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Going way off BASE in Canada

Charles Levinson, Sierra Sun

In the age of planes, trains and automobiles, if it takes you a week to get anywhere you’re not traveling most efficiently. And with Red Bull floating the bill, the four Tahoe-based BASE jumpers bound for Baffin Island, Canada, had every means at their disposal. No matter – from Reno, it took one week by plane, snowmobile and dog sled, before the BASE jumping expedition would arrive to the Sam Ford Fjord, the Shangri La of behemoth rocks.

The fjord is home to some of the largest cliffs in the world (the only debatable exception being the Trango Towers in the Karakoram). It is a BASE jumper’s dream, 30-plus seconds of free fall from cliffs as high as 5,000 feet.

Inspired by an article in Skydive Magazine about Will Oxx and Dave Barlia, the first and only other BASE jumpers who have been through Baffin, local freeskiing wunderkind Shane McConkey put together a proposal for his sponsor Red Bull. Red Bull, not exactly known for its conventional marketing tactics, went for it.

So McConkey, along with Skydive Lake Tahoe’s Mike Vail, Charles Bryan and Miles Daisher, and Austrian Felix Baumgardner (best known for BASE jumping the Jesus Christ statue in Rio Di Janeiro), put together the expedition of their lives.

Planning and organizing gear for a crew of 12 – five BASE jumpers, a television crew and trip guide, Baffin big wall veteran Mike Libecki – was an enormous task. The harsh conditions of the Sam Ford Fjord, a frozen ocean tucked deep inside the Arctic Circle, demanded that everyone have the warmest of everything, warmest boots, warmest jackets, warmest sleeping bags, food for 12 for two weeks, Inuit guides, climbing gear, snowmobiles, generators, etc. The packing and organization took over a month and half.

“It was definitely the most organization that I’ve ever done for a trip,” McConkey said. “Getting all the gear was a pain in the ass.”

Gear assembled, they made for Baffin in early May. It took 12 people, with over 50 gear-laden duffel bags, one week of travel before they arrived at the fjord. From Reno to Dallas to Montreal, a series of puddle jumpers through places like Iqualiat, before arriving in Clyde River, a small Inuit Village of about 800 on Baffin Island. From Clyde River it was another two days by snowmobile and at times dog sled.

“It’s definitely the most remote, difficult place to go to that I’ve ever been,” said McConkey. “You’re pretty much in the middle of nowhere. If you get hurt, it’s two days to anywhere … and that’s by helicopter.”

The pay-off was well worth it. Miles Daisher, the world’s most energetic person according to ski video lore, couldn’t conceal his enthusiasm while telling of the first time he laid eyes upon the wonderment.

“You come around this corner, take this left-hand turn and it just opens up … BOOM … it’s magical vertical land,” said Daisher with an ear-to-ear grin between sideburns shaved into lightning bolts.

“The granite walls make Yosemite look like the East Coast,” McConkey said. “Yosemite wouldn’t even have a name there.”

Sam Ford Fjord is frozen all winter, but inaccessible, it being winter in the Arctic and all. For three months each year the ocean is liquid. May is the happy medium, the only month when such a trip is viable, the ocean frozen and the weather comparatively temperate.

The next two weeks were spent camped at the base of the legendary Polar Sun Spire, a 5,000-foot sheer granite god. To put things in perspective, Yosemite’s El Capitan is 3,000 feet and off limits to BASE jumpers. Baffin Island is free of the restrictions that have branded BASE jumpers outlaws in the United States, a sensitive subject for the BASE jumping community. Two years ago BASE-jumping legend Frank Gambalie drowned in the Merced River while fleeing Park Rangers in Yosemite.

“The coolest thing about [the Sam Ford Fjord] is that it’s not in a national park, so that means there’s no cops and no Nazis to arrest us and shoot at us when you’re coming in to land,” said McConkey.

With no restrictions and a helicopter to shuttle them to the tops of the cliffs, the five jumpers got in 80 jumps over eight days. The other days were spent waiting out storms. The weather was all over the place.

“We had rain, snow, wind, ice storms and then beautiful blue skies,” said Charles Bryan. “We spent three days straight in the tents.”

Down days were spent playing cards – Go Fish and War – and watching DVDs on the portable DVD player that Bryan thought to bring.

“It’s kind of like heli-skiing in Alaska,” said McConkey. “You’re either maxing or relaxing, waiting out storms or totally going for it.”

Landing in snow on the open expanse of the frozen fjord allowed jumpers to push the envelope of the possible and the safe. If BASE jumping continues to grow, watch for the phrase “humming it” – waiting for the last possible second to open your chute – to enter the parlance of extreme sports.

None of the jumpers so much as scratched themselves during the two-week trip. The first-aid kit was never cracked. Still, the trip was not without tragedy. While setting up camp on the first day, a radio call came in announcing that one of the Inuit guide’s brothers had hung himself.

“Two of our guides just start freaking out,” McConkey recalled. “So we’re like, all right, we’re off to a great start. There’s already been one death and we’re up here to go BASE jumping.”

Later in the trip, Bob Unvert, the president of Ocean Watch Productions, had a heart attack and died at the Ottawa airport while waiting for a return flight to the United States. Ocean Watch Productions was filming the trip for a television show to air on the Outdoor Life Network in November.

The only complaint from the trip came from Bryan, who regretted having to leave his 6-month-old daughter for a month.

“That was like 20 percent of her life,” he said. But wife Annica understood; she’s a BASE jumper too. Bryan’s one regret was tempered by his praise.

“This was the ultimate,” he said. “There is nothing else like this. You don’t just go on this trip. You need a big company like Red Bull that’s into spending money on something like this.”

As for Red Bull’s involvement, they are getting a T.V. show in November, but they say they are unconcerned about the immediate gain.

“We don’t see like a spike in sales right after that happens,” said Red Bull spokeswoman Emmy Cortes. “But it definitely contributes to the brand image. Nobody else we know of, other companies that is, would even think of funding something like this because it is so logistically crazy and there is so much inherent danger.”


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