Blue Mountains, NSW, Australia: Something very odd is coming over Dwain Weston.
Staring over an endless grey chasm at Bridle Veil Falls, he makes out scars where the earth has been eaten away by sky. Cliffs, valleys and waterfalls. Drops of water scream into the abyss and slow-motion cloud spins through the valley.
Weston’s perceptions are beginning to warp.
The view ripples, the distance swells and pulses. Empty spaces left by cliff faces work like magnets on his mind. It’s a sensation somewhere between sinking and swimming. Not vertigo. Not madness. It’s a long, sucking craving that begins in the eyeballs, boils in the stomach and ends up in a single word; Jump!
Weston remembers this feeling as a small boy, visiting the Falls with his father. “It scared the hell out of me,” he says. “I said, ‘Dad, I feel like jumping’, and he said; ‘Son, a lot of us do.’
So I knew it was normal, to be sucked off the edge like that. To tempt the idea, play with the instincts. Back then I scared myself, now I know there’s no sensation more immense, more complete, than BASE jumping.”
The seduction of that fatal step into air is no longer a mystery for the 30-year-old who has 600 massive leaps behind him and knows what it feels like to step into his fear. To have the edge crumbling beneath his feet, to crouch low over the drop – close the eyes for a moment, clear the head with one long breath and push off into open space. It’s no longer just jumping that tantalises Weston. What he wants is bliss. The lust that drives Weston is a quest for extra seconds of an extraordinary ecstasy each time he shatters the standard space/time/thought matrix of human experience in freefall.
Standing on the edge of 300 feet of sheer, raw rock with hard earth under you and a huge sky biting at your head, you could be forgiven for clinging to the guard rail. Weston, however, would be more likely to be standing six feet back, eyes fixed on the last inch of loose earth and long blonde hair raking on the updraft. If you could hear what he was thinking it would horrify you even more than the realisation he is not just looking at the view, but getting ready to run at it.
“Okay,” he’s counseling himself. “Logic says I can do this. I’ve made the calculations, I’ve trained the turns. Just run, don’t slip at the edge, get good traction for the spring and turn. Reverse somersault, twist, lay out and turn. That’s five seconds, please God – I know I can do this.”
If you happened to be there, watching his body take air, tumble gracefully into diving acrobatics at speeds approaching 200 ks per hour, chances are your mind would fail to compute. He would look something like a bird, or an angel – spinning and falling with a grace, tender and terrible. The sight of a human body falling so superbly through air induces a sublime kind of terror.
They call it BASE jumping, and even after the frenzied attention of marketers for soft drinks, light beer and fresh mints rendered most extreme sports passe last decade, the idea still scares most people stupid. BASE is simple; you find the highest objects in the world – buildings, antennas, span bridges and earth, and jump off them.
In true ‘extreme’ sports, where the sanity of competitors is more frequently disputed than the stunts they perform, BASE jumping remains the wild card in the deck. “People have a lot of trouble understanding what it is about BASE,” agrees Weston. “It’s the challenge of cracking the logic, taming the fear and then pioneering ideas that makes BASE jumping work. It’s nothing to do with conquering fear, facing death or anything like that.”
“What it is all about is a kind of grace, maybe 6 seconds in the arms of the most incredible grace that swallows you whole somewhere between jumping into space and falling to the earth.”
Weston knows every fraction of a second of every jump he does. His apartment walls, like the digs of a modern Galileo, are posted with charts, meticulous diagrams of angles, wind flows, figures and numbers. “From 300 foot, with complicated aerobatics, the margins are fine – you need to know every inch of them. There are five seconds of freefall, but only three to play with. If I achieve the turns I have precisely 1.5 seconds to deploy the parachute – there would be 0.5 seconds for a margin of error. These things are knowable. If you do the sums.”
And he does do the sums. Weston is not your average thrill seeker – hardly any of the guys who do this sort of thing can afford to be stupid. Extreme sports weed out the stupid with blunt efficiency. No, Weston, in fact, is something of a genius – a code cracker for the Australian Secret Service, an arrestingly sharp, calculated, precise mind that is meticulous down to the birds’ nests on his charts, and poetic in his ability to describe the love story behind all his effort.
What separates the good guys in BASE from the rest is the willingness to invest time, lots of it, in the possibilities of seconds.
But why, exactly – may we ask?
“You’re only here once,” says Weston.
“It’s not for long. If you want to make the most of it, to find out what exist beyond your fears and see how sweet life really is – you need to explore the edges.”
Troll Wall, Northern Norway, is the edge in BASE jumping. With a full drop of 5,700 feet and views across a massive open canyon, it is not only the highest jumpable cliff wall in the world, but one of the most spectacular. Because of projected rock, BASE jumpers leap to a final possible drop point 4,000 feet below – for the best that’s about 28 seconds of freefall. “It’s the Mecca,” says Weston, “For surfers it’s Hawaii, for climbers it’s Everest, in BASE the Troll Wall is it.”
Troll Wall is also legally off-limits to BASE jumpers. It’s killed a lot of people. Access is a six-hour climb on mountain and ice through a three-hour northern European night. “It’s cold, it’s dark, it’s beautiful,” says Weston. “When you arrive at the jump site you’ve walked from dusk to dawn knowing you are about to fly off the most intense drop there is.”
He makes it sound romantic, but the truth is that while the world around him may be dawning in a state of grace, before a jump like this Dwain Weston is freaking out. Seriously.
“Let me tell you about the element of fear,” Weston says. “It sucks!
“And it never goes away. People who tell you they do these things for the fear are liars.”.
“It’s a different feeling to the fear of being mugged or bashed – it’s a fear you bring yourself forward to.
But that depth of fear – it’s miserable, gut-wrenching. Every living thing has a survival instinct and when you put yourself in front of a huge fall, walk to the edge and get ready to jump that instinct knows for damn sure that it’s not a normal, healthy thing to do.
It jumps up and down, it screams and kicks. It has to go to the toilet, it gets a headache, it shivers and wonders if your house is burning down. It begs at you not to do this thing, to go home! and it’s a very difficult thing, an excruciating thing to get on top of it.
“If I were standing on that edge with a parachute on my back getting ready to jump and some idiot walked up wearing a No Fear T-shirt, I’d know they had no bloody idea.
The most logical thing, the natural thing, the only normal thing to be saying at a time like that is ‘I’m scared to death, please – don’t let me wet my pants’.
After that, he jumps. “The fear disappears the second you step off the edge,” he says. “Once you’re there and you’ve committed, your body shuts down from the panic. The conversation ends and you have to deal with what’s happening right now.” What’s happening ‘right now’ is that approximately 4,000 foot of sheer rock, boulders, trees, escarpment and earth are rushing past your body at a velocity of 200kph. The air, which your body is surfing and slicing and cutting through, screams in your ears. “The noise is incredible,” says Weston. “It roars!”
“And now your resistance is gone, you are fully committed, well… this is where life starts to get extremely interesting,” he grins.
Falling off a cliff face toward solid earth with just seconds to accomplish complex turns and surfing moves in freefall, hitting speeds most people will never see on their car’s speedos while calculating the last possible moment to pull out your chute is not easy to describe. “It’s everything; every emotion you ever felt rolled into one. That moment; it’s all moments. It’s pure life, nothing else matters.”
The essence of BASE jumping, the thing that they go back for, is a remarkable inversion caused by the intensity of the experience, the shattering of a time/space assumption in left-brain logic and complete surrender to overwhelm. Mid-fall a BASE jumper hits a point where reality bends backwards. It’s no longer the body that’s falling, but the world accelerating. “You feel motionless, it’s all happening around you,” says Weston. He describes a state of grace when he is able to perform his aerobatics, surf currents, ride the air and tumble turn the abyss. “It’s a sort of purity,” he says.
“Those are pure, pure moments. You’re in freefall, you’re at that moment, you’re tearing at the ground, you’ve got seconds to go before impact and you’re holding on, holding on because what you’re feeling out there is an indescribable ecstasy. Utter peace at 200ks.
“There’s so much complexity in a person’s life; taxation, crappy relationships, career, promotions, money, time – but for those moments none of it exists. You’ve stripped the crap off life and got to the source. You realise, in that space, what’s really important, what the intensity is. It’s not the end, it’s not mortality, it’s not the thrill of staring death in the face – it’s just so simple…. it called being alive.
Five seconds, eight seconds, twenty seconds of tearing through all the crap, the mediocre, the dull, the grind – that is a spoonful of power, joy, bliss that lasts for months. It’s a spoonful of energy we don’t have a word for – and if you made that yourself, took it alone, and out in the wild – well, you, my friend, have just written your own passport to reality.”
Dwain was participating in a skydiving stunt at the Royal Gorge Bridge near Canon City, Colorado where he and another parachutist jumped from an airplane intending to do an acrobatic maneuver around the bridge. He was killed when he struck the bridge railing and fell into the Royal Gorge in front of 200 horrified spectators. He was 30 years old. I am grateful to have had the chance to speak with him and to have had this view into his world.
This article published in Panorama, and Australian Penthouse.