Two competitors stand side-by-side, waiting for the signal to begin their race. If they're a little more nervous than your average race competitors, there's a good reason: this is not your average speed trial. The track for this event is a 750-meter (2,500 foot) drop down the side of a cliff, and a wrong move can have a consequence far more terminal than a sprained ankle or a twisted knee.
The competition is the World BASE Race, and the title up for grabs is 'The World's Fastest Flying Human Being'. To win, participants must race each other to the bottom of a cliff using only a wingsuit, the law of gravity — and nerves of steel.
The World BASE Race has been taking place annually at Innfjorden, in Rauma, Norway, since 2008. BASE jumpers come from all over the world to compete in the event. Some are serious competitors, while others participate just for the fun of it. Many more come to watch the thrilling spectacle of people jumping off high cliffs and racing through the air to the finish line in stunning surroundings.
BASE jumping (an acronym of buildings, antennas, spans and earth) was officially born when two jumpers, Phil Smith and Phil Mayfield, leapt from a skyscraper in Houston in 1981. The pair had already performed successful jumps from antennas, spans (bridges) and earth (cliffs), and by jumping from a building became the first people to jump from the four different platform types and qualify for a 'BASE number'. Since then, the sport has evolved to incorporate specialized equipment such as wingsuits, the Batman-like outfits you see the competitors wearing here.
These two race competitors brace themselves for the long drop down. Although many improvements have been made in the safety standards of equipment, BASE jumping remains a high-risk activity and is significantly more dangerous than skydiving from an airplane. For one thing, the lower altitudes of the jumps mean there is less margin for error.
Overall in Norway, there was one fatality for every 2,317 jumps between 1995 and 2005. That said, safety is of paramount importance to the organizers of the World BASE Race, and despite the risks, they've reported no accidents over the four years – spanning seven competitions – they’ve been running the event.
The initial launch from the platform is a crucial time for BASE jumpers. If jumpers tumble at the beginning of their jump, they may not have time to correct their error, raising the odds that their parachute will not be deployed properly. Perhaps that's what is going through these competitors' minds as they begin their descent.
A tumble at the beginning of a jump holds additional risks. Skydivers have far more time to build up their airspeed, which allows them to control their descent. BASE jumpers may only have a precious few seconds before their parachutes need to be deployed, meaning mistakes can be costly, if not fatal. Couple this with the fact that BASE jumpers are often falling in proximity to a solid wall (whether that be stone, concrete or steel) and the adrenaline is sure to start pumping in even the stoutest person's heart.
At the beginning of the competition, all participants are timed in a qualifying round. These times are then used to select and pair them up with their competitors for the elimination heats. The pairs then race for the chance to compete in the next rounds, until the overall champion is crowned. There is no separate category for men and women, and at the end there can be only one 'World's Fastest Flying Human Being.'
The World BASE Race is not the first BASE jumping competition, but unlike previous events, winners of the race are not scored on their skills but purely on speed. It must surely be the only contest in the world where the sole aim of the competitors is to speed their way towards solid ground from a great height!
This view of the two competitors from the bottom of the cliff gives you some perspective on the height from which these jumpers are falling. From their launch off the exit ramps, they must make their way vertically and horizontally over a finish line strung between two trees.
The horizontal distance to the line in Hellesylt, where these pictures were taken, is almost the same as the drop — 800 meters (roughly 2,600 feet) — with the record for this 'track' currently 29.37 seconds.
To reach the finish line, the competitors must follow a roughly mapped path, deploying their parachutes at the end to ensure a safe landing. One-hundred meters after the finishing line is a fjord, affording the extra safety of a water landing to those who open their parachutes at too low a height.
The competition organizers stress the importance of safety in this event. Jumpers who display tumbling during freefall, deploy their parachutes too low (so that the canopy ride lasts less than 30 seconds) or who lose canopy control are immediately disqualified.
The World BASE race is certainly not for everybody. Before attempting it, competitors are advised to have completed over 100 BASE jumps and at least 50 wingsuit jumps from a plane. As the organizers say on their website: "This is a top skilled athletic sport, where you not only have to compete head to head, but perform in front of the public." What's more, their slogan makes things plain: "Know your limits."
Despite all the safety precautions, BASE jumping, even without the element of racing, remains a hazardous sport with a very real risk of injury or death, even for experienced jumpers. But as with all extreme sports, the many dangers — and the thrill that comes with facing them — are of course a large part of the appeal.