BASE Jumping From The Six Northern Faces Of The Alps

Planning to leap from the great North faces of the Alps requires more than sheer guts – it takes an ability to assess risk as well as the self-knowledge to spot when ego collides with judgement and be able to step back from the edge, as former Royal Marines Commando and Mountain Leader Tim Howell knows...

Having courage is one thing, but if you’re dancing the line between daring and deadly then you need to be able to tell the difference. When it comes to firsts in the mountains then you also need to combine bravery with vision. French mountain guide Gaston Rébuffat knew that when he was climbing six the classic North Faces of the Alps in the 1930s, and Tim Howell knows it today.

For Howell, mid-way through an attempt to climb and then wingsuit from those same six faces, it’s taken two decades of skiing, climbing and mountain experience to get to a point where the attempt is even feasible. Even then, there are days when no amount of preparation is enough, and the only answer is to walk away.

Still, with seven years in the Royal Marines dovetailing with his own extreme sports experience, Howell knows a thing or two about danger – and the mindset to minimise it. From mountaineering in the Antarctic and climbing Heckmair’s original 1938 route up the Eiger, to becoming the only Brit to complete a ski BASE jump, he’s an expert at assessing risk – and he doesn’t believe in luck...

I missed a weather window on a big wall climb and had to sleep on a ledge with no food or water for 24 hours

Q: You are a former Royal Marines Commando and Mountain Leader – does the military mindset help you out in the mountains?
A:
‘It’s helped me to deal with hardship. For me it’s always been a toss-up, which has been the hardest experience. Military training was hard, climbing in Chamonix was harder, doing mountain leadership with the Marines was harder again, and then I did the Eiger, which is the hardest thing I’ve done to date. I also think the military taught me a lot, not in terms of technical skill set, but in mindset, logistics and organisational skills. I’ve done big wall climbs where we’ve missed a weather window and had to sleep on a ledge with no food or water for 24 hours. And maybe before I’d have been freaking out about that, but from experiences in the military I know I can deal with those situations.’

Q: Still, there must be situations where you know you have to walk away, particularly on a BASE jump?
A:
‘Yes, it happens a lot with weather conditions – you get to the exit point and then suddenly you realise the conditions won’t work. In the last two months I’ve spent two weeks on the alps and found five new ski BASE exit points, and I’ve been there ready to do all the jumps, but none of the conditions were good.’

‘A bit of a danger is trying to create stuff for sponsors if they’re nagging you, but I can’t let that pressure affect me. There are many wingsuiting deaths where the sponsors aren’t necessarily going: “You have to do this,” but the guys might have felt some pressure to finish a project. Some guys have even died while they’re filming for projects.’

Q: Does it affect your mindset when you hear about another athlete dying?
A:
Well, obviously it’s always terrible news, but I don’t really believe in bad omens or luck. I think there are different angles. If someone says ‘Good luck’, I know in my heart that’s just a compliment, but when you actually dive into it, it’s like ‘Oh, you think that all the hard work and training and experience that I’ve built up is worthless because it’s luck at the end of the day? I’ve got friends who’ve had some close calls and gone ‘Oh, that was lucky,’ and my take is, it’s not luck - all the decisions that you've made, whether they were conscious or not, split-second or not resulted in the end result, and they changed the scenario to one where you didn’t die.’

Q: Even so, your self-set challenge to wingsuit off the top of the Alp’s great North faces must be quite ground-breaking?
A:
‘Well, all but one of them have been wingsuited, but nobody’s set out to climb them all and then wingsuit them all, which is the aim. Piz Badile is the difficult one – it’s not steep enough in most places, but there might be somewhere on the mountain where it’s possible. It comes down to skillset and how much risk you’re willing to take. If it’s not possible I’ll wingsuit part of the range.’

Q: Do you feel like you’re pushing climbing history forward by bringing a new element to these classic routes?
A:
‘I do like that concept, but I don’t want to boost my ego too much – there are definitely people doing impressive things that don’t publicise it. I just like documenting these things, with photography and writing. I like linking sports and coming up with reasons to do a project. I like the idea that it’s a new take, but I’m not sure I’d call it groundbreaking. Right now I don’t really even have any full-time sponsors, so I’m just working two weeks out of the month, then climbing, skiing and jumping for two, looking out for weather windows and doing as much as I can.’

You can find out more about Tim’s career here facebook.com/TimHowellADVENTURE and www.rawadrenaline.org/athletes/tim-howell/