Talking About Risk

We all have things we are passionate about, that we love and want to do all the time. A lot of you visiting this site are passionate about outdoor sports, some of you, about music, nature, writing, cooking, photography, your cat 🙂

Whatever your passion is, imagine that one day you got a letter from the person who was literally in the core group of the ones who started doing it. Like, you got a letter from the guy or girl who realized you could put a chunk of woolly mammoth on a stick and put it over fire and COOK things. Or you got a letter from Baron Karl von Drais explaining how he decided to carve a bicycle out of wood because…it’s so much lighter than stone.

So that’s pretty much how I felt the other day when I got an email from Phil Mayfield, BASE #2: BASE jumper, climber, grandpa (he was with Phil Smith on the same jump when Smith became “BASE #1”, so it’s kind of like being twins, someone has to pop out one second earlier).

I wrote some thoughts about risk and wingsuits to share only with my closest circle of friends on a private Facebook page. Then Skydive Mag asked permission to publish it for jumpers, and that’s what led Phil to write to me.

Obviously it was amazing to hear from Phil, due to his history as a pioneer in BASE. I remember seeing an old, terrible quality DVD years ago with the Carl Boenish El Cap footage, and it gave me chills–it was like going to the moon, so much unknown and adventure. (And those red jumpsuits!!!!!) But even more, Phil has a deeply informed perspective on climbing, base jumping, risk and life and I really appreciated hearing his thoughts, so I asked him if I could share them here.

Dear Steph,
I enjoyed your article, and I was pleased to see your comparisons of wing-suit BASE and free-soloing. I think you make some excellent points.

When I started skydiving, at the age of 17, I quickly learned of a kind of dual hierarchy, or sorts, among jumpers. For the straight jumpers (USPA, all the way), what separated the Big Dogs from the rest were licenses (A -D) licenses, number of jumps, style and accuracy skill levels, and trophies. For “fun” or outlaw jumpers, there was relative work, Star Crest awards (SCR, SCS, SCSA, etc.), and low pull contests. My home DZ was of the latter type where we were free to drink beer in the airplane on the way to altitude, pull as low as we dared, and generally thumb our noses at USPA. Our skins on the wall consisted of how big a formation we’d been in, how quickly we could get in, how smooth we were, and for some, how short a canopy ride we could boast.

When I first saw my old friend Carl Boenish’s Skydive film, with its shots of the first El Cap jumps, I had to do it; partly because RW competition had become a sport only for teams with lucrative sponsorships, partly because it had become somewhat predictable and boring, but mostly because it was so freaking insane and cool! So I called Carl, found out he was about to do another El Cap expedition, and made my first cliff jump in August of 1980.

Side note: 18 months or so after my first El Cap jump, I started climbing. This was back before Spanish sticky rubber, when EB’s were considered state-of-the-art footwear and Friends were the cutting edge camming devices. At first, my goal was to climb at the 5.10 level, which, in Connecticut, where I started, was a big deal. After I’d gotten to that point, it became cool to do the occasional free solo, albeit only on routes that were solid and that I’d nailed several times at the end of a rope. I never, however, climbed at your level!

Within a few months of my first fixed object jump (we didn’t come up with the name BASE until late 1981), Carl, Jean Boenish, and I, plus a handful of others were in an informal race to pluck the biggest plums, much like discovering a virgin climbing area and wanting to do FA’s on the best routes. It was easy back then, because there were so few people doing it. For the first few months, the few of us that were active would call each other on a weekly basis, bragging about some new cliff, bridge, building, or antenna we’d bagged.

Since that time I’ve seen a predictable evolution in BASE jumping, as well as some surprises. Considering that we were using skydiving gear in the old days, it came as no surprise that specialized gear evolved, allowing lower jumps and quicker openings. The advent of wing-suits was an unexpected, to me, innovation that created an offshoot sport with its own characteristics and dangers.

The common denominator for skydiving, rock climbing, and BASE jumping, as you pointed out, is the natural tendency to push limits. One of the first lessons I learned when I got into RW, racing others to the formation, was that you can’t know your limits until you exceed them. When you’re going out 20th and trying to get in fourth or fifth (to a round), exceeding your limits is not necessarily painful. You simply flare too late, get low, and if you’re lucky, dead-spider your way back up and in. But in free solo climbing and BASE jumping, exceeding limits is not so forgiving.

I lost a few skydiving buddies, and had close calls, myself, due to low pulls. Likewise, some top climbers and BASE jumpers have died simply because they wanted that surge of adrenaline and ego boost that comes with finding the absolute limit.

I still jump and my climbing has become way too infrequent, so I tend to be more cautious now than I used to be. Getting married and having kids/grandkids also caused me to take a fresh look at risks. I was fortunate to have lived through some ill-advised stuff I did, which helps me appreciate, yet causes me to cringe at, some of the wing-suit stuff I see on-line!

BTW – not to be a pain, but BASE is an acronym and should always be capitalized. I realize that in this age of thumb-typing on hand-held gadgets, grammar is routinely sacrificed, but we went through dozens of combinations of words to identify the four broad categories, trying to find applicable names with initials that were both descriptive and catchy. The more BASE is shown in lower case, the quicker it may lose its significance. One of my proposals was Buildings, Antenna towers, Bridges, and Earthen objects. But we decided that BABE jumping might not be taken as seriously as BASE jumping.

Regards,
Phil Mayfield (BASE 2, Night BASE 1)


  • eran3

    I thoroughly enjoyed reading your article on Skydive Mag. You write beautifully and made some excellent points. I’m glad it’s getting some good reach. 😉
    And thanks for sharing the letter Phil wrote you.”BABE jumping”…hehe

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