Q&A: Skydiving Photographer on Risks, Rush

By Tom Foreman
Inside Base Camp
July 16, 2003
Tom Sanders always looks before he leaps, yet his eagerness for leaping from some of the world's most dangerous spots has made him a sky diving legend. Once afraid of heights, Tom has become the reigning master of sky diving photography. He has shot commercials featuring stuntmen riding motorcycles out of airplanes, sofas plummeting, and massive conventions of handholding daredevils—all while tumbling toward the Earth.

It is a life of risk, made perhaps even riskier by his passion for base jumping, or leaping with parachutes from bridges, antennas, rock faces and buildings. That sport claimed his wife's life one terrible day in California. Yet, even that event did not lessen his excitement about diving into the air. With a quiet demeanor and graying hair, he does not look like an extreme sports enthusiast as he settles onto a stool in my studio. However, once he starts talking about filming a giant group of sky divers in a formation high above the ground, the gleam in his eyes is unmistakable.

Tom Sanders: Well, the big challenge here is that we're going to 23,000 feet (7,010 meters) above the ground and above 12,000 feet (3,660 meters), there really isn't oxygen that's going to support life for very long, so we breathe oxygen in the airplane.

And there's a big traffic problem. You have so many people body surfing through the sky at 120 to 220 miles an hour (193 to 354 kilometers an hour), flying to build this formation. And, of course, I have to document with the camera gear so I'm wearing, you know, pretty heavy cameras. And at the end of it, we all have to fly away from each other while the ground is rushing up and find a place to open our parachutes.

Tom Foreman: People are travelling so fast at that speed, if they run into each other, that (the collision) can kill them long before they get to the ground?

Tom Sanders: Oh, absolutely. We have an automatic opening device on our reserve parachutes, so if you're unconscious, your reserve parachute is likely to be opened. But you definitely have some real collision speeds that would be comparable to freeway collisions if you hit another jumper.

Tom Foreman: What are the habits that you have safety?

Tom Sanders: I surround myself with a crew of people that I trust, whether they're in front of the camera, or my assistants, so that helps me a lot. And I just do the same type of things on the way to altitude, whether it's when I put on my altimeter, checking my gear…just a routine like a pilot might have.

Tom Foreman: You have been a passionate defender of jumping off of buildings and off of bridges. You also had a personal tragedy associated with this: Tell me what happened with your wife.

Tom Sanders: Jan was protesting the fact that the National Park Service, in our mind, really singles out base jumpers unfairly. It's okay to hang glide in Yosemite National Park. In fact, you're required to wear a parachute when you do it, but if you base jump off of a cliff with a parachute, you're arrested. They confiscate your gear. It's okay to mountain climb, to free climb up the side of the mountain. But you cannot base jump there.

Tom Foreman: You can't climb up on top of El Capitan and jump.

Tom Sanders: No.

Tom Foreman: Your wife Jan was out there…a lot of people were out there…and it was sort of a media event to jump off of [El Capitan] illegally; to get arrested and try to push the law and say, "Let's change this."

Tom Sanders: Right. She was using borrowed gear, because the Park Service policy is to confiscate your base jumping equipment, so she didn't want her favorite gear to be confiscated.

Tom Foreman: You were filming this?

Tom Sanders: I was in the meadow filming.

Tom Foreman: And tell me what was going through your mind?

Tom Sanders: It was just a horrible sight. I mean, it is terrible to watch your wife die. But, you know, at this point I can look back on it and at least I can say that she died standing up for something she believed in. She was there to make a statement that base jumpers are treated unfairly by the National Park Service.

I think we should be able to live our life the way we want to, and if we die doing something we love, then that's fine: We die the way we loved living our life. How many people drown in the rivers there? Are you going to close the park?

Tom Foreman: A lot of normal people would look at this and they would say there's something wrong with you. Do you ever say to yourself, "I'm just tempting fate every day?"

Tom Sanders: No, I'm just really enjoying life every day, and I really believe that, and it's not any different than guys that are going out and surfing 50-foot waves or climbing Mt. Everest. I don't think any of us do it because we're trying to cheat death. It's like I wake up every morning and I go, "How am I going to enjoy the most out of this life?"

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