Ever seen the movie “Touching the Void”? A survival film about Joe Simpson and Simon Yates’ near-fatal climb of Siula Gtande in the Peruvian Andes based on Simpson’s book of the same name.
In brief, on a descent from the West Face of Siula Grande, Simpson slipped down an ice cliff, landing awkwardly and breaking his right leg. Yates proceeded to lower Simpson off the North Ridge and inadvertently of a cliff. Because Yates was further up and could not hear or see Simpson, he felt that Simpson had all his weight on the rope. Simpson tried to ascent the rope but with frostbitten hands was unable to tie the required knots and dropped one of the cords required to ascend.
So now Simpson couldn’t climb the rope, Yates couldn’t pull him back up or lower him down as the cliff was too high, and neither could communicate with each other. Soon after Yates realised his belay seat was about to give out so to save both of them from crashing over the cliff to almost certain death, Yates made the decision to cut the rope in order to save his own life (and likely that of Simpson), falling 45m (150ft) into a deep crevasse.
They both survived the nightmare thankfully but it’s an incredible story and I’d recommend the book or indeed the movie to anyone to get the full build-up and aftermath.
So…. when in I was in Johannesburg, South Africa at Orlando Towers (where I’d previously bungee jumped) , I discovered this relatively new adrenalin activity called “SCAD freefall” meaning a Suspended Catch-Air Device. This offered a free-fall drop with no ropes or harnesses from a record height of 70m (230 ft) into a large suspended net below! All of this would take place within one of the two cooling towers, the world’s first!
The site in the middle of Soweto so not the easiest of places to get to and you need to keep your vigilance but once I arrived at the site the guys were extremely welcoming and friendly. I spent a good two hours there despite the activities themselves taking no more than 30 minutes. I’m personally not one for just turning up, paying the money, jumping and leaving. I like to stay, chat, get to know people a little as it makes the whole experience that little richer I think.
So after signing up, myself and two other willing participants made our way up some iron stairs on the outside of one of the cooling towers, stepped inside and onto an iron walk-way towards the centre platform where the catch net was currently resting. We all quickly realised how tall the towers looked from inside! The jump-master issued us with our safety harnesses and hard hats then led us to the cage device that would take us up to the top of the tower.
The towers are 100m (328ft) tall but the free-fall was going to be 70m (320ft), still the world’s tallest. Once the cage reached the operating height, the jump-master asked who wanted to go first and I quickly volunteered as I didn’t like the idea of watching the others go first and wanted to the opportunity to see them fall from inside the tower after completed mine.
I was therefore first to be swung gently into position by the jump-master between the gap in the cage floor. Even moving feet from the relative safety of the cage floor to the empty space in the middle was a little unsettling but I wasn’t to be hanging around long it turned out… following a brief countdown from 5 to 1, my one and only connection keeping me hanging there was cut and I began falling like a brick!
I fell backwards to the world below and into the safety net in a matter of seconds but it felt like a lot longer! The sensation of seeing someone in front of you cut the only thing keeping you secure is a very weird one and the fall backwards sensation itself is quite unique; you’re never quite knowing when you will come to a (hopefully gentle!) stop.
I can only imagine how much worse it would have felt for Simpson falling in the Andes, knowing he obviously hadn’t volunteered to fall, there was no safety net to break his fall and he didn’t really fully know what he would fall onto below or whether he’d survive. An horrendous ordeal he describes in detail in his book.
In my world at Orlando Towers though, the safety net did an awesome job breaking my fall. Once I’d fully come to stop I stepped off and headed outside for a beer while I waited for my DVD. I discovered while waiting that backflips are somersaults are possible if the jump-master allows it but decided I’d save that showmanship for another day!