From The Mag

You and The Grim Reaper: Tales of Exit-Point Horror

Photo courtesy @im_arlo
Exit points: full of fun and love like this Arlo Pace-Jimmy Pouchert hug, or full of ass-puckering terror like in the stories Moe is about to tell you.
Written by Moe Viletto

Online Reprint

Originally printed in issue #86 (February 2017) of Blue Skies Magazine.
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The ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus once said, “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.” He believed that permanence is an illusion and everything is in the process of constant change. A river is constantly changing—rising and falling, speed, rapids, calmness, temperature, current, eddies, length, width, color, debris and more. And he who crossed it once before is different in many ways as well. Heraclitus’ quote can be applied to BASE jumping, climbing, speedflying, hanggliding, paragliding and life itself.

To save time I use BASE jumping examples but most can be applied to the other sports as well. So, no man or woman can jump the same site twice, for it’s not the same site, nor is he or she the same person. The approach to the exit point is in constant change just by the simple fact that you are not stationary. An exit or launch point itself is never the same either; the condition and type of terrain, wood, metal, cable, marble, whatever you are standing on, can vary by the moment, as well as weather conditions and time of day or night. The weather is never exactly the same, always in the process of constant change. Wind direction, velocity, gusts, humidity, thermals, rain in all forms, fog, mist, lift and sink, shade, sun and a mix of both, rotors, wind shadow and more.

Same goes for the person. As every second passes we are not the same. Many things change over the course of one second, especially when standing on the edge and your ass is on the line. Heart rate, focus, mind-body connection, commitment point, breathing, adrenaline, balance, your buddy’s energy, the enemy and more.

Following are some things to be aware of on approach, gearing up and at the exit point. But in general, just SLOW DOWN, be aware of your mindset and the environment. Then … SLOW DOWN. Rain, snow, ice, black ice, dew, fog, grit, mud, roots, snakes, loose ground, wafered ledges, true wind, mechanical wind, moss, soot (smokestacks), grease, pigeon shit, creosote, bears (both kinds), pollution residue, sun glare, loose tree bark, earthquakes, lightning, avalanches of rock, ice and snow, loose railings, overhead branches, rust, wires, camera clearance. I have encountered all of these at some level. Yes, even snakes ‘n quakes. I’m sure there are plenty more.

Here are some experiences, lessons, mistakes, luck outs and tips I have been a part of on approach, gearing up and at the exit point:

When I was a very green BASE jumper, I held my first direct bag from a building ledge without being tied off safely. NEVER again. Scared the crap outta me. The direct bag had no handles, or backup tie-off either. Luckily I didn’t drop or tilt the bag or lose my footing and fall off. Since then I have held many a dear friend’s life in my hands, tied-off of course, and it’s still scary. Pilot-chute-assist holders might want to be tied off in some cases but it’s not as critical as a direct bag deployment where you are holding the bag on heading.

On a late fall trip to Half Dome, Dick and I topped out cleanly with no snow or ice. As we worked our way over the top we encountered snow in spots. We were paralleling about 50 feet up from the edge, side by side, and when we came to snow I told Dick to walk behind me (Should the higher person slip and fall when side by side, there is potential to take the other guy out.). We weren’t geared up but thinking back, wearing our rigs could have been added safety should we take “The Big Slide.” We were going to a vertical crack near the exit point where I had stashed a season of supplies. As we traversed the snow patch, we were in the sun and approaching a shaded area. I warned Dick that it could be icy, seeing that the sun hadn’t hit there yet. It was. We used our hiking poles as we crunched across the crusty snow. Dick went down once but didn’t slide.

When we reached the “stash gash” we found it to be dry, as well as the exit point which was about 15 feet away. The landscape here was composed of flat granite slabs that were stacked, shingled and pancaked while sloping to the edge. I skinnied down into the 2-by-4-foot crack just below Dick, who was standing above me on a flat slab of granite about 4-by-6 feet wide and a foot thick. As I handed supplies up and out of the crack, Dick would accept them and twist 180 degrees and set them behind him. Suddenly the slab he was standing on became a granite surfboard. My noggin was about to be lobbed off and doin’ a 3-way with Dick and a 200-pound rock.

Wind and rain, freezing and thawing, even lightning strikes, all cause erosion. The rock Dick was standing on was eroding away underneath, leaving BB-sized granite ball bearings. That and the combination of his weight, movements and the slope toward the edge were enough to put the slab in motion. I managed to duck down into the crack and luckily the rock and Dick stopped just short.

I was doing a nighttime solo jump from a building under construction in San Diego. The 300-foot ledge at the exit point had a temporary guard rail made up of vertical steel posts that were anchored to the floor’s ledge. Two rows of cable were suspended between the vertical posts. The lower cable was about 2 feet up the posts and the upper cable was about 2 feet above the lower one. I was going handheld with my pilot chute. I had 2 choices. Either way, I could use my free hand on the post to help keep my balance while climbing over the cables. I could climb over with my back facing launch and do a 180-degree turn after stepping down to the ledge, or I could climb over, facing the direction of launch, and should I loose footing at least I was pointed in the right direction. Also to avoid having to turn around and I could keep better track of my bridle. I chose the latter … If I only had had a ladder.

There was a slight tail wind of about 3 mph. The wind should not be an issue on deployment since I would be in the shadow of the building. Being bridle aware, I climbed over the top cable with my left hand on top of the post and was lowering myself to the bottom cable. When I added my weight, the lower cable stretched and the bottom of my container went over the upper cable, getting hung up between the small of my back and the container’s back pad. I was struggling with my balance and being pushed forward trying to reach the ledge while the tail wind was blowing my bridle in an undesirable position. I was in a position where I couldn’t move up enough to free the rig or down enough to get solid footing on the ledge. I boinged around for what felt like forever, thinking I was going to have to do some kind of out of control acro move to get free and deal with poor body position upon deployment. One last try and I got free. Lucked out. Whew! I landed in an intersection next to a newspaper boy who looked up unfazed and then back down to loading his paper sack. He must have seen BASE in the city before.

I was doing a solo trip up El Capitan. On top, I ran into Will Oxx, an early pioneer BASE climber. Earlier, he had hiked up the back side and stashed his rig and some supplies. Next he rappelled down the face of El Cap, regrouped and solo climbed back up the face and was going to jump off. I was helping him pull his gear out from the stash and inspect his rig. Some critter must have gnawed on his leg strap at the selvedge edge while he was in transition to climb back up. Black Death! He was able to tighten the leg strap down far enough that the damaged portion was past the friction adapter so it would not be under load.

He would be jumping at dusk and I would be camping and jumping at first light. I paused setting up camp to watch Will jump. When I got to the exit point Will was ready to huck off a military duffel bag that was filled with his climbing gear. He had attached a long bridle and big pilot chute. He was in the process of swinging the duffle in order to get up some momentum to clear the edge. A wise man, he did have his rig on … and he also had his right leg through the shoulder strap of the duffle bag. “WILL! STOP!” I yelled. He did—and he lived. Lucky for us, I was there.

PD New Beginning

Matt, one of my mentors, told me of a building jump he once made. The exit point was literally a point. The smooth marble corner was roughly 60 degrees. Wearing tennis shoes he put one foot on each side of the point. Should the canopy open off heading, it would afford him equal clearance to his left and right upon opening. When he pushed off, his feet slipped outward as if he was doing a jumping jack and now he was falling straight down the corner, with his nuts damn near scraping down the blade. A longer than planned delay and a bit of luck got him away enough to get a clean deployment. Years later I jumped the same corner but I placed both feet on the left face of the point. This allowed for better footing and a solid launch. The sacrifice was less open air should I have an off-heading opening to the left, but it was worth the trade-off. (See pics: Argon Air. Same building)

Argon Air, Helipad Inspectors

Another time while night jumping an antenna in the middle of the Everglades we hopped into the elevator for a sweet ride to 1,600 feet. The most serious part of this jump was the landing approach and setup … we thought. The only landing zones were dirt roads that ran out from the base of the tower and UNDER the guy wires. After opening we would have to hug the tower and then eventually hook it under the guy wires to land. The near full moon lit the road up against the black contrast of the surrounding swamp and its critters. The landing was the whole focus and discussion on the ride up.

When we topped out there was a large grate to stand on. When Nick stepped out of the elevator one of his legs went through a hole in the grate. Groping in the dark to catch his fall, he reached out and clung on to a cable. He pretty much froze in that spot after extracting his leg from the grate. Luckily he didn’t get badly injured, just a few scrapes. Meanwhile, the rest of us had checked the winds and decided to jump, so we were going to send the elevator down. Jess hit the down button and closed the door. This set the elevator in motion—and Nick with it. The cable that Nick was clinging to and leaning on after stepping into the hole was connected to the elevator. He nearly did a header down the elevator shaft.

Wingsuit pilots should pay mind to their lower leg wing and look for potential snags on and after initial launch. At home, check your belly camera-mounting system to ensure it doesn’t get hung up on a center leg inlet if you squat to launch. Some BASE harnesses come with a climbing support mode; use it if you got it. If it’s necessary to get geared up on a narrow ledge with no protection and your harness allows, you can unthread your leg straps, properly reroute them and rethread.

Triple check your rigging. If you fear mis-rigging something, go bowling. BASE is a very equipment-intensive, extreme sport. Know, understand and have confidence in yourself and your equipment in ALL modes.

Whatever method you use to don your wingsuit and BASE rig, you can practice at home. Practice gearing up smoothly in a confined space. Practice dress rehearsals with your buddy at the same time, using caution not to bump each other or aid each other if necessary. Make it as realistic as possible.*

Slow down. Look around. The environment and you are not the same, even if you were there moments earlier. If you give yourself a gear check and then leave for a second to take a leak or whatever, you should do another gear check when you get back and then put your rig on. Anything could have happened to your gear when it was out of your immediate control. That should go for skydiving as well.

I respect and inspect my zippers often. I’d hate to make 2 or 3 hundred practice skydives on a suit and then have a zipper blow on a BASE exit or proximity flight. Use caution not to step on or damage any zippers while getting geared up. I constantly see skydivers abusing zippers on all types of suits. Someone may have already died during a BASE jump due to a zipper failure but we will never know. Some of these things might not be as critical or noticeable while skydiving. Again, practice at home and think BASE.

I highly recommend BASE soles on ALL wingsuits. This is a sticky grippy rubber bottom pad that affords much better traction than without. Also, with a loose fitting bootie and an aggressive launch, there is potential for your foot to slip INSIDE the booty. Footwear is important. Your wingsuit bootie might fit differently with hiking boots than your skydiving shoes. It helps to have good traction and support. If your boots have exposed hooks, cover them and tuck away the shoelaces. Better yet, have a shoemaker remove the hooks and install eyelets. Still, double tie and tuck away your laces. Visually check and stomp off or dig out any debris that may have gotten trapped in the treads. A trapped pebble in a tread could induce a slip on exit. Be careful while stomping!

Jumping is only a part of the danger. The Grim Reaper is lurking behind us at all times, just waiting to take advantage of any minor slip up. Pun intended. Notice I have used the word “luck” often in some of these examples. There is a certain element of luck in EVERYTHING we do. We are all lucky to be here right now, whether we are jumping or not. Don’t bank on luck. Sometimes getting to the exit point, gearing up and launching, be it ANY object, can be riskier than the rest of the jump itself.

And I have a quote of my own. “No person can make a solo BASE jump. Grim is always with you and lookn’ to feed. He’s gonna git you eventually. Starve him for as long as you possibly can.”

And if you think you can get away with something while Grim is feeding elsewhere …Think again. Even The Grim Reaper has a backup: his oh so close friend The Harpy. So hey, let’s be careful out there.

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