’re faced with one of these moments; the person on the other end is counting on you to make the right decision.

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Mic Drop

After my second brother Ian Flanders died BASE jumping in Turkey the Turkish news saw fit to push out a quick news report about him riddled with inconsistency, misspellings and nonsense. His age was incorrect, the manner in which he passed wasn't even close and one report even confused him with Batman for some odd reason. Their reports were then echoed by the world news who was too lazy to actually do their job and report the story or do any amount of fact checking. All but the LA times fucked the dog. Good thing Ian has Facebook where he is because he sent me this to post.

 

An Open Letter to the Turkish News,

You all just made the list, and I will have my vengeance for your haphazard, lazy reporting. In fact the first person that kicks one of those ass hats in the nuts for me gets a drink on me when I see them. I’ve gotten like 30 texts from girls I told I was 28. Way to go Turkish news. Now all I have is overweight women in accounts receivable calling me thinking I’m a 37 year old desperation case.

Oh and American news, get your shit together. Lets for the moment ignore the Carl-Wallenda like misstep that was posting my Wingsuit demonstration jump post-interview, below the paragraph about me dying on the Wingsuit demonstration-jump and ask this. How did you all think my fellow jumper friend Scotty Bob’s name was really spelled Scatty? Did you not think to maybe, I don’t know, pick up a phone book and see that no one in the whole of United States was named that? Pick your game up you just got out-reported by a college newspaper that surrounded the story in 5 minutes by simply looking through my Instagram (@slanders_) #You’reBadAtYourJobs. Fuck CBS, Fuck NBC, LA Times you’re cool, Fuck Dan Rather I’m out.  #tupaclives

P.S. I’m looking through all your cloud drives…This is where clouds are

Sinceley,

Ian Fucking Flanders (microphone drop)

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Until Dawn Do Us Part

Well, it’s not what I expected. I’ll do my best to describe it. So I’m at this sweet party, the music’s on point and everyone’s mixing it up, you know, getting amongst it.  I’m not quite feeling it yet so I post up at the bar. Drink in hand I start working my way through the crowd.

I’m on my way to the center when I notice that one dude is absolutely killin’ it in a fuckin’ bird costume with feathers everywhere. The whole center of the dance floor seems to be stoked off this guy and I start dancing my ass of with them. I remember hearing about this dude once, I think at a party in LA, or maybe it was that I saw a video of him crushing it at The Burn.

Anyway, it doesn’t really matter because he’s bringing the whole room’s game up. I’m vibing with this girl who’s feeling the same energy and the song just keeps getting better and better. Heads down, hands in the air, drinks being spilled everywhere, no one cares about anything but dancing together.

Just as the beat’s getting super heavy I look up to find the birdman and see what kind of moves he’s going to throw down, but during the raging he had danced his way toward the door and walked out before the song had ended, his half-heard farewell still lingering in the air.

The beat switched up and everyone in the center picked their head up to notice he was gone. Even the DJ gave him a shout out and the people around the outside, along with the new arrivals, looked around quickly trying to figure out what they’d missed.

And as much fun as I’m still having I wish he’d stayed, and I wish I could’ve gotten one more song in with him, but the party must go on…

Me: “So that’s what it’s like to be in an extreme sports community which loses someone, once a month, that you may not have known all that well.”

Stranger: “So what’s it like when you lose someone that you did know? Is it still like being at a party?”

Me: “No.”

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Bounce Proof

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.

Bounce Proof

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.

 

Matt Blank

 

 

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Our Soul Soloist

This was the first published piece I've written. It was placed in the February issue of Rock and Ice 2013

Our Soul Soloist

Every climbing community has its own “stonemaster”.  Usually, they’re an older climber, whose unyielding ethics and dedication to bold ascents remains steadfast in the face of the modern hang-dogging, rap-bolted, crash-pad-mountain climbing of today. They may look frail, but, just like the rusted pitons that we desperately clip on classic run-out routes, they carry with them the toughness of a generation of hard communion with the rock, and refuse to bail no matter what the impending storm. They inspire the newbies to get outside and get down to business, and remind the aging that 40 is far from the end of the road.  For many of us in the Southern California climbing community that climber was John Rosendahl.

 

John free-soloed with legends on legendary climbs, and had the decency to show us all that you could be old and bold at the same time. Even after having his spine fused he continued to rip down problems well into his fifties that most of us would be hard pressed to finish on rope in our twenties.  When John Bachar sustained a similar back injury and was questioned about what this meant for his return to climbing he answered,

 

“…my good friend John Rosendahl had the same operation and the dude cranks! This summer he was soloing "King Spud" in Clark's Canyon as well as many other testpieces. He came by and visited me and gave me some support - told me he had come back even stronger after his fusion than he was before! He’s in really good shape and a little older than me – he said I’d be okay and

cranking again soon.”

 

I remember one occasion where a group of us ran into Rosendahl climbing in Clark’s Canyon. He was hiking into the crag with little more than a carpet square and a shoe box from which he pulled a pair of leather bottom dress shoes. Bewildered we stopped racking our countless quick-draws and flaking our rope to give him a befuddled look regarding his gear. In response he simply looked over at us, looked down at his shoes, and said, “What? They’re good for edging”.  Then he quickly wiped his feet on the carpet square and proceeded to solo an 11C in dress shoes. He taught me that the rope is nothing more than a mental crutch. And that any mental crutch in life can be overcome so long as one’s desire to push through is not specific to the task, but broadened to a desire to become a person able to live with no regret.

 

Most people, and certainly many climbers, regard free-solo climbers as foolhardy attention seekers. To the notion of being foolhardy John would say, “foolhardy is something that can only be measured by someone with equal exposure to the risk”. As far as soloing for attention goes, John was as far from this notion as one could be. He soloed without publicity, without onlookers, and often took months to himself to climb in solitude. His climbing was marked not by a quest for adrenalin, but a quest for self-fulfillment, or in his words, “I sought the rewards from free-soloing as a means to feel more confident about other parts of my life that had nothing do to with physical danger”.  His every movement was calculated, with as little as possible left to chance. Every moment, he was constantly re-evaluating his body’s feedback, visualizing the moves, examining the surroundings and mitigating the risks involved.  But, despite our preparations, we all have doubts, and John was no exception. What made John an exceptional climber, was his ability to rise above doubts and ascend anyway. One of these instances came out for John during a solo climb in Owens River Gorge he retold in an interview on May 11, 2011.

 

“I've actually been on one route in Owen’s River Gorge in the middle of summer that wasn't at the upper limit of my soloing ability, but hard enough. It was only maybe 100 feet long and I was on it for probably an hour going up and down and I had actually gone up and down three or four times and walked away from it, deciding that I didn't want to [climb it]. Then in the middle of the retreat of walking away I had realized that I had stopped and remained at the crux long enough that climbing through the crux would be easier than what I had already done. So I kind of jumped ship and reneged on my decision to walk away and walked back to it, did it, and it felt just like I imagined it would…It takes a very rational mind to do that. No rope has ever pushed someone up a climb, it's always secondary to skill and judgment. A free-soloist knows that any wave of panic is going to be catastrophic and so you practice doing it [free-soloing] as much as possible with a clear head to eliminate panic, should you find yourself in a situation like I did…and hopefully [you] can call up once again the utterly rational conclusion that you can't afford to worry about ‘what if’. The clock is ticking and you have to pull through. Any other thought is going to be a dangerous one…I think the only thing that might be a difference between people that have learned to manage risk in very dangerous situations and those who haven't is the initial desire to improve ones rational response to danger. I don't think I'm all that rare; my motivation to do so in the first place may be somewhat rare.”

 

John didn’t just crush climbs, however, he crushed life. In 1988 he set the record for the fastest unsupported crossing of the John Muir Trail (a grueling 225 mile trail from Whitney Portal to Yosemite Valley) at: 5 days and 7 hours. His record stood for over 15 years. In true hard-man fashion he gave up filtering his water one day in and drank river water to go faster. His logic was that Giardiasis (an infection of the small intestine caused by parasites found in river water) wouldn’t set in for at least a week, and by then he’d be home and could deal with the repercussions. I asked him once when he would rest and he answered, “I would run until I started to feel delirious, then I would take a fifteen minute nap, get up and keep running”.  So while the moniker of “living hard and fast” usually gets applied to undeserving rockers and drug addicts, I know that it is a term built for people like John, who show the passion that should put forward every day in pursuit of a full life.

 

A Lecturer and Instructional Program director of physics at the University of California, Irvine he was as much a teacher by occupation as he was in the climbing community. In a sport that is usually marked by individualism John could always be counted on for encouragement and support often saying, “I’m just as excited to see someone get through something as I am with my own climbs”.  Climbing with him naturally pushed you to be your best and before you knew it you’d be sending harder than you ever expected, John’s voice serving as the steady inner monologue that you needed to overcome the crux. Climbing, as well as life, is overcome with cruxes. Some of them we know we can conquer and others are marked with unknown danger. Some have little consequence and others carry the weight of life and death. I once asked John how he could get himself to push through an unknown crux with everything on the line. He answered, “When you really don’t know, the only thing I can say is you still have one thing: You have the experience of having confronted the unknown before and you’re here today knowing what the benefits are”.  In the end, it wouldn’t be climbing that claimed his life. And while it was his decision to risk his life in pursuit of spiritual fulfillment, it would also be his decision to end his life prematurely.  John was a teacher to many, family to few, and inspiration to countless. I hope that he’s confronting the final unknown knowing that he will be missed.

 

John Rosendahl Decenber 8, 1955 – September 1, 2012

 

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