Touch the Skies
“We never know how high we are Till we are called to rise; And then, if we are true to plan, Our statures touch the skies.” — Emily Dickinson, American poet
Big Girls Don’t Cry
Karen Lewis Dalton
Ana Isabel Dao
Don’t ask these women who brought them to the party. Not only did they come alone, but the party is all theirs. Not every female BASE jumper shows up at an exit point accompanying her BASE man.
In the case of these six women, the decision to jump is all theirs, a goal, a dream, a passion. The first time Anniken Binz went to jump at Kerag, Norway, she was asked at the exit point, “Who is your boyfriend?” She looked around and announced that she was not there with anyone but herself. She doesn’t believe that such questions are still being asked today, at least not in her case as she is now an established jumper.
Ten years ago can seem like a lifetime in the ever changing dynamics of the battle of the sexes in society—it can be an even slower grind in the world of sports. In this interview I have chosen to ask the same exact questions to an array of women from the sport of BASE with each individual equipped with varying experience levels and personal backgrounds.
We have a mother of a newborn who practices and teaches Ashtanga Yoga, has a modeling career, is a guest speaker, hosted travel shows, appeared in numerous magazines ranging from sports, travel and yoga; she also holds a master’s degree in Human development and a bachelor’s degree in Social Anthropology -Anniken Binz
A woman who grew up in Ohio, earned a degree in Mechanical Engineering at University of Pennsylvania and who chose a career as a tandem instructor at Perris Skydive where she is also part of a world class skydiving team. She has a passion for photography both in the air and on the ground. -Karen Lewis Dalton
“The hot Russian from Gravity Workshop team,” and no, although Karr has been known to wear a dress, I am indeed speaking of his teammate, a skilled jumper, talented cameraperson, articulate and creative artist in her own right. In the past six months she’s been devoted to her artwork and graphic arts design, further illustrating that she can do it all. -Lika Borzova
Coming to us from South America is the prodigal daughter. She has traveled the world, planning her time off from work as BASE jumping vacations. She grew up hanging out at the airport while her father skydived and always knew that someday she would be a BASE jumper. The apple didn’t fall far from the tree when it comes to defying gravity. -Ana Isabel Dao
A 22-year-old born and bred Californian, who made her first BASE jump at 16, moved to Denver, works part-time as an AFF instructor, mentors in BASE jumping and is working towards her degree in nursing. She has made it her mission to bring “sexy to BASE.” -Clair Crawford
An Aussie with a degree in Electrical Engineering who now lives in Norway with her life partner, has plans of starting a family, participates in the World BASE and Pro BASE Races, and is the questionably the most recognized female wing suit BASE pilot in the sport of BASE. The smiling girl with the quick wit and appetite for adventure grew up to be a woman who can fly. -Livia Dickie
Before delving into the lives of these women, let’s step back and take a moment to pay homage to a woman who changed the sport forever with her gray 7-cell canopy, the gracious and gravity talented New Zealander, Anne Helliwell.
Marital Status: Divorced
Location: Southern California
Education: Associates Degree
Hometown: Sun City
Year of first BASE jump: 1982
BASE Number: 222
Profession: Parachute Manufacturer and Registered Nurse
Canopy: Flik Ultralite by Apex
Container: Apex DP
Five quick questions with Anne Helliwell:
Q: Do you prefer solo or group jumps? A: Group jumps for sure.
Q: Of the four objects in BASE which one is your favorite to jump? A: I don’t have a favorite. They are all my favorites, whether they are in the cities or mountains.
Q: Have you achieved your childhood dreams? A: Yes I have.
Q: How do you reconcile the desire to jump versus personal responsibilities to family? A: Easy, don’t create a family; they get in the way of jumping.
Q: Who has been the greatest influence in your life? A: My dad.
In my continuing research into BASE jumping, I am often surprised by how many young and new jumpers I encounter who speak of “old school BASE and adhering to old school ways” but are clueless when it comes to recognizing a woman who remains true to the sport she helped innovate with her BASE specific parachute design.
You won’t see her posting on the BASE jumping forums reminding everyone of her accomplishments, extolling the old school days ‘n ways, or criticizing the direction of the sport or the newbies who join the ranks of jumpers. Anne is busy fulfilling her dreams in flying, skydiving, BASE and enjoying the company of likeminded jumpers old and new to the sport. In fact, when I asked her if she mentors, she replied, “Sure, I’ll help anyone who needs it.” Anne isn’t about unspoken rules, she is about people.
While many old school jumpers are no longer current or going hard as it were, she is revered by a new generation of jumpers such as Arizona BASE jumper, Matt Frolich, who admire her skills and spirit having experienced sharing an exit point with Anne. “What can I say? Anne kicks ass! I met her about two years ago on a small cliff in Southern California. Since then, I have run into her in Switzerland, West Virginia, Twin Falls and back in California. She jumps as hard as anyone I know and has a true love for the sport.” –Matt Frolich
Clair Crawford summed up her experience of shared exit points with Anne by saying, “Jumping with her made me realize what a badass she is and a good jumper! Anne is a super nice chick as well! I think it is fantastic that there was a female that had so much to contribute to the sport and its development. BASE jumping is very much a male dominated sport she rocks! She is a fantastic person, a very dedicated jumper and it was even more so when she was working on developing the gear and increasing safety!”
Anne might not speak of it and some may fail and what she has done to study the history of in the field as a pioneer the sport. In fact, there might have been other makes us all look like riggers at the time who thought about designing we’re not worth it. We are and creating a BASE specific parachute, but just following a path that it was Anne who led the way with her Fox canopy, nicknamed the “Gray Thing,” forever cementing a place in the sport’s history.
Her influence runs deeps. Livia Dickie had this to say, “When I first started BASE jumping it was a very male-dominated sport and Anne Helliwell was a very strong female figure amongst all the testosterone. Although she never knew it, she was a role model that helped inspire me.”
When I asked Anne what she felt was her contribution to BASE, her response was simply, “The Tail Gate”.
In replying to the question of what it is about BASE that she enjoyed the most, “the people, the places it takes me, the jump itself, the exercise, the gear, the air and again, the people.”
She describes BASE jumping as “a need” and one that she doesn’t get to fulfill often enough these days. I inquired if she could envision herself retiring from jumping and like many jumpers that option will come to fruition when she is “either dead or can’t make my way up the hill, whichever comes first.”
The young woman from New Zealand who followed her skydiving dreams to the United States helped set the course for modern day BASE gear.
Anne, along with Master Parachute Rigger, Todd Shoebotham, began the company Basic Research, Inc. coupling Anne’s canopy with Todd’s container. Anne returned to nursing, leaving Todd to join forces with Jimmy Pouchert and Marta Empinotti to become a company whose name has become synonymous with the sport of BASE jumping, Apex BASE.
My time in interviewing Anne was cut short by her leaving on a trip to Saudi Arabia on a skydiving exhibition. Her resume in the sport of skydiving and BASE jumping is nothing less than impressive. Anne can list being a pioneer in gear manufacturing, at the forefront of the beginning of BASE as a jumper, a renowned skydiver and mentor/instructor/ teacher. I wanted to have Anne be a part of this interview, even if it was a small part, as she really is one of the few women who were at the forefront of BASE and set the standard for all that follow.
Marital Status: Married
Location: Oslo, Norway
Children: 1 son
Education: Master’s Degree in Human Development
Hometown: Oslo, Norway
Year of First Jump: 2000
Number of Jumps: 400
Year of First Skydive: 1996
Number of Skydives: 1,000
Profession: Sponsored Athlete and Yoga Instructor
What your epitaph will read: Hmm, ha. I think it will say “she will be deeply missed”. I would like to be remembered as “caring, loving, and happy.”
Hobbies: Ashtanga Yoga
Three dreams you achieved:
• Jumping Angel Falls—Yes!
• Becoming a model—Yes!
Most admired jumper: Australian Chris “Douggs” McDougall, he has lost so many friends to the sport, but still finds great joy in it after all these years.
Canopy: Troll by Atair
Container: Gargoyle by Morpheus Technologies
Unlike Anne, five of the six women I interviewed all have plans for their own families one day and for Anniken Binz that plan became a reality a year ago. Now instead of wishing for fun days filled with big wall jumps, her hopes lean more towards having her son sleep through the entire night.
As for that nagging question of jumping versus personal responsibilities towards family, “Tough question” she says as she explains, “I have always put my own desires first, but now as a mom it looks like the responsibility to my family has become more important. I would jump as often as possible, weather and season permitted…although I have not jumped for over a year now due to the pregnancy and the birth of my son.”
This wasn’t always the case for the Oslo, Norway born model, athlete, wife and mother. Anniken made her first skydive in 1996, followed by her first BASE jump in 2000. Her attraction to BASE came in the form of curiosity. “I am generally curious, but I also love flying and I love the mountains which is the main attraction for me.”
Only four days passed between her first BASE jump and her second, with big walls being her favorite object to jump. She didn’t attend an FJC, nor did she have a mentor. “A friend took me for my first jump explained the basics. I would always go and jump with someone more and helps me to be a calm and content person. I hope I pass that along experienced than me.”
Anniken’s philosophy for BASE jumping is a simple one: Play it safe. She considers her desire to not push it or fly faster or longer as a weakness and yet she will tell you that her strength lies in her calmness and not having a need to show off. Perhaps she has found the perfect balance in her BASE career and suggest that other female jumpers “seek advice from other females, as they have more conservative views than their male counterparts and it’s good to take one step at a time as a beginner in the sport. Males often rush themselves.”
As to whether there are advantages to being female in a male-dominated sport, “It’s more difficult in my opinion because the males like to do their own thing, but of course it can also become an advantage when the males are tired of hanging out with only ‘the boys;’ they then welcome having females join them in a jump. One advantage is that you don’t have to prove yourself to be the most hard core jumper so you don’t feel the need to push your limits and be cool like the boys often feel pressured to do.”
Although she admits to that one advantage, she says that she has never used her sexuality to advance in BASE or anywhere else. She does however note that “the more masculine activities I do, the more feminine I tend to dress. It is funny, but I feel like I need to balance these sides of me. Everybody is unique in BASE, but I guess I am not the typical tomboy girl. I never did any sports during my childhood and never did any extreme sports until I skydived.”
“When I mentor a female jumper I teach her to play it safe and find her own limits, to avoid being influenced by the boys. BASE jumping has contributed to my personal growth in giving me perspective on life and helps me to be a calm and content person. I hope I pass that along to others.”
As for the question of female voices on the BASE forums and media coverage of BASE, Anniken summed it up as, “Maybe girls don’t need to mark their territory as much as boys. Yes of course the media misrepresents BASE. They tend to focus on accidents, this is normal because ‘it’ sells. And yes, I think some anti-social BASE jumpers have contributed to the media’s generalized view of all jumpers. But that being said there are a lot of great ambassadors in the sport and I think the general public is starting to get a more nuanced view on BASE jumping.”