NEEDLES – The sun had barely backlit the San Juan Mountains to the east Friday when Kat Wildman approached the open face of the Hermosa Cliffs, 1,300 feet above the scattered community here, and slipped into her parachute harness.
She balanced on the edge of the precipice, examined her rigging one last time, exchanged “Love you” with husband, Joe Wildman, and leaped into the void.
Wildman is a BASE jumper.
BASE jumping, from Buildings, Antennas, Spans and Earth, means leaping from one of the aforementioned fixed points with a parachute. The sport, it’s generally agreed, dates from the late 1970s.
Wildman, 28, of Finland, has made more than 300 jumps in Norway, Switzerland, Peru, Australia, Thailand and the United States. She lives in Durango now.
The highest jump she’s made was from the Mushroom, a point on the Eiger about 4,000 feet above the valley floor in Switzerland’s Bernese Alps.
“I’ve always liked heights,” Wildman said. “I told my mother when I was 7 years old that I wanted to jump from an airplane.”
Wildman’s first BASE jump was from a 60-meter high bridge near Sydney, where she had met a skydiving instructor who spent his spare time BASE jumping.
She was hooked.
The adrenaline rush – that here-and-now awareness – from free falling and floating earthward is accompanied by a calm that borders on the spiritual, Wildman said.
“I feel at peace – as if I’m in two worlds,” she said. “I feel a connection to nature that is spiritual.
“We humans aren’t supposed to fly,” Wildman said. “So breaking out of boundaries may be part of a bigger plan.”
Tradition holds that the first person to leap from an exit point, as a BASE launch site is called, has the right to name it, Wildman said.
She designated the Needles site Namaste.
Namaste, derived from Sanskrit, is a widely used greeting with various interpretations, but it generally acknowledges the spiritual aspect in another person.
“It means ‘I see the god in you,’” Wildman said.
Wildman does skydiving to sharpen her canopy control.
“It’s important because sometimes you have to maneuver to land in a small area,” she said. “In case of strong wind or if you do a 180, you have to react quickly to get out of trouble.”
A 180-degree roll occurs if a parachute opens in the wrong direction and swings the jumper back into a cliff or a tower, Wildman said. It can occur even with a properly packed parachute, she said.
No wind was stirring Friday when Wildman went off the Hermosa Cliffs. There was dead silence for a few seconds until the swoosh of her parachute opening signaled all was well.
Wildman’s daredevil nature is balanced by a reflective side. She attends annual 10-day silent retreats in a number of places in the world.
The aim of Vipassana meditation, the Buddhist technique she studies, is to train the mind to be in the present moment, she said.
The fascination with the Himalayan meditative practices led her to visit India and Nepal. The trip was a break from BASE jumping after a close friend was killed in Switzerland when he opened his parachute too low.
Raw, organic food, which makes up her diet, also ties her to nature, said Wildman, who earned raw-food chef certification through a course at Turtle Lake Refuge.
“Raw food connects me to nature,” she said. “It makes me feel pure.”
Wildman finds work to support her travels. She taught English and cared for children in Peru, worked in a hotel in Switzerland and is employed at Turtle Lake Refuge and Nature’s Oasis in Durango.
She met Joe Wildman, the man she would marry, in Peru, where he was mountain climbing. Joe, a self-employed building contractor, doesn’t BASE jump, she said.
Kat Wildman has lost four friends to BASE jumping accidents.
The latest was Wioletta Roslan, 37, of Sweden, who was four-months pregnant when she was killed in September near Stechelberg.
“She couldn’t reach the pilot chute (a miniature parachute that pulls the main chute from its pack),” Wildman said. “Her boyfriend who jumped with her said that when she realized she wasn’t going to make it she simply spread her arms to accept the inevitable.”
Wildman acknowledged before jumping Friday that the friends who are no longer around cross her mind from time to time. But the memories don’t deter her from repacking her parachute for another jump.
“I’ve traveled with a parachute on my back for six years now,” Wildman said. “But I jump less now, and I won’t be jumping forever.”