Base jumpers are cool, calm, low-stress risk-takers, New Zealand-led study finds

By Martin Johnston

A New Zealand-led study of Base jumping has found another piece of the personality puzzle driving an extreme sport that has killed 35 people around the world this year.

Base jumping involves leaping off mountains, cliffs or man-made structures and parachuting to the ground, or flying at high speed in a wingsuit before landing with a parachute. (Base is an acronym for the four categories of fixed objects to jump from: buildings, antennae, spans and Earth.)

Last week the French mountain town of Chamonix banned the sport for six months - while it writes new regulations - after the death of 32-year-old Russian wingsuit flyer Ratmir Nigimyanov.

"Witnesses reported seeing his body hurtling through the air at a tremendous speed," nationalgeographic.com says.

"The careering figure clipped a rocky cliff just above town, then crashed into the side of the three-story chalet that was, fortunately, under construction and therefore uninhabited."

Nigimyanov's death was the fifth wingsuit fatality this year in Chamonix and local officials fear people on the ground will be hit by an out-of-control flyer.

Several Kiwi have died in air accidents involving base jumping or wingsuit flying. Alan McCandlish, 31, died in Switzerland in 2012, and Dan Vicary, 33, died in 2014, also in Switzerland, after leaping out of a helicopter.

Dr Erik Monasterio believes the death rate is so high in Base jumping because new flyers are leaping into the more extreme end of the sport without enough experience. Photo / Supplied
Dr Erik Monasterio believes the death rate is so high in Base jumping because new flyers are leaping into the more extreme end of the sport without enough experience. Photo / Supplied

Christchurch forensic psychiatrist and mountaineer Dr Erik Monasterio said the increase in wingsuit fatalities appeared to be driven by the appeal of the high-risk sport to thrill-seekers and he advocated a more graduated programme of learning the skills.

"In my opinion there is likely to be a proportion of participants from the new generation of extreme sports people who are strongly influenced by social media and intense public interest in these activities to the extent that they progress too quickly to the more extreme end of Base jumping, for example very quickly moving to wingsuit flying with insufficient experience and therefore come to harm."

"People are constantly filming themselves with webcams and GoPros, and given their personal make-up - thrillseekers, low in harm avoidance, a tendency to overestimate their capacity to manage, and they don't get stressed - It's almost like an epidemic of deaths from wingsuits."

People should make hundred of jumps at each stage before moving up to the next: from parachute jumps from a plane, to Base jumping, to wingsuit flying from a plane and finally wingsuit jumping from stationary objects.

Monasterio led an international study of Base jumpers' personality types and the levels of the stress-linked chemicals alpha-amylase and cortisol in their saliva. He told the Herald the stress reactivity levels were higher in the base jumpers than in the general population.

The study was based on 81 men and 19 women out of around 400 people who took part in the 2014 New River Gorge Bridge Day Base Jumping event in West Virginia, USA.

"Overall, base jumpers are highly resilient individuals who are highly self-directed, persistent, and risk-taking, but they [vary] in their motives and stress reactivity ...," the researchers report in the journal Physiology & Behaviour.

The study members were divided into three groups: "courageous" beginners with little experience of Base jumping, "trustful" jumpers with an intermediate level of experience and the "masterful" group with extensive experience.

The masterful jumpers had the lowest levels of alpha-amylase during their jump, "indicating their feeling of being in control with a sense of mastery", the researchers said.

The trustful jumpers' alpha-amylase was at an intermediate level. The courageous group had the highest levels; they were "anxious but overcame their fear with firm determination."

- NZ Herald

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