Down and Out updated
by John Long
The other short stories in the book are not about BASE, but nonetheless great stories. We encourage you to buy a copy of the book.
Down And Out, by John Long
Dear Mr. Long,
… Lastly, pursuant to Article Seventeen in National Park Regulations, the device of air to ground transfers is strictly prohibited. Likewise even traditional parachuting is limited to emergencies. Consequently, we cannot accord you exception without setting an illegal precedent. Thank you for considering Parks National as a proposal site for your filming, and good luck in finding another location….” and so it ran, from the superintendent of the Canadian National Parks.
In other words, no cliff jumping on Baffin Island. I had foolishly presumed the legality by dint of Rick Sylvester’s James Bond jump, unaware that directly following it, Article Seventeen had been drafted to prohibit another. I’d spent thousands of company funds in pre-production, and the show had been sold on the strength of what I’d sworn would provide outlandish footage. Now the show’s centerpiece had backfired, leaving me only ten days to find another site - no mean task when the jump had to break the current world’s record of 4,600 feet. And where to find another 5,000-foot overhanging cliff? Nepal? India? Both the company and the network were staring me down.
Sweating bullets, I made for the home of Carl and Jean Boenish, the husband and wife team who had organized, popularized, and labored to legitimize the mad practice of leaping off fixed objects. They had founded a group entitled BASE, an acronym denoting 1) Buildings, 2) Antennae, 3) Spans (bridges), 4) Earth; these the various props off which they plunge.
Carl had championed the first wave of El Capitan jumps and had since traveled the world, filming, jumping, writing, and preaching the virtues of BASE jumping. His wife, Jean, was equally avid, with over fifty BASE jumps to her credit. As I would learn, Jean had the more athletic skills, plus an invincible composure that baffled me throughout. Should anyone know of an alternative site, Carl and Jean would. I threw my car into overdrive and powered to their Hawthorne home, ready to deal.
Carl, a craggy-faced, bouncy 43-year-old of contagious enthusiasm, had once visited my office. He was all business then, and a steely dealer he was, inflexible in fee and procedure. Now, after explaining my predicament, he relaxed, for I lay over a barrel. Consequently, quite a different fellow emerged. Jean, nineteen years his junior, brainy and cherubic, looked on with a a calculation on ecould feel [EDITOR: VERIFY]. Her clothes, flawless though plain, and the house, so ordered and spotless symbolized American sobriety and respectability. Nothing admitted they dived of cliffs for a living.
Carl’s laugh had been described as the sound of a car starting, and after hearing my predicament, he launched into a roaring grind. We blew into his office, decorated wall to wall with striking photos of parachuting and hang gliding. Still laughing, Carl ferreted out several photos of Norway’s notorious Trollvegen Wall, gun metal gray and mile-high.
By chance, he and Jean were soon to vacation there and Carl mentioned that the 5,600-foot wall had already recorded an established jump. Carl believed it could easily be bettered to world record height should we climb to the very top of the summit ridge, believed to be some 400 feet higher than the old site. Double checking topographic maps confirmed the record height.
After Carl stated the jump’s feasibility and their readiness to accommodate my schedule - for a whopping fee, of course - I had a strong hankering for a scotch. But not here! They’d take no drink, and their house stood dry as chaff in the thresher. Whatever, the whole deal seemed a windfall. The Trollveggen had the reputation of being Europe’s biggest cliff, a face featuring scores of notorious rock climbs. Once done with the filming, I’d have my pick of big routes - a boon, I thought.
We’d leave in three days - little time to assemble the tonnage of required gear. I visited the Boenish home twice more during the next few days. Carl emerged as the most singular individual I had ever met, heard about, or dreamed about. As Carl would rake through the garage full of gear, we’d talk - or rather he’d preach - about hang-gliding, then God, then BASE jumping, then literature. Suddenly Carl’s jaws would slacken, and he’d dash to his piano to butcher some classical refrain, just to jump back into conversation. And I can’t swear I fully understood anything Carl ever said.
His drift admitted his mixed bag of studies, from electrical engineering to classical music to quantum mechanics - all galvanized by a goofy mix of mysticism and personal revelations, coupled with the cryptic tenets of a religious system I could not quite discern. Often he would draw upon all the aforementioned, sometimes in the same sentence. His phrasing would vex Proust and his habit of citing theoretical examples would confuse even himself, for often their import had nebulous bearing on an already vague theme. It was no wonder our producer thought he was on LSD, or something stronger.
I considered writing him off as a kook, but his laugh and genuine compassion were so disarming I always found myself laughing and excited. I respected him not so much as a doer of the outlandish as a man of heart, however inscrutable. I never expected to really know the man. Somehow, we met our schedule. Switching locations wold prove simple, for the production team currently traveled in Europe, and swinging over to Norway promised to be easy compared to gaining Baffin Island, another continent away.
I hooked up with Carl and Jean in London and we flew to Oslo together. The national airlines were on strike, which left us to wad eight duffel bags into a rental car and head for Trondheim, eight hours north. The narrow road meandered through green valleys laced with swift alpine streams, glinting under the midnight sun. somber clouds snarled and boiled off the frosted peaks above us.
When we stopped for beers (sodas for Carl and Jean), I noticed the date, 1509, chiseled on the hearth. The sun dozed as Carl hit his second wind, launching into his most daring and absurd drift yet. The moment he seemed clear, he’d touch upon something so foreign that even Jean — usually mute — would laugh. Eyes focused on some distant quasar, Carl seemed wonderfully outrageous.
We crept into the sleepy town of Andalsnes, hedged on all sides by cliffs, cloud covered and mile high.
The next day we rise early and chug up a zigzag road to the highest path, then set out on a grueling march for Trollveggen’s summit. We’re joined by Fred Husoy, a young and dapper local climber whose intimate knowledge of the area will figure prominently in locating our record site.
We shoulder packs and start humping up wet slabs and shifty moraines towards a snowy col. Carl hikes so slowly I finally take his pack, but halfway up a second scree slope he is again well behind. Fred dons his waterproof against an increasing drizzle, insisting on speed lest we lose visibility and the day to storm and clouds.
We slog ankledeep through a snowfield. When Carl catches up, wet clouds drape everything. By now I’m convinced Carl is the laziest adventurer to ever stand in boot leather. No amount of coaxing can quicken his pace. Finally, a little stone hut twenty minutes shy of the summit ride offers a welcome roof from the noon shower.
Carl limps in and when he pulls up a pant leg, my jaw drops. Just above the ankle, his leg takes a shocking jag before rejoining his shin, two inches off plumb. It is remarkable he can even hike with such a limb, and I feel abashed to have pushed him. Fred stops wringing his wool hat to stare, dumbstruck. “Jesus, Carl, when did that happen?” Explaining that his leg had snapped in a hang-gliding accident several years back, Carl laughs through an exposition of his sapling and deerskin notions of natural healing.
Some of his bewildering religious allusions come into focus: Christian Science. While everyone is dealt ample pain and suffering, Carl wants more, owing to a principle. “Shit, Carl,” I whine, “an orthopod could surely fix that - it’s hideous.” No way. No doctors. Carl dismisses the lot with a laugh, his face wincing. When he pulls up his sock, his hands tremble from the pain… and Carl becomes all the more baffling.
When the shower outside eases, we plod up steep, snowy slabs toward the summit ride - a mile-log dinosaur’s back of pinnacles, clefts, and precarious boxcar bocks. Off the jagged ridge, the wall drops 5,600 feet to the Trondheim Valley. Behind, the rubbly slabs angle down several hundred feet to a high glacial plateau where perpetual snow rings an eerie lake of aquamarine, like a blue eye staring. Piebald clouds mask the ridge, making it difficult to decipher our location. without Fred’s knowledge of key landmarks, we’d wander blind.
We gain the ridge as the clouds momentarily part. It’s fantastic to lie belly-down and stick our heads over the vast drop. As the clouds converge, Carl sets to rubbing his ankle, laughing, grimacing, then explaining his requirements. The wall beneath his launch must overhang, and it must remain overhanging for hundreds of feet, long enough to reach terminal velocity, for only at top speed can his lay-out positioning create enough horizontal draft for him to track - actually fly out and away from the wall to pop the chute in snag-free air.
The further from the wall, the safer, for the new parachutes don’t simply drop vertically, but glide four feet forward for every one foot down. It is not unheard of for a twisted line to deploy a chute backwards, leading the jumper into, not away from the cliff. With a laugh and full-moon eyes, Carl says, “Here, that would be fatal.” He peers over the lip, chuckles, then looks back at us. “Fatal.”
Just to our left, the spectacular, 200-foot Stabben Pinnacle cants out over the lip like a tilted smokestack. The spire’s top projects forty feet out over the void. An exit there would prove far safer than leaping straight off the lip. Carl hangs tight as Fred and I climb up the soaking Stabben to start rock test, the only true gauge of how far the wall drops vertically below.
On terrain that is fractured and loose, we wobble a trash-can-sized boulder to the lip and roll it off. Five, six … Bam! Sounds like a mortar! “No good,” laughs Carl. Way too soon to impact. The rocks continue rattling down for an astonishingly long time. We try again. This time I lean over the lip and watch the rock whiz downward, swallowed in fog 300 feet below. Three, four, … Bam! My head snaps up. Must be a jutting ledge just below the fog line. “Whatever, Stabben won’t do,” yells Carl. “It’d be crazy….” The flinty smell of shattered rock lofts up just as it start pouring. Fred and I huddle in a snug alcove, but it’s no use, so we stride for the valley while lightning cracks. Carl crawls slowly behind.
Twice more Fred and I explore the summit ridge, dashed by hailstorms — despite clean air space in the valley. It’s aggravating. Trollveggen seems to create its own storms. The film producers, watching the rain wash their budgets, are not for particulars, more so results, and my inability to even say where we’ll jump from is considered impotence on my behalf. There is urgency to jump and be done with it, as Norway is the end of the production schedule, and the crew is looking toward Paris, the Greek Islands, or home.
On the fourth scout, after a nasty piece of traversing that requires several rappels, we locate what we know is the highest possible exit the ridge affords. But again, rain and wind drives us off before we can start rock tests.
Now we’re back, with clear skies, and the entire ridge is terrifically visible, zagging down on either side. We’re definitely on the apex, walking freely on the made-to-order, ten- by-fifty foot ledge terminating in an abyss so ghastly that even Spencer Tracy would go for another rope. Lashed taut to three separate lines, I set feet on the lip, bend over the void and start lobbing off bowling-ball-sized rocks while Fred times the free-fall. They whiz and accelerate something ferocious, seem to fall forever, clean from sight.
Twelve, thirteen … Fred and I trade amazed looks. This could do it! Seventeen, eighteen … BANG! A puff of white smokes near the base, thousands of feet below. The echo volleys round the amphitheater, likewise our yelps. This is the record site! That rock just free-fell farther than Half Dome is high. Fred points out the original launch spot, a quarter mile left and 300 feet below. We’re home free. I chuck another rock and we watch it wane to a BB. BANG! I inform Fred that if Carl and Jean don’t fancy this site, he will have to jump. Briefly considering the drop, his face flushes and he lurches back from the lip. “I quit!” he chuckles. I try to fathom strapping on a chute and plunging off, but it’s too bizarre to reckon; just gape down a vertical mile to the cars creeping along the road!
One thing I clearly see is that from a climbing perspective, the Trollveggen is very poor: loose and shattered rock, discontinuous crack systems, and the lower reaches bombed with stone fall; all in all, it is a vertical rubble pile. We ascend our fixed rope, return across the traverse, then, with the good news, dash for the valley as the first drops fall.
Weather delays us another five days but helicopters are on standby, cameras loaded, every angle fixed, with all logistics figured to the minute. Meanwhile, journalists throughout Scandinavia have flocked to Andalsnes. The papers run full-page hyperbole hatched by a dogged group thirty strong, all vying for the scoop. Ever approached, pried, I point to Carl and Jean. Carl laughs, then lets fly his bedeviled babbling as journalists feign understanding but take no notes. Jean delivers in two sentences of cold, hard narrative, and the journalists return to ask me what the hell Carl had said.
One writer takes to quoting Carl directly but finds the translation to Norwegian impossible. A big-time Oslo stringer - a stunning virago who could challenge the Pope’s vows - works a different line, citing previous jumping tragedies and questioning the viability of something authorities are already reluctant about. Everyone slinks around. Rain falls. Tension grows. We all wait. With all the media hoopla, all the delays, the story explodes to the national news. Norwegian television runs a nightly update that propels the jump into continental notice. The Oslo station has a video crew in town, so with a week’s momentum, the whole production takes on the pomp and gossip of Hollywood - precisely what I’d hoped to avoid.
The entire town stands by, anxious, this impatience a reminder to fretting producers that every day in limbo means thousands wasted. Suddenly there’s a rush for what requires the most steadfast deliberation. Throughout, the Boenishes have been, and are, ready.
The weather breaks at 8:00 P.M., July 5, 1984, with everyone scrambling, desperate to shoot something, even in bad light. In two hours, cameramen are choppered into position. In a tricky piece of flying, the pilot deposits Carl, Jean, Fred, and me in a tight notch in the summit ridge, just forty feet from the launch site. This avoids the traverse and rappels; I shudder to think of having had to get the Boenishes across.
Clad in a flaming red jumpsuit, Carl paces with energy enough to charge a power plant, while Jean, ever poised, begins assiduous study of the launch site. I pitch off a rock that whistles down into the night. Others follow to verify my estimates, but divulge another hazard. “Sure, they drop forever,” laughs Carl, “but they’re never more than ten feet from the wall!” That leaves no margin for error. Should they not stick the perfect, horizontal free-fall position, if they should carve the air even slightly back tilted — head higher than feet — they will track backwards. Carl explains with his hands, one hand as the wall, the other for the jumper; and when his hands smack together, I cringe.
Success will require the perfect jump. Such news sets me thinking, but this is a judgment call, and the decision is left to Carl and Jean. Jean s eems confident but rolls more stones toward the lip. Approaching midnight, the light fades to dusk with the great stone amphitheater stretching below, dark and foreboding. Suddenly, the radio coughs out: “Come on, Long, let’s get on with it!” The crew is freezing and the director of photography has declared it almost too dark to film. “Hey,” snaps Carl, momentarily lucid, “I’m in no hurry to jump off this cliff, screaming past those ledges at midnight!” I quote this verbatim into the radio, and people relax; we talk things over. Carl’s gusto is undeniable - “I’m here, I’m jumping!” - so we go for Plan B. He’ll make a practice jump while the cameramen preview and assess the angles. The sky is flawless, so we probably have at least another eight hours of good weather. After Carl’s trial jump, we will resume in a few hours when full light returns. As Carl dons his parachute, I try and capture his hyperactivity on film, but it’s too dark to even pull a focus, though there’s light enough to see fine with naked, though dilated eyes. I repack the Arriflex and turn to the drama before the jump.
“Ten minutes,” says Carl, jaw working steadily, eyes bulbous, hands fidgety. Jean, ever relaxed, cinches the last straps. Cued by a week of front-page spreads, the road below is jammed with cars of the curious, headlights winking in 1:00 A.M. grayness, the concession shop a beehive.
Everyone is looking a mile up except us, who peer a mile down into the vague contours of the valley. “Five minutes,” squeaks Carl. He pulls some streamers from his pack, and leaning off the ropes, I lob them off. No wind. They fall straight down, shrinking to a blur after just clearing those ledges. Everything’s set.
“One minute,” says Carl in a pinched voice. He secures his helmet, then slides twitching fingers into white gloves. He follows a final pitched rock with porthole eyes, visualizing his line.
“Fifteen seconds,” he gasps, unclipping the rope and stepping up to the lip. Horns sound below. I’m taut, tied off to four ropes, feet on the edge, with a panoramic view of it all. Carl’s shoes tap like a rhythm machine, eyes lost below. Carl start the countdown, which Fred mimics into the radio: “Four, three, two, one ….” He’s away! Arms go out to stabilize, legs bend and straighten, and he plummets down, jumpsuit whipping like a sail.
With roaring acceleration Carl passes the ledges with ten feet to spare, body wooooshing, ripping the air. At 1,000 feet his arms snap to his sides and he starts flying horizontally away from the wall, fifty, one hundred, one hundred and fifty feet, at one hundred and thirty miles an hour, now a red dot. Thirteen, fourteen, fifteen… Pop! His big yellow chute unfurls like a circus tent for a casual glide down to the crowd. The picture-perfect jump. “Okay, Fred” I laugh, incredibly relieved, “You’re next. Hurry and gear up!” We laugh at that one.
Back at the hotel at 3:30 A.M., it’s madness among gnashing producers, frantic journalists, film loaders, battery chargers, pilots, and hangers-on, all guzzling tankards of Espresso (club soda for the Boenishes), checking for clouds by the minute. Everyone is anxious to get back to the Trollveggen, film the jump, and clear out.
(A chartered jet is gassed and awaits the crew once the filming is over, hopefully by noon.) At 4:30 I lay down for a few Z’s, but I’m so charged with coffee and expectations that it’s hard to even lie still; sleep is impossible.
In fabulous 6 A.M. light two helicopters angle up through deep blue skies and deposit us onto our respective positions. The chopper jitters, blades alarmingly close to stone as we hop out onto the summit ridge. In thirty minutes we’re set. There’s a camera on the ground, one on a distant ridge, and one in a helicopter one hundred feet out before us.
Again I’m taut on ropes of the lip, with a camera angle some would murder for. I’ve got another camera ten feet to the side, looking straight down. The Boenishes will both jump, a second apart; Jean first, with the camera looking back. Carl has a super-wide angle lens facing down. We’re covered! With all the previous weeks needled down to the next minute, the thrill is formidable. So much waiting, so many hassles. “Two minutes.”
Utterly composed, Jean wrestles into her rig and helmet, then gazes a last time over the lip, feeling the rock with her eyes while taking mental notes on the two ledges jutting out directly below. Carl skates around like spit on a griddle, unnerving me.
I start rolling camera as the Boenishes take position: Jean’s toes are over the lip, then she steps one pace back; Carl rattles inches behind. Hundreds of cars and twice as many people jam a mile of highway below. The chopper grinds in the distance.
“Ten seconds!” yells Carl. Jean later wrote: “Eyes fixed on the horizon, I raise my arms into a good exit position. Then from behind, ‘Three!…. Two!… One.!….’ For an instant my eyes dart down to reaffirm one solid step before the open air. Go! One lunging step forward and I’m off, Carl right on my heels. Freedom! Silence accelerates into the rushing sound as my body rolls forward. I quickly realize that the last downward glance has been an indulgence now taking its toll, for I roll past the prone into a head-down dive which takes me too close to the wall,. The first ledge is rushing towards me as I strain to keep from flipping over onto my back.”
Through the viewfinder I see Jean dive-bombing for the first ledge. I freak and rip away the camera to see her scream by, virtually feet from doom. “Wow!” shrieks Fred. Jean somehow arches back to prone, then at terminal velocity, her hands come back and the duo starts swooping away from the wall like hawks, shrinking to colorful specks, still flying out, two hundred feet out, still free falling, farther out. “Pull the chute!” I scream. Sixteen, seventeen: POP! POP! It’s history! A world’s record, no injuries. Cameramen rave over the radios, having captured the footage of a lifetime. Newsmen and bystanders swarm upon the Boenishes after their pin-point landing. The world topples off my shoulders and I’m done, exhausted.
It’s all smiles and champagne back at the hotel. One cameraman claims he’s go the most exciting footage in the history of television. Delays notwithstanding, the show has gone remarkably smoothly, but jumpy producers are still scrambling to pack and clear out. The executive producer is so concerned about an accident that he seems psychotic over leaving lest something happen retroactively.
In two hours, everyone’s on board the charter jetting for London. That is everyone save me and the Boenishes - the latter to vacation (I’m led to believe), me to settle last accounts, and climb. Presently I’m interested only in sleep, but, owing to journalists, even that is impossible until deep into the night.
After changing my mind a hundred times in two weeks, I decide to climb the Trollveggen, that matchless trash heap, every-scoured by rock fall - a terrible, if grandiose challenge. I don’t plan to return, so like most inveterate climbers, I can’t just blow off Europe’s biggest cliff when it’s right down the road. I reluctantly start sorting gear, racking up the bare minimum for a racehorse, one-day ascent. A quick rap on the door and in rushes Fred, harried and stressed. “Carl’s been in an accident and it looks bad!” A car accident? When I’m told he had hiked up first thing this morning, and he jumped from Stabben Pinnacle no less, I refuse to believe it. “Impossible!” After the last two sleepless days, Carl would most assuredly be resting his bum leg, as he’d done after every previous bit of activity.
Our production had caused such a ruckus that jumpers were dropping in from all over Europe; any accident had been theirs, not Carl’s. No! Carl had hustled two local climbers to hike him up. One man who had witnessed Carl’s accident currently shook and stuttered before us. His rising burst of bad English says the jump has gone anything but well. Stabben?! had Carl not assessed the site as “crazy”? Fred shakes his head, while I struggle to contain my rage. As a free citizen, Carl could do as he pleased, but Stabben? I lay out a quick plan; Fred and the young guide would scramble for the police to summon the rescue chopper while I would race to the pull-out beneath the Trollvegen. I am soon dashing across peat bogs until in line with Stabben Pinnacle.
I frantically glass the lower wall, nearly a mile away. The cliff does not rise straight from the ground; rather it rambles 1,500 feet over steep grassy slabs to rear vertically for 3,000 feet to Stabben and the summit ridge. Carl surely is marooned somewhere on the lower slabs, but I have glassed every inch and see nothing of his red parachute. Again, nothing. There! I see something unfurled and breeze-blown on a shaded terrace. For ten minutes the binoculars are frozen in my hands, waiting for some movement, even a twitch. I scream for Carl to stand and wave. Nothing. “Goddamn it, Carl… get up… signal….” The red canopy billows gently from the updraft. “Carl!….”
I’m starting to shake. I consider climbing up to him until glassing the terrain, now certain that a full day’s wet and treacherous climbing guards his perch. My palms run sweat as prickly heat works my neck. I pace in circles, like an idiot. What to do but tramp back to the car? Fred squeals up with a red face, exclaiming that we’ve got to gear up. The Navy chopper’s airborne, and if any climbing’s involved, we’ll have to do it. We race to a grassy field surrounding the Grand Manor of an expatriate British lord. Local newsmen file in as the police chef arrives. Hardly a crank, “told you so, American,” the chief is disquiet. A pall tumbles from gray clouds, while rude newsmen mumble around, occasionally stealing glances at me.
I single out the most obnoxious one, walk over, get in his face, and stare hard. Right now, it’s not beyond me to deck him from pure stress. The police chief lays a calm hand on my shoulder and we exit to the lord’s house to discuss my findings. The part about no movement causes the chief to lower his head; I’ve never seen a man look so solemn. He cringes at the forthcoming call to Jean, a task I duck. He does it straightaway, hating it. The number is dialed, he breathes deep, back straightening.
As he begins, tears flow from both eyes, despite stoic features and controlled voice. “I … very much regret to inform you that your husband has been in an accident… and….and, it doesn’t look very good.” This last detail is the bare truth, and takes courage to immediately admit. I go outside and get into my harness. By no means am I convinced Carl is dead, even seriously injured, so I tell everyone as much, confronting some with the news, almost yelling it, and they nod slowly. The newsmen shrink away into faint mist, speaking sparingly among themselves - now huddled under trees, waiting.
The whop! whop! of the giant rescue chopper ricochets up the valley. It lands like a typhoon, arching trees, buckling photographers, scaring all with its powerful thumping. Fred goes and I stay, stay to pace, mill sweat, and shiver, standing in a T-shirt and staring straight up into the rain. I look at no one, think of nothing, vaguely aware of the chopper’s hammering pitch in the distance. When it returns the ambulance starts up, but pulls off empty when the chopper shuts down and th crew slowly files out, looking serious. Fred walks over and says nothing. Under the lenses of six photographers, I flee to the lord’s house to get a grip. Stabben?! The household won’t face me. My teeth grind from anger and helplessness.
When the policeman grabs the phone to shatter Jean with the news, I know I’m a coward for not doing so myself, and instead walk out into the crisp Norse air and easier breathing. Everyone looks confounded, as this puts a twist on what thousands have been told to admire. The doctor requests that I go aboard to identify the body, “For what?” I beg. The doctor looks away, and then I know this whole ordeal spares no one. We walk through wet, knee-high grass toward the ship. Amber light glints off new puddles. The day seems strangely fantastic.
Two days later, Jean hikes up to Stabben Pinnacle to try and determine something. Conclusions drawn, she tromps the ridge to the original site and jumps to a perfect meadow landing.This ending is a sugar coating. Jean landed downwind screaming in to slam on her face and then was dragged for over 50 yards. Check the many front page photos in Scandinavia for proof. It was very similar to Jeans' landing on Angel Falls but without the compound fracture. Changing the facts in fatality accounts deprives your members the chance to learn from mistakes.