In early May, 17 men and one woman – expert climbers, engineers, BASE-jumpers and parachutists – came together at the highest point of an overhanging rock face about 450m above the Noguera River in the Mont-rebei Gorge, which separates the provinces of Aragon and Catalonia in northern Spain. They seemed to be making the world’s biggest swing.
They built two rope slides from climbing ropes and strung them across the gorge, several hundred metres wide, to which they attached a light, elastic, rope 300m long. They had calculated that, attached to the dynamic rope and a braking system of anchors and pulleys, a jumper would be able to execute a record freefall of 330m, lasting about 12 seconds (also a record). This hyb-rid of bungee jumping and BASE-jumping is rope-jumping (also known as freefalling) and is the best-kept secret in extreme sports.
Rope-jumping is a relatively new discipline. Legendary American climber Dan Osman is seen as the man who invented it. Osman, one of the world’s best freeclimbers in the 1980s and 1990s, was the first person to purposely jump with a climbing rope, which he did from increasingly great heights. On November 23, 1998, trying to take his own freefall record to 335m at the Yosemite National Park in California, the rope came apart, for reasons not fully understood to this day. Osman fell to his death aged 35.
More than 15 years after Osman’s catastrophic attempt, three teams have come together to attempt to break the world record in Spain: Pyrénaline from France, High Jump from Spain and Rock&Rope from Ukraine. (Between 1998 and their attempt, the largest recorded rope-jump was 310m, in Norway last year, by a Polish team, Dream Jump.)
As with many unprecedented feats of the adrenalin kind, the jump itself is not the most arduous task involved. The preparatory work began months in advance, which, unsurprisingly, included lengthy and somewhat unusual negotiations with local authorities.
Actual work at the jump site lasted three weeks. It takes 4km of climbing rope just to stretch the huge rope slides across from one side of the gorge to the other; the ropes are taken to the edge of the gorge by one part of the group and lowered to another part of the team at the foot of the cliff so that they can then be transported several hundred metres across the river by kayak.
“It’s the most complicated project we’ve ever worked on,” says Alexey Bokoch, of the Rock&Rope team. Ukraine and Poland have the biggest rope-jumping communities, not least because both countries have a strong tradition of bungee-jumping. Rock&Rope is one of the most experienced and active teams. The Ukrainians have even initiated an International Rope-Jumping Association.
After much research, it turned out that late May would be the ideal time for the attempt, not so much because it’s nice and warm in the gorge at that time of year, but for the relatively gentle winds. Wind creates the greatest risk when rope-jumping. Turbulence can throw a jumper against the rock face, a potentially lethal threat. In the narrow gorge, conditions are even more difficult, with air layers and currents in various directions piled on top of each other. “It’s like a cake made out of layers of wind,” says Bokoch.
The big day is set for May 20. The changeable weather of the days and weeks running up to the attempt has stabilised somewhat and the winds have died down a little. Lots are drawn to determine who will be the first to jump. The honour falls to Mathieu Bes of Pyrénaline. The Frenchman is to jump from about 400m above the river. The route he has chosen will give him about 260m of freefall. While Bes concentrates his thoughts, his teammates, posted at various heights around the gorge, give the signal to jump.
In honour of his teammates, he counts down in Ukrainian.
“Try! Dva! Odyn! Bazo!”
As he pushes himself off, he screams with delight and the echo of his scream in the gorge mixes with the screams of his teammates at the top and bottom of the cliff. This first jump goes smoothly, and everyone is relieved.
The most important thing achieved was sufficient distance from the rock face. Bes had no problem, but the same can’t be said for Ivan Kharkhan, one of the next to jump. After about 80m in freefall, he goes into a tailspin and gets closer and closer to the rock face. It is only thanks to his very good take-off that he is able to avoid getting into an extremely dangerous situation. There are no screams echoing when he comes to a halt at the end of the rope.
“If you don’t manage to push yourself far forward enough when you take off, you’ll smash into the rock face,” says Bes. “I internalise my trajectory and think about how clean and controlled the jump will be. You forget your fear when you know what to expect.”
The record attempt is reserved for Bokoch. The Ukrainian is the most experienced rope-jumper present. The stats from his jump are impressive: exit at 944m above sea level, 132kph maximum vertical speed and 62kph maximum horizontal speed. The braking effect of the rope kicks in after 331m (12.32s). He comes to a halt at 519m above sea level. A new world record.