What is your image of a base jumper? Right at the end of January I went to Skye with Tim Howell, a base jumper and alpinist who is also a Jottnar Pro Team member. I had no idea what to expect. What would he be like? Base jumpers are all nuts aren't they? We did not have much of a plan or fixed ideas about what we would do, but I tried to go with an open mind, keen to learn as always. We also had Brodie Hood on the film camera and Hamish Frost on the stills camera with Donald King looking after them; we had a very talented team. The weather forecast was superb. It was going to be fun.
Road traffic chaos had an impact on what we did on the first day. Snow down to sea level on Skye and stuck campervans made it impossible to get to some places. We did manage to get to Old Man of Storr though and spotted a good looking cliff. So, we set off to try Skye's first base jump and, possibly, Skye's first ski-base jump. The landscape around the many pinnacles of The Storr is amazing, unlike any other place in the UK. It was covered in sparkling soft snow with dazzling sunshine and deep shadows. It was also quite windy which is not good for base jumping.
If the cliff is over 40m high and vertical then a base jump is quite viable. If it is between 30m and 40m it is more difficult, and less than 30m is too small. The cliff we found was 100m high and vertical. By leaning over the edge and dropping a small stone, you can see where it lands and use a laser range finder to measure the distance. You also need to consider whether an exit left or right is viable or a hazard, which way the wind will take you, if there is any turbulent air down from the top of the cliff and what the landing will be like. There are different ways to deploy your chute as well, depending on the height of the cliff. If it is more than 100m, a bit of free fall might be possible before the chute is opened. There's a lot to consider, and it is all considered very carefully, fully and calmly. The margins might be small but they are measured very accurately.
The wind dropped, Tim did his final checks of equipment, and made the first ski base jump on Skye. In a way it was a bit of an anti-climax. This is a good thing though. There is enough excitement in base jumping - you don't want any more drama by things not going perfectly smoothly. It's not the crazy-jumping-off-stuff pumped-up thing that you might think it is. Tim does a very good job of staying calm, relaxed and thinking straight when every fibre in his being is screaming at him. It's a lot like climbing really but packed into a shorter time frame and more intense as a result.
Next up, we went to the Great Prow of Bla Bheinn. This also has a 100m vertical drop down its front face but is located high on the mountain with the most stunning backdrop of the coire running down to the sea and hills on the far side of the loch. Standing on the edge after all the preparations, Tim asked me to unclip him. This is not something I do comfortably, standing next to a very big cliff. In fact, every part of my training so far has been about keeping people securely attached to the mountain. Tim settled, performed another perfect jump, and had a stunning flight down into the coire. He also had a much shorter walk back to the van than I had!
Our third day was to be securely attached to the mountains, no air time, no jumping off. Despite the temperature on Rannoch Moor being -12 celcius we struggled to find a crag that was white with rime. Down at Bridge of Orchy, the Messiah crag was OK in places and actually had a little ice on it. We got to the last pitch of Promised Land and enjoyed a steep, thin and tenuous pitch of ice climbing. Looking at pictures of this from previous years, the ice can be much fatter and more secure. I placed a thread around a finger fat icicle and another wrist size icicle slightly higher to protect the committing crux moves onto the thicker ice at the top.
Spending any time in our beautiful mountains in such amazing weather is a very rewarding thing to do. Spending this time with friends, learning new ways to experience, with incredible intensity, the vast scale of the landscape is even more rewarding. It's all about appreciating the beauty of wild places, immersing yourself in nature, taking on physical and mental challenges, and being grounded as a result. How you do this is down to you - there are lots of ways to have fun in the mountains. Just make sure you get out and have adventures.
Thank you to Hamish Frost for the exceptional photos. Thank you to Brodie Hood for the film. Thank you to Donald King and Tim Howell for some brilliant days in the mountains.
Self reliance is a fundamental principle of mountaineering. By participating we accept this and take responsibility for the decisions we make. These blog posts and conditions reports are intended to help you make good decisions. They do not remove the need for you to make your own judgements when out in the hills.