Wingsuit flying and BASE-jumping have taken extreme sports to a new level of “extreme” — and danger. In March 2014 Ludovic Woerth, Dan Vicary and Brian Drake — all professional extreme sportsmen — died while BASE-jumping in Switzerland. In May 2015 Dean Potter, who holds the world record for the longest BASE-jump in a wingsuit, and Graham Hunt were both killed while flying in Yosemite National Park. And a few weeks ago Erik Roner died while performing a skydive routine in Lake Tahoe. According to a 2014 article by the ABA Journal, BASE-jumping is the most dangerous extreme sport: one in every 2,317 jumps results in death.
Before BASE-jumping and wingsuit flying, bungee jumping was arguably as “extreme” as it got. Instead of watching Youtube videos of daredevils flying through canyons and free-falling without parachutes, the 80s and 90s generations grew up watching men jump off ledges, with only a bungee cord tied around their ankles for safety. Two of those men were AJ Hackett and Henry van Asch.
After being inspired by the land divers of Pentecost Island — who traditionally jump from 100-foot towers, with two vines tied around their ankles, to prove their manhood — the two men developed and tested a modern bungee cord (made of threads of woven rubber) in New Zealand. They then opened the first commercially operated bungee jump in 1988. Today AJ Hackett Bungy has multiple jump sites in New Zealand, Australia, Bali, Macau, Russia, Germany and France. Unlike wingsuit flying or BASE-jumping, nobody has ever died on an AJ Hackett Bungy jump in over 25 years. And unlike tandem skydiving, nobody is going to push them over the edge. In our conversation with Henry van Asch, we learned he still believes bungee jumping, for the average daredevil, is the ultimate test of willpower.
Q. Recap. Tell me a little more about how you were introduced to land diving (also called Nanggol)?
A. Both AJ and I read about the ritual of Nanggol in a National Geographic magazine. And after going there to witness it — we were inspired. We saw bungee jumping as a modern-day, personal challenge ritual for men and women. And while we had some reservations initially as to whether people would be up for it, we soon realized these were unfounded. To date, over 2 million people in New Zealand have bungeed.
Q. Before 1988, when you and AJ came up with the idea, what was the state of bungee jumping?
A. Up until 1988, our friends and we were jumping recreationally of bridges and structures. Back then, in our early 20s, AJ and I were pretty much up for anything and we saw the potential of bungee to feed people’s hunger for a sense of adventure. We weren’t afraid to push limits.
Having to face your fear of heights and overcoming it is not easy when you’re on the edge by yourself, but the rush you get from doing it is one of the greatest things our customers have ever experienced.
Q. How has the technology of the bungee rope evolved?
A. The bungee cord itself has not changed a lot over the last 26 years — it is still threads of rubber woven together to form the bungee cord. That said, bungee jumping has come a long way since 1988, with enhancements to equipment and the way it’s operated.
Q. A few of your jumps are over water, and jumpers often get dunked. How do you know if a height is safe enough to dive into water?
A. Customers have the choice of whether they want a water touch or not. Once we know that, our “Jumpmasters” make the necessary calculations — jumper weights, length and thickness of the cord, height of the jump, water levels and other variables like that.
Q. When planning a new location, or jump site, what goes into determining if it’d be a good place for bungee?
A. A successful bungee jumping site is determined by a number of factors: geography, accessibility, proximity to customers and market conditions are a handful of the things we look at before deciding on a site’s viability.
Q. Most people’s first reaction to bungee jumping is: “It’s crazy and dangerous.” But is bungee jumping all that dangerous?
A. Bungee jumping, when operated correctly, is not dangerous. We’ve done over 2 million bungee jumps in New Zealand with a 100 percent safety record. AJ Hackett Bungy New Zealand helped develop the Code of Practice for Bungy Jumping in 1990, which outlines how to operate a bungee jump, and how to do it safely.
Bungee is all about a personal challenge. It’s overcoming your fears while knowing you are in safe hands.
As to whether it’s crazy — bungee is all about a personal challenge. It’s overcoming your fears while knowing you are in safe hands. The “idea” of doing a bungee jump might seem crazy to some, but the actual act of bungee is often quoted by our customers as “the best thing they have ever done.”
Q. What is the current state of bungee jumping?
A. Bungee continues to grow around the world. A big part of its success lies in how it makes people feel about themselves once they have overcome their fear — there are few other things that people can do that come close to the rush of bungee.
Q. What’s the difference in popularity of bungee jumping in New Zealand, Australia, Europe and in the Americas? How has it grown over the years?
A. New Zealand is the birthplace of bungee jumping. So for those that have bungee on their “bucket-list”, New Zealand is seen as the mecca — which is great. Outside of New Zealand, AJ has set up some fantastic sites as well.
Q. How has the advent of new extreme sports affected the market for bungee jumping?
A. Most new extreme sports you see require years of experience. They aren’t something anyone can just turn up to do. Wingsuit flying is a perfect example. There will always be people out there wanting to push themselves further, and with that will come the continued growth in extreme sports, but it’s a very small, specialized segment.
Bungee jumping can be done by anyone, unlike the new extreme sports. Having the courage to step off the edge is challenging for many and without that personal challenge, bungee would not be here today. It doesn’t matter what kind of person you are. Anyone can bungee because it has nothing to do with physicality and everything to do with mentality — it’s all inside your head.
Q. I’ve been both bungee jumping and skydiving. Bungee jumping, to me, is scarier. Why do you think that is?
A. Tandem skydiving and bungee jumping are very different. While skydiving is about the height, bungee jumping is about the personal challenge and having the courage to jump by yourself; we never push anyone.
Bungee jumping is scary. They say “fear loves company” — and that’s the difference between tandem skydiving and bungee. Having to face your fear of heights and overcoming it is not easy when you’re on the edge by yourself, but the rush you get from doing it is one of the greatest things. Bungee has proximity to canyon walls, water and is much closer to everyday life than jumping from a plane, so that all combines to make Bungee just that much more intense.
Q. Is the Nevis the highest AJ Hackett Bungy jump you have? Are their plans in the works for a new jump? What’s next for AJ Hackett Bungy?
A. Yes, the Nevis Bungy (~440 feet) is our highest bungee jump in New Zealand. We pride ourselves on innovation and pushing the limits. As to the “next big event,” all I can say for now is watch this space.