China is no stranger to BASE jumping. The Anshun Balinghe Bridge International Base Jumping Tournament is an invite only event in which only thirty or so BASE jumpers from around the world experience the awesome people and culture of China as well as the world’s third highest road bridge. With a height of over 1,200 feet (370 meters) from deck to water and surrounded by massive, forest covered, limestone mountains, it was sure to provide me with some of the most amazing visuals I’ve ever experienced. Before any of this awesomeness could happen, I would have to make my way through the labyrinth of paperwork known as the Chinese visa process and a full 24 hours of travel each way. A half dozen pages of information, several photos, a passport, full itinerary, a fistful of cash, noise canceling headphones, some serious jet lag, and I’m pretty sure my first and second born children are all it will take! With a little bit of luck, a full playlist on the iPod, and some ambien for the full day of travel and I’m in for the trip of a lifetime.
The day finally arrived for my trip to China. My bags were packed and my awesome wife was there to drop me off and wish me safe travels. I arranged to meet up with my good mate Brendan in Beijing for a few days prior to traveling south to the city of Guiyang then to Guizhou Province for the event. Brendan lived in Beijing for a few years teaching English to children and adolescents while finishing his own studies. After negotiating all of our travels,
Brendan and I arrived in Beijing and spent the next couple of days enjoying beautiful weather and touring around the hub of Chinese culture and history. I completely talked Brendan’s ear off asking about the culture and way of life in China and more specifically Beijing. I was in complete awe over the fast paced, strict ordinance, and rich history of Beijing. I could tell that Brendan missed many things about living here.
We caught our flight south to the city of Guiyang where we met up with the event organizer and the 34 other BASE jumpers from 16 countries. After a quick down and dirty schedule brief, we headed out the next morning on a bus to Guizhou Province in the south of China. This area is known for it’s lush forests, amazing limestone mountains and canyons, and some of the most impressive rivers and waterfalls in the world. It is also home of the Balinghe River Bridge.
An amazingly impressive structure that spans nearly 7,500 feet wide and over 1,200 feet above the river. That night we all met in the hotel conference room to receive our safety brief of “do’s and dont’s” and a rough itinerary and timeline of the next several days. The following day is reserved for two practice jumps from the bridge in order to allow the jumpers to familiarize themselves with the canyon, landing area, and object itself, while the following two days are for main event and weather day respectfully.
The week leading up to the event, the southern region of China was subjected to a typhoon that pummels the area with an extreme amount of rain which has caused the river to swell to dangerous levels. This added a particularly dangerous factor to the jump as a water landing in a raging river is most certainly a potentially deadly encounter. This makes a rescue crew with ropes and boats an absolute necessity.
Practice day arrived and everyone was shuttled out to the bridge to scope out the exit point, landing area, and river which had completely engulfed the banks as well as the walking rocks. These rocks were emplaced to aid local farmers and of course jumpers in crossing the river safely but were now in danger of being washed or eroded away with the heavy river flow. The bridge, canyon, nearby massive cascading waterfalls and raging river were incredibly impressive and humbling. I am lucky indeed to experience such an amazing place. You could fly an entire squadron of aircraft under the span of the bridge.
Due to the level and flow of the river, workers and event coordinators were unable to successfully establish a river crossing with boats (of which two capsized during their efforts) from the landing area to the trail that leads up to the road and elevator we would use to get back up to the bridge. This unfortunately prevented any of us from conducting practice jumps. We were now all faced with hoping that the rain and river levels would subside enough for us to jump in the following days.
The next morning we loaded the buses and proceeded through the droves of police and media vehicles that lined the streets leading to the bridge. This event was full on. Political leaders, media professionals, vendors, entertainers, and masses of locals lined the streets and stages of the event at the foot of the bridge pillars. I was fortunate enough to share high fives and smiles with the locals who came to witness the day’s events. Wide eyes and a bit of apprehension seemed to be everywhere. Finally the event began with speeches from the local dignitaries, introduction of the day’s athletes, and a formation flight over the stage and under the bridge of six powered paragliders and delta wing trikes with colorful smoke and the Chinese flag in tow. With that, we were off to the gangways under the deck of the bridge to begin jumping.
It seemed the bridge was alive as we made our way to the gear up area and exit point. With every car and truck rushing by above us on the road deck, the bridge vibrated and undulated all around us. It was hard to tell if my legs were shaking from the restless bridge or my excitement and nervousness. It was finally time to leave the chaos of the bridge and enter the peaceful feeling of falling through the air.
The first few jumpers went off and the air was electric with excitement and stoke. Some went solo and some went off in multi-ways performing aerials and linked jumps. It was finally my turn and I climbed down onto the massive red, steel beams of the bridge, gave a few pre jump high fives and did my exit count: 3, 2, 1, C-ya!
My feet left the bridge and everything went quiet. I seemed to be temporarily suspended in the moment with all of my senses plugged in. Before I know it, the air was rushing by my ears getting louder and louder and I was accelerating exponentially towards the Earth. I tucked my head and slowly rotated a front flip. The bridge is so high I was still well above the river below. I came out of my rotation, got stable and pitched my pilot chute… Everything was quiet again. I flew my canopy to the landing area which was covered in massive tarps with advertisements for the event.
Safely back on the ground, I gathered up my gear and began making my way across the landing area to the shore. Boats were waiting here to shuttle me across the river while the familiar crackling sound of opening canopies could be heard over the roaring river.
Finally to the river shore, I was greeted by local workers eager to shuttle me across the river to do this all over again. I have to admit that this was probably the most nerve racking part of the day. Especially after seeing boats capsize and workers nearly drown the day prior. On this day, however, It was all smiles for workers and jumpers alike.
After making my way up the trail past local farm houses and crops as well as the droves of spectators lining the path, I find myself back on the gangway of the bridge packing up my canopy. The next jump is something special. My two best mates Brendan and Chris and I have decided to don animal costumes and perform a three way jump. Chris is dressed like a panda, Brendan a walrus, and myself as a penguin. Looking like something out of a furry or Comicon convention, we performed last minute gear checks
and jump specifics. I was certainly terrified as my head is completely covered with the large plush penguin head with only two small mesh covered eye holes for vision. Not exactly how I want to go out. We mitigate all potential risks to include not wearing the flippers/wings/claws that the suits are equipped with, which completely covered our hands making it nearly impossible to grab and pitch our pilot chutes. Once standing on the steel of the exit point, we acted out our furry fight between Brendan the walrus, and I with Chris the panda, as the mediator. Chris finally gives three roars signaling the exit and off we went. Chris performed his aerials flawlessly as usual, taking his jump deep at nearly 8 seconds. Brendan took it flat and nasty down to 5 seconds as I went 3 seconds. This gives us the good vertical separation needed to make such a jump safe from entanglement.
The jump and our costumes were a hit and pull cheers from the crowd of photographers and jumpers alike. Super fired up that the jump went well, we headed back up to the stage area to lay out our rigs and pack things up as the rest of the jumpers finished up their last jumps of the day.
That night we attended a huge banquet back at the hotel with more food and beer than you could through a stick at. It also included plenty of Chinese alcohol called Baijiu. It should actually just be called kerosene since that is what it smells and tastes like. I swear the fumes alone are enough to put you on your butt and singe your eyebrows and nose hairs off. I avoided getting sick and overdoing it. It was fun just to kick back, relax, laugh with others and reflect on the past week of events and adventures.
The trip continued to wind down the next day. We visited the Huangguoshu waterfall nearby, which is one of the premier tourists attractions in the Guizhou Province and really in all of China. It was flowing heavy and was absolutely amazing! The bamboo forests, lush green foliage, constant cool spray of water, and endless blue skies made for a perfect day.
Finally it was time to leave. With bags packed we loaded the coach bus and headed back to Guiyang for one last dinner in China before another 24 hours of travel back to the U.S.
During this trip I found how appreciative I am for the things and people I have in my life. Life in China is hard. There are so many people living in such close proximity to each other that everything is a competition. Walking down the sidewalk, getting food from the market, getting on and off the train… All a competition. If your not first, you're S.O.L. Pollution, food quality, building and public safety codes… All seemingly non existent. We as American’s complain a lot about what we don’t have and what we feel we deserve. Many of us are self absorbed and egocentric. Once you look into the eyes of someone living on a hillside in a remote area of China with only a future of farming on the family’s land and a lower level education that is censored to the government’s pleasing, you gain an appreciation for the things you do have. We are so very fortunate to live where and when we do. So open a door for a stranger, keep learning, smile a little bigger, try something new, travel somewhere you’ve never been, love one another, and go get in the mountains. See you out there, Living the High Life!