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An Incidental Culture

by Alistair J. Clark
by Alistair J. Clark
I have walked three people up to three different locations that resulted in some bad decisions being made and the death of three friends

An Incidental Culture

Incident

in·ci·dent

adjective

1. 1.

likely to happen because of; resulting from.

“hitting the ground is incident to not knowing the dimensions of the mountain in relation to your flight capabilities”

“base jumping is incident to the sport of skydiving”

2. 2.

(especially of light or other radiation) falling on or striking something

Culture

cul·ture

noun

1. 1.

the arts and other manifestations of human intellectual achievement regarded collectively.

“20th century popular culture”

synonyms:

the arts, the humanities, intellectual achievement; More

2. 2.

BIOLOGY

the cultivation of bacteria, tissue cells, etc., in an artificial medium containing nutrients.

“the cells proliferate readily in culture

verb

BIOLOGY

1. 1.

maintain (tissue cells, bacteria, etc.) in conditions suitable for growth.

Always consider conditions for suitable growth when practicing the sport of base jumping.

I want to be very clear, I have contributed to several deaths out here. This is a very heavy knowledge to live with.

My mind tends to wander a lot while I am out hiking, looking for new jumps to open with my wingsuit. These days I am either by myself or hiking with my girlfriend, I like it better with my girlfriend, I stay more present when she is around. I can’t invite other jumpers at this time, there is a wild fire ablaze and I refuse to pull more people into it.

The weather forecast shows promise of a jump but it is still dark when I start my hikes and nothing is guaranteed. With each step up a forested trail I sort through my past experiences, trying to solve old problems and hopefully navigate new ones without repeating my past mistakes. Alongside all the amazing memories of my past eight years in this beautiful sport, terrible, horrible, avoidable, regretful things have occurred. Fortunately there are far fewer bad memories than good, but the bad ones are unacceptable, they will not happen again…. at least not with my contribution. I want to be very clear, I have contributed to several deaths out here. This is a very heavy knowledge to live with. I have walked three people up to three different locations that resulted in some bad decisions being made and the death of three friends.

My one friend Ralph was never found, I knew him for two weeks. We assume it was a proximity accident due to his flying habits but we will never really know. Ralph was jumping alone from a mountain I introduced him to. The 5,200’ mountain is a huge expanse with varied terrain and many lines to fly, the forest is very dense which made the search difficult. Park Rescue Services searched with help from helicopters, dog teams and more volunteers than I expected. The search lasted solidly for approximately a week, then on and off, again and again for months, we eventually gave up. The dogs did however find a missing murder victim from an unsolved crime out east, the body, dismembered and scattered across the mountain. I will never forget our 2 weeks camping and jumping together, we opened a couple of new exits and jumped twice a day. Side note, the fines for jumping in the Banff Park are now huge because of us, that is our fault. Let's go back and look at the days leading up…

When I first heard of Ralph it was from legendary stories of opening ridiculously small slider-off jumps. He had special gear made with shorter lines and other fast opening tweaks that made his jumps possible. He was an innovator and was more committed and driven than I had ever seen. Maybe too driven? I first met him at a funeral of another friend who had died proximity flying in the Grand Canyon, but that is a different story and not mine to tell. Ralph had started wingsuiting and in his classic style progressed super-fast into opening small exits and proximity flying, he was a number-cruncher and very calculated. I had not yet come out of the dark ages of relying on archaic rock drops and anecdotal information. I had not yet stepped into the enlightened times of flysights and rangefinders. We made plans to get together the following summer to explore and open mountains in my neck of the woods; this is where I am to be introduced to the concept of properly measuring mountains against flight capabilities.

I had not yet come out of the dark ages of relying on archaic rock drops and anecdotal information.

The following summer came and we met up one afternoon at a campground in the Canadian Rocky Mountains. It was in one of the favourite valleys that I like to explore and open jumps in. I took him on a tour and showed him the jumps we had, most of our jumps were opened by the mysterious and exceptionally accomplished Dr.No, The Samurai, The Monk. Legend has it, Dr. No opened eight new exits in eight days here, I am not sure how accurate this is as I may have embellished this story over the years or possibly completely made it up. The legendary Cooper Twins and the group of rock stars they jumped with opened the other classics we have. By this time I have also contributed a few exits, and there will be many more over the coming years. One exit sticks out in my memories. This exit was a very close call for Ralph and I, and two summers later would take the life of my friend Cam.

I had been eying up this mountain for a couple of years convincing myself there was an exit from the summit. It didn’t take much to convince Ralph to go explore the mountain. We hiked early in the dark as per our religion and made the summit by eight o’clock. We quickly found the best possible spot to jump from, it sucked, there was a huge ledge but my delusional eyeballs said we could easily clear it, Ralph said it was extremely tight with his flysight numbers but doable. The weather was disagreeably windy and snowy on this August day so we explored the rest of the mountain looking for better exits, there were none.

We woke up early the next morning, hiked again and this time the weather gods were smiling on us. The sun was shining on the mostly east-facing wall and warm air was already rising up the exit. We were stoked and ready to go, I suited up and went first. The exit is not a clean square edge, you have to step forward onto sloping, grippe limestone before the push. It is very intimidating, but I got a good strong push. The second I pushed I saw the ledge and was convinced I was taking it straight in the chest. I rotated forward slithering over the ledge even picking my feet up as I passed, I was convinced they would touch if I stretched my legs out. I made it! I couldn’t believe it, holy f that was way too close! Ralph also made it with a similar experience. We estimated clearing the ledge by about six inches… it’s over one hundred feet down. I vowed to never jump it again, Ralph planned to do more leg presses to get a stronger push and go back. Unfortunately he wouldn’t get that chance. This close call for me was the defining moment to start hiking with a good rangefinder and flying with a flysight. I needed to start collecting numbers and measuring mountains properly or I was certainly going to die.

This close call was the defining moment to start hiking with a good rangefinder and flying with a flysight. I needed to start measuring mountains properly or I was going to die.

The following summer Cam and I had great success finding, opening new exits and flying them safely. Cam’s starts were better than mine, his speed was better than mine and his distance was better than mine. I was jealous of Cam and frustrated with my performance but stoked we were finding jumps that fit my flights with good margin. I was sucking but staying safe and having fun, thanks to the measuring techniques that Ralph had taught me. During our explorations Cam and I had to hike past the close call jump that Ralph and I opened and closed the previous year; regretfully I showed Cam its location. At the time I was proud and boasting about how close of a call it was and pretty much bragging about the experience. I explained, pretending to know my shit, the only reason we survived the jump was because of the rising thermal air barely giving us the air speed to get enough forward drive to clear the ledge and that I would never do it again. Cam said very plainly and calmly “I am going to do this one day”. I dismissed the notion and we continued hiking. We opened a beautiful wall overlooking the small town in our mountains that day, it was glorious. Later that season I would get hung up in the trees on that same jump from different wind conditions, the distance was at my maximum for my shitty performance.Then on another jump that year I would severely break my leg from overshooting a landing zone into some boulders. What started out as a nice safe summer ended up as a dangerous shit fall. Even with proper measuring overconfidence and complacency got me twice and sidelined me for the season. The following year I vowed to be better.

I don’t think I opened up anything this year, I was more focused on my flight performance. I had a trip planned to Brevent in the fall and although my exit numbers worked with Brevent’s measurements I wanted to be better before I went there. The season went by with a lot of social jumping and speed flying. A weekend of jumping was approaching and there were some people visiting, it looked like a fun group to join so that was my plan. Cam wasn’t into joining the crowd and had some plans of his own that he was intent on, he wouldn’t tell me what they were. Cam gets Fridays off so he went out that morning, it was a drizzly day with calm winds, no thermals. The plan was for everyone to meet up at the campground in the evening. As I arrived at the campground, others were arriving as well but no sign of Cam. Then I got a phone call from his wife.

Cam hadn’t checked in and wasn’t answering his phone, this wasn’t good, he always checks in. His wife knew the mountain he jumped from in the morning, the opening credit goes to Treehouse on this one and it was a first time for Cam. He must have been jacked! We went up to the parking lot we often use and sure enough, there is Cam’s car. With Cam’s car in the parking lot we had a few options to consider. We had our legal jump off Ha Ling Peak, another grey area mountain across the way that we know he jumped from that morning and third there is the close call exit of mine and Ralph’s. We thought the most likely scenario was that he went for a second lap off the new one, it was dark, we yelled his name and listened but only silence returned. The search had to be the following morning.

The next morning we set off up the mountain. We needed to get a look from the exit while search and rescue searched from the air, we found nothing. We hiked in teams all over the mountain to no avail. Then his wife was able to find a password and get a look at his google searches, he had searched the close call mountain of mine and Ralph’s right after his morning jump. I immediately ran up the mountain to where I thought he would be if he had hit that ledge… and sure enough there he was. I couldn’t believe it, Cam was gone. Fuckin’ drizzly no thermal day, why couldn’t it have been sunny? Or maybe it wasn’t the no thermal day, maybe he slipped on that wet sloping exit. All we know is that he was dead on the scree wearing his wing suit below that close call exit, the rest is speculation, he was jumping alone. There was no flysight or camera on his helmet, they were probably knocked off in the fall and we couldn’t find them. I went mentally numb, temporarily free from any emotion. I had a couple more visitors show up the next week and I continued jumping with a “the show must go on” attitude.

I went mentally numb, temporarily free from any emotion... I continued jumping with a “the show must go on” attitude.

After a warm up jump I took the two guys up a beautiful exit I opened a couple seasons earlier. It’s a short exit with a big ledge five hundred feet down that sticks out one hundred sixty feet. No big deal in good conditions, it’s south-facing and gets good rising air. I have never had any issues on this exit but I only jump it in good conditions; not much room for a shitty start. It is a long, strenuous hike to the exit and the weather was not looking good. I like hiking so it was no big deal to hike up, get skunked and hike down. When we got to the exit it was socked in with cloud and there was a tail wind, not a strong one but I didn’t like it. We waited a couple hours and finally the clouds started to clear, we suited up and went to the edge. I got super creeped out watching the cloudy mist get sucked over the edge and down the wall. “A down draft means it takes longer to get flying.” I thought. That was enough for me, I was out. The other two guys were still in, the first to jump was confident and the other was too but was really avoiding the hike down. He said “I am more afraid of the hike than the jump”. I reply “I am certain that today I will survive the hike, but probably not this jump”. With that the cloud cleared a bit and they jumped. The first guy had a perfect exit and experienced a good flight, the second guy went off a little head high and couldn’t recover in time, he hit the ledge and perished instantly. I will never forget the noise it made, that still haunts me, it was like a strangely deeper toned shotgun blast. I am not sure any level of measuring or comparing flysight data that day would have changed anything, but he didn’t even look at the numbers. If he had things may have been different. It was a “works for others so it must work for me” scenario. We can’t keep making these mistakes. I cancelled my Brevent trip, kept jumping for a couple months then quit. I spent the next year battling depression and probably have some PTSD from it all. I have since started back up with a new set of rules about socializing and sharing in this sport. Things are going very well, five more world class jumps got opened this year with help from Dr.No and another world class bad ass. The list of mountains is long for the future. I only hope the culture changes so these jumps can become common knowledge, hopefully even legal if we can behave ourselves.

the second guy went off a little head high and couldn’t recover in time, he hit the ledge and perished instantly. I will never forget the noise it made, that still haunts me

The incidents in my story are filled with archaic ways of measuring, the passing on of anecdotal information, neglecting to compare actual measurements to flight data and not considering that your flight performance changes with the weather. Base jumpers are continually jumping into the unknown without all the info and worse yet, leading others who don’t know there is a better way. There will always be inherent risk in this sport but we have the technology and capability to take a huge amount of guesswork out of the equation. Spread the word, learn to use a flysight and a good rangefinder, learn the trigonometry necessary to properly measure the mountains and please record performance in relation to weather. Treat every exit as though you are opening it yourself, look at everything, your life and the future of this activity depend on it. Every time a jumper dies, the media burns this sport. Let's not give them any more fuel for their wild fire. Let's get into what I do when considering a new jump.

I have been compiling flysight data over the years and have a bunch of data to choose my performance numbers from. Please use a flysight and use it properly, you can get one and learn everything here http://www.flysight.ca/index.htm. I like to choose numbers from a recent jump where I know I didn’t get the best exit or the best distance. I like to use a set of numbers that I know I can repeat; I DO NOT use my best performance. It’s very important to leave a margin for error. I keep that set of numbers in my cell phone for reference when I am out scoping and measuring jumps. My set of numbers is in 50’ vertical increments and their corresponding horizontal distances.

I like to use a set of numbers that I know I can repeat; I DO NOT use my best performance. It’s very important to leave a margin for error.

A few different scenarios come to mind when I am heading to a new jump. Someone might be taking me to a jump, I might be looking for an existing jump myself, or I am opening a new one.

When someone is taking me I will ask the name of the mountain so I can look it up. I have received inaccurate measurements in the past and don’t take anecdotal info at face value unless I really trust that person and I am comfortable with the way they measure. I will ask for the overall height and distance from exit to landing zone, then the height of the cliff. Let's say the mountain is 3,600’ tall and it’s 2.1 kms to the landing zone, those measurements fit my flysight data. Then I ask the measurements for the cliff, there should be way more than just one number. The cliff measurements should be height vs distance from multiple points down the wall and even onto the slope below if it’s a small cliff. I like to use http://www.lasertech.com/TruPulse-Laser-Rangefinder.aspx to measure. Below are some numbers to compare from an exit I opened this summer. These numbers start at the exit and go down the wall. The unusually specific numbers are significant features on the wall that stick out, ledges etc.

new cliff 590' total

vertical horizontal

48' 7'

92' 18'

495’ 118’

656’ 256’

730’ 381’

857’ 538’

1276’ 1327’

my numbers

vertical horizontal

50' 20'

100' 32'

500' 235'

650' 370'

750' 569'

850' 878'

1000' 1537'

It takes all the guesswork out of the equation. Now I just have to keep a smart margin and not cut it too close.

As you can see from the numbers, the cliff is only 590’ tall, there is shape to the wall and the measurements go down the slope below the cliff. My numbers are the shape of my start and the difference between them shows how far off the wall and slope I will be. It takes all the guesswork out of the equation. Now I just have to keep a smart margin and not cut it too close. I knew I could fly this mountain before I opened it, which made it way more comfortable and fun.

In the next scenario I am finding an existing jump by myself, I have heard of it or seen it in videos on the Internet. There is the flysafe app that may have it listed if you are lucky but you should still research the mountain and measure it, even an app’s listed measurements should be double-checked in person. I like to use the www.www.baseline.ws app to lay my flysight data over google earth to check the overall height and distance, I always measure the cliff in person.

The third scenario. I am opening a new cliff, new mountain, never been jumped. I am still looking for all the same information as the above scenarios. I start by using topo maps or google earth to get overall height and distance, I research scrambling websites for the hiking trails and I go measure the cliff in person. No matter what the scenario or if it is a social situation I still need accurate measurements to compare to my flight numbers. There are of course the exceptions, when you walk up to an exit and the wall goes down for infinity with a landing zone at the bottom. Those might as well be skydives but keep in mind even the infinity walls get their fair share of carnage and are deserving of more respect than they get.

Well that is about it, if you already haven’t, please join the enlightened times of measuring for yourself. If you don’t want to measure for yourself and you want to continue relying on anecdotal information to keep you safe, that is your prerogative, but please don’t pretend to be a guide or a mentor, please don’t put new jumpers in danger to stroke your ego. And new jumpers please start gathering and understanding your own measurements. And finally, if all this is too complex for you to understand, or you are simply too lazy to collect and apply measurements, please quit.

More Information

For more information on analysing a mountain and using a flysight, read Alastair’s follow up article, Measuring a Mountain for Wingsuit BASE

This article was originally published on skydivemag

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