Though not climbing related, this is no less exciting and simply an incredible human achievement. Felix Baumgartner has set the record for highest free-fall jump, exiting a specially designed capsule at 120,000 feet and falling to earth in approximately three minutes. On the way down, his speed broke 730mph, which (currently unofficially) makes him the first human being to brake the sound barrier outside of an airframe.
Watching this live via YouTube was pretty awesome- the ascent took a few hours. But once they reached 128,000 feet, they began to equalize the pressure in the capsule (to the outside air pressure). After dumping what little oxygen was left in the capsule, the air pressure equalized and the capsule door popped open.
His mission control ran through their 31 item checklist, and he stood out on the capsule footpad, fully outside. A few words, and he just jumped.
He accelerated super fast almost immediately (thanks to the thinner air, this is where he probably broke the sound barrier) before the quickly thickening atmosphere slowed him down a bit. He quickly got into a more controlled fall, and soon enough his chute was out. Perhaps the most amazing part was the fact that he landed on his feet- from 128,000 feet to the ground in just a few minutes, and the guy lands on his feet. Absolutely spectacular.
That altitude is just insane. Mountain climbing, no matter how extreme, just can’t compete with the altitude. Watching him stand on the outside of the capsule just reminded me of the first time I went bungee jumping while in high school. Of course the altitude and level of risk is absolutely nothing close (in fact they can’t really be compared), but I do remember my thought process as I stepped out of the cage and stood at the edge. The best way I described it to others was that I knew I would be fine- I was tied into a huge cord. But my body, and my mind, didn’t seem to recognize that fact. It was as if my mind was screaming at me to back up and sit down, get away from the damn edge!
Well turning back at that point would have been embarrassing (and in high school, what else matters?). I just ignored that inner-voice and “fell” forward off the little platform. To say “I liked it” is a bit of an understatement….I did it two more times that night and again the next day. I wonder what was going through Felix’s mind as he stepped onto the platform….
The mental process when climbing has some interesting intersections with those feelings I described above. For me at least, climbing feels less risky (and the mind doesn’t play nearly as many tricks on you) because it’s a slow ascent. Even at serious altitude (and the most I can speak to is 11,400 feet), the climb to reach that point is gradual. It isn’t until you reach a certain point and look down (or turn around) and realize how high you are, or the angle at which your climbing, that the level of risk really hits you.
A huge congratulations to Felix Baumgartner for his stupendous accomplishment!