BASE Jumping the Kaipo Wall – Fiordland

Last week I was fortunate enough to be asked on a trip to Fiordland National Park. This wasn’t going to be the usual touristy sight seeing,  leisurely cruise round the world famous Milford Sound. I was going to photograph some BASE jumpers soar off the biggest vertical cliff in New Zealand, the Kaipo Wall. The 4300ft (1300m) vertical drop spans 1.3Km high by 1.8km wide….This cliff is a monster, but a very beautiful one. The crew I was with were very experienced BASE jumpers. Kiwi’s Alan McCandlish, Benny MacPherson and Aussie Jason Cyran (Triple J) had ‘opened up’ (been the first to do) this jump back in 2008 and they were with us to do it again. On the drive to Milford JJJ and Alan told me incredible tales of their first jump of the Kaipo and how beautiful it is. I was so excited but ridiculously nervous to shoot their jumps from the top. With not the best head for heights, I would have to concentrate hard on not falling off the edge and getting the shot!

Milford Sound under the stars

We arrived at about 10pm, and after shooting some photos of the stars, I went to bed in the back of my car to have a rather restless nights sleep (not as restless as those going to jump the next day I should imagine!) Thoughts were racing through my mind on how I would shoot the jump, how I would not get in the way, how I would not fall off! I had a rope and harness I could tie myself off on, but the boys said there isn’t much to tie onto! I would just have to wait and see and do my best to get the shot safely. With the sun, rose the infamous West Coast sandflies, and after a lot of organising and planning amongst the biting little flies, we were in a chopper flying our way to the top of the Kaipo Wall.

The view up Milford Sound as we took off

From the chopper…

Swiss jumper Alex Polli stoked on his very scenic heli ride, as well as being dropped off on top of a terminal wall.

We got dropped off in between a 4300ft cliff and a huge crevasse on the glacier, we moved quickly over to the rock edge, as it wasn’t too good an idea to hang about on a glacier. The boys were fizzing with excitement and immediately climbed up the ridge to where the exit point was. Named ‘Benny’s Ledge’ by the boys this was the place where the guys with wing suits would exit. Prue and Ted, who were going to track (using their bodies without wing-suits to fly) decided to go a little lower.

The boys climbing to find the exit point. To my left there is a 4300ft drop… Climbing around these rocks was a little scary to say the least!

Looking for a place to shoot was not easy… It was incredibly hard walking around up there, mainly because I knew there was certain death to one side of me and partial certain death to the other (the possibility of falling into a huge hole in the glacier)  I didn’t have too long to look for a good spot as soon the guys were ready to jump. And when a BASE jumper is ready, you cant ask them to wait so you can get the shot… They are in no state of mind to be hanging around to wait for the photog!

Prue Beams, Alan, JJJ and Benny looking down the Kaipo Wall, sussing the exit point

The Kaipo Wall

The valley where the guys would be landing. The guys in the wing suits landed all the way down by the first set of trees.

To give you an idea, look how tiny they are, this is taken at full 300mm zoom. Can you see the two canopies? Ted Rudd and Alex Polli had jumped together…

After Ted, Prue and Alex had jumped from just below Benny’s Ledge and I got some cool sequences of them (which I cant show you!) , JJJ, Benny and Al were ready to jump from Benny’s Ledge. I had a small amount of time to re-locate and shoot their exits. Without much time to compose a good frame, I was a bit disappointed with my wing suit shots… It is incredibly hard to portray the magnitude of what they are doing in a single frame.

Jason Cyran (JJJ) exits in his wing suit.

After all the guys had jumped, I was left up on the top there with Prue’s husband, Dennis, who wasn’t jumping. We waited for our pick up and the reality of what I had seen sunk in. It was so very cool watching these massively skilled athletes soaring through the sky like jet planes and landing safely more than 1.5km away.

The flight out. Fiordland’s incredible landscape

We touched down safe at Milford airstrip and there was a lot of hugging and celebrating on the successful jumps. Everyone was pretty ecstatic…Soon all the canopies were out and repacked meticulously, making sure that every last detail was perfect. With BASE there is no reserve shoot, so you need to make sure your canopy opens perfectly, or its game over.

Tedd Rudd packing his canopy

The crew hanging out at Milford Sound

Before I started the long drive back to Wanaka, I shot a few photos of the guys chilling out down by the waterfront and the iconic Milford view. Shortly they would be leaving to jump another cliff, Terror Peak… With no space in the chopper for a photog, it was my time to go home… I had got what I came for, and watched one of the most incredible mind blowing sports out there, so I was very content. I do want to go back though and shoot some more…