David Barnes profiles Simon Young, a rock climber, BASE jumper and all-round adventure frother.
He checks his rig and shoulders it. It’s early but the sky is still and peeps still sleep. He can hear the morning call of birds but he will be the first to fly, falling from a clifftop nest. The moment the sky embraces him does not age.
Simon Young is an explorer. The world doesn’t have many people who give their lives to a frontier, but Simon has done so in two endeavours. He came to my home in a daggy T-shirt and skinny jeans that looked faded from living, not fashion. I had a feeling I was in for a treat.
Simon is an accomplished Tasmanian rock climber who’s done just about everything there is to do here and has extended that reach both nationally and internationally, climbing hard routes and living life as a dirtbag climber. He’s also an accomplished BASE jumper with a remarkable resume. Simon’s stoke is highly contagious and it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that by the time you finish reading, you’ll be scratching your adventure itch too.
Hobart, a city squeezed between wilderness and ocean and watched over by the precipitous Organ Pipes of Mount Wellington. It was here that Simon began rock climbing. Hobart’s small climbing scene is tightly knit, but he was talented and found the right mentors to teach him the trade. Before long they were working side by side to push things further.
Tasmania’s not your average sport climbing hub; it has awkward dolerite pillars, towering sea cliffs, and remote climbing destinations like Frenchmans Cap in the Southwest Wilderness and the Totem Pole on the Tasman Peninsula.
Simon excelled in all styles of climbing and didn’t hesitate to take up a challenge, soon, the mainland called.
I asked resident Tasmania hard man Garry Phillips of those times.
‘Mount Arapiles beckons all Australian climbers and Simon was no different, fresh meat to the quartzite grinder. Many climbers enter; some come out better climbers from their experience and others, just don’t come out.’
Simon was attracted to the Temple of the Mount: Punks in the Gym. Every climber of merit that visits Arapiles has Punk’s on their playlist. Wolfgang Gullich first climbed it in 1985 and it became the first grade 32 (5.14) in the world. This climb was a turning point in Simon’s life.
‘Punks is like a pilgrimage to Wolfgang, in honour of the master I grew the famous handlebar moustache.’
For Simon, this climb was a revelation that the impossible was possible.
‘Not everyone will get the opportunity to experience Punks, so I wanted to ensure I paid honour to that and I embraced the full experience.’
He spent five days unlocking its puzzles and he sent it on his 14th shot. Shortly after a repetitive injury in his ‘up yours’ finger became problematic, which drew a line through climbing for a while. What was he going to do? He’d started skydiving 18 months before he’d sent Punks, giving his fingers and elbows a much-needed break.
Simon travelled south to Melbourne and picked up odd jobs including high access work. Hanging off the side of buildings, scraping bird poo off skyscraper windows, he found himself drawn deeper into skydiving. It gave him the taste of adrenalin that climbing had, but instead of a long black, he was necking an espresso. Simon jumped at every opportunity from airfields near Melbourne.
The climbing condition had Simon travelling the world and throughout his journeys, he’d inadvertently end up chatting with BASE Jumpers.
‘I’d seen BASE jumpers before, in 2008 I was adrift in a sea of granite on El Capitan, on a route called Mescalito [a steep and sustained 900m route rated C3+, which is kind of hard]. Out of the quiet, three jumpers dropped right past me! It turned out to be [the late] Dean Potter accompanied by Ammon McNeeley and Ivo Niveo. That was exciting to see.’
Simon’s climbing and skydiving buddy Morgen Hoskins had suggested to Simon whilst climbing at Ceuse in France that he should give BASE a go. But seeing Dean and his buddies flying by him on the Captain had stoked a fire.
‘I’d completed 420 skydives and found myself at Squamish in British Columbia [a forested granite playground for Canadians]. My climbing was going fine, but this time I was taken down by a toothache, then my finger blew up.’
He thought of the BASE jumpers he kept running into, his love for big air whilst parachuting and that bloody finger that was keeping him from climbing. He saw BASE as a good alternative activity and something to enhance his skills. He’d booked into a BASE course prior to his time in Canada. Injuries aside, the timing of the course was perfect, so Simon packed his stuff and caught a ride to Idaho, a Mecca for BASE jumping.
‘I figured I’d done the mileage to get to this point, so I travelled south to learn to jump.’
There aren’t many Idahos in the world for BASE jumpers – the sport is often banned or even illegal. Twin Falls is a city that welcomes BASE enthusiasts. The name BASE is actually an acronym built from Building, Antenna, Span, and Earth, and Twin Falls welcomes people to jump off its imposing 148 metre high Perrine Bridge, which spans the nearby Snake River. Courses can be taken in town and Simon had booked into a reputable team to learn the craft and invest himself in the process. He knew what he was in for, but just in case…
‘The first thing you do in a BASE course is write a letter to your family to be sent to them in case you go in. It’s good to have something to pass on if something does happen. It’s also a wake up call. You gotta take it seriously, you’re playing for keeps.’
Simon soaked in the learning of reading weather, discerning what a BASE canopy can and cannot do and the fine line of margins. These fundamentals are important and understanding them will project the quality of the jump and the outcome of the landing.
‘I’m lucky to be mechanically minded which has helped both my climbing and BASE,’ says Simon.
Like a Fish Swimming Upstream
BASE jumping could be compared to a fish swimming upstream, all the zen in the world seems to conspire against you. It isn’t normal for a human to jump off a high platform for fun. Simon shared with me an early BASE memory where his skills were tested:
‘There was this jump off the Perrine Falls Bridge. I tentatively climbed over the railing while below me the water glistened. You need to look at the horizon so that you exit at the right angle. I loved that the ramp for that old daredevil, EviI Knievel, was silhouetted on the skyline for me to focus on.’
That’s the test; to control one’s mind and the noise it brings when it’s under pressure, to be able to make and execute decisions based on logic and skill and not with bravado and foolishness. Simon’s jump was successful.
Whilst in Idaho he completed jumps from each of the four structures. Daybreak for Silo’s and beers after bridges. He was thrilled with the learning and the experiences he was sharing with like-minded folks. He was also evolving as an adventurer. Simon’s speech slowed and he smiled as he told me.
‘Dave, the first day you rock climb you see this much.’
He put his thumb and index finger close together between his eyes and mine.
‘The more you climb, the bigger your vision.’
Simon’s hands extended.
He went on to say that when he BASE jumps his vision is freed. As he shared his hands were wide open, as were his arms. I could have scraped his stoke into a jar as he explained his passion for adventure, then the stories started coming. Simon shared one of his first milestones: BASE in a day. This is when you jump from each of the four objects in one day, an achievement that often requires a big effort to accomplish.
BASE in a Day
‘My BASE in a day meant an early start. At dawn we climbed an antenna [illegal stuff is often completed in darkness before the world wakes up]. Then we moved onto a popular silo. We then jumped the Perrine Bridge at Twin Falls before moving across to a 45-metre cliff with a water landing in the river. I had an off-heading and nearly hit everything but I weaved my way down somehow. We finished with a beer and breakfast!’
Simon was now officially a BASE jumper after completing all four jumps in a day at one of the few places on earth this can be achieved. It’s a significant milestone. While the jumpers were celebrating over a beer, low and behold, the Dalai Lama of BASE jumping, Rick Harrison, was sitting at the end of the bar. Simon explained the significance of Rick.
‘Rick is one of the Originals from back in the day and has trained and mentored many BASE jumpers. BASE jumpers write Rick a letter sharing with him who they are, how they have came into the BASE family, what [jumps] they have achieved and the number of jumps. I wrote him four pages! Rick then gives you a BASE number, mine’s 1982. This number is yours, but only if you go through Rick.’
Simon was now climbing and jumping, and learning to find his sweet spot in both. BASE took him away from mainstream climbing, the sport does that. People find it difficult to level understanding with folks who play on the edge. Simon became lost in the fringe…
‘I was bunkered down in the fringe for a while. I’d found a family of like-minded people in BASE jumping. It’s a community on a whole other level. You can be a casual climber, but you can’t be a casual BASE jumper – it’s fully committing.’
Simon’s extended himself to climb and BASE jump around the world. He needs to jump, it’s the ying to his yang. BASE jumping cleanses his mind, which enables him to gravitate (at velocity) to his present. He made his case:
‘BASE is more subjective than climbing. Objective dangers, like rockfall and avalanches, increase the uncontrollable risk when rock climbing, whilst in BASE, pilot error is the greatest reason for fatalities.’
For Simon there are more margins for error in the former than the later.
‘I’ve definitely made mistakes, I’ve just maintained the margin to sort them out.’
Simon often spends four months a year BASE jumping, and enjoys coming home to Australia, he reckons that some of the best jumps in the world are here. I tried to milk some ace launching locations from him but he was such a warrior. Like some kind of adrenaline-mad James Bond like, I could anticipate him softly saying ‘If I told you I’d have to kill you,’ but instead he just smiled and gazed out from my balcony.
Free BASE – Climbing With Nothing but a Parachute
Rock climbing and BASE jumping are unique adventures in themselves but together they’re badass. Simon began to free BASE (climb routes with only a parachute to catch you if you fall). When you get to the top, you jump anyway! He shared with me the tale of a climb he did on Luzzone Dam, which is a glued up climb on a dam wall in Switzerland.
‘I went with some Americans and told them in the back seat of their messed up car. They nearly shat themselves. I packed on the grass, rapped in with my rig and clipped into the anchor, unclipped from the rope, then shoved the quickdraw into my daks and started climbing 115m off the deck. They watched from the top. The Dam concaves and I was getting pumped and tired. You’re in a fragile bubble [practising free BASE] and you aren’t out of it until you fall or jump. On this climb the holds seemed to get smaller as I gained height. I reached the top before the mega pump hit. I stood on the handrail and jumped, savouring the experience.’
The following year Simon found himself at the Verdon Gorge, a 320 metre limestone climbers’ Nirvana in the South of France. He’d meandered into the local town hoping to find a climbing partner.
‘I was climbing with some Aussie jumping mates hoping to meet a BASE friend of a friend. My phone shat itself so I couldn’t ring him. Standing in line, waiting for a beer I heard. ‘Who iz Zimon?’ The Rasta had found me, he is the local dude. His mother-in-law ran the town so he knew all about the climbing and hooked me up with the climbing gear I needed to perform an unreal action.’
Simon was directed to one of the famous exit points, a place where jumpers often launch next to or over climbers. Simon abseiled in, as he always likes to check the route and rehearse it on a top rope. He found a 35 metre pitch near the rim of the gorge on a climb called, What is Love (18/6a).
At the top of this climb is a rooflet and at its lip is the end of the jump exit. Simon had one of those only Simon experiences:
‘So just as I was finishing the climbing I get to this jug below the rootlet. I yelled out to my buddies waiting on top and watched them run down the slab above and leap straight over me, talk about front row seats!’
Simon topped out of the climb, took in the vista, fastened his rig, and jumped down after them.
Life – Just Live It
There’s no one way to experience life, but Simon was adamant (in a thoughtful way) to ‘just live it’.
‘If you have fun living it then you’re happy, and you’re winning. I encourage folks to express themselves through experience, not through what people expect from you. Kill the Catholic guilt of climbing.’
His virtue started to rise to the surface; he was calm as he spoke, like he was sharing his core, the part of him that made him tick.
‘Lose your shit,’ he said, ‘don’t worry, live the dirtbag life for a while, the longer the better.’
He could have been sitting on a rock and I would have believed he was Yoda himself.
Simon spoke as a climber and BASE jumper, but adventure was the dream coat he wrapped around them both. He’s tasted all the flavours of climbing and BASE and believes that it’s better to be an all-rounder than a specialist.
‘The wider the variety of your climbing, or adventures in general, the more your climbing and adventurous life will have spice.’
Like an adventure gypsy he lives for the journey and not the destination. He shared with me the analogy of a dancer.
‘A dancer doesn’t dance to arrive somewhere, the dancer dances to embrace the freedom of movement.’
Simon’s living a full life and death is not something he dwells on.
‘It’s a worse world when we don’t allow people to take risks or make mistakes. With risk-taking sports it’s about putting yourself out there, doing what you do well, doing it smart, and making good decisions.’
‘People rag on us about BASE jumping. My thoughts are this: when you start an activity there are things you don’t know; you need to put in the time to find the knowledge. Google, ask friends, watch, listen, learn and experience.’
I took a moment to take that in, there was something in that. Simon’s life seemed full of the kind of wisdom one gets from a life fully lived.
Socrates, a classic Greek philosopher wrote, ‘A wise man is a man who knows he does not know.’ Simon Young is such a man, and he’s having a great time moving towards tomorrow.
Photos by Joshua G.