A Different High – Matt McGillivray and BASE jumping
Matt’s a ripper Sarth Efrican bloke giving the pro surfing caper a good shake. He came disconcertingly close to taking out the ‘All-Aussie’ Woz comp in Caba dribblers in September last year, while his surfing at hefty Sunset and Haleiwa makes power/rail aficionados groan with pleasure.
In the previous installment of A Different High, Rod Dahlberg shared the joys of whacking a small projectile through space. In this edition, Matty argues the case for BEING the projectile.
Matt McGillivray, 23, 200+ skydives, 80+ BASE jumps
I loved the whole idea of flying as kid. When I was a grommet I was like, “I wanna be an astronaut”. Then I wanted to become a pilot. I was intrigued by birds – anything that flew, really!
I’d always a little scared of heights. But watching YouTube videos as a grom, watching wingsuit BASE jumping and normal BASE jumping, it looked like it was something that should be impossible – it’s just not natural – but people were doing it, and I was captivated.
(Note: from here on we’ll use lower case for BASE jumping, just so it doesn’t sound like Matty’s shouting. BASE is an acronym for the four categories of fixed objects from which to leap: Building, Antenna, Span and Earth.)
I knew that when I got old enough, I wanted to pursue base jumping. And the way to do that is to get your skydiving license first. And so in 2015 I started doing my skydiving license at a drop-zone a two hour drive away from J-Bay, where I lived.
I fell in love with skydiving, found it a lot scarier than I thought it was going to be, and it made the idea of base jumping seem a lot more dangerous. So I thought like, 'You know what, I don't think I'm actually going to base jump any day soon. I think I'm satisfied with skydiving…'
The thing is, I‘ve got two older brothers and they’ve always pushed me. After we all got our skydiving licenses, my second oldest brother Jono was adamant that he wanted to pursue base jumping.
To qualify for base jumping, you have to have a lot of skydives – like 200 jumps – under your belt, just to build up the experience, so you know how to fly the canopy safely.
And so in 2018, once we’d built up our skydiving numbers, Jono signed up for a base jumping course over in the States, in Twin Falls, Idaho. He was like, “Hey, I'm going to do this with or without you, do you want to come?”
I HAD to say yes. I couldn't let him go alone and something we’d dreamed of together.
We spent two weeks learning how to base jump, how to pack the parachute correctly, and all the dangers you have to look out for, just to try to minimise the risks, do it as safely as possible.
We did just under 50 base jumps in a fortnight.
Dad bought us both our own parachutes when we got home. We've got a couple of nice objects to jump off in South Africa. Capetown's a mecca for base jumping, with Table Mountain and the surrounding mountains, and about an hour drive from Jeffrey's Bay, there's the Bloukrans Bridge, which is the world's highest bungee jump at 216 meters. There’s more cliffs and bridges too. And so whenever I'm home, I try to do a couple of base jumps with my brother.
The family dynamic’s played a big role. My dad Donald’s always been very adventurous and always encouraged us to face our fears; always took us into the deep end doing stuff.
I've always been very competitive with both my older brothers, Jono and David. They started surfing and I wanted to be like them, so that’s how I got into surfing. I was always following their lead and trying to reach their level, then try to beat them. Their pushing me has really helped everything I’d achieved so far.
It’s well known how dangerous base jumping is. In my 80 jumps, I’ve never had an incident, but Jono, who’s got well over 100 jumps under his belt, has had one or two moments.
He was jumping off Table Mountain one time. There was a narrow platform that you had to balance on, and as he jumped, he lost his body position a bit and his parachute opened facing the wrong way, facing towards the mountain. And before he had time to turn it around, as the parachute opened, he just bounced, smack bang into a ledge.
We've got very good protective gear, like downhill mountain biking, chest pads, back pads, knee guards, BMX helmet. So he was actually unscathed, a little bruised, but nothing serious. He was stuck on the ledge and had to climb back up the cliff and then catch the cable car back down.
The most dangerous thing about base jumping is...well, you’re always going to open your parachute in time - your instincts are going to make that happen - but if it opens open facing the wrong way, and you hit the mountain, that's where most of the fatalities and injuries occur.
As much as you do everything you can to control the variables, like packing your parachute perfectly, the variables are there. There's wind, jumping in less-than-ideal conditions – a breeze can take your parachute and pull you into the cliff face, or it can open facing the wrong way if your body position’s wrong. So you definitely make sure you’re in control of everything you CAN control. Be rigorous.
You’ve also got to have a strong confidence in your abilities.
I haven't been back home in over a year, so I haven't base jumped for over a year now!
I'm going to have to take it very slowly to get back into it.
I was missing it a lot at first. Just because you get the taste for the adrenaline, and you kind of crave it, but now I think, over time, my tolerance to adrenaline's dropped now.
I can't wait to go back home and do it again, but I’ll definitely find it scary to confront. There's no rush, really, I'm focused on my surfing career and don’t want to jeopardise the opportunity I’ve got by getting injured.
Base jumping is a crazy feeling. You've got ALL THIS adrenaline… Beforehand, you’re questioning yourself, you're like, 'Should I do this?' It’s easy to walk away, but you keep focused on making sure all the cards are stacked in your favour, that your parachute's packed correctly, that you're happy with the conditions, and that you know EXACTLY what you're going to do when you jump off.
Just before jumping… My palms get sweaty thinking about it! Your hands are shaking, like you're peaking. And then once you jump off, it's surreal because time slows down, and you’re STRAIGHT into the zone.
You know how athletes talk about being ‘in the zone’ when they’re competing? How they’re not thinking about anything, they’re just completely aware of the surroundings, and have that 100 percent focus and clarity? That's what happens when you jump. And yeah, it’s a good feeling. You’re not thinking at all, you're just reacting, instincts take over.
Once you land on the ground, you have time for your thoughts to catch up, and then you get that wave of adrenaline when you realise what’s just happened.
And it's pretty cool, because it's something that shouldn't be possible, like humans aren’t supposed to fly, but they go ahead and do it.
As far as wingsuit flying goes...geez, that’s a whole other level of risk and reward right there.
Ironically, the wingsuit was developed to make base jumping safer – with a wingsuit you can fly AWAY from the cliff, so if your parachute opens facing the wrong way, you have a ton of time to correct yourself.
But then humans love pushing the limits, and now they use them to fly closer and closer to those cliffs they were once avoiding. I heard a stat saying that once you start wingsuit base jumping, on average you have six years left to live.
I don't know if that's true or not, but it’s the ultimate sport and the ultimate risk. It's a dream I have to pursue one day, but if it happens, it’ll be once I'm done with my surfing career.
I think base jumping has taught me how to stay calm under pressure, and handle having a lot of adrenaline. So in that sense it might be helpful to my surfing.
But apart from the rush and the fact you’re out in nature, it’s a completely different sport to surfing. Which is cool. I love them both!
// MATT McGILLIVRAY (as told to GRA MURDOCH)