If ever there was a BASE jumper deserving a “E!” True Hollywood Story, that would be the man you recognize by his trademark “Take Care, Space” signature line.
Tracy “Space” Walker, born and raised in the deep south of the United States, is every bit a self made man. He was reared along with an older brother by his single mother and grandmother during the early years of his childhood. It was later, during his teenage years and surviving a heavy handed stepfather, whom Tracy would come to describe as the epitome of evil that life served up some tough knocks. Tracy set out on his own as soon as he was able to fly the coop, breaking a negative cycle in search of a positive life. To hear tales of his teenage years makes one cringe; to know the caring, loving man that he became against the odds, makes one want to sing his praises.
Ask any of the BASE jumpers who have had the pleasure of his company on a jump, or the opportunity to spend time talking with him and you will hear the same descriptions over and over. “Space is the Yoda of BASE”, “He is a guru of sorts”, “He mentors the best of the best.” As research progressed I soon heard, “He is mentor to Felix the glory hound of all glory hounds.” I could almost hear the “booing and hissing” in the background as the words rang in my ears.
In my first conversation with Tracy I decided to cut right to the chase, flat out hit him right between the eyes, “Are you responsible for the monster that is Felix Baumgartner?” He laughed and agreed to take full responsibility, before continuing on to explain the joy of having trained such an athlete as Felix. He assured me that Felix is no monster, a bit “misunderstood” by the general BASE population, has a bit of an ego, (gasp I said, “ego in a BASE jumper it can’t be”) and like everyone else on this planet has made some mistakes in judgment.
In those few statements alone I gathered a basic understanding on how Tracy felt about mentoring. His love of all things BASE jumping could be summed up in the loyalty and concern he exhibits on behalf of his students. BASE jumping is a serious topic and is meant to be treated with respect. BASE jumps aren’t just made, they are planned and executed, a spiritual experience to be savored and celebrated.
He explained the qualities he has seen in each of his students that persuaded him to take on the challenge and responsibility of teaching and which characteristics he admired in them afterward as they matured as jumpers in this manner. “Perseverance in the quest for knowledge”, he responded, I have had many students, but mentored only a few. Solid rigging skills, the ability to not jump, BASE ethics, and doing jumps that have not been done prior in the sport are characteristics I admire in my former students.”
Do you have basic guidelines that must be met by the student prior to you considering taking on the responsibility of mentoring them? “Rigging, tracking skills, canopy control drills, accuracy landings, etc. The amount of skydives is unimportant. What is important is the amount of skydives preparing for BASE and the mentality of the jumper.”
Rigging, scoping out the object and conditions, safety protocols, etiquette, and decision making are the 5 most important things Tracy believes a mentor must teach their student prior to the student going it alone. He adds, “of course this is assuming they have their exits sorted.”
I asked him to share his viewpoint on whether he felt it was important for every BASE jumper to have a mentor and how much control or influence does the mentor have over the jumper’s activity?
“It’s a great idea to have a mentor. There is so much information out there that it is pointless to reinvent the wheel and be a pioneer in one’s mind and nowhere else; leading to having an accident. Certain elements of people resent this though and enjoy the higher risk of figuring it out their selves. A mentor does not control a student; they can only hope to have the possibility to influence a student. That jumper’s activity’s is totally up to them.” As to how much responsibility should be placed on the shoulders of the mentor regarding the student’s activities, “None if the student has disregarded the mentor’s advice. The rest should be regarded on a case-by-case basis.”
The million dollar question being, “What makes a person qualified to be a mentor?”
“I believe it is the ability to do the following: Teaching: Helping the student to remember a list or sequence. Instructing: Helping the student to employ that list or sequence. Mentoring: Listening to the student and personalizing the teaching and instruction parts to the fit the student. This is allowing the student to analyze and know when to implement dynamically whichever lessons and instructions called for in a given situation.” Had he ever turned down a student, “I have turned down instructing students because of my lack of time or inability on the student’s part to achieve the objectives I use as a guideline. In my Euro course, I would state that jumping was not part of the instruction, but if they did well….”
As far as teaching the technical aspects of BASE vs. Ethics, Community and History of BASE, Tracy offers this tip. “After the initial discussion with the student where I tell them horror stories and how BASE will effect or maybe end their life, I start with rigging. This allows me to judge how they mentally approach challenges and for me to then tailor the mentorship to the jumper.”
Tracy’s most bonehead thing he had ever done: “That is my secret. I have a fear if I tell; someone will up the ante and do something more boneheaded. Jumping a 110 degree inside corner of a 370 foot building on my 15th jump would rate right up there in the bonehead department. BASE jumpers Tom Aiello and Dwain Weston did it later, but having much more experience in BASE jumping.”
His attraction to BASE came as a three part epiphany of research and discovery, leading him on the path to doing. The first being his meeting of Eric Lee, “a truck driving dude who showed up at the Mardi Gras Boogie just across Lake Pontchartrain in Louisiana. He was talking BASE with another skydiver; I saw the fire in his eyes as he spoke of the highest building in New Orleans at the time, 700 feet. So I researched the building and jumped it as my number 9 jump.” His second affirmation came in “the fatality of Jeb Williams. Jeb being an experienced skydiver/commercial airline pilot, the type of guy that one would feel confident if he was at the controls. The type of guy that I figured would be the last on your list of dying in jumping. So I researched all I could about Jeb. Lastly came “Skydiving Magazine”, I thought they had a typo in announcing that someone had celebrated their 1000th jump on a jump from a 400 foot antenna. So I researched it and discovered it was true.”
Tracy considers the fact that he has been around for “awhile and have probably ground crewed and witnessed more BASE jumps than anybody (ca 10,000) and witnessed it’s growth from infancy” as what makes him unique to the sport of BASE. He adds, “I also have the notorious distinction of being the instructor/mentor of infamous high profile jumpers, John Vincent and Felix Baumgartner and famous guys also.” In questioning him about his greatest achievement in life, the focus shifts from BASE to helping people. “Facilitating change in people’s lives is my achievement. I have gotten thanks for this many times.” Tracy enjoys teaching about life as much, if not more than he enjoys teaching about BASE.
He is a student of life who as a child devoured whole encyclopedias in his thirst for answers. He tells me that he hasn’t achieved his childhood dreams as he is “still in my childhood and I just keep dreaming”. Continuing on he explains how BASE has contributed to his personal growth, “it brought me around the world. It matured me in the social sense that I realized that the US of A did not have everything and the US of A is not the land of the free unless you count “free to do as you are told”.
Tracy and his family currently reside in Munich, Germany where he competes annually in the Munich Chili Cook Off. This year Tracy landed 2nd place, alongside, Spiciest for his Chili Con Carne; “Being it was so spicy is probably why I didn’t take 1st place, I had a cocktail of chili’s to add but it just was getting too spicy so I aborted the chipotle. Winning Chef’s prize for his veggie chili, “which I think is morally wrong, but actually it was ass-kicking. Three trips to the podium, I am eating cheese and no chili for 10 months now.” He named his recipes as only Space would, “Global Warming” was the name of the Carne and “Cow Friendly” was the veggie. “I was going to call it “Greenhouse Gas”, but it did not sound too appetizing.”
Recently added to his list of hobbies of “Foot-bag, Rubik’s cube, card tricks” is Foosball. You can find Tracy online discussing, practicing or playing Foosball at all hours of the day. He is determined to master the game so much so, that his wife presented him with a Foosball table for his most recent birthday.
In speaking with Tracy you must learn to keep your eye on the ball so to speak. The conversation moves in beats as steadily as it does in transitioning topics; suddenly you find yourself being quizzed on numerous philosophical viewpoints. Emperor Joseph II is quoted in the movie Amadeus, as saying to Mozart: “My dear young man, don’t take it too hard. Your work is ingenious. It’s quality work. And there are simply too many notes, that’s all. Just cut a few and it will be perfect”. To which Mozart replied, “Which few did you have in mind, Majesty?” During the next round of questions, I found myself feeling as if some notes went missing, but later realized it is part of Tracy’s charm to be as short in his responses as he can be elaborate and generous with his words in other instances.
What is your jump philosophy?“To ask one’s self “Is it worth it?” , What is your biggest fear? “Heights”, Is there anything you wouldn’t try or do in life?“There are some things, but mostly the reason is time or money constraints”, What is your fitness regime? “Live actively”, What is your weakness in jumping? “Tracking”, What is your strength in jumping? “Tracking”, Is there a time you see yourself retiring from jumping? “No”, How do you mentally prepare for a jump?“I let my fear and logic fight it out and go with the winner”,Did you attend a First Jump Course?“No”, How many skydives did you have prior to your first BASE jump?“500+”, How many BASE jumps did it take before you earned your BASE number?“62”, Did you have a mentor? “No”, Do you prefer solo or group jumps?“mostly solos but a multi-way is great every now and then”, What is it about BASE jumping that you enjoy the most?“Kickin’ out a bitchin’ track”, What is it about BASE jumping that you least enjoy?“Pilot chute hesitations”.
Finally, I cornered him between chilli batches to answer, “In your opinion, what is the biggest mistake a new jumper makes? and “What piece of advice would you offer to a new jumper?”
“Biting off more than one can chew and being too excited to train to get the experience to do the jump as safe as possible. In the END, it is up to the individual, to insure the safety of one’s self. That means YOU. Make your own decision on what you are capable of. If one is told what to do all of the time and adheres to that, then the decision process goes away. If I instruct my student to follow my rules, the student will never be better than I. If I instruct my student to evaluate the situation and make his own rules, then the likelihood that he will progress beyond my abilities is greater which is what I consider the true instructors dream. On a side note, the student has a higher chance of becoming a statistic.”
Lastly, (huge sigh from Tracy) I asked the man who is always on the go with this project or that project,”Do you have a personal goal for yourself right now?” His response is classic Tracy, “I really dislike personal goals. It screws me up. I tend to just go for it. The problem with personal goals is that one gets tunnel-vision. It’s like concentrating on your altimeter when you have a malfunction skydiving out of a plane instead of dealing with the situation. Freefall video is a prime example of this. Been there and done that. Almost died but the subject was in frame. Another couple of friends did die, but it was framed in the video we recovered. One must really be hard to have a goal and not give up safety to achieve it.”
In the end, after months, yes months, of bobbing and weaving, receiving bits and pieces at a time in trying to complete a portrait of “Space”, the Yoda, the BASE Guru, I “nagged” him into sharing two of his stories. I only wish this was an audio tape so that you could all get the full effect of a “Spacey Tracy” BASE story. Anyone who has ever had the pleasure of spending time with Tracy knows how blessed I am as a writer to be given the opportunity to learn from him about BASE, life and “not sweating the small stuff, because it’s all small stuff”. Period. Take Care, Space.
List 5 Random Facts or Habits about yourself that would be classified as weird, strange, or different.
1. Being 46 yrs old and still playing
2. BASE jumping
3. Sewing foot bags (2-62 panel)
4. Weather forecasting
5. Playing with divining rods
Tracy “Space” Walker Statistics:
Marital Status: Married
Location: Munich, Germany
Children: Daughter 9yrs and Son 4yrs
Education: High School
Hometown: Deep South
Year of first B.A.S.E jump: 1988
Container is: Perigee/Gargoyle
Canopy is: Mojo/Troll MDV
Your profession: Research Technician
Nickname: Space, Spacey Tracy
A 170m building in Osaka, Japan kinda stands out. I scoped it out on a Monday to sort out the security detail and decided I had a good chance to pull it off as there were only 4 security officers on the observation platform. Unfortunately there were 20 Security officers present on jump day Thursday. The weakness in the security was still there though. It meant that I would have less time to stand up and jump from the handrail 2m out and 1.5m down to the top of the suicide fence, followed by a 3m drop to the roof where I would run to the edge and jump.
I waited until the security guy walked behind me and turned his back, and went for it. As soon as I stood on the handrail, the security guard started yelling, but I made it onto the suicide fence and dropped down to the roof and made for the exit point. One security guy was on my heels yelling Japanese at me. I was thoroughly prepared for this. I had learned how to say in Japanese, A: If you come closer I will jump”. B: “I am very sorry”. C: “Thank you very much”.
I threw off my day backpack camouflage covering my rig and turned to say “If you come closer I will jump”, but I forgot the words unfortunately. So instead I said “thank you very much” with a big smile on my face. I think the smile on my face freaked him out because he took a step back and I turned and jumped.
I had planned to land near the street but as I unstowed my brakes, I saw there was too many people there on the sidewalk. So I opted for a 180 degree turn back into the inside of the building (The building was 2, 150m office towers, 70m apart capped with another 20m of building bridging them together.).
As I was preparing to flare I saw two security guards running towards me. I flared, stood it up and grabbed two armfuls of canopy and they had me. They escorted me to a meeting room where I waited for about 15minutes until the board meeting convened. I made use of the Japanese that I did know, repeating it over while waving my hands like foreigners do , “I am very sorry”, “Thank you very much”, and in English, “Beautiful building!”
They made me write on a piece of paper that I would not jump the building again and I asked how many times as I thought this was copy work like when you were bad in school like Bart Simpson. They didn’t understand so I wrote what they asked and they looked it over, discussed it and then handed it back and ask me to write that if I did jump it again it would on my own responsibility. So I did that and signed it with my BASE number.
Then they were escorting me to the door and I asked a question that was translated. The question I asked was “Could you bring me some postcards from the tourist shop?” There was a resounding “No!” in English and they threw me outside. Before I could regain my feet, my canopy was thrown on top of me, along with my day backpack camouflage get up and the door slammed and I could hear the lock slamming closed.
Croatia & The Rocket -Man
I have been involved in quite a few high risk jumps as rigger and consultant. I was in Croatia at a 195m cave when we got weathered out by the Bora wind and associated rainfall. Since it can last 2-3 days, we had to return to Munich with the rental camera gear since we had most of it. Meaning: most of the rental camera gear available in Munich. As I was approaching home via train around midnight, I received a call from Rocket-Man Peter who needed me at the 18m bridge over water in South Germany at 5am, as he was going to flick-it with the rocket deployed canopy (we developed this system) from a motorcycle jumping a ramp over the railing. I made it there on time. My first job was to brief the scuba diver on the different handles on the modified BASE gear and how to finger track to the important ones and other tech stuff. I helped Rocket-Man gear up and noticed that the rocket pocket was modified. It was ok as he was standing there.
He made a dry run past the ramp to get his line then returned for the final gear check, then to the start point. Cameras started rolling and so did he. He nailed the ramp perfectly. Cruised over the railings, look-reach-pull, the rocket fired but did not launch.
Rocket-Man shoved off the motorcycle just a couple of meters before impacting the water at 90kph (yes, we had calculated this before the jump). He hit knees first which tipped him forward to take a full body slam against the surface. Rocket-Man and the bike disappeared under the surface of the lake. Plastic mudguards from the bike floated up….
Then Peter floated up but facedown. The scuba diver froze in shock. Germany Eddie (BASEr/cinematographer) who was filming from up top near my perch on the bridge, stripped down, jumped the 18m down and turned over Peter and swam him to the pickup boat (saving Peter’s life). Peter was unconscious but had started breathing again. During all of this, my mind was going “WTF?” I was reviewing the gear check, and could not perceive how I could have missed something. The deployment chain was totally clean.
I got a ride to the hospital as they would not let me go in the ambulance with Peter. When I got to see him, he was asking me what happened. I explained about the rocket not clearing the pocket. He didn’t have memory of the event at all. Actually, he was definitely missing some weeks of memory.
I got the gear and inspected it and nothing was amiss. But in the 6 intervening hours, so many emotions went through my mind.
The aftermath: Unfortunately due to the bulk of the 2 neoprene suits, the pocket flexed as he cleared the railing, leaned over and pulled the deployment handle trapping the rocket in the launch pocket. Peter regained a lot of his memory and successfully jumped his modified rocket deployed rig/ramp/motorcycle at a quarry (31m I think) for the Discovery Channel show “Stunt Junkies”.
Two days later, I was on my way back to the cave in Croatia.
The cave jump was successful.