3rd March 2011 – Simon Brentford
In September last year I saw the TV programme ‘The Great Climb’, which showed Tim Emmett doing an amazing route up the most overhung cliff in the British Isles, Sron Ulladale in the Isle of Harris. This was my inspiration for the jump and I phoned him. Prior to this trip, the furthest north I had been was near Stirling, to a formation skydiving competition in 2000.
I’m Simon Brentford, a skydiver and BASE jumper. Whereas skydiving is jumping from aircraft, BASE jumping is leaping from fixed objects. It’s actually an acronym of Building, Antenna, Span (bridges) and Earth (cliffs).
Tim also likes to BASE jump from cliffs but sadly he wasn’t able to join me on this adventure, when the rare high pressure weather conditions appeared on the long range forecasts. Good preparation was needed, so that I could get to Harris and jump within 3 days: one to spot the forecast and confirm who was going; one to drive 500 miles; one to jump – maybe.
There’s another thing; finding someone to go with you who can rock climb a bit and who is free at a moment’s notice. That task went to a good friend and cameraman, Adam Bibby.
We arrived late afternoon on Wednesday the 2nd March and made camp by the access road to Sron Ulladale. Sure enough, Thursday morning, bright and early, we got up to some spectacular views of West Harris and, even more important, Loch Chliostair was still as a mill pond. There wasn’t a puff of wind. It didn’t take long on the walk-in to see our objective and the first view of the Sron was as amazing as we had hoped. According to locals, its 180ft overhung.
When undertaking a BASE jump, it’s important to check out all the components of the jump and that starts with the landing area. Directly below the cliff was a perfect grassy area, not too bumpy, and free of rocks. The only problem was that we stood face-to-face with a herd of red deer! For a few minutes we watched each other. Eventually they ran off and vanished into the moor. Another potential hazard, fortunately some weeks later, would be attack by nesting golden eagles on the parachute, which could be shredded. Beware!
The walk up the side of the Sron was easy enough and the next component of the BASE jump fell into place: no wind at the top. However, the hardest part from my perspective was going to be finding the exit point. This required walking very carefully down a progressively steeper, slippery boggy grass slope towards the cliff edge. Finally I thought I could see a possible exit point below me, so we decided to get the ropes out.
I set up a belay and abseiled around 50 meters to where I thought, wrongly, the exit might be. Another 20 meters or so below was another smaller ledge which looked better, so I ascended back up to fetch a second shorter 25 meter rope. That did the trick and I found my first possible exit point. It was vertical, but not as high as I was expecting. Throwing a rock over the edge took 5 seconds before it impacted below. I calculated it was high enough for a jump, but I was sure there was a higher exit point.
This had taken 3 hours so far and I was wondering if we would be able to find the right place. Edging another 10 minutes further along the wall, we struck gold: a very promising ledge, with an easier abseil of around 40 meters.
It only took moments to reach this 2nd exit point and this time it was right on the lip of the enormous overhang. Throwing another rock over, this time it took 7 seconds before impact, which equated to an impressive 600ft drop. I was elated and shouted a big ‘I’ve found it’ to Adam. The final component had fallen into place.
Back at the top we decided to eat lunch in the sunshine and took in the incredible scenery. It was while we discussed our final plans that I felt a slight breeze. The weather was beginning to turn and I knew that I had to get kitted-up quickly! We said a little prayer together and then Adam went down the rope to the exit point. He set up his camera whilst I put on my parachute as quickly as I could. I kept thinking to myself: “Make sure you do your checks. Don’t rush. That is how mistakes are made”.
I checked and double-checked that I had put my parachute on correctly and then made my way to the exit point. Adam was to my left, ready with the camera, and I stood at the exit point with my toes over the edge ready to go. It’s pretty scary being stood on a cliff edge and the adrenaline was flowing. But I was “in the zone”. The zone is that place where you are mentally ready to go, your life is in your hands, and you are at your most concentrated and alert.
Taking a deep breath, I quietly counted “3, 2, 1, see-ya” and pushed off from the cliff. Looking directly below I could see it falling away behind me. Wow, it’s big! I threw my pilot chute into the air after a couple of seconds to open the main parachute. Accelerating rapidly by now, I was out of view of Adam’s camera. I didn’t have long to wait as the parachute did its job on queue and opened with a loud whack.
Having fallen about half-way down the cliff, I could now look behind me at the main face. After a 2 second freefall, because of the huge overhang, the wall was much further behind me than anything else I had ever jumped. Turning my attention to where I was going to land, I immediately picked out the grassy area which I had walked before climbing the mountain. Twenty seconds or so from launching, I did a stand-up landing exactly where I planned and gave a loud whoop to the beautiful valley.
The project was almost complete. All that remained now was for Adam to untie the ropes, walk down safely and meet me at the second loch on the route, Loch Aiseabhat. An hour later we met and chatted jubilantly about the jump. Were all those hours of preparation, travelling, and risk worth just twenty seconds of sheer exhilaration? I think so.
The next day we headed back to the Isle of Skye. I found another cliff, the famous Kilt Rock, and jumped that too, but that’s another story. Both Adam and I would like to thank the generous people of Harris (you know who you are), who have a unique spirit of kindness and it is because of them that this experience was so special.