In early May, 17 men and one woman— expert climbers, engineers, BASE- jumpers and parachutists—come together at the highest point of an overhanging rock face some 1,500 feet above the Noguera River in the Mont-rebei Gorge, which separates the provinces of Aragon and Catalonia in northern Spain. They seem to be making the world’s biggest swing. They build two rope slides out of climbing ropes and string them across the gorge, nearly a thousand feet wide. To those, they attach a light, elastic rope 980 feet long. They have calculated that, attached to the dynamic rope and a braking system of anchors and pulleys, a jumper would be able to pull off a record free fall of 1,082 feet, lasting about 12 seconds (also a record). This hybrid of bungee-jumping and BASE-jumping is called rope-jumping (also known as free falling) and is the best-kept secret in extreme sports.
Rope-jumping is a relatively new discipline. Legendary American climber Dan Osman is considered its inventor. Osman, one of the world’s best free climbers in the 1980s and 1990s, was the first to purposely jump with a climbing rope, which he did from ever greater heights. On November 23, 1998, while trying to take his own free-fall record to 1,100 feet at Yosemite National Park in California, the rope came apart, for reasons not fully understood to this day. Osman fell to his death at the age of 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 1,017 feet, in Norway last year, by Dream Jump, a Polish team.)
As with many unprecedented feats of the adrenaline-pumping kind, the jump itself is not even the most difficult task involved. The preparatory work started months in advance, which, not surprisingly, included lengthy and somewhat unusual negotiations with local authorities.
Actual work at the jump site lasts three weeks. It takes two and a half miles of climbing rope just to stretch the huge rope slides from one side of the gorge to the other; the ropes are taken to the edge of the canyon 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 across the river by kayak.
“It’s the most complicated project we’ve ever worked on,” says Rock&Rope member Alexey Bokoch. 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 some research, the teams find out that late May is the ideal time, because of the relatively gentle winds. It’s the wind that creates the greatest risk for rope- jumpers. Turbulence can throw a jumper against the rock face, a potentially lethal threat. Within the gorge, conditions are even more difficult, with air layers and currents moving 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 in the days and weeks running up to the attempt has stabilized somewhat and the winds have died down. Lots are drawn to determine who will be the first to jump. The honor falls to Mathieu Bes of Pyrénaline. The Frenchman is to leap from about 1,300 feet above the river. The route he has chosen will give him about 850 feet of free fall. While Bes gathers his thoughts, his crew, posted at various heights around the gorge, gives the signal to jump.
In honor 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 yelling in the gorge mixes with the cheers of his teammates at the top and bottom of the cliff. This first jump goes smoothly, and everyone is relieved and pumped.
The most important element is assuring sufficient distance from the rock face. Bes has no problem, but the same can’t be said for Ivan Kharkhan, one of the next to jump. After about 260 feet in free fall, he goes into a tailspin and gets closer and closer to the rock face. It is only thanks to his very good takeoff 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 internalize my trajectory and think about how clean and controlled the jump will be. You forget your fear when you know what to expect.”
The actual record attempt is reserved for Bokoch. The Ukrainian is the most experienced rope-jumper present. The stats from his leap are impressive. After exiting at 3,097 feet above sea level, he falls 1,086 feet before hitting the rope brakes, reaching a max speed of 82 mph. The total distance Bokoch plummets is 1,394 feet, more than a 13-story building, and lasts 12.32 seconds. The old record isn’t just beaten. It’s destroyed.