In the early hours of April 9, 2008, a 44-year-old Englishman and a 48-year-old Frenchman sat silently on the edge of the windowless 155th floor of the Burj tower – the tallest building in the world – watching dawn bleed over Dubai. From their eyrie half a mile up, they saw the desert turn from blue to pink and heard the muezzins call the faithful to prayer.
In that moment, remembers the Frenchman, “everything below seemed to belong to us. We felt like kings, and this was our kingdom”.
Their reign was short. At 5.30am, the men could see truckloads of workers arriving at the site, ready to start construction for the day. It was time to go. They rose to their feet. The Englishman looked at his friend, counted to three, and launched himself from the building. The Frenchman followed a moment later.
The Englishman fell like a shot pheasant for ten long seconds. He then drew his small pilot chute, which caught, filled with air, and released the blossom of his main canopy. The Frenchman took more time. He was wearing a wingsuit – a webbed overall that allows a parachutist to travel forward as well as down. As he fell, he spread his arms wide, raised his chest to the dawn, and glided away from the building. When he had flown as close as he dared to a nearby skyscraper, he deployed his parachute and descended to safety. The pair had done it – they had pulled off one of the greatest coups in the history of base jumping.
Why? Why would someone be so stupid as to jump from a building with only a small parachute on their back? An answer (perhaps not the answer, but an answer) is that people have been doing this kind of thing, if not for ever, then at least for 150 years. Ever since Charles Blondin strutted across Niagara Falls on a tightrope in 1859, ever since Houdini first broke from his shackles, ever since the most famous wirewalker of all, the Man on Wire, Philippe Petit, danced between the twin towers in 1974, men – and it is almost always men – have needed to touch the void.
It is no coincidence that the trend for what we now know as “extreme” sport started in the 19th century, the golden age of gentlemen explorers. Just as some Victorians discovered an urge to map the dark corners of the world, others discovered a need to map the edges of physical possibility. This tradition has been carried into the 21st century by skydivers, mountaineers, solo yachtsmen, and base jumpers – parachutists who jump from Earth-bound objects.
One thing sets base jumpers apart from their Victorian forebears: they do not need an audience. Indeed, the first jump from the Burj was secretive, modest, elegantly conceived – everything the building is not. The Burj, despite being an impressive feat of engineering, is profoundly ugly any way one looks at it. As a concept, it stems from a childish urge to be the biggest. Visually, it resembles a game of giant Jenga. And ethically, it stinks. Like much of Dubai, the Burj has been constructed by people from the Indian subcontinent on dirt wages and no union.
It was left to two jumpers to provide the poetry. The first was Hervé Le Gallou, a slight Parisian train driver with a phlegmatic manner and wide, dark eyes. When Le Gallou was a child, he dreamt of flying “like a bird”, and the rest of his life has been spent in an effort to realise his fantasy. He has no family ties (“I would shoot myself in the head if I had a wife and kids,” he says), but he does have more than 1,000 base jumps to his name, including 40 from the Eiffel Tower. More significantly, Le Gallou is one of a handful of jumpers in the world redefining the boundaries of wingsuit flight. He hopes, soon, to be able to land without using a parachute.
The other, who we’ll call Dave Donaldson, is a garrulous IT consultant from Darlington, and the spitting image of the actor Rik Mayall. Married with children, he was once a paratrooper, but now commands a well-paid position fixing the computer systems of blue-chip companies. He is also a relative novice in the sport. The Burj was only the third building he had jumped – an achievement, a friend notes, that is “like a 14-year-old scoring the winning goal in the FA Cup”.
Although there have been isolated incidents of rudimentary base jumps made in the 19th century, its origins as a recognisably modern activity can be traced to California in the 1970s. On August 8, 1978, a Californian parachutist and photographer named Carl Boenish filmed four of his friends make a jump from El Capitan, a steepling rock face in Yosemite National Park.
All landed safely. Word spread.
In 1981, three years, and many jumps later, the sport was officially founded. The story goes that Boenish was staying at the Texas home of a fellow enthusiast, Phil Smith, when he suggested that what he and his friends were doing was not parachuting any more. It was a new thing, and it needed a name. He suggested an acronym -base. It stood for building, antenna, span (bridge) and Earth – the four objects from which it is possible to jump. Jean, Carl’s wife, pointed out that base means “evil or vile”, but was outvoted. Smith and Boenish loved it. To become a base jumper, you would have to complete jumps from all four objects. Phil Smith became base number 1, his friend Phil Mayfield number 2, and Carl and Jean Boenish numbers 3 and 4. Twenty-eight years later, there are still only around 1,250 people in the world who have their base numbers.
Le Gallou is not one of them. Although he has jumped from all four required elements hundreds of times, he does not believe in gaining anything so prosaic as official recognition. Donaldson, however, is number 1,199. He came to base late, and, at first, struggled to find a way into the community – an exclusive and reclusive club of around 50 in Britain. It was only after two years of nagging that Donaldson eventually persuaded a well-regarded Dutch jumper, Vrank Le Poole, to mentor him through his early attempts.
Mentors are important, because base jumping is, for any number of reasons, a perilous activity. The most significant danger comes, of course, from jumping without a reserve parachute. If there is any kind of problem with the canopy, the result can be terminal. But accidents are also common after the parachute has been deployed. Because one is jumping away from a fixed object (rather than into clear blue sky), it is vital that the canopy opens straight. This requires good weather, exact packing, and precise execution. A wobbly opening can result in the jumper careering back into the cliff or building or antenna from which he has just leapt.
A mentor takes on all this risk. He shows the novice the different ways to pack his parachute (depending on the length of the free fall) and watches his back. If something goes wrong, the mentor bears a heavy load. It is, therefore, a testament to the nit-picking and good practice established by these old heads that so few people have died. In 28 years, there have been around 125 recorded deaths – a significant statistic, but not catastrophic when one considers that around 20,000 to 30,000 jumps were completed last year alone. For comparison, 100 people died climbing in the French, Swiss and Italian Alps last summer.
In the past few years, many novices have chosen to enter the sport without mentors – through professional courses run by gear manufacturers from safe sites like the Perrine Bridge at Twin Falls, Idaho. But although everyone who takes a course is expected to have at least 200 skydives under their belt, and the instruction is professional, some experienced jumpers worry that the proliferation of what they call the “McBase” system will encourage dilettantes – or “tourists” as they call them – and the mortality rate will rise.
Donaldson chose the traditional route. He found his mentor and, with some assistance, jumped from Norman Foster’s spectral viaduct at Millau in southern France. The experience was so terrifying he vowed to leave the sport immediately. But, after a couple of days, he felt an itch to return. He fell in with an experienced group of French enthusiasts. One of these was Le Gallou, with whom Donaldson jumped from a building in Benidorm, Spain, and formed an instant bond.
“I could see he was cautious, he was conscious of problems, he could handle himself,” recalls Le Gallou. This was good news. The novice everyone watches out for is the one for whom base is a jaunt. If they don’t take their own lives seriously, they endanger those they jump with. “There are some people I would not jump with again,” says Le Gallou. “But Dave, I could see he was okay.”
Le Gallou suggested the Burj. The base community had kept its eye on the building since construction was announced in 2004. It was, they all agreed, “the big one”, but nobody had yet plucked up the courage to attempt a jump. Why? The building itself offered no particular dangers. Taller means safer in base – jumping from a 200ft tower block would cause more palpitations. It was the security people worried about. How would they get into the building? How would they escape once they landed? How would the Arab legal system treat them if they were caught?
Le Gallou had a plan. He had been reading about the Burj and had followed its progress on Google Earth. Now, he said, was exactly the right time to go – it was almost finished. It would be possible, he suggested, to dress as an engineer, walk into the building with parachuting gear in a bag, ascend the stairs by foot, reach the top, and jump. “With the Burj, I saw only the building’s height,” Le Gallou says. “There is nothing else like it in the world. I wanted to make a 360-degree flight around a tower in a wingsuit, which no one has done before, and which is impossible from any other building. I saw an amazing opportunity.”
Le Gallou bought a flight to Dubai and e-mailed the details to Donaldson to prove he was serious. At this point, it would have been natural for the Englishman to hesitate. His girlfriend, now his wife, had just told him she was pregnant. He had plans for a wedding. If he were arrested in Dubai, he could be imprisoned. He could lose his job. If he were injured or killed, the consequences for those he loved were not worth thinking about. So, he bought the ticket.
Donaldson got on the plane because base jumping changes a person in ways that skydiving cannot. Skydivers still feel the rage of chemicals on landing, the ground rush. But there is a certain safety attached to jumping with two parachutes on your back and an electronic device attached to your rig that will open your reserve should you fall below a certain altitude.
It’s never like that for base jumpers. They have only one parachute on their back: one chance to do it right. Le Gallou remembers his first time in 1994 feeling “more like a suicide than a sport”. Another jumper describes the sensation as “quadruple espresso”.
Base jumpers are what psychologists call “high-sensation seekers”, people who need regular dopamine and adrenaline hits in order to feel satisfied. These people are wired differently. Take their reaction to sudden stress. While the rest of us would feel our heart rates jump and a feeling of panic come over our bodies if our lives were put suddenly at risk, this minority of extreme sportsmen and women actually feel their heart rates lower momentarily. In moments of high stress, they see the world clearer than ever.
As well as being adrenaline addicts, most base jumpers have a finicky, almost nerdish side. Because what they do is so dangerous, they accept death as a possibility before they start. But they also begin to see the world entirely in terms of risk. Donaldson is a good case in point. Since he started base jumping, he says he has become deeply risk-averse in his everyday life. He drives at 65 miles per hour on motorways.
The paradox at the heart of base is exemplified by Britain’s most prolific urban jumper, Dan “the Man” Witchalls. A roofer, he lives in Buckhurst Hill, Essex, in a tidy detached house, and claims to be 39 (but looks much older). His profession, he admits, allows him a privileged view of London’s changing skyline – “I can’t drive past a new building or crane without thinking, maybe, maybe…” he says. His business cards play on this alter ego. On the one side are contact details. On the other is a photograph of Witchalls, in his trademark jade-and-white jumpsuit, leaping from the Petronas Twin Towers in Kuala Lumpur. The legend reads simply: “Extreme Roofing”.
At Witchalls’ house, there are two places dedicated to base. The first is a small trophy room, filled with photographs of his most impressive jumps. Every building is named and dated. Witchalls takes pride in objects he has “opened”, but tries not to mention too many sites to me in case I publish their names and “burn them” for future jumpers. Among his conquests are the arch of the new Wembley Stadium, the Hilton on Park Lane and the London Stock Exchange – all jumped at night, without mishap. “There is a bit more of a thrill about sneaking around somewhere you’re not meant to be at night,” he admits. “It does add to the excitement.”
Along the radiator of the trophy room is a row of around six orders of service from the funerals of jumpers he has known. One shows the name of Angus “Gus” Hutchison-Brown, a much-loved British jumper who died last year in Meiringen, Switzerland.
“They were all friends of mine,” he says. “I’ve been to the funerals of too many people. Although you could say, it’s better them than me.”
Upstairs, in the second bedroom, Witchalls shows me his half-packed rig. The canopy is folded at the top end of the room, while the strings stretch towards the rucksack like jellyfish tentacles. “I take more time than most over my packing,” he says. “Some people take 15 minutes, but I’ve got a way of doing it that I don’t want to change. Please don’t touch anything.”
I don’t. I wouldn’t. I tiptoe around the end of the rig, and make my way downstairs, where Witchalls’ Danish girlfriend is working at the kitchen table. They met through skydiving. I want to ask her what she thinks of her boyfriend’s new sport, but he saves me the bother. “She don’t like it, doesn’t like talking about it,” he says. Does that cause conflict? “Yeah, a bit. It’s a hard one to resolve, that.” No, I say, it’s easy: stop. But I can see that for Witchalls, stopping is not easy. In fact, it’s not even on the menu.
Le Gallou and Donaldson arrived in Dubai on a Saturday, hired a car, and checked into a cheap hotel. They had a week to make the jump, and, with plenty of time on their hands, decided to investigate the site. They had brought builder’s helmets and Day-Glo jackets, so that they might pass as engineers. Donaldson carried a clipboard. Le Gallou had even printed a fake ID. It read: “Hervé Le Gallou, Specialiste des Ascenseurs de Descente Rapide” – literally a “high-speed descending elevator specialist”. It was not, technically, a lie.
Thus armed, they approached the Burj’s building site. “No one gave us any trouble,” says Le Gallou. “In Dubai, it was much better for us to look European. All the workers are afraid of white people, because white people always shout at them and tell them what to do. It’s horrible, but for our purposes it was good.”
On Tuesday night, the night of the jump, Dubai was, at 37C and 70% humidity, hotter than a steam oven. But, importantly for the task ahead, it was windless. Le Gallou and Donaldson made their way to the outskirts of the Burj building site, parked the car, and put on their costumes. They crawled through the gap in the fence they had identified two days earlier.
They climbed for 75 minutes, to the top of the Burj. At one point, two-thirds of the way up the building, they came across a room full of sleeping workers. One of them woke up, and stared at Le Gallou, terrified. He thought he was going to be busted for sleeping on the job. The jumpers motioned for him to be quiet, and carried on. By the time they reached the 155th floor, both men were sweating profusely. There was time to recover. They had three hours until the sun came up, and so they waited. Le Gallou was irritated. The jump he had planned, a world-first 360-degree circuit of a tower, looked impossible. The fishing-line cables of the cranes were blocking his route. He thought perhaps those cranes might stop for a break, but they never did.
Around 4am, the jumpers were startled by the sound of a guard jabbering into his radio. He had stopped in the service elevator, on their floor. There were only 10 metres between them and the guard. And, with the game apparently up, both men put on their backpacks, ready to leap from the building should they be approached. But the guard did not see them. His elevator descended. The men exhaled and waited.
At dawn, they jumped. Le Gallou swung gracefully to a designated spot outside the compound, while Donaldson landed within the building site. When the Englishman landed he knew he had been seen, and as he gathered up his parachute, a security guard chased after him. He ran away until he was backed into a dead end, with one security guard in front of him, and one behind. The nightmare scenario had materialised. He thought about what capture and prosecution would mean, and made a bold move. He ran straight at the security guard blocking his exit, who, flummoxed, threw himself out the way.
Outside the site, Le Gallou had picked up the car and was looking for his friend. He eventually found Donaldson, being chased, and opened the passenger door. His grateful friend jumped in with his gear, and they sped away.
Looking back on the jump now, Donaldson and Le Gallou seemed to represent the sport’s past and its future. Donaldson’s leap was made for the thrill afforded by throwing oneself off a building one is meant to be nowhere near.
But the sport is moving on. Base has become a predominantly alpine activity. Indeed, base is changing the way other mountain sports are being approached. Last year, an American, Dean Potter, free-climbed the north face of the Eiger – one of the most challenging ascents in the world – with only a parachute on his back. It was an extraordinary achievement.
Wingsuits are also changing what it means to base jump. In the early 2000s, when the suits first started to be commercially produced, base jumpers used them to travel as far away from the cliffs as possible. Now, the best “pilots” in the most modern suits are interested in “proximity flying”. They can fly for minutes at a time, travelling three times as far forward as down, and are so skilled they can skim cliff faces with their hands.
An American, Jeb Corliss – a man recently awarded 100 hours of community service for attempting to base jump the Empire State Building – is convinced he can land safely using only a wingsuit and no parachute on a specially modified ramp. Le Gallou would rather land on a ski slope. If either could achieve this, the dream of “flying like a bird” will have been realised. But James Boole, who works for Phoenix-Fly, the Croatian company that makes the vast majority of wingsuits, thinks the technology is not yet sufficiently developed. “Imagine taking a commercial airliner, cutting both wings in half and trying to land without the engines,” he says. “It doesn’t make for the softest of touchdowns. To land gently on a ski slope should be possible, but to come to a controlled stop is the problem.”
After Le Gallou had jumped from the Burj, he was overjoyed but impatient, because he could see the site’s potential. “The thing I had come to do – to make this 360 jump – I could not do, so I had to come back.”
Donaldson was having none of it. After the trauma of his near miss, he was happy to be a free man. He had not slept properly in weeks and he was “shattered” physically and emotionally. He just wanted to go home.
But Le Gallou was keen for another shot at his 360-degree jump, and, two days after they had conquered the Burj, he went back. Donaldson agreed to have the motor running on the car for his friend’s escape. But the jump never happened. Le Gallou followed exactly the same pattern as before, but this time he was asked more questions. Eventually, every security guard in the building had been alerted to his presence, and, on the 25th floor, he was apprehended.
Donaldson waited and waited. His worst fears were confirmed when a text message flashed onto his phone, which said: “They’ve caught me. They’re coming for you. Leave the country.”
The Englishman jumped in the car and raced to the hotel, half-expecting the police to have beaten him to it. What he didn’t know was that Le Gallou had managed to change Donaldson’s name in his mobile phone, and had convinced his inquisitors that he had jumped on Tuesday night “with an American I have never met”.
Donaldson sped to the airport and bought himself the first ticket he could find out of Dubai. Le Gallou, meanwhile, was entering what would become a bureaucratic nightmare, during which he was detained in Dubai for three months, narrowly escaping a year-long jail sentence.
For a while, it looked as if Le Gallou might be permitted to leave Dubai within a week, but his prospects deteriorated when, two weeks after his arrest, another Brit, named Darren, infiltrated the Burj and made a similar jump. The officials who had previously been sympathetic to Le Gallou’s story [they had never seen base jumping, let alone punished it] were irritated when this third jumper gave his story to local journalists, claiming to be the first person to have jumped from the Burj.
The resulting publicity put added pressure on the authorities to make an example of the base jumpers. But the judge could not decide what to do with these stupid parachuting Europeans, and released them after extracting a small fine. Le Gallou was greeted like a returning hero at the Paris Metro, where his colleagues presented him with a ¤900 whip-round to cover his legal costs. Darren, meanwhile, returned to approbation from the British base community for claiming a record he did not break.
Le Gallou is now trying to persuade Emaar, who owns the Burj, to allow him to return this year to complete his 360-degree wingsuit jump. For Donaldson, Dubai changed everything. By the time he returned to Britain, word had already spread around the base chatrooms. He became, briefly and reluctantly, a star. He was even congratulated by a group of German teenagers in a pizza restaurant in Yorkshire.
His wife is less starstruck. She has never told him to stop jumping and knows it would be useless anyway. But, having lived through the stress of his near-capture, she has had enough. The experience has also led Donaldson to question his future in the sport. When he stood at the top of the tower in Dubai, he knew he faced the same physical dangers as his French friend. But he also realised, with the kind of clarity that comes after staring down the barrel, what his life is already worth. His reticence to continue is not uncommon among base jumpers.
Nothing, however, will clip Le Gallou’s wings. He has engineered his whole life to pursue his “kid’s dream of flying”. And, when he pinches his fingers together and says “I am this close”, I believe him.