The Edge Of Reason | Wingsuiter Sam Hardy On Why He Loves BASE Jumping
The star of the new film, The Exit Point talks candidly about his love of the sport
“Hey buddy," says Sam Hardy, his voice coming down the line from Chamonix. “Could you give me like 20 minutes? I’ve literally just packed and I need to drive home, is that cool?"
It’s not yet 10am here in the UK, but Sam has just completed his second wingsuit BASE jump of the morning. That is to say he’s jumped off the 2,525-metre-high Brevent ridge and screamed down through terrifyingly tight gaps in the rock at speeds of around 200km/h - deliberately flying as close to the terrain as he can - with nothing more to protect him than a flimsy-looking crash helmet. Not once, but twice. In that same time, I’ve logged into my computer and answered a few emails.
To most outside observers, wingsuit BASE jumping probably seems like a ludicrous thing to do. The thrill is obvious: These guys are literally flying like superheros, their suits reminiscent of Batman’s cape. But at the same time, the sport is highly dangerous: They’re putting their lives on the line with every line they fly. And so many of the millions of people who watch viral wingsuit videos assume the individuals involved must be nuts. Or at least that they must care less about their own safety than their next adrenaline hit.
“How does it affect you when you’re risking your life before breakfast on a regular basis?"
But while there are thousands of three-minute Youtube clips out there, there are very few - if any - that dig deeper: Is there more to this than thrill-seeking? What is it that really motivates people to take up the sport? And how does it affect you when you’re risking your life before breakfast on a regular basis? It’s these questions that The Exit Point, a new short film focussing on Sam and his friends, seeks to answer.
“I wanted to focus on the actual people that do it," explains Dave Robson, the documentary film-maker behind the short, “and also to actually make something that was true to the sport - something [they] could be proud of. A lot of BASE Jumpers feel like there have been [too many] documentaries made that are just hyping up the death and the danger," he explains. Whereas Robson’s aim with The Exit Point was “to let BASE jumpers tell their own story in their own words".
The documentary is Robson’s first, and was “a one-man-band project," he says, largely shot on “a mid-range DSLR". Yet despite having a budget of zero (Dave was taking holiday from his job as a researcher in a provincial TV production company to be able to join Sam on trips) the resulting film is impressive. It’s not just because of the awe-inspiring wingsuit footage (much of it shot in first person by Sam himself), although that is stunning. It’s because there’s a whole lot more to this sport than just the rush of flying. When you sit BASE jumpers down to talk about their chosen way of life - and why they do what they do - they have far more to say for themselves than your average Youtube viewer might think. A whole lot more.
Sam Hardy’s journey into wingsuiting started young. “This guy called Tim Emmett came to my college when I was 16 and spoke about it. I thought it was unbelievable, and I ended up doing my skydiving course a year later." A born athlete (“I was a competition climber and I was on the UK whitewater kayaking team too,") Sam moved naturally from skydiving to BASE jumping. The progression wasn’t a quick one though. “You have to start with skydiving because you need to learn to fly your body," Sam says. “Then it’s suggested that [you] need a minimum of 300 skydives before [you] even consider coming to BASE." But slow progress is good progress, according to Sam. It’s what can make the difference between life and death.
He learned the costs of trying too much too quickly at an early stage in his jumping career. “When I did the skydiving course at 17 I was with another chap, a guy [who] was just a little bit ahead of me. Before I knew it he was already BASE jumping [and] he was in a wingsuit within a year. He took the most insane progression ever, and then he actually died." That was, Sam says, the first time it hit home just how risky the sport could be.
Another thing he realised early on was that getting good at BASE jumping wasn’t exactly a money-spinner. “I would say it's impossible to make money out of BASE jumping. Literally impossible," he says. Apart the occasional movie stunt which pays, pretty much all wingsuiters - even those like Sam who are at the top of their game - have other jobs. When he’s not jumping, Sam works as a skydiving instructor.
“I'm willing to pay the price," Sam says. “I accepted that way before I started."
Yet if he knew from the outset that BASE jumping was big on danger and small on financial rewards, it didn’t deter him from his chosen path. “It's natural stepping stones," Hardy says, describing his progression from skydiving. “If you start out racing go-karts then eventually you'll end up in a small car, and then so-on-and-so-forth until Formula 1 - if you can get up to that standard."
The comparison seems like an apt one. As well as the gradual accumulation of skills, the incredible reflexes required to pilot a wingsuit safely are not dissimilar to those needed by the top drivers. F1 drivers and wingsuiters are even clocking similar speeds - the highest speed ever recorded in a Formula 1 race was 369km/h. The fastest ever wingsuit flight was 363km/h.
However, while modern Formula 1 drivers are protected by roll cages, crumple zones and the myriad of other safety measures that have been developed over the years, wingsuiters have very little in the way of protective gear. “This is still very much a pioneering sport," says Sam. He’s not wrong - wingsuits have only really been around since the late 90s. “And because it's not old yet, it's high risk," he continues. If anything then, wingsuiters are more like the F1 drivers of yesteryear, the Jim Clarks or Juan Manuel Fangios - trailblazers who are trying things for the first time. “It can be done safely", Sam says, “but like anything, if you're pioneering the sport there's risks that you have to take sometimes."
This is, Sam says, something you simply have to accept. “I'm willing to pay the price," he says. “I accepted that way before I started." While he doesn’t like to dwell on death, neither he nor the other jumpers interviewed in The Exit Point are shying away from the risks, or pretending it couldn’t happen to them. It would be hard to, when the statistics show just how dangerous their chosen sport is.
Since records began in 1981 there have been 291 recorded BASE jumping fatalities. The list, which is publicly available on the Blinc Magazine forum, includes many wingsuit pilots and jumpers who were at the top of their game - or “current" in BASE jumping parlance. Celebrated names like National Geographic’s Adventurer of the Year, Dean Potter, and ski-wingsuit-BASE jump pioneer Shane McConkey are on there. As is Mark Sutton, the man who played James Bond at the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Olympics. Yet for every Jim Clark, who died tragically young, there’s an equivalent to Juan Manuel Fangio - a multiple champion during motor racing’s most dangerous period who nonetheless lived until the ripe old age of 84.
What’s keeping Sam in that second category and off the fatality list is, he believes, preparation. Strangely, although “it might seem morbid," the list plays a big part of that. It’s maintained on a voluntary basis by members of the tight-knit jumping community, and includes as much detail as possible about what went wrong in each incident, so jumpers can analyse others' mistakes. “We kind of use that as a tool for everybody," Sam says.
As well as educating themselves, the best wingsuiters prepare meticulously for each jump. Describing himself as “OCD" Sam packs his ’chute in exactly the same way each time. “You want that weapon on your back to fire when you need it." He then literally talks himself through his pre-flight checks, zipping the sections of his suit up multiple times. The flight itself is another checklist. “With something standard like Brevent this morning, for example, I know what the line's like and basically what I do is give myself markers or gates. I know on the rock face within the first three to five seconds how high I am and if I'm going to be able to achieve the gates that I've set myself for that flight."
“The highest speed ever recorded in a Formula 1 race was 369km/h. The fastest ever wingsuit flight was 363km/h."
Sam also prefers to keep the suit at a lower glide ratio than it’s capable of - angling it so that he’s moving around 1.8 metres forward for every metre he falls, rather than the maximum the wingsuit will allow, which is around three metres for every metre of descent. “If I'm in the guts of a pretty hardcore line and I need to get out for whatever reason, then I'd always have range to be able to change the glide ratio and actually get out there safely," he says. Again he reaches for a motoring metaphor to explain it: “It's kind of like driving a car. Let's say you're driving a car in 5th gear at 2,500 revs, you've still got a little bit of power when you need it and you can slow down quicker. [Whereas] some people would fly at 7,000 revs the whole time, at full power with no range to do anything."
Keeping a bit in reserve is “the one rule of thumb that I fly with. And I feel it’s keeping me... well, let's say safe, rather than alive." Sam laughs, and it’s obvious that even with all his precautions he is all too aware that it would only take one small mistake for him not to be - a point that was hammered home during a jump last year. “It was a bit of a reality check", he says. “I just thought: OK, this is like the universe giving me a little bitchslap and saying 'you're good, but you need to bring that throttle back a tiny little bit.'"
Sam and his good friend Nathan Jones were out in Ethiopia working on one of the charitable initiatives they support as part of their Project BASE foundation, and jumping to raise awareness of the cause. Conditions were perfect and Sam was feeling good as he went through all his pre-flight checks. But as he pushed off the cliff, something went wrong. He hadn’t pushed out far enough. “Before I hit the wall, all I told myself in my head was, ‘brace for impact’ because I knew I was going to hit it. I ended up clipping my right foot at about 80 metres down. [At that point] you're starting to travel at around 60-80mph [100-130km/h] zone. It twisted me sideways, put a hole in the suit and it went unstable..."
Plummeting towards the ground at high speed, the only thing that saved Sam was his years of training. “I always look back and I'm thankful for the fact that I've put so much work and time into flying the suits, and doing the right progressions to get to that point," he says. Years of hard work and preparation meant that “you no longer have to think about how you do it, you just instinctively". And when you’re flying wingsuits at this level, there is literally no time to think.
“From when we jump off to the impact on the ground is five seconds. Basically what that means is you have to get the suit flying in five seconds. Anything under seven seconds is technical, five seconds and below is hardcore. You need your shit dialled. So to jump off, hit the cliff, collapse the suit and start flying... Nathan said to me if that was anyone else apart from you they wouldn't be here."
“Before I hit the wall, all I told myself in my head was, ‘brace for impact’ because I knew I was going to hit it."
Cutting it fine and getting away with it: To outsiders, it might seem that this is what BASE jumping is all about. But talking to Sam - and watching The Exit Point - makes you realise nothing could be further from the truth. “[In Ethiopia], as soon as my feet touched the ground I just collapsed because it put me in an adrenaline state, a sort of fight or flight state, and actually that’s not a nice state to be in". He explains: “Adrenaline is something you get when you're surviving something and for me it's not about surviving something, it's about being in a flow state where I can comfortably manage what I'm doing."
With all his careful preparation and his calm, methodical approach to risk assessment, Sam is about as far away from the stereotypical ‘adrenaline junkie’ as you could imagine. Far from throwing caution to the wind, he’s all about making sure everything is in place so he can enjoy the moment. He’s not alone in this either. As Robson found out when he was filming The Exit Point: “There’s a stereotype that are lot of them are thrill-seekers but a lot of them are actually sort of nerds. There's so much training and preparation that goes into it."
Psychological studies back this up - recent research has shown that the kinds of people who are drawn to BASE jumping are rational thinkers, not natural risk takers. Far from being ignorant of the dangers they tend to be excellent at evaluating and assessing them. The research suggests they tend to be good at coping with high-stress situations in other aspects of their lives too. This is something Sam attributes directly to jumping. “It's unbelievable how much it changes you," he says. “Everything you do is easier afterwards. Dealing with emotions, with disappointment, your mentality is very strong." Jumping creates a bond too, a feeling of community. “Specially within my friendship group, the closeness of us, we call each other our family."
“When people ask: ‘What's it like?’ I'm always like: ‘It's like air yoga.’ I get serenity from it"
As to what his actual family think? There’s a poignant passage of The Exit Point where Robson interviews Sam’s mum and dad. You might think that his parents would be horrified to see their son pursuing such a dangerous (not to mention financially insecure) path in life. But having heard him explain it, and watched him jump themselves, they are entirely supportive.
“The thing is," says Sam, “with the BASE jumpers I know, is that all these people are actually living. When people ask: ‘What's it like?’ I'm always like: ‘It's like air yoga.’ I get serenity from it, and at the end of the day when I land on the ground the stoke level is so high, I feel alive. It's the closest thing to feeling euphoria."
Of course hearing Sam speak, in person or on The Exit Point, doesn’t explain what motivates each individual wingsuiter. But it does give you a much better understanding of who some of the people behind these superhuman exploits are. They’re not crazy, they’re not nuts. They’ve made well-informed choices. In fact, they’re totally rational people. People who are having the time of their lives.