BASE JUMPING ANGEL FALLS ::: APEX BASE
On January 27th, 2008, Apex BASE in conjunction with Venezuelan dropzone owner Ygor Almeida and logistics expert Pedro Moretti took a group of 13 jumpers into the heart of the Venezuelan rainforest to jump the world’s tallest waterfall, Angel Falls. Going to Angel Falls in the heart of the Venezuelan rainforest is always an adventure. Bringing a group of jumpers from around the world into Caracas and then moving them into the interior of the Country and up the river to the base of the falls is always interesting to say the least. Basically, it goes like this, we set everything up prior to the beginning of the trip. Once we arrive, we find out that half of the plans have changed and we need to adapt and overcome. This year was certainly no different. Two years ago, we were escorted by the National Guard and once we had arrived in Caracas, were traveling in conjunction with them all the way to the falls and back. This allowed us to use their transportation and considerable pull within country to iron out the rough spots. Not many civilians have any interest in confronting men with guns. This year was supposed to be the same, but about a week prior to arrival, the National Guard that was supposed to be with us was called to the Columbian border in response to a dispute. This left us without our escort and without the use of the Skytrucks that were to fly us into the interior.
Ygor Almeida and Pedro Moretti are the Venezuelans that make the trip happen for us. Without them, the trip would not happen. Once again, they pulled through in fine style. They made all of the new arrangements in record time and to make a long story short, continued to pull rabbits from their hats from start to finish.
We require that all participants have at least 50 BASE jumps and that everyone has strong canopy skills in order to qualify for the trip. The other thing that we ask is that everyone is the type of person who can handle changes in schedules and plans along the way. We were very lucky this year in that as the plans would consistently change, the clients would just smile and laugh it off. We were also lucky that we continued to move forward and didn’t have any setbacks that really affected us. Not to say that it wasn’t touch and go at times.
When we lost the National Guard escort, we lost our permit to jump. Angel Falls is in a National Park, which makes it illegal to jump without a permit. With some amazing dedication and waiting around in government offices for hours at a time, Ygor and Pedro were able to secure the first civilian permit issued by the National Parks to specifically BASE jump Angel Falls, ever. It’s not that all previous jumps and trips were illegal, it’s just that the permits didn’t specifically permit BASE jumping. Unfortunately, the permit specifically stated that no publicity would be allowed. This turned out to mean that the head of the National Park that we were in, who accompanied us, would not allow any filming of logoed canopies or rigs, and even went so far as to make us put gaffer’s tape over our Apex logo on the windblades in the landing area so that they were unreadable. Fortunately, only two of the canopies on the trip had logos on them, but I was required to tape over the footage of these canopies in flight.
Another situation was helicopter fuel. In order to access the top of the falls to jump and to be picked up out of the landing area below the falls, it requires a helicopter. It is also necessary to have enough fuel to rescue any stranded or injured jumpers as well as to make it back out of the jungle. When we lost the National Guard, we also lost the fuel that they are able to supply. The town that we were supposed to get the extra fuel from ran out of fuel just before we arrived and this fuel never showed up. We had just enough fuel for everyone to do one jump, plus the necessary surplus.
Angel Falls is created by water from rain falling on top of a 3,000 foot tall mesa that thrusts up out of the rainforest. These mesas are a unique feature to this part of Venezuela and they are spectacular. The mesas are called Tepuis. The more rain that falls, the larger and more powerful the falls become. There is a landing area at the base of the falls that is about the size of two tour busses parked side by side. The rest of the area around the base of the falls is covered by rocks and low trees. Beyond this area, the rainforest becomes solid 100 foot trees with absolutely no alternate landing areas apart from one extremely small open area which is so small the helicopter can’t even land there. During the rainy season, the falls are so heavy that they create too much turbulence to safely land anywhere near the base of the falls. In early February, it is considered the dry season and we were lucky to have excellent conditions. The other phenomenom with the tepuis, are there ability to make clouds. The warm extremely moist air will flow up the sides of the tepuis and will completely cloak Angel Falls in a cloud that just sits there, preventing jumping due to a lack of visibility for the jumper.
On our final aviation leg to the base of the river in a place called Punta Ordaz, we were told that only ourselves and just what we needed to jump along with one overnight could fit in the chartered airplanes, a Gulfstream and a Cessna 206. Also that the plane was leaving in 15 minutes. It was like a scene out of a comedy. At first everyone was staring at each other with open mouths, then the organizers said, “or we could just stay here overnight, if we miss the planes.” Instantly people began ripping into their bags and sorting out rigs, cameras and toothbrushes. We understood that the rest of our luggage would be coming the following morning, so no one grabbed extra underwear, t-shirts, pants, etc… As it turned out, we didn’t see the rest of our luggage until we came back down river 3 days later. The beauty of this is that we learned that everyone overpacked and apart from a few odds and ends, no one missed a single thing and we learned how easy it is to live simply, at least for a few days anyway.
This year, we arrived at base camp at around 11 a.m. and the falls were covered by a cloud, while the rest of the sky was clear and blue. This is usually a pretty good sign. We all moved into our hammocks and got our gear ready to board the helicopter at a moment’s notice. At around 3 p.m. the falls cleared and we sent the ground crew up to the landing area to set up the wind blades. The first load of four jumpers were on their way up to the exit point when the cloud magically formed over the falls. As fuel was limited, and things were not looking good, we aborted for the day and brought everyone back down to camp.
This left us with two days to get a break from the weather gods. Our permit to jump was from 10 a.m. until 5 p.m. each day. At sunrise on the second day, the falls were completely clear. By 10 a.m. the dreaded cloud had formed over the falls and there was a lot of nervous tension in the air around base camp. It is always a possibility that the weather will completely shut us down after spending so much money and effort just to get there. At around noon, the falls started peeking out and we sent the crew up to the landing area to wait for a clear window. After about an hour, the weather cleared and we started to shuttle the jumpers up to the exit point. What separates this jump from all others is the unique characteristics and the visuals that the jumper experiences. The chopper drops you off right on the exit rock to the right of the waterfall. Over eons the water has carved out a giant bowl in the side of the tepui. As you exit, the water to your left is suddenly revealed and it is falling away from you. As you gain speed, you overtake the water’s terminal velocity and for one moment, you are falling at the exact speed as the water. You then begin to outpace the water and it once again becomes an indistinct blur. You are now inside the giant bowl and begin to reach tracking speed. Below and in front of you on each side are two 1,500 foot pillars with a gap between them of about 1,000 feet. You track right in between these pillars and the visual is unforgettable. After passing the tops of the pillars, most jumpers begin to feel like getting a parachute out sooner rather than later. Once you are open, the real challenge of Angel Falls begins. With a medium flow of water, the water hitting the bottom of the wall and pushing outward creates about a 10 knot headwind with some turbulence. The landing area looks very small from above and you know that it is either make the landing area or land in a tree or a pile of rocks. Most of the jumpers made the landing area or very close to it with no injuries. To look around the landing area at the faces of the jumpers who have just jumped Angel Falls is amazing. The smiles and laughter fueled by doses of adrenaline and some of the most amazing visuals most will ever experience is unforgettable. Angel Falls is without a doubt one of the jewels in the crown of BASE jumping. To travel so far and to commit so much time, effort and money with no guarantee of success makes Angel Falls a life changing experience. To travel by plane, taxi, shuttle, tram, boat, foot and helicopter to a place that most people will never even see first hand is an experience in and of itself. To throw a BASE jump in is icing on the cake, for most jumpers.