Mastering Risk Management in Wingsuit Base Jumping: My Step-by-Step Approach
Updated: Dec 21, 2022
In this blog post I will share a broad overview of how I organize my thought process for risk analysis and decision-making.
The objective is to cultivate independent thinking and utilize a method that can be consistently employed to enhance the quality of decision-making and achieve the desired outcome.
As you are likely aware, wingsuit base jumping involves multiple layers of problem-solving in a constantly changing environment, with the potential for serious physical consequences, including death. Given the complex and unpredictable nature of wingsuit base jumping, and the tendency of the human mind to make irrational decisions based on emotion, it is necessary to assess the level of uncertainty we are facing during each jump and make decisions accordingly. A one-size-fits-all approach is not applicable, as each individual has a unique combination of fitness, skills, motivation, goals, and risk aversion, and may experience different phases that can vary multiple times in the same day. Additionally, each jump is distinct in terms of weather conditions.
Given these considerations, it is essential to adopt a risk assessment method that can be updated in real-time every time it is needed.
The human brain has a strong ability to generate simulations of the future. According to recent neuroscience research, the brain can be described as a predictive machine. When a prediction error occurs, we can identify what was not aligned with the prediction model and subsequently refine the model for future use (1).
I suggest leveraging this capability of the brain by creating an indefinite number of hypothetical selves and placing them in various imaginary scenarios to forecast the outcome of our actions. By adjusting certain variables, we can generate a range of outcomes, such as having the time of our lives or going in.
The accuracy of these predictions depends on our ability to construct models of ourselves and models of the world that align with practical reality.
This highlights several important concepts:
Accurate model-building is a skill that can be learned and developed over time.
The longer we engage in this activity, the more comprehensive our toolbox will become for constructing high-resolution models of the world and relevant representations of ourselves.
The outcome of using these hypothetical models is asymmetrical: if one dies, there is no further opportunity to play the game. Therefore, it is crucial to consider this possibility in interpreting our predictions and building our risk analysis experience by doing activities that do not carry the risk of death due to errors.
As a side note, I do not believe skydiving is an effective activity for developing risk analysis skills. In skydiving, actions are typically carried out according to protocols without necessarily understanding the reasoning behind them, and decisions are often made by higher authorities. While it is worth considering the pros and cons of this approach, it does not foster personal responsibility or enable a thorough understanding of complex and interconnected factors, which are crucial for success in the wingsuit base environment.
The world we live in is much more complex than our minds can comprehend. To effectively use and make sense of these simulations, we must organize the inputs into simplified categories and break down the method into repeatable steps:
Step 1: Create a model of the world.
In this step, we construct a model of the world that includes laws of physics, topography, weather, and micrometeorology.
Step 2: Create a model of ourselves.
There are four aspects to consider: heart, brain, body, and gear.
Heart: This refers to the emotional aspect of ourselves in relation to the situation, such as feeling joyful or fearful, as well as our overall mental state, such as experiencing depression or anxiety.
Brain: This involves evaluating our cognitive abilities in relation to the situation. We should ask ourselves if we have the necessary understanding of what we are doing in regard to the desired goal. This is also where we consider cognitive biases that may influence our decision-making, such as the Dunning-Kruger effect, confirmation bias, gambler's fallacy, survivor bias, group conformity, optimism bias, and hindsight bias.
Body: This refers to the physical aspect in relation to the goal, including our level of fitness, strength, and flexibility. It is important to recognize that these prediction models are dynamic and may change over time, such as our fitness level at the beginning of a season compared to the end of the previous season, or our physical ability to push off a ledge after hiking for a certain amount of time.
Gear: This refers to the tools we will use for the task, including the choice of suit, which is a particularly important factor, as well as less obvious pieces of equipment such as camera gear, which can increase the risk of snags and malfunctions and influence our motivation and focus.
Step 3: simulation and decision
"The first principle is that you must not fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool." Richard Feynman
In this step, we use the models we have created to run a simulation in relation to our goal. This can be done as many times as necessary in preparation for a future jump or in real time on the spot. It should be refreshed every time a new element affects our models, such as feeling tired, experiencing a change in weather, or having a new physiological response to an emerging emotion.
I believe the categories described earlier cover all the practical elements that should be considered in our simulations. The more we learn about these factors, the higher the resolution of our simulations will be and the greater the likelihood of achieving the desired outcome.
For example, a low-resolution factor might be "it is windy," while in the same situation, a higher-resolution factor could be "30 km/h west breeze gusting at 45 km/h due to thermal activity." The resolution of each input in our simulations is limited by our lack of experience and cognitive capability.
It is important to recognize that having a low-resolution factor is not necessarily negative if we are aware that the part of the simulation affected by this factor will be low resolution and that we should adjust our decision-making accordingly. For example, if we do not yet have sufficient data to simulate our push on exit, we can choose jumps that do not require a demanding push. This can provide an opportunity to collect data and improve our model in the future and shouldn't stop us to jump.
However, a high-resolution factor can also be detrimental if it leads to confirmation bias or if we mistakenly believe we have a high-resolution factor when we are actually mistaken. For example, a high level of flying skill will certainly improve our flying ability, but it will not compensate for a lack of understanding of micrometeorology or protect us in the event of a low probability/high consequence scenario.
It is crucial to recognize that a very high-resolution category cannot compensate for a very low-resolution category.
Once I have completed this process, I can make my decision by applying my value system. This requires that I have clearly defined the "why" behind taking risks.
At the core of my value system is the belief that no wingsuit line or mountain is worth dying for. I only consider a game worth playing if I can return home alive.
With this in mind, it becomes relatively straightforward to use the thought process described earlier to make my decision. If the outcome of the simulation has a high probability of death, I will back out. If part of the simulation is unclear, I will back out. If the risk-reward analysis shows increased risk and decreased positive outcomes, such as jumping in strong, turbulent winds, I will back out.
Practical example and application of this system:
"If men could learn from history, what lessons it might teach us. (...) the light which experience gives us is a lantern on the stern, which shines only on the waves behind us." Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Developing relevant models and imagine accurate simulations allows us to shine a light on the waves in front of us and avoid catastrophic events. The goal is to have a clear vision and be able to differentiate perceived risk from actual risk.
How to refine your model of practical reality:
When it comes to topography, this may be the simplest aspect of constructing a comprehensive model. Doing homework on maps, and utilizing tools such as www.baseline.ws in combination with a rangefinder should be a must for every new jump.
Relying solely on subjective information, such as "X successfully jumped this exit, so I should be fine," is not a sufficient excuse to neglect this crucial step
When it comes to weather analysis, the task becomes somewhat more challenging. While it is possible to gain a basic understanding of weather and micro-meteorology in a short period of time, it takes years of experience to develop a nuanced understanding and fine-tune field analysis. Simply reading about weather theoretical knowledge will not give you the same level of understanding as experiencing them firsthand. I would strongly advise learning about the weather on the field through another activity than wingsuit base jumping. In my opinion, the minimum requirement for adequately comprehending weather and micro-meteorology as they relate to wingsuit base jumping is to complete a cross-country paragliding flight of at least 50 kilometers. The experience of flying a paraglider through a thermal with wind speeds exceeding 15 meters per second can change one's perspective on flying a wingsuit in certain conditions in a way that simply reading about it cannot.
On a side note, it is important to recognize that wingsuit base jumping involves more than just the descent. In fact, accessing the exit point can often be more perilous than the jump itself, particularly in an alpine environment. For instance, attempting to traverse a glacier without proper training and equipment is akin to playing Russian roulette. Therefore, it is essential to consider all aspects of the experience, including training and preparation, when planning a jump.
How to refine the model of your flying skills:
Seek out skydiving coaching and participate in camps such as Next Level. events.
Use a flysight and learn how to interpret the data it provides.
Practice activities that will improve your body awareness and balance, such as slacklining, trampolining, cliff diving.
Fly in both vertical and inclined wind tunnels, and work on developing basic skills such as carving at low speeds and performing front and back layouts in a vertical tunnel (perfect to simulate poor exit and finding balance at subterminal speed).
It's important to keep in mind that flying skills are not static and can be affected by various factors such as fitness level, fatigue, and how current we are. These variations should be taken into account when developing your prediction model.
Additionally, while skydiving and tunnel flying can certainly refine your flying performance, they do not prepare for reading terrain and selecting appropriate flight lines in the mountains. To learn this skill, it is necessary to fly in the mountains and observe how reference points in the background move relative to those in the foreground. This can be done at low speeds through activities such as paragliding, paramotoring, or even from the comfort of a plane.
In my opinion, a technically mediocre flyer who uses an analytical approach to choose their jumps and masters the line reading technique described above has a much higher chance of survival than an absolute wingsuit ninja who cannot properly read a line."
How to refine the model of your knowledge:
There is a wealth of knowledge available on topics related to wingsuit base jumping, including aerodynamics, data analysis (using tools such as flysight and rangefinder), statistics, weather and micro-meteorology, and psychology. It is important to continually seek out new knowledge and remain curious.
I want to particularly emphasize the psychological side of wingsuit base jumping and encourage everyone to educate themselves on cognitive biases, including the Dunning Kruger effect, confirmation bias, gambler's fallacy, survivor bias, group conformity, optimism bias, and hindsight bias. We are all prone to these biases, and it is crucial to recognize and understand how they can influence our decision-making in potentially dangerous situations. Learning to identify and mitigate these biases can ultimately help prevent fatalities.
How to refine the model of the effect of your emotion:
While variables such as gravity may be constant and skills don't vanish overnight, emotions can have unpredictable and potentially dangerous effects. It is important to understand and recognize variations in our emotional states, identify the root causes of these variations, and learn to extract the lessons they offer.
This is the oldest trick in the book and probably the most difficult part to assess within this method: "know yourself".
On a deeper level, this is the perfect place to do "shadow work" targeting why on earth did we choose to engage in wingsuit base.
I have encountered many skilled and analytical flyers who have put themselves in dangerous dynamics due to internal motivations that skewed their risk assessment toward more and more risky situations.
Contrary to the saying "everything you've ever wanted is on the other side of fear," I believe it is irresponsible to make life-and-death decisions based on this mentality. The context and meaning of fear can vary significantly. For example, it is not appropriate to act on our fear the same way before asking someone on a date or before jumping from a cliff due to the asymmetric nature of the outcome.
Fear often has less to do with the actual level of risk involved and more to do with our inability to predict a clear outcome for a situation that has a high probability of causing physical or emotional pain, injury, or death.
With this is mind I will not allow myself to jump passing a certain threshold of fear for several reasons:
first I need to clearly understand the root cause of this fear to factor this new element into my models and simulations.
second I believe having a certain of fear right before jumping will be amplify if I do an error, even minor, and will brings me closer to sensory overload (2).
third I do not want to normalize a state of fear at the exit as I believe it can anchor the feeling of fear for no rational reason and possibly become an irrational habit.
finally, my motivation for wingsuit base jumping is to have the best subjective experience possible and I will not enjoy it as much as I could if I have to do it in a fearful mindset.
It is possible to learn how to suppress fear signals (with breath work for example). However, this is not sufficient to give me the green light for jumping. It is necessary for me to conduct a full re-assessment of the situation before making a decision about whether or not to jump, and only then make a decision about jumping or not.
I know many people would object by saying fear is a tool to keep them alive and feel the seriousness of the situation, my take on this is that I can be in touch with the seriousness of the situation by increasing my level of presence without experiencing all the downside of a fearful mind state.
Should I trust my intuition?
Intuition is often defined as the ability to understand something instinctively, without the need for conscious reasoning. However, I believe it can also be understood as the result of implicit pattern recognition delivered to the conscious mind in the form of feelings and emotions. This pattern recognition may be based on personal experience or may be hard-wired by evolution.
Given that the first human flight occurred in 1903, it is unlikely that our ancestors evolved to make complex trajectories at high speeds in three-dimensional space or to take flight by jumping off of mountains. Therefore, it is logical to conclude that I should not rely on my intuition alone to validate my decision to engage in activities related to flying. However, if my intuition is telling me to invalidate such a decision due to the high risk involved, I may choose to listen to this signal even if it seems to be irrational.
step 1, create a model of the physical world
step 2, create avatars of yourself
step 3, simulate and decide
By repeatedly using the three steps outlined above and constantly seeking to refine our models, we can make increasingly accurate predictions. This is a skill that must be learned and practiced in order to become an independent thinker who can make informed decisions.
"The greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance, it is the illusion of knowledge." Stephen Hawking
It is important to recognize that the quality of the results obtained from this system depends on the quality of the data we feed into our models and our ability to run adequate simulations. With this in mind, it is crucial to understand the asymmetric nature of the outcome; if we die, we can no longer engage in this activity. While trial and error may work up to a point, there is a risk of encountering a catastrophic error that could result in death. Therefore, it is essential to have a slow and progressive exposure to risk in order to refine our risk analysis without having to suffer the consequences of an irreversible mistake. Those who understand statistics will agree that a sample of 100 or even 1000 jumps is not enough to formulate a solid conclusion(3), especially in the case of low-probability, high-consequence events (4). It is important to learn from other jumpers and other disciplines and to do so in a less consequential environment than wingsuit base jumping.
I recognize that such a risk analysis approach may be wrong, inaccurate, or incomplete, and due to the highly complex and dynamic nature of wingsuit base jumping, it will likely always be imperfect. However, it only needs to be good enough to allow us to continue playing the game and gradually improve our ability to create more accurate simulations that better match the desired outcome.
(1) "How Emotions Are Made" by Lisa Feldman Barrett (2) "On Combat" by Dave Grossman
(3) "Fooled by Randomness" by Nassim Nicholas Taleb (4) "The Black Swan" by Nassim Nicholas Taleb