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BASE jumping from the Rialto: plain stupid or something else entirely?

One does not simply jump from a building … extensive preparation is essential. Channel 7/Colby Swandale

Late last week four men entered a restaurant on the 55th floor of the Rialto tower in Melbourne, had a couple of quiet drinks then leapt from the balcony.

Much of the commentary of this event described the men as idiots, daredevils and thrill-seekers. Sure, what they did was illegal, but then there are very few spots in the world where BASE jumping is legal.

So does jumping from the Rialto really make someone an idiot? Or is there more to it than that? And what does BASE jumping involve, apart from jumping off buildings?

In a nutshell, BASE jumping is the world’s most extreme parachute sport. It involves leaping from solid structures such as cliffs, bridges or buildings before deploying a parachute and landing. BASE is an acronym for Building, Antenna, Span (bridges), Earth (cliffs) – the fixed objects that can be jumped from.

While BASE jumping is similar to skydiving in many ways – indeed it grew out of skydiving – there are some crucial differences. For a start, most BASE jumps are done from less than 600 metres while skydiving is usually done from altitudes of 1,000 metres or greater.

One of the most significant differences between BASE jumping and skydiving is in the use of safety equipment. While skydivers utilise safety devices such as altimeters, automatic parachute-activation devices and secondary parachutes, BASE jumpers do not have any such safety equipment, beyond their main parachute.

Why? In most cases, these devices simply won’t function for BASE jumpers, given jumps can be done from structures less than 100 metres from the ground. If something goes wrong with the main parachute at this height, there’s little chance a second parachute could deploy in time.

Extreme sports such as BASE jumping, big-wave surfing, extreme skiing, waterfall kayaking, rope-free multi-pitch climbing and their less-extreme cousins are fast becoming an activity of choice for many young (and not so young) Australians.

Participating in extreme sports such as the above has traditionally been seen as a death wish, or the purview of the emotionally unstable and unhealthy followers of the “No Fear” movement. Why else would someone willingly partake in an activity where the most likely outcome of a mistake or accident is death?

In the past, science has also labelled extreme sport athletes as sensation-seekers or risk-takers. But, in the past few years, research has started to reveal that extreme sport participants do not fit this traditional stereotype. In fact, participation in extreme sporting events has been associated with positive health and psychological transformations.

BASE jumpers and other extreme sport participants are highly trained individuals who are very aware of the potential dangers of their sport. Events are meticulously planned and athletes undertake extensive preparation to make sure their chances of a mishap are minimised.

Even after extensive preparation, athletes will walk away without jumping if conditions prove unfavourable on the day.

For the four jumpers who leapt from the Rialto last week, the night of their jump wasn’t their first visit to the iconic Melbourne skyscraper. They had cased the building and 55th-floor restaurant on several occasions preparing themselves for the jump.

EPA/Shamsharin Shamsudin

Far from experiencing an absence of fear, extreme sport participants report that fear is a constant companion in the lead-up to an event. But, rather than fighting that fear, or letting fear make the decisions for them, participants have learnt, through years of preparation, to make rational decisions based on a realistic assessment of their capabilities, their knowledge of the task and the environment.

Fear is considered a friend; an emotion that keeps them alive; a warning voice that needs to be listened to but that shouldn’t be a barrier to performance. Steering into the fear, when appropriate, opens the door to a range of extraordinary experiences.

These experiences are characterised by complete absorption and a feeling of “being in the moment”. Reports also indicate that sensual awareness is enhanced and time seems to slow down. There is a sense of pure bliss, peace, calm and stillness. There is also a life-enhancing sense of connection to the natural world.

Immediately after reaching the ground, the BASE jumper’s body is awash with sensations. This phase of the experience might last hours or days and be accompanied by intense positive emotions and enhanced feelings of personal energy.

Extreme sports such as BASE jumping can have longer-term affects, including feelings of enhanced wellbeing. Participation has been shown to contribute to positive life changes and an increased ability to cope with the twists and turns of life.

Extreme sports such as BASE jumping have attracted an enormous amount of bad publicity because of the assumptions about risk and needless thrills. But research indicates this is an inaccurate assumption.

A closer look at the statistics reveals that socially acceptable activities, such as motorbike riding, are far more dangerous than BASE jumping.

Many unprepared individuals searching for thrills and excitement have been drawn to extreme sports’ exciting image. Unfortunately, there is little chance of surviving long as a BASE jumper or extreme skier if you aren’t appropriately skilled and prepared.

Extreme sports require an intense commitment, high levels of training and an accurate awareness of personal capabilities. Admittedly, these are not activities for everyone but neither are they the sole domain of reckless adrenaline junkies.

Perhaps it is time we stopped vilifying extreme athletes and worked together to find a way for qualified participants to pursue their passions legally.

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