Fainer's story of his Angel Falls, Venezuela, South America
Base Jump : March 2001
Suddenly it was quiet. I was 3,212 ft. above the canyon floor below the falls, and 4,000 ft. above the Venezuelan jungle. The surrounding mountains reminded me of Monument Valley in Arizona , craggy cliff faces rising perpendicular to the ground, 2,000 and 3,000 ft. high, with a flat mesa on top. I could see a hundred miles. The air was clear, cool, and refreshing. I was so thrilled to be out of the jungle and on the top of a mountain. It was a busy site. Eight of us were preparing to jump, all at various stages of readiness. I looked up to hear the count down and watch Ed go first, swooping off the edge in his winged Birdman suit. It was amazing, and suddenly the realization sank in that I too was irrevocably going to that edge.
Our schedule was tight. We had to keep an even pace and not dawdle while we had a good weather window. I put on my rig and got my gear checked by Alan who was nervously tightening his own leg straps and calibrating his altimeter. Now it was time to go up the ladder to the launch point. A 10-ft. ladder climb up to the boulder above was the first hurdle. It inclined sideways at a 15-degree angle, straight up without leaning, and was awkward to climb with my 25 lb.rig on my back. I pulled myself onto the boulder with a rope at the top that I hoped was fixed, to join the six people there. Four jumpers were getting ready to go along with two-camera crew filming, a still photographer, and a coordinator on the radio with the landing team. The 10-second countdown began and then Rick disappeared over the edge , gone in a split second. His landing was off target and in the trees requiring us to wait a few minutes before Allen could jump. Allen also landed in the trees giving me even more time to enjoy the perch and let it all sink in.
Rich the National geographic cameraman began his interview with me. " How you feel ", "why are you here? " he asked. I was caught in a sound byte, wanting to look good on camera and also be honest. And in my sincere reply I felt a welling up of fear, joy, elation, dread and excitement washing over me. My face flushed and my eyes began to mist. It was real and it was happening right there in real time, in that moment. For me, the world had stopped turning, there was no time, no country, no other place except that rock I stood upon, and the overwhelming emotion and senses that fought each other for my attention and consciousness. I concluded the interview by saying "now it's time to revert to my training" and I began to focus on the business end of this adventure.
I asked for input from Denise and her 250 base jumps, and listened like a good soldier to her instructions about launch position and direction. I shook hands with Jim, the 72 year old who would follow after me, and was about to become the oldest man to ever jump Angel Falls. We wished each other good luck. I then took a handful of Jan Davis' ashes, the first woman to jump off of Angel Falls and whose skydiving rig I was now using for my first base jump. I sent up a wish for her protection, confident that she could hear.
My sense of humor was kicking in now, and I joked with the crew and progressively felt more relaxed and happy. I waved to Henry and Clem who were roped to their camera ledge 100-ft. below and astride my position. I then noticed Tom Sanders with Lori the National Geographic Producer on another ledge immediately below them. They waved back to me and I felt everybody's good vibes and supportive wishes which gave me even more confidence that everything was going to go well.
ShowTime. I was ready. I began the 10-second countdown and inched closer to the edge as the video cameras began to roll. At Zero, I said to Rudolpho, the cameramen beside me, "hasta la vista, baby". I sunk my weight into the rock below me and launched for that cloud a few thousand feet above the mountain peak on the other side of the valley. "Yes!" I yelled, aware that I had nailed the launch and had perfect head high attitude and stability. My hand opened up at that moment and Jan's ashes were again in flight over Angel Falls. Three seconds into the flight I extended my legs, and opened my arms into a cross position to begin the lateral flight away from the cathedral wall. The flight was smooth and silent. I was flying down into this rocky abyss completely and instinctually on skydiver autopilot. At six seconds from launch I looked over at the falls to see them standing still as if frozen in their descent, laying motionless while posing for my camera eye.
Ten seconds. I was accelerating through 90 mph. The speed was self evident by the screaming of air rushing past my ears and the flapping of my jump suit. The rocky outcropping of the cathedral wall that encloses the waterfall was rapidly approaching. This was my visual cue to deploy my parachute; the same canopy that had malfunctioned just two jumps earlier and required me to use my reserve parachute. I reached back for the deployment handle, found it immediately and pulled it from its pocket. A second later I felt the tug of the inflating canopy and looked up to see it fully outstretched and functional. It opened 90 degrees to the right of my heading in free fall. I was looking right back at the Cathedral Wall while reaching up for the steering toggles. I was 100-ft. away from the waterfall as I pulled down hard on the right steering line and directed the canopy toward the canyon below.
The more dangerous and precarious part had now begun. I needed to land this canopy onto a 20-degree slope, and into a 20 x 40-ft. area dotted with boulders and 100-ft. trees. I had given it a lot of thought when I first inspected the landing area and was fully aware how important accuracy would be for a safe landing here. I was now being bumped by the turbulent winds within the cathedral and just beyond. The parachute would rise and fall with the lift and sink of that turbulent air. I flew out toward the target, turning in figure eights to avoid getting downwind of the target area.
I spiraled to bleed off altitude astride a forested ridge that rose 500 feet. I flew along that slope, side slipping down it without taking my eyes from the red X that was the target. At 150 feet, I was sure I had it, confident I was going to land dead center. I sunk it in as steeply as I dared, but at the last 50 feet, I hit the wind shadow created by the hillside the target lay upon. I picked up forward speed as the ground rushed up at me. Because of the slope and the visual distortion, I wasn't sure when my feet would finally touch down. I landed in waist high bushes six feet to the right of the target, more softly than I had expected a moment earlier. I was standing...a very good result.
A bigger smile was not possible. Joy, relief, accomplishment, triumph and cheers beneath a perfectly blue sky, churned out from my pounding heart. I felt satisfaction and complete contentment. I had once again placed myself at the edge of doubt and fear, and found a path through its tentacled maze. I had stepped out of the safe bubble I've created for myself, and took a bold step to explore the world outside the box. I challenged my ego, which said, "play it safe, don't make changes or commitments that might shake up my perfect order". Before Venezuela, my spirit had been trapped and insulated, and my narrow perspective safely protected. Now I felt invincible and liberated.
For my future and whatever lays ahead for me, I now have a fresh and clear metaphor. A reference to push me beyond the barrier that accompanies my inner voice which might say; "but I'm afraid". I'm reminded of the Frank Herbert quotation from "Dune", that I recounted before the jump. "Fear is the mind killer"
I jumped off Angel Falls...and I liked it!
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