It was 3 a.m. on a Sunday. Tom Kowalski, 39, climbed to the top of a condominium which was still under construction. The wind was calm, the city lights twinkled below him. From 50 storeys up, he continued to climb onto a construction crane, across the arm, unnoticed.
When he was suspended 400 feet above the city, Kowalski took a moment to survey the view of downtown Toronto sprawled out beneath him. The city sounds were distant, and he was surrounded by nothing but the still air and a sense of calm.
Then he jumped.
“From the corner of your eye, you can just see (the windows) zipping up, up, up. Then you start to hear the wind in your ears, and you start to feel it... And the intersection just explodes. The cars start to grow. It’s incredible.” Kowalski said in a documentary about his experiences.
Kowalski is a base jumper—one of the handful in Toronto. It’s an underground sport, but jumping off of tall fixed objects grew from just over 250 jumpers around the world in 1988 to over 1,200 according to basenumbers.org.
There are even world championships for base jumping.
Kowalski avoids the glitz and glamour of the sport. For him, it’s a unique and spiritual experience. “The space that it puts you mentally, it’s like this nirvana, this high,” he says.
Kowalski has been base jumping since 1994. “The whole thing’s been coming to me since I was a kid,” he says about his desire to freefall. “Guys were playing with their guns and stuff and I just wanted to walk on top of the roof of a building. It was always there.”
The activity recently received some rare and unwanted exposure when three men were arrested in Montreal last month for jumping off a hotel.
There are no laws against base jumping in Toronto, but other legal issues could come up depending on the case, says Const. George Schuurman of the Toronto Police Service. Base jumpers would most likely be charged with trespassing or mischief for sneaking into construction sites or damaging property, he says.
For Kowalski who lives in Toronto, the constant construction of high rise condominiums by the lake provides the platform he needs. “This is my personal experience, and unfortunately I have to use public spaces. If I lived beside a nice cliff, you’d never see me downtown.”
Base jumping consists of four components. The term for base jumping is an acronym for the four platforms that people fall from: building, antenna, span (bridges) and earth (cliffs and waterfalls).
Kowalski’s passion inspired a documentary producer to create a film based on his jumps. Peter Riddihough spent two years following Kowalski and his friends on several jumps around downtown Toronto before producing his film Jump.
“If you’re standing at the bottom of a building and you see someone with a parachute jump off, it looks really frightening,” Riddihough says. “There’s no other time when you’ll actually see somebody plummeting towards the earth.”
He feels television and film have glamourized extreme sports with fast, action-packed scenes cut together in quick succession. In reality, base jumpers spend a lot more time planning, says Riddihough.
Base jumpers take every precaution they can, he says. If the conditions aren’t right, they won’t do the jump. Before jumping, Kowalski keeps track of the weather and scouts the area for security guards, wires, traffic, buildings that could interfere with wind currents, landing spots and backup landing spots.
“You have to do it perfectly,” Riddihough says. “If you make a mistake, the consequences are potentially catastrophic.”
The catastrophic consequences are exactly the reason why Kowalski refuses to jump with someone who has no experience. With base jumping, one second of indecision could mean death.
“It’s a blending of luck and experience,” says Kowalski who gets ready to land as soon as he opens his parachute. “If you snap open, and there’s a car, you’ve got to be able to make the decision—kaboom, you’re flying in the other direction.”
In his 13 years of jumping, he has yet to come close to landing on another person. Kowalski isn’t blind to the risk he takes, but says it’s similar to driving. “You get your licence, you pay for the sticker, you don’t drink, and kaboom, there’s the biggest accident you’ve ever experienced. Tough luck, you know, it happens.”
Still, the positives outweigh the negatives. After 13 years, his body is intact, and he still feels a thrilling rush every time he makes a jump. He admits that he’s had injuries, but adds, “I’ve also been hurt riding my bicycle before, so it’s all part of the game.”