Mission to the Eiger: The Training
In 2009, Jump4Heroes undertook an expedition to BASE jump from the north face of the Eiger. We produced a very basic video that got nearly 3 million hits and, three years on, we wanted to make that look like child’s play. This is what we did….
Expeditions of this scale take time and detailed planning. Well, that’s the theory. We had limited time and got the clearance fairly late on, pulling together the funding, logistics and training that we required. Our goal was to perform a 3-way wingsuit formation flight, in our Poppy wingsuits and with smoke trailing, from the north face of the Eiger.
We headed to Switzerland and based ourselves in Lauterbrunnen- a valley famous for BASE jumping and within spitting distance of the Eiger. After a few practice jumps we started to put the formation together. We went to an exit point called the High Nose situated at slightly over 1,900 feet above the valley floor. In skydiving, experienced skydivers must be under a fully opened canopy by 2,000 feet and normally do so a lot higher. We were about to attempt our wingsuit formation jumps from under this height. We’d have to exit, allow the suit to inflate, start flying, manoeuvre together while still travelling at high speed, gain separation prior to opening our canopies and still have enough height to be able to fully control our canopies and pilot to a safe landing in the landing area. Piece of cake, right?
To top it off, while training for our previous expedition to the Eiger, Smudge had had a near death experience from this exit point and Alastair subsequently suffered the same fate. There was a serious psychological side to this and mental preparation was key.
We started with a steady approach, initially each team member worked on 2-way formation flying before we added a third to the mix. The 2 –way formation flights steadied out and got tighter but having a third person was a whole new ball game. The level of complexity increased exponentially and we went back to the drawing board to refine our technique.
In order to capture some of the training and to provide better understanding in our de-briefs, legendary BASE jumper and wingsuit pilot Chris “Douggs” McDougall joined us to video the jumps. As we developed further we decided to move further up the valley to an exit point a few hundred feet higher to gain the extra altitude to further perfect our techniques. To get to the new exit point a Via Ferrata system was in place- with cables fixed into the cliff face. However, it wasn’t easy and required some nerve-wracking manoeuvring.
The Via Ferrata exit point was Spencer’s nemesis; 3 years earlier he’d been lucky to survive, having avoided striking the cliff face in freefall by just a couple of feet. But, with storm clouds rolling in, the team didn’t have time to contend with personal fears- it was time to zone in and jump. With Douggs soaring above the formation, the team flew their best flight and piloted to a safe landing as the crash of thunder descended onto the valley floor.
There was one more stage of the training to go- a helicopter jump above the east ridge of the Eiger. The team planned to exit in quick succession, flying their formation next to the dominating ridge line of the Eiger. They would then pull away and fly at high speed over the trees, opening their canopies above Grindewald, the famous mountaineering town at the BASE of the Eiger. There could only be this one practice jump- there was no room for error- if this didn’t work then the whole expedition would be in jeopardy.
Smudge, who had the left wingman slot on the formation, would be closest to the door. He had the responsibility for ‘spotting’: guiding the pilot to the correct altitude and location for the jump. Smudge had to ensure we were neither too close or too far away from the mountain. Any error could be disastrous and, as a minimum, may mean we’d be unable to fly our course- it could also mean something far worse. Despite the pressure, his years of parachuting experience coupled with his numerous military operational tours meant he dealt with this in his stride. Smudge gave the command: “Exit. Exit. Exit.”.
Perfectly located, the team climbed out onto the skid of the helicopter before calmly dropping off. Alastair, who was the furthest inside the small helicopter, was late. Time seemed to stand still for him- seconds feeling like hours. He knew immediately the catastrophic consequence and had to react. Smudge and Spencer were already in formation and just fine tuning their positioning unaware of the situation above them. He picked up the smoke trail and dove down hard and forward, thinking two steps ahead and ensuring he wouldn’t get caught out as the formation picked up speed. Fortunately he closed his position, taking just a few extra seconds.
Spencer led the formation along the ridge, smoke billowing from the Chemring smoke canister on his foot. At speeds over 120 mph the arrowhead wingman formation traversed the rugged and daunting ridge line, all the time tightening the formation as planned. After thousands of feet the terrain seemed to plateau further and greenery jutted from what was a dark and snow covered mass. Breaking left, the formation passed low over the tree line before opening and heading for a tip toe landing.
This was it. The training had been successful and the weather forecast for the next day was good. The jump from the north face of the Eiger would be next.
The story of the actual jump from the Eiger is a whole new chapter in itself. Words can’t describe the experience, so we’re afraid you’ll have to wait to see it- although you can check out the photo album here. The movie, and a behind-the-scenes video, is scheduled to be out in late October 2012; subscribe to our Facebook page and our YouTube channel to be notified. There were tree landings, mountain-side crashes, cameras bouncing down the cliff face and much more drama- you won’t be disappointed.