Uncomfortable Statistics

Sometime in 2005 I decided that BASE jumping was getting unfair press.  Every story seemed to focus on the danger aspect of the sport and few offered a balanced view.  The media hype, I felt, didn’t match the reality behind the sport.  It was getting undue negative publicity.

I decided to seek out the truth.  In order to get an objective view I contacted professor Steven Levitt in Chicago.  He had just written a best selling book entitled Freakonomics in which he analysed economic data and extracted the facts from the hype.  This sort of technical analysis is his forte.  He was quick to respond and curious to find out more.  He knew very little about BASE jumping so, at his request, I supplied statistics from the sport’s inception up to the current day.  I included information about the number of participants, jumps performed per year as well as a comprehensive incident report and an up to date fatality list.

He was emphatic in his response.  Base jumping was, as far as he could ascertain, the possibly the most dangerous sport in the world.  I should stop, he advised.

In fairness I could have just waited a few years and the incidents would have spoken for themselves.  Friends that I had made in my first few seasons jumping in Norway became statistics in the years that followed.  Darcy was the first.  He pulled his pilot chute a split second too late.  His parachute partially inflated but not sufficiently enough to save him.  He impacted at high speed into a giant wedge shaped granite boulder.  Coombsy, a comical Australian friend tried to out-track the tallis of the Troll Wall but failed.  The impact as he hit resonated through the valley below.  Then there was Geoffrey, South Africa’s first BASE jumping fatality who made a similar judgement error.  And most recently Ted, who I jumped with last year.  53 of us exited together off a cliff in Norway called Katthammer.  The noise of our falling bodies filled the valley with a sound similar to that of a jet engine screaming at full throttle before, like gunshots, our canopies cracked open.  Ted died less than a year later, details are sketchy since he was jumping alone, but judging from the multiple leg traumas it seems that it too was a late pull.

BASE jump Norway

The Author jumping in Norway

Climbing is a notch down.  It isn’t quite as dangerous as base jumping yet my photo albums as still filled with smiling faces of friends who are no longer around.  This begs the very obvious question, “why do these things?”

The answer is significantly more involved than the question.  I feel nothing bookmarks events in your life like a great climbing or base jumping adventure.  When faced with adversity the bonds formed with your companions are far stronger than in everyday life.  Its life stripped bare to its most primary instinct  -survival.  In that arena it seems there is very little space for the clutter of society such as ego and social etiquette.  Some claim that modern life has become too easy and it’s only by visiting the slightly ‘dark side’ that you can really discover the truth about who you are.  Without this fix of adrenaline, some argue, those involved in these sports would probably be addicted to drugs instead.

Unfortunately though, until the prices of some of the more hard-core drugs come down to more affordable levels, this seems like a very hollow argument.

– The author ran out of oomph towards the end of the article.

– The author put a lot more effort into his book, Cape Vertical, which you really should buy.



Geoffrey Robson flying a new route from the Groot Drakenstein mountains above Boschendal, near Stellenbosch, South Africa.

The video was recorded on his helmet-mounted video camera.

One week later he tried the same route, but tried to cross the ridge between Devil’s Tooth (the peak to the front,right) and the mountain. His calculations were wrong, and he failed to clear the ridge, resulting in his death at the age of 31.

Geoffrey completed his Master’s degree at the University of Stellenbosch, and was a PhD student at the ETH in Switzerland, where he conducted research on wingsuit flying. Here is a recent talk where he describes his research:
and newspaper articles on his impressive life and tragic death:
http://bit.ly/dnfHrT ,

7 Responses to Uncomfortable Statistics

  1. Jacques Nov 4, 2011 at 2:00 pm #

    The last bit is really funny, in a morbid, macabre sort of way…. tiehiehie

  2. henkg Nov 4, 2011 at 5:05 pm #

    `He-he! you’re a funny sot. Abrupt, dark comical end to the essay though. Better not think about these things too much. Somehow the quip below summarize it for me: “climbing is almost always senseless, yet it always feels right” Dunno where I read that.

  3. henkg Nov 4, 2011 at 5:08 pm #

    BTW any luck with that DVD you promised me? Desert Friction, was rad.

  4. Jeremy Samson Nov 4, 2011 at 7:54 pm #

    ah. solo ascent. I lent it out and can’t remember who to… I need a copy for nostalgia’s sake. I’ll get some more from chris lomax I think he has some. I’m on it.

  5. emile Nov 6, 2011 at 3:58 pm #

    (I think it’s) From the end of that clip where he climbs that hard route in Ceuse on trad:
    “Strangely enough, in my life as a climber, it is the pursuit of this vain objective that inspired me the most. Maybe futile games are the best ones to play.” ~ Arnaud Petit

  6. Nicolaas Dekker Nov 15, 2011 at 8:26 am #

    Concerning the linked video of Mr Robson:

    I think it’s pretty bad taste to be chucking a fist sized rock off of a cliff…

  7. matthew Nov 23, 2011 at 1:01 pm #

    Was wondering do you have to be really good at numbers to do this sort of thing? always wanted to try it! Wonder how one goes about getting into it.

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