The Red Bulletin September 2019 (UK)

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“I’ve walked

away from an exit

if I didn’t like

the conditions”

Howell, 30, is a former Royal Marine

Commando who has climbed the north

face of the Eiger; Carnegie is an ultrarunner

used to 100km jaunts. Both set a relentless

pace, despite carrying heavy packs.

People don’t climb Vách đá Trăng. Its

flanks – save for the limestone face – are

covered in thick jungle that overhangs

the cliff edge. We trek to the point where

Howell and Kalisiewicz turned back last

time – literally the end of the track. “From

here, we’re bushwhacking,” Howell says

with relish. “We should head for that

seam of rock.” He points to a faintly

visible break in the vegetation.

Without a machete, it’s tough-going.

We scramble through dense foliage and

over crags, loose shaley rock giving way

beneath our hands as vines ensnare us.

We veer left to avoid blundering over the

edge. Within half an hour, we’re covered

in cuts, our trousers torn to shreds. Doubt

creeps in – does Howell know what he’s

doing? By the time he finds the exit, any

preconceptions about wingsuit pilots as

devil-may-care, instant-thrill seekers are

gone. This is methodical madness.

“I’ve already put 10 days’ work into

this one jump,” Howell says that evening

at a backpacker café in Ðông Văn – our

base of operations. “A lot of people are

content to do what they know – you can

head to Lauterbrunnen [in Switzerland],

ride up in a gondola and do five jumps

a day. It’s a lot harder to open up a jump

[create a leap never attempted before].”

For Howell, BASE jumping is freedom.

There’s no one saying you shouldn’t be

doing that because you don’t have the

right sticker in your log book,” he says,

taking a swig of whisky. His approach is as

much about exploration and finely tuned

preparation as it is about leaping off

precipices. Mountaineering, skiing and

rock-climbing are part of the story. There

isn’t much of the adrenalin junkie about

him – but then, in a sport that requires so

much skill and composure, such headlinegrabbing

tags are often off the mark.

Adventure is a crowded market. As our

appetite for content becomes ever more

voracious, and once-remote places turn

into the next selfie opportunity, the

extreme tends to get amplified. But while

Howell – by necessity – inhabits the world

of sponsorship and social media, his

projects have an old-world appeal. As he

puts it, he’s more inclined to ice-climb

to a BASE jump exit in the Alps than to

double back-flip off a 50m crane. And

he loves attempting new projects,

opening undiscovered routes, being the

first. It’s an explorer’s mentality.

“My dad was a paratrooper; I grew up

seeing pictures of him parachuting in Kenya

in the ’70s and ice-climbing Mont Blanc,”

Howell says. His mother, meanwhile, was

a flight attendant. “She took me on longhaul

flights when I was a toddler, stashing

me in the crew quarters,” he laughs.

At school, he was restless and struggled

to concentrate, traits he thinks are par for

the course with adventurous types: “We’ve

all got stories of not wanting to conform

as kids, not liking to be told what to do.”

So why spend eight years in the Royal

Marines? It provided the chance to travel,

he says, and to develop mental aptitude

in demanding situations, including a stint

in Afghanistan’s Helmand Province,

training Afghan forces to fight insurgents.

Howell uses laser range-finding binoculars and

his smartphone to calculate the trigonometry

of his flight path. He needs to be sure that his

trajectory will clear power lines located further

down the mountain

The next morning, a thick pall of grey mist

hangs low as we emerge from our hotel.

It doesn’t look good for Howell’s flight

today, and the forecast is for cloud all

week. By contrast, the streets are awash

with colour. It’s market day, and

everywhere there are traders representing

the various ethnic groups that populate

the mountains: Hmong, Dao, Nung, Tay.

The tribes wear homespun outfits: hemp

stained with batik motifs, the men in

berets – a legacy of six decades of French

rule. There’s a Hmong village right under

Howell’s flight path, and I wonder what

they’ll think when he whizzes over their

heads. We buy a machete, gear up and

head out on our rented mopeds.

While the other two bushwhack up to

the exit, I head towards a skywalk right

beneath the face to try to capture the

launch from below. But the cloud isn’t

lifting. We chat via walkie-talkie – they’ve

found the exit, an outcrop no more than

a foot wide. Howell clears away brush,

unphased by the gut-wrenching drop on

all sides; when not adventuring, he works

as a rope access technician, dangling

precariously from skyscrapers and bridges.

But there’s zero visibility. All day,

fog drifts across the mountain, lifting

tantalisingly only to descend moments

later. Howell can’t fly blind: it’s an

unknown route with power lines below.

At 5pm, we call it and they head down.

Howell has logged more than 600 BASE

jumps, half of them wingsuit flights.

Around his 300th, he had an accident. He

was with a group at Beachy Head in East

Sussex when he attempted a barrel roll,

a move he wasn’t that familiar with. His

chute got tangled and he hit the cliff twice,

almost fatally snagging the canopy on

a rock. He hit the ground hard and was

lucky to escape serious injury.

“I learnt an important lesson that day

about getting caught up in the group

mentality and being complacent. Since

then, there have been loads of times when

I’ve walked away from an exit if I didn’t like

the conditions, even though others have

been jumping all day without a problem.”

Though a more experienced skydiver

and wingsuit pilot, Kalisiewicz isn’t

unscathed either. At Christmas 2017,

Howell proposed to her on South Africa’s

Table Mountain before a wingsuit BASE

jump. In wingsuit flying, speed is crucial

for lift; pilots can achieve glide ratios

(forward vs downward movement) of 3:1.

But slow down too much and you can

THE RED BULLETIN 71

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