Wingsuit Base Climb
For several years I’ve been most excited about the creativity of combining climbing with base jumping. It started for me in 2008 when I free soloed the North Face of Castleton and made a base jump descent. With my husband Mario, I started to look for other towers that could be interesting combinations of climbing and jumping, and in 2010 we made the Perfect Circle film with our good friends 3 Strings Productions. Last year, I mixed it up a little with a base jump descent into Mineral Canyon, to climb a beautiful Hong route there. Mario and I have done more, some even wilder, tower base climbs since then around Moab, and we just keep finding more, so the desert base climbs are really an endless adventure.
But I’ve been wanting to add wingsuit base into the mix, which presents a bit of a logistical challenge. The cliffs around Moab are on BLM land, which means that all users are treated equally, and recreation is valued and respected. These cliffs are low, generally about 400 feet tall. To base jump with a wingsuit, you need cliffs that are at least 2000 feet tall (to really be worth it). Annoyingly, in the States the most accessible, appropriate tall cliffs are locked inside National Park boundaries where base jumping, a non-impactful, non-motorized activity, is discriminated against. The NPS persecutes base jumpers by manipulating a law against aerial delivery into national parks–base jumpers are “aerially delivering themselves”(don’t play Scrabble with these guys, you will lose). Where it gets even more weird is the fact that hang gliding is allowed in Yosemite, and airplanes are allowed to land at Lake Powell… anyway, a lot of court time and money has been spent trying to keep people from parachuting off cliffs in National Parks, and I could think of a lot better ways to use those resources. The NPS has gone so far as to taser people for making a base jump, and actually incarcerated jumpers into the federal prison system as recently as last year.
People have made climbs in National Parks followed by base jumps, but it hasn’t been possible to share these adventures for fear of self-incrimination. Obviously it would be amazing to climb Moonlight Buttress and fly off of Angels Landing, or follow a free climb of the NW Route of Half Dome with a wingsuit jump. The materials left on the climbs (chalk, slings, bolts, pitons) stay there permanently, but that is accepted. The elements left in the air by a base jump (wind currents) are invisible and impermanent, but that is illegal. We can only hope that someday the NPS will pull its head out of its a$$ and join us in the 21st century. But as they say, there are no problems, only puzzles to be solved. I’d been on the lookout for a way to make a wingsuit base climb for some time when I went to Notch Peak, a remote giant dolomitic limestone massif in the Utah west desert, in 2009.
Notch Peak is the second tallest vertical drop in the States, just after El Cap, and no one knows about it. And it’s on BLM land, which means that you are allowed to climb, camp, base jump and walk around with your dog.
There are a few, very adventurous limestone routes up it, and it is a very three-dimensional, serious wingsuit jump site. This jump is not like Lauterbrunnen or El Cap. It’s a place you need to be on your game, very experienced, and ready for anything. The climbing is no walk in the park either, characterized by looseness, runouts and a LOT of hiking. Notch is in the middle of nowhere. Cell phones don’t work, there’s no water, and there aren’t even many flat places to camp. 4WD is mandatory. It’s a big, intimidating place, which switches from boiling hot to freezing cold sometimes in minutes. The first time I went there to check out the wingsuit jump, I looked at the mountain and the terrain and decided I would not go back until I was a much more experienced jumper and wingsuit pilot. To my mind, wingsuit jumping at Notch Peak is a lot like free soloing–you should make sure your skills are far far above what’s required, because if anything goes wrong, the problems will add up quickly and there’s not much room for error. In the 3 years since then, Notch has had 3 wingsuit deaths, one of them a good friend of mine, tragically on my first return visit to jump it last October.
Notch Peak has been high on my list as a wingsuit base climb that could be done legally and could be shared with others as a film. At first I was waiting until I felt ready to jump there, and I didn’t have a date on that–I hadn’t been back since my first look in 2009. I wanted my wingsuit and canopy skills, and confidence, to be really high before starting to jump at Notch, because I take the place very very seriously. Last October, we finally returned to Notch with a few friends, and our friend Sean jumped just before Mario and me. It was the last time we saw him alive. The base climb project was put on hold indefinitely. I wasn’t sure when we’d be ready to go back.
Over the winter, Mario and I got a plaque made for Sean, and we wanted to carry it to the top of Notch Peak, and install it at the exit point where we were with him last. This spring we decided to go back. Our good friends at 3 Strings, Keith Ladzinski, Andy Mann and Andrew Bisharat, Jorge Visser and Chad Copeland were on board to help us make the base climb happen and shoot it as it took place.
I had decided we should climb a route called Fin du Monde with an alternate finish called Road to Perdition, because the route goes up the northwest arete of Notch Peak, and I found it the most aesthetic line when looking at the mountain. There are a lot of things that make a climb appeal to me, but aesthetics and beauty of the line are on top of the list. It also seemed less vulnerable to rockfall, due to the cleanness of climbing on a prow, and it just sounded like a great route and a little more mysterious than the other classic route Book of Saturday, since there was less information available for some reason.
I had only made one jump at Notch Peak before, on the day we lost Sean, so it was fairly intense to come back and jump at this already intimidating and serious site. Obviously all our thoughts were with Sean from the moment Notch appeared in the distance.
Mario and I carried our gear to the base of the climb the first day, and then we hiked up to the top of Notch the next day. We installed Sean’s plaque at the west exit, and jumped the north side.
A few days later, we were ready to climb, but were delayed by waiting for Chad to arrive with his futuristic octocopter set up.
Mario and I went up to make a second jump, and then the next day we got an alpine start and walked up to the base of Fin du Monde.
The route was great climbing, and to me represented some impressive effort by the first ascensionists in placing bolts up there–this is a 9 pitch route with a 2.5-3 hour approach. There weren’t a lot of bolts, but I very much appreciated the ones they put in! Loose rock is pretty stressful, and there were several exciting moments for me, especially when way runout, pulling on highly dubious flakes of limestone… Overall, it was excellent and highly adventurous climbing on the Fin du Monde to Road to Perdition.
We topped out early in the afternoon to find the whole camera crew on the summit, and Cajun of course 🙂
Normally, we would like to rest a little before making the jump. The climb had made us both a little tired, and you want to be really mentally sharp on a wingsuit jump. Our idea had been to finish the climb early in the day and then wait for a couple of hours for the end of the day, in hopes of the best wind conditions. Unfortunately, it looked like some serious storms were headed our way, and we could see huge dust devils out across the desert and a mass of dark clouds coming toward us. The wind was starting to pick up. The conditions were acceptable for the jump, though not ideal, and we realized that we’d need to get off the peak right away if we wanted to be sure of finishing the project. After so many people had put so much effort into getting things in place, it would have been a real heartbreaker to get shut down by wind.
We geared up, evaluated the wind for a while, and made the decision that the cycles allowed enough space for a safe jump, though not in the perfect no-wind conditions we most prefer. We flew out together and both landed safely in the North wash where we had started our approach early that morning.
It was over quickly, and I felt an overwhelming gratitude to Notch, the weather, and our crew for allowing us to make this base climb, the first legal wingsuit base climb in the States. As always, Utah is where it’s at, and I’m so thankful to live in this wild place with its endless frontier. And special thanks, as always, goes to the BLM for letting mountain athletes actually use our public land and sky!
prAna and MSR supported the film project, which will be a part of Reel Rock 8, and because of the logistics required (wingsuits being brought to the top, climbing gear being brought down), making the project into a film was really part of what enabled us to do it. In a twist of how things often work, the film project was actually what made the base climb possible, and it created a symbiotic, real-time relationship between the climbing and jumping as they happened and the shooting that was done, with nothing set up or re-created. All of us were doing what we love best, and helping each other to make it all happen.
Most of all, this experience made us feel close to Sean, a person who will always stand out in my mind for his extreme gentleness, joyful spirit, genuine heart and respect for others.
Notch is a really big place, and a place that commands immense respect in every way. It’s a place to be careful, mindful and self sufficient, and a place that will ask a lot of you and give a lot back, and a place that may also take a lot away. It’s a place that makes me feel small and deeply appreciative on many levels.
Cajun summitted Notch multiple times during the whole adventure, and went up the snow gully and via ferrata ladder to the base of the routes. It’s the first time we’ve seen that little dog get tired…