The Perfect Circle
A little over a year ago, just before my birthday, I was seized with the urge to free solo Jah Man on Sister Superior and base jump off it. In 2008, I free soloed the North Face of Castleton and jumped off the top, and it remains one of my favorite adventures of all time. I loved everything about it, from the beauty of the tower, the route and the jump, to the experience of getting to know the route and then filming the ascent/descent with Mario flying past me in the Skydive Moab jump plane with Pete Mortimer’s video camera sticking out of the cargo door as I made the jump off the summit. I wanted more of tower base climbs, and Jah Man seemed like a perfect route: in fact, the first tower route I ever climbed in the desert. I did the free solo and jump on my birthday.
Of course, I wanted more. But not every route in the desert is a good free solo, and not every tower has a good base jump. It’s not that black and white. It wasn’t long before I realized that I was limiting myself by expecting to find base climbs that would be “exactly” like the North Face of Castleton. Every tower is different, each one is unique, just like a person. With Jah Man, for example, I had to freesolo up to the summit, and then downclimb the last pitch to the most suitable jumping point. Every tower must be approached as an individual, to discover its own personality, its own unique style, the way it wants to be climbed or jumped. No two are alike, and that is the wonderful thing about them!
Several years ago, Mario and Wayne Crill made the first base jump from the summit of Ancient Art. If you’ve ever climbed Ancient Art, you know that the thought of jumping off that tilted, unattached summit block is terrifying!! Mario suggested that we climb and jump Ancient Art: the climb itself is very easy, one I’ve done maybe fifty times. But to make the jump even more fantastic, we decided to jump simultaneously from that tiny tiptop. Doing that route together was just pure fun, and the two-way jump one of the most enjoyable things I can think of. About this time, we started to think about making a film of what had become a tower base climb project: we shoot all the time when we jump, and we were just so excited about all of our ideas of more towers and more jumps. My friends Keith Ladzinski and Jorge Visser loved the idea, and suddenly we had a project together: now we didn’t just want to climb and jump, we also wanted to make a movie with 3 Strings Media. In the end, Mario and I jumped Ancient Art together about 15 times. The movie was a great excuse 😉
It was also excellent work: for me, doing all the rigging, climbing and jumping, with Mario and I doing all the shooting of each other air-to-air and POV, while Keith and Jorge jugged lines, shot the climbing and the jumping from on, above and below the tower. This is the way we shot everything, and it was a great way to get to know all the towers very intimately.
For Mario and me, this was a wonderful team project. I’ve been climbing for 20 years, and Mario’s been jumping for 20 years. He is a master skydiver, base jumper, cameraman and adventurer–an invaluable partner for me as a younger base jumper who shares the desire to jump intelligently and safely with maximum adventure and respect. Our experience and strengths compliment each other perfectly, allowing us to take both the climbs and the jumps to the next level. I couldn’t ask for a better partner, as a climber, base jumper and desert aficionado.
The next tower I had in mind was Hindu Tower, located about half of a stone’s throw between Sister Superior and Ancient Art, in Onion Creek. I’d gone there long ago to check out the aid line that Stevie Haston freed on it, called Maverick. As far as I know, only Stevie and Topher Donahue have freed the route, going free at 13- on a thin seam with very small gear. The second pitch is an airy traverse, and the third pitch a sandy 5.11 pitch to the summit. The tower itself is a highly phallic structure, perched atop a lofty hillside. Again, Mario had aid climbed the tower and opened the jump with Wayne long ago and remembered it being a wildly unique, three-dimensional jump through the tight canyon walls.
The modern style in the desert is to avoid belays that aren’t at good, hands-off stances, and to stretch the pitches as long as possible. After I freed the route, I wanted to improve my style a little by linking the first two pitches into one, long free pitch. The style of the first free ascent was certainly excellent, but for me, it was more elegant to remove the first belay and free it in a longer pitch, so I was really inspired to do that. I ended up shooting the Hindu free ascent with Nelson Aries and Chuck Fryberger for The Scene, but it was always a part of our own personal tower base climb project. Mario belayed me on this ascent, jugging to the top with me, and we made this exhilarating jump together. Again, returning to shoot with Keith and Jorge, Mario and I got to repeat the climb and the jump many times, enjoying this place even more….
The final tower I had in mind for the Perfect Circle was King of Pain, at Indian Creek on Bridger Jack. Indian Creek is the most wonderful place in the world (at least one of them!), and its style of climbing so unique. It’s rare to find a tower route that features the relentless, splitter crack climbing that we know and love at Indian Creek.
Ziji, on King of Pain, is one of the greatest routes out there, because it has that full-value, endurance climbing all the way to the summit. I’d climbed Ziji years and years ago with my friend Scott Lazar, and had a healthy respect for the route which starts with a loose, run-out pitch that’s a very high price of admission to the burly splitter cracks above. I went back with Mario, with Mario jugging with the weight of both our base rigs to save me from having to haul on the strenuous route. We were delighted to find that this jump was taller and completely straightforward, compared to the more low, technical nature of the other towers we’d chosen.
It was a low stress, pure fun style jump, landing in the giant, open desert below Bridger Jack. Coming back to shoot with Keith and Jorge, I ended up climbing Ziji a total of 6 times which certainly did not disappoint! and we got to jump the tower over and over, with Mario even taking a side trip to climb over and jump the small summit beside it.
The tower project was a fantastic way to spend the winter, and turning it into a film project made it even more fun: but not to mention a lot of work, for all of us! Keith and Jorge got deeply immersed in the film work, taking the project to a level I’d never anticipated. Rather than just getting it out there, they decided to turn the movie into a real work of art, editing, re-shaping, shooting time-lapse sequences and building a story. We decided to shoot just a little more, a few more angles on Ancient Art and some more desert shots over the last few days, and the shooting was finally complete, at long last. When you’re dealing with a team of perfectionists (Mario: “it would be so easy to shoot that jump just one more time and get a better angle, I’d like to fly even closer to Steph and get right over her canopy after we open.” Keith: “sounds great, I’m up for it!” Jorge: “Cool, which one are we doing?”), it would be easy to stay in creation mode forever 🙂
Now the shooting is finally done, the edit is almost complete, and we’re all excited that the Perfect Circle will be finished and released next month. Pete Mortimer contributed footage from the original Castleton base climb, and Jimmy Chin contributed his footage from the Salathe Wall, and Keith and Jorge have been given support, assistance and feedback from basically the entire community of photographers and videographers, even down to guest shooting from Chris Hunter and Andy Mann.
So this project feels like a real community effort, which makes it even more special to me. It has been a truly wild adventure, a celebration of the Moab desert, the most wonderful place on earth, and a labor of love from everyone involved, all combined to create something that we are all proud of, as well as an experience we’ll never forget. The rough edit is fantastic, and I can’t wait to see the final cut.
Naturally, the end of the film project has not meant the end of the tower base climbs, and Mario and I have done several more since then…. but that’s another story 🙂
Thanks to everyone who has been a part of this tower base climbing adventure!