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Between Sea and Sky

Between Sea and Sky

Tim Howell
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Growing up I was surrounded by sailing. I would walk to nursery along the foreshore listening to the cables slapping against the masts. But while my friends grew up to become national champions and presidents of the local clubs, I instead looked up to the mountains. On ski holidays I would gaze up at the snowy summits and wish to climb them without the use of lifts. As a christening present a family friend promised me a set of sailing waterproofs when I came of age, and on my 21st birthday he reminded me of this offer. Instead I asked for a contribution towards my first parachute.

I never enjoyed the sea, the solitude and the harshness of its waters. Having spent six months on HMS Endurance as a Royal Marine I’ve spent my fair time at sea, but that did not prepare me for this voyage on a 34-foot Vancouver sailboat. This trip was going to be about commitment. Committing myself to learning the ropes, to being confined to a cramped interior for 16 days, and then finally the commitment of the void; to stepping off the edge of a three thousand foot cliff and flying in the fjords of Southern Greenland.

Preparation for this trip has taken months: a never-ending list of leaks to plug and modifications to make, though our skipper will never be fully satisfied. We leave the safety of the harbour with a growing list of repairs that will need to be made en-route. I know I will not enjoy the crossing yet my morale is high. A masochist journey I must participate in to fully appreciate our objectives.

As we entered the open sea the enormity of the task hit me. I pulled on the main halyard, tensioning it on the winch. Sea spray hit my face and I jostled for balance while furiously turning the winch handle. A roar erupted behind me, as an RAF C130 flew past us so close I could smell the avgas. As I looked up at the Hercules, water ran down my neck and I wondered if I should have flown out and met the team in Greenland. But there is no challenge without hardship. Each night we spent hours on watch as the days merged into one another.

My routine was very different from the rest of the seaworthy crew. On nightwatch I propped myself up against the stanchions, my arms drooped over in the stocks. Heaving heavily while the waves hit me with an unwelcome freshness. I was flailing around the cockpit, gasping for air in between a constant battering of gagging. Ed was woken up by the commotion and took over my watches for the following five days. After Day Six the skipper wrote in his nautical logbook, “Tim is sitting upright for the first time.” For sixteen days we made a steady progress of five knots, the landscape never changed, rolling waves and grey skies with only the barest horizon. The misty air grew heavier, spitting out flocks of Arctic Terns, then a hazy outline appeared like a mirage. We navigated our way through a myriad of granite outcrops and into the harbour. Huge sculptured icebergs guarded the colourful town of Nanortalik where we had a day to resupply before heading straight into the fjords. The weather was good and we aimed to make the most of it.

Our first objective was Ula - a towering granite massif which is the most distinctive feature in the valley. Access to these giants is a complex task which can take days to assess. Like wildebeest to a watering hole, we find the path of least resistance, through the dense mountain ash and under stacked boulders the size of cars, intuition guiding as we find a line of weakness up a steep gully. We squeeze past huge chockstones blocking our way and over bridges of hardened snow. Then finally after 500 metres we broke the horizon onto the summit plateau. The barren mountaintop was encased with black lichen that crunched underfoot. The panorama was staggering. Looking down to the tranquil fjord our yacht was a mere speck. Fresh water from the glaciers flowed into the salt creating beautiful blue contour lines. I was overwhelmed, overcome with the enormity of our position, and we were about to soar off this cliff and view it from a whole other perspective.

The clouds glowed warm from the sun. I jumped into the thinning mist as Ed followed just behind. Putting pressure on my outside wing I turned right flying around a blind corner. I made a decision in a matter of seconds to fly the notch between the two summits, judging my height against scars on the granite wall. With confidence I flew closer to the wall, diving to gain speed, now watching both our shadows competing for limelight as we flew into the dark side of the mountain. This is our playground; between the sea and the sky where we take chances with gravity.

When the winds are too strong or the clouds too low we chose climbing objectives. The Swiss route on Ketil pyramid offered one of the more well-trodden routes in the area, with the advantage that we would also summit on a potential exit point, giving us the opportunity to analyse it without the pressure. Time spent in recce is seldom wasted; visualisation is often key.

We climbed through the clouds on finger cracks and quartz-studded slabs. The rock sweeps down to the fjord below, and both sky and sea seem endlessly vast. The following day the weather had presided and we returned via an easier route. I knew what to expect; visualising my flight path, and my exact footing on the edge of the cliff. The summit was a wedge of rock, one side sheer and the other just enough to conduct my final checks. I am mentally and physically exhausted so I verbally check everything. A small mistake in our rigging could have detrimental effects.


Making sure it’s all in place before I plant my feet on the knife edge, adjusting them by millimetres until they were just right. This would be a solo flight. The wedge too precarious to stack two people and the exit too demanding to focus on synchronising two jumpers at once. When I’m ready, and only when I’m ready, I start counting. A habit formed from 600 jumps, a mental stimulation that causes a physical reaction. My heartbeat slows, controlled by my breathing. I’m at ease, but fixated. 

Three. It’s set in motion. Two. My body and mind focused. One. I push hard into the Arctic air.

The granite slab rushing up at me as I put all my trust into my gear and ability. The suit inflates and I gain distance away from the cliff, turning right in the sub-terminal airflow. Soon I pick up speed to 100mph diving down at a snowy patch, changing my angle of attack. Here speed is your friend, it’s momentum and energy. Speed equals lift is my mantra. My shadow dances on the snow. I get closer and closer to meeting my silent double. I know when to stop chasing and when to increase my glide, flying away from the ground, ready to deploy my parachute. 

"I plant my feet on the knife edge"

Words are not static. They bear different meanings for different people. An adventure for one person could be a survival situation for another; a stroll in the park for some or a first ascent for others. An expedition to me demands remoteness. It’s a self-sufficient undertaking with an objective. Wingsuiting is risky as it is, more so when you complicate it with remoteness and imposed self-sufficiency. We turned around more than we jumped. It took conviction to walk away rather than fulfilling our ambitions. Deciding to retreat, adding an extra half day to our laborious endeavor, rather than flying back to camp in a matter of minutes. But we consciously made those choices so we could fly another day.

Maybe that's what I should have done on the last jump of the trip. But it was too compelling. As soon as I looked out toward the seascape I knew I was going to jump. An ever-setting sun shone for hours on the horizon spraying fire into the sea so strong it looked like it could melt the icebergs. It was into this sublime setting I jumped, seduced and overwhelmed. With my parachute fully pressurized above my head I pulled hard on my control toggle, flying around a sea stack. A yacht was slowly inching towards the horizon and two hump back whales were breaching close to shore, putting on a show for an aerial audience of one. I was captivated by this visual feast, distracted from my landing pattern. Suddenly what I thought was a pebbled slope drew closer, and it became apparent the pebbles were in fact large rocks. I impacted with a stunned groan, cutting the tip off my finger and putting a dent in my helmet.

I ran all the way back to the boat fuelled by a cocktail of excitement and anger. The consequences could have been far greater. Sitting on my pack waiting for the helicopter back home I knew this trip would have an impact on my future expeditions. It was an unforgettable visual experience and a thought provoking lesson. I knew it would be a moment that I would reflect on in the future when standing on the edge of a cliff in a distant range. Maybe next time I’ll just soak in the view and walk back down; but maybe that won’t be enough for me.

Tim's essentials

Tim Howell is a member of the Jöttnar Pro Team. Find out more here.

Photographer: Ed Luke

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