by Jeremy Samson
Featured in Issue 8 (March 2004) of SA Mountain.
I was busy putting my foot in it – again. I was on a 3,000 foot wall in western Norway trying to make small talk with Eline, the Norwegian girl next to me. A cold wind was blowing from Stavanger and she had remarked that she was getting a little chilly. ” C’mon,” I said “I thought you Norwegian women were tough.”
The realisation of how dumb that comment was struck me before I could dig myself out. She coolly replied: “I am about to jump off a huge cliff with a single parachute on. How much tougher do you want me to be?”
This was the beginning of the great lemming excursion. We were a ruffled up group of dodgy South Africans mooching around the Fjord’s of Norway in search of clean air and big walls. My past holidays had involved climbing up them. This holiday was different, this time I was here to jump off.
We had caught the ferry across from Stavanger the previous day. I was immediately impressed with the beauty of the Norwegian woman, the honesty of the people and the astronomical cost of the place. Blame Trevor, or the flailing Rand, or whatever, but it was hugely expensive. Cunningly, we had brought 15 kgs of food from one of Raymond’s shops and were so laden down, that we had to “borrow” a supermarket trolley for an extended time just to be able to transport our bags.
On day one we were huddled together trying to communicate by radio with a Brazilian boat driver called Flavio to see if he was ready for us. He was waiting at the bottom of the cliff. He was a very mellow guy with a reserved disposition who’s self-control throughout the trip would be seriously challenged by the unreliable boats. In a two-week period he would be stranded twice by ” ignition ” problems on the 21 person boat BASE 1. Then he would downsize to a 3 person dingy which would increase his work load seven fold and which, by the end of the trip eventually sank in the fjord.
His role was crucial, especially with guys like me around. Should one of us “botch” the landing and end up in the fjord he would be there to help extricate us like entangled dolphins from our parachutes before we drowned. Useful guy to have around.
At the top of the cliff were a bunch of society misfits and reprobates. There was Coombsie, a Australian amateur film maker who had recently won a very small prize for a documentary about Lesbian skydivers. Doox, a canvas for body art and piercing who was side splittingly funny and in charge of the operation. Then there was Tom who donated his body to medical science before he was dead. He had some excellent near death stories, complete with scars to prove it, and he had to take thousands of pills to just stay alive. Then us, the South African mob, the only half decent, civilised bunch there.
I couldn’t believe how calm and relaxed everyone was. No one was really that phased about the jump. I asked Doox, the safety officer, if he would do a safety check on my parachute system and he replied “why would I want to do that mate, I’m not jumping with it.” With that clearance, I was ready to go. Flavio communicated that he’d managed to solve the engine problem on the boat and we were all set…
We did a couple of brief safety checks and Coombsie prepared to jump first. He stood on top of Exit point seven – the diving board, and like a high diver, steadied himself for the jump. I couldn’t believe his exit. He did a series of backwards somersaults as he plummeted down the cliff. It’s completely unnerving watching someone jump. After about five seconds he straightened out and by pointing his toes, managed to gain horizontal movement away from the cliff. 20 seconds later and miles below us he pulled his pilot chute and we watched him land on a small beach at the water’s edge.
As I was readying myself to go next, one of the Norwegian jumpers came up to me and asked “Want to jump together ?” I was hoping to do a jump or two first before trying anything ambitious, but I figured perhaps after everyone saw me jump there would be few takers for a 2-way, so I quickly agreed. A wave of apprehension coupled with excitement tingled through me as we prepared to run off the edge together. Then “ready – set – go…” A few steps and I was suddenly in free fall. The unsettling nervousness waned as I picked up speed. Visuals of the wall screamed past me as I relaxed into the jump and glanced at my partner. I neatened up my body position and tried to get into a track to gain distance from the wall. It wasn’t working too well but I gained some distance. The trees and boulders became bigger as I tried to gauge when to pull. The wall we were jumping off, Kjerag, is as high as El Cap. It offers a kilometre of rock and I couldn’t believe how long I was in free fall. Fifteen seconds after leaving the edge I pulled. My parachute opened sweetly above me as I safely drifted down towards the landing area. I landed nicely on a green patch of lawn and glanced up at the cliff. The elation punched through my system. Jumping off a wall like that is mega. The other jumpers appeared as specks on the top of the wall. Nothing could describe the way I felt that morning as I gathered my parachute in the sun in one of the most incredible landscapes I have ever seen.
My fellow South Africans had other plans. Andy de Klerk, Moose (Nick Good) and Shaun were there to wingsuit off these walls. Wingsuiting allows you to fall slower, track further and have more fun. A “wing” extends between your wrists and hips and another between your legs giving you a greater surface area which increases your ability to travel forward. These suits are produced in the USA by a company called Birdman. Shaun produces these suits in Cape Town, and has taken the design a step further. He has increased the surface area, streamlined the design, and added “venting” allowing the suit to inflate more. The result is that this South African product is a world leader in this innovative sport. South African suits travel further and fly longer than any. If it were my project I would brand the hell of the suits, approach Proudly South African for sponsorship, tell all my friends and try to sell them worldwide. But Shaun is different, he quietly keeps developing the product and makes them for friends to test. Nice guy.
On this trip I witnessed new levels of boldness I had no idea existed. I watched Andy, Moose and Shaun waddle off the cliffs as a 3 -way and gracefully take to flight over the fjords. I saw gymnastics in a completely new light. Imagine a high diving competition with a 1km high board. Then imagine what someone with a gymnastic background could do. . . I saw Tom do a McConnkey flip. He didn’t pack his parachute for that jump. He simply hung it over the edge of the cliff as we raised our voices in disbelief. Then he launched outward, doing a forward somersault over his canopy. The lines extended, the canopy shuddered open and he flew away. Not content with that, he then cut away, went back into free fall and deployed his second parachute, which he was wearing over his harness system.
For days we had a routine of walking two hours up to the cliffs, and leaping madly off. Then we would be ferried back by Flavio to the campsite. I was happy. The days were constantly exciting and the evenings were spent drinking and chatting about ideas and places to go. We were getting more confident. The others were wingsuiting superbly and I felt relaxed on exit and my tracking was getting better.
I decided to try some acrobatics. How complicated could it be? I went to Doox for advice. I wanted to try a “gainer” (backwards somersault) and needed some pointers. “What you want to do mate is just throw your pelvis in the air and wait for the energy to take you over. Just remember it’s 12 seconds to impact if you screw it up, so pull before then.”
“so what happens if I cock it up ?” I asked.
“Just make sure you are wearing camera mate, the visuals will be amazing…” Lesson complete.
Wandering up the next day we were all talking about gainers. Three of us would have our first attempts that day. Kitting up felt different, the pulsing beginner’s fear was back. Ryan my mate from Australia went first. He did it perfectly. An amazing exit, full rotation, and brilliant track away from the wall. Bastard. Nice One.
Eline was next. She ran forward and was on her back. There was no rotation, she just fell downwards back toward the ground. We lost sight of her, but ten seconds later she must have pulled as we heard canopy open and watched her fly toward the landing area. She was fine. I had to tell myself to relax as this unsettled me a bit.
I ran off the edge. Thrusting my pelvis forward, as I was told, I started my “gainer”. I saw the cliff behind me with the others watching me on the edge. I had almost completed the somersault when I did something incredibly stupid. I felt I was taking too long to do the movement and I glanced over my right shoulder to try see the ground. Immediately my balance went out and my body rolled sideways. I panicked and started kicking as I tried to straighten out. I managed to turn over nicely, but the wall was in front of me. About ten meters away I could see ledges rushing past and crack systems that must take hours to climb. I spun 180 degrees to face away and tracked for few moments before pulling. The relief was overwhelming as I safely flew down to land. No more attempts at that I told myself – too stressful. This summer I am going to build a diving board for my pool. I’ll practice first.
After ten days of continuous jumping we had to leave. We had jumped several walls, landed next to our tents at dinner time and drunk copious amounts of whiskey. We had met a variety of similar hedonistic people sharing a similar focus – that of pure fun. I remember the clear blue skies as I ferried away past Kjerag for the final time, the monster cliff looking friendlier in the sun. I love Norway, and this sport is just beginning. There’s fun to be had. We will all be back. Same time. Same place – next year.