Glenys stared at me, completely dumbstruck. We were staying at John Parker's house for the night and had gone out for an Indian curry. I was only half way through my first pint of lager when, to Glenys's astonishment, I'd agreed to go to Venezuela to BASE jump from Angel Falls - the highest waterfall in the world.
John is one of my best friends and we’d skydived together on the same team for seven years, being the British Champions in the four way event for most of that time. I skydived for 15 years accumulating 2,500 skydives, but I'd given up the sport ten years earlier when our children were born - Glenys and I had turned to sailing. We had returned from a four year cruise of the Mediterranean and Caribbean (as described in The Glencora Diaries) and I was back working in the UK, trying to find something to do with my spare time.
By the end of the evening, John and I had worked out a rough plan to join a trip which was being organised an American, Tom Sanders. I would have to do some practise skydives after my ten year lay-off. Glenys was stoic in her acceptance of this expensive commitment.
Two months later, my first skydive was a two-way from 10,000ft. John and I had persuaded the Chief Instructor of a skydiving centre (Geoff, an old friend) to allow us to do this. Geoff put John firmly in charge of my safety and I've never seen John so nervous - he gave me very strict instructions on what I could and couldn't do. He shouldn’t have worried, it was like riding a bicycle - you never forget. I loved the ride up in the small Cessna, the mild nerves with the adrenalin build up. Exiting the plane seemed like the most natural thing in the world and everything clicked into place - I had a ball. I was so relaxed that at break-off, I grabbed hold of John and back looped him, making him tumble towards the ground as I opened my parachute, chuckling.
A few months later, with 25 skydives under my belt, John and I boarded a Boeing 747 bound for Florida. It was a typical cramped flight, 3 films, 100 excited kids going to see Mickey Mouse and copious amounts of wine and beer. We had a few "deep” conversations about jumping Angel Falls. John was apprehensive like me. He’d already done three BASE jumps, so knew what to expect. I had no idea what to expect, but I was acutely aware that death was more a possibility than anything I’d done before.
We spent a few days at an airfield in Florida called “Sky Dive City”, which is run by another old friend. There we did fifteen skydives to get more current and to try out the jumpsuits and equipment that we were going to use on the BASE jump. All of my equipment was borrowed apart from a bright yellow boiler suit, which I’d bought to make me stand out on the photographs – what a poser!
We drove to Miami, stayed in a hotel overnight, then met Tom Sanders and the others in the departure lounge early the next day. There were eighteen people on the trip, so it was difficult to talk to everyone, but they seemed to be a typical skydiving crowd and pretty friendly. It was a 2½ hour flight to Caracas. We passed directly over Curacao and I could clearly see Spanish Waters where we anchored on Glencora when we were cruising.
Our Venezuelan host, Pedro Luis, met us at the airport and ensured our smooth passage through the officials. Tom, as a professional photographer and film maker, had brought twenty cases of camera equipment with tripods, 15mm film, video and stills. Joe Sanchez is a professional film cameraman in Hollywood and had borrowed a $150,000, 35mm movie camera to shoot film – he had 10 cases of stuff with him. There was also all the gear for 18 skydivers which amounted to a huge pile.
We were loaded onto a coach and transported 25 minutes through Caracas to a 5 star hotel. John and I were in the pool twenty minutes later, where we were quickly joined by everyone else. Half of the group were American “big names” and knew each other, but they were good at trying to involve everyone in their conversations.
We had a group talk by Pedro at six o’clock - they were very organised with two turbine helicopters, a doctor and other backup all laid on. We had dinner and were in bed by eight o’clock – it costs £2.50 for a very small bottle of Polar beer in the hotel, so we couldn’t afford to get drunk, but we did buy a cheap bottle of rum to take to the jungle camp.
Following a great buffet breakfast, we were driven back to the airport where we boarded a jet to Puerto Ordaz. When we arrived, it was total chaos while the organisers and airport porters sorted out the luggage to go on a beautiful old DC3.
The plan was for us to take one bag each, which naturally, would be our skydiving rigs and a change of clothes. The rest of the kit would follow later. Unfortunately, the airport handling staff decided to put everything onto two small Cessna’s and us on the DC3. There was no way that we were going to be separated from our precious parachutes, so eighteen skydivers were walking around clutching their para-bags and trying to look inconspicuous.
The flight on the DC3 took an hour and was very bouncy, but we had great views of the huge Lake Guri, which is 100 kilometres long and the second largest reservoir in Venezuela. We landed at Canaima airport and were loaded into a bus, along a bumpy road to the river and then into pirogues for the mile long trip up-river to Jungle Rudi’s Camp. The “camp” was a beautiful resort with lovely chalets. We had a welcome rum punch and lunch then waited for the wind to drop, so that we could do a practise jump.
Unfortunately, the wind stayed too strong all afternoon, so we didn’t get to jump. Instead we sat around in hammocks, read books and told tall stores. It was an interesting group of people. Ray Cottingham is a mega famous cameraman with over 11,000 jumps and his wife, June Bug, is an international judge and knows Sue Dixon, a UK judge and good friend of ours. Curt Bachman is the son of the guy who set up Paragear, whose parachute gear catalogue we used to pour over back in the 1970’s. There was one other Brit - a Welsh guy called Paddy Doyle, who lived in the north east. Howard Haigh is planning to retire on to a 50ft yacht, so we had a good chat about sailing in the Caribbean. Shawn Kendal and Gulsin Gilbert are both airline pilots - Shaun runs cargo for DHL and Gulsin flies 757’s for American Airlines. There was a guy called Smiley Janz who had over 150 base jumps, wild goat eyes and does special effects on films - mostly blowing up cars. He was planning to fly a birdman suit and had the privilege of going first. Click Davis and his girl Erin (who had a broken foot in plaster) amused us all. Click was always taking photos, mostly of Erin, who loved to pose. He was also very possessive, for which I didn’t blame him in the testosterone charged group.
We had a good evening meal, a few more Polar beers and were all in bed at ten o’clock ready for a six o’clock start tomorrow.
The next morning, we were up early and everyone did a jump out of the Jet Ranger. The pilot climbed to 3000ft and hovered over the landing field to simulate the “dead” air that we’ll experience when leaving the cliff. John and I decided to do a two-way. We exited from either side of the helicopter, ended up 50ft apart, but stable. There wasn’t any air pressure to work with for 3 seconds and then I could feel the airspeed building up. We managed to get together at about 2000ft and open at 1200ft – a little low, but who’s going to tell us off? We’re BASE jumpers...
We all repacked our parachutes very, very carefully because we knew that the next time they would be used would be off Angel Falls.
The two helicopters ferried us and our equipment to the jungle base camp. We had a fantastic, thirty minute ride over solid jungle, which looked like broccoli because it was so dense. It was hard to believe that these were hundred foot tall trees. The route took us between huge Tepuis – the table top mountains that thrust thousands of feet out of the jungle and were the inspiration for Conan Doyle's “Lost World” because they are so inaccessible. The flora and fauna on top of each Tepui has unique hybrids that don’t exist anywhere else.
Our approach to the jungle camp was exciting, we flew low along the river between the trees and then, with a radical manoeuvre, the pilot turned 90 degrees right and flared into a 20 metre square cutting in the forest! It felt like we were landing in a hot LZ in Vietnam.
The jungle camp had two huts - one was for cooking and eating and one was a bunk house. There was a toilet with flushing water (which was blocked within 3 hours). We put up tents for the people who couldn’t fit in to the bunkhouse. John, Paddy and I grabbed a 3-man tent. There’s a fantastic view of Angel Falls, so we all stared at that while eating sandwiches for lunch.
After lunch, we were all flown up to the landing site in the helicopter. I’ll never forget the spectacular sight of Angel Falls after I emerged from underneath the rotor disk - the rock face looked awesome. The landing site was directly under the falls and was very small with a level area half the size of a tennis court. The rest of the terrain sloped at 30 degrees and was covered in trees and shrubs. We were told that the wind tends to blow down the slope from the waterfall so the approach would be uphill.
We had another briefing from Pedro and Rudolpho on how to jump Angel Falls and, in particular, how to approach the landing area and how to land in trees if you miss it. The landing area is small but I thought that I’d be able to land on the flat area.
We stayed for about an hour and then had another wild helicopter ride back to the jungle camp. The pilot took off from the small landing site, pulled up vertically, kicked around 180 degrees and dove down the thirty degree slope following the terrain – a fantastic buzz.
As night fell, we had another briefing to decide the jump order. The people with highest number of base jumps were to go first. John was picked as number 8 and I asked if I could go at the same time, so I was number 9 (gulp!)
The mosquitos were murder - I was covered in mosquito bites, so I resigned myself to wearing socks and shoes, long trousers and a long sleeved t-shirt. We had barbecued chicken for dinner with lots of rum and coke and more stories. I wasn’t too worried when I went to bed.
After an hour or so of alcohol induced sleep, I woke up and didn’t sleep too well thereafter. Itching with mosquito bites, tossing and turning with the hard floor, worrying about getting more bites and thinking about the BASE jump.
When my alarm went off at half past five, there were people already swimming in the river. We had breakfast and then nervously queued in our jump order to get a helicopter lift to the top of Angel Falls.
The clouds rolled in as our helicopter approached the exit point on the top of the Tepui, so the pilot landed us a quarter of a mile away next to the canyon leading to the top of the falls. He left us there and said he would come back when he could, so we spent our time looking at the flora and fauna. It’s really weird up on top of the Tepui – very prehistoric with ferns, orchids, mosses, fly trap pitcher plants and slimy wet rock with huge crevasses.
The helicopter returned thirty minutes later and dropped us off at the exit point. The cloud came in again, so we sat around waiting and listening to Smiley telling scary BASE jump stores. Another of the party, Bernie Williams, is a Brit who emigrated to the States in 1980. He’s an ex-boilermaker and who does iron work high up on skyscrapers - he also tells outrageous stories about his job.
It was very misty with a bitter wind. We’d only brought our parachute gear with us, so I soon became very cold. I eventually put a black bin liner underneath my t-shirt followed by my bright yellow boiler suit. The cloud cleared by midday, but the wind was blowing towards the cliff meaning that we would have to do a downwind landing, so we carried on waiting.
Over the millennia, the 3000ft high water fall has carved out a huge amphitheatre, which is roughly circular in shape with a 300 yard wide gap directly opposite the waterfall. To either side of the gap are large plateaus at a height of 1500 feet, with trees growing on them. The exit point was from the top of a huge 20ft diameter boulder that overhangs the edge of the cliff to the side of the waterfall. The plan was to jump from the exit point, looking at another waterfall on a neighbouring Tepui and then to open our parachutes in between the plateaus at 1500 feet. So not only did we have to clear the cliff, we also had to avoid hitting the plateaus at 120 miles an hour…
To add to our stress, Tom had positioned three or four camera men around the exit point, who are all in contact by radio. To coordinate the few seconds available to take photographs and film, he would count down from ten and we had to leave immediately on zero.
Everyone wandered around trying to keep warm, taking photographs of the occasional rainbow that formed below us. Click amused us for fifteen minutes by getting Erin to strip down to her bikini while he had a photo shoot with her at the edge of the cliff.
Finally, the weather changed just after one o’clock. Smiley stood on the edge with his wing suit and waited for the moment to go. I put on my jumpsuit and parachute rig and suddenly became very nervous about the whole thing. I heard Tom count down from ten and then Smiley disappeared from view. John and I waited our turn.
I climbed the short ladder onto the top of the boulder. John was waiting for his turn. He shuffled down the sloping rock to the exit point, listened to the count down and disappeared. There was a delay while they retrieved someone’s parachute from a tree. Five minutes passed – this didn’t help my Karma.
Tom’s girlfriend, Denise appeared with a video camera and interviewed me – I could hardly speak.
“So what are you thinking right now?”
“Oh scared to death. This is my first base jump. It’s a beautiful place. Err, I’m pretty apprehensive, but I think that I’ll be OK.”
I gave the thumbs up and said, “Skydive.”
Someone told me to get in position. I shuffled down the steep edge of the boulder onto a small depression. I lined up with the distant waterfall, stretched my arms above my head. The cameramen, Clem down to my right and Howard behind me, wanted me to turn and smile – I managed a nervous grimace. I gave Tom a thumbs-up to tell him that I was ready and he started the count down.
“10”, I looked down to the gap between the plateaus.
“9”, still looking down.
“8”, I dragged my eyes up to the waterfall opposite.
“7”, I stared grimly ahead.
“6, 5”, slight shaking of left leg.
“4”, synchronised shaking of both legs.
“3”, nervous shuffle.
“2”, almost uncontrollable shaking of left leg.
I shouted “Bye, Bye" and launched from my right leg. It felt like a good exit. After two seconds the wind noise started to increase and it felt great. I started to delta and then track towards the gap between the plateaus. At eight seconds, the plateaus are starting to get bigger, flare, positive grip on the pilot chute and wham; a perfect on-heading opening – YAHOO!!
I flew around under the falls for 30 seconds and then concentrated on the landing. The winds were very fluky and I messed up my approach to the landing area. I landed 20 feet short and hit a small tree trunk with my left foot. My ankle was twisted and was very bruised on the inside of the ankle. The doctor put ice on it for 5 minutes and then a bandage. I was hobbling, but I’d survived my first BASE jump.
Would I do it again? Yes! I loved it. The whole experience of being on top of a mountain cliff and the adrenaline rush was fantastic. Maybe I should jump from a building next time?
There's a short, two minute video of my base jump in the Gallery section of this website.