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Base Instincts

Base Instincts

Baffin Island’s become an unlikely mecca for some of the most extreme thrill-seekers and BASE jumpers on the planet.
By Cody Punter
Nov 01
From the October/November 2014 Issue

Staring into the snowy abyss from the edge of a 2,000-meter-high granite monolith, 100 kilometres north of the Arctic Circle, time seems to stand still. Joined by a three-man film crew, Leo Houlding and his best friend Sean “Stanley” Leary have just spent the last 12 days hauling 650 pounds of climbing gear and camera equipment up the sheer Northwest face of Mount Asgard in Auyuittuq National Park, using nothing but their fingers and toes, and a sophisticated system of pulleys and ropes to keep them from plummeting to their death. The expedition has left the two climbers beaten up, exhausted and cold but now they are finally standing on top of the world with the Arctic sun beating down on their face. And in just a few minutes it will all be over.

Houlding scans for a perch—a safe exit point. He climbs down onto a ledge and stares into the nothingness. As he contemplates the jump his head fills with conflicting thoughts. “One, you’re about to jump off the top of a cliff in the middle of nowhere, you’re peaking on adrenaline and it’s really, really exciting,” he tells me later. “On the other hand it’s a deep calm.”

For a brief moment, he hesitates. Then out of nowhere, a giant snowy owl swoops past and drifts along the flight path they’ve been considering. “It was like the bird was giving us the heads up and saying it’s good to go.” 

He checks over his wingsuit one last time, then turns to Leary and recites the BASE jumper’s mantra: “Nice and relaxed.” After a brief countdown, Houlding leans into the ether and throws out his arms, emulating the owl. Leary follows close behind, spreading his arms and legs as far apart as possible so that the thin nylon webs of his wingsuitthe closest thing he’ll ever have to wings—generate as much lift as possible. 

For 15 seconds the two soar down the face of the cliff together, half flying, half falling at breakneck speeds of more than 160 kilometres an hour, surrounded by snow-capped cliffs from a bygone age. They peel away from the mountain then reach behind their backs and release parachutes which erupt like canvas mushroom clouds, drifting ever so gently toward earth like snow flakes. As his feet hit the ground, Leary shouts into the microphone of his GoPro camera: “I was so
fucking ready to be off that wall.” He lets out a final high-pitched wolf call, and the credits for The Asgard Project roll.

“There’s nowhere else like it. It’s like Middle Earth—it’s like flying into a Tolkien novel.”

The documentary, which won 22 international film festival awards, contains footage of what is probably the second most famous BASE jump ever filmed in Nunavut. Considering most people see the Arctic as essentially the prairies, just with more ice and polar bears, that may seem like bizarre praise. But Baffin is not like the rest of the North

Houlding after a nasty descent down the rock face

The easternmost island in Nunavut’s Arctic Archipelago, Baffin stretches across the Northwest Passage like the gnarled fingers of a weathered hand reaching for the open ocean. An extension of the eastern edge of the Canadian Shield, the island is the fifth largest in the world, and with cliffs reaching more than two kilometres above sea level, it has the larger-than-life landscape to match. “Simply put, it’s epic,” says Houlding. “There’s nowhere else like it. It’s like Middle Earth—it’s like flying into a Tolkien novel.”

It may seem counter-intuitive, but the higher a ledge is the safer it is to jump off, because it gives BASE jumpers more time to troubleshoot an equipment failure should something go wrong. It also gives them more time to free fall and pull off aerial maneuvers such as flips or proximity flights along the face of the mountain. “You go around the world and you jump off cliffs and it’s not hard to find something that has an eight-second rock drop, or a 10-second rock drop,” says professional skier and BASE jumper J.T. Holmes, referring to a method whereby a rock is thrown off a cliff to gauge its height. “But Baffin, you throw a rock off and you start counting, and you kind of lose track before it hits. It’s just such a special place.” 

Holmes started out as a professional freestyle skier in the late-’90s, but when he saw footage of Vancouver native and good friend Shane McConkey free-falling off the 2,100-metre Mount Odin in Auyuittuq National Park in 2000, he was inspired to take the next step. “At the time I hadn’t skydived or BASE jumped, and to see what they were doing was really mind-blowing,” says Holmes. “I saw that these guys were basically having the most fun out of anyone in the world and I knew wanted to go there.” 

Now in his early 30s, Holmes has more than 400 BASE jumps under his belt and has become a poster boy for the cutting edge of the sport. But it wasn’t until the spring of 2012, when he got a call from tire manufacturer Pirelli asking him to do a BASE jump for one of their commercials, that he saw the opportunity to make it to Baffin. He pitched the location to the producers and they jumped on it. “I sent them a couple photos and they saw how powerful the landscape was.”

Unfortunately, Odin, Asgard and all the other Norse-god namesakes in Auyuittuq have been off limits to BASE jumpers since 2007, when park authorities added the sport to their list of prohibited activities. They said the risk to jumpers, and potentially rescuers, was simply too high. 

Houlding and Leary learned about the ban the hard way when Parks Canada took them to court several years after The Asgard Project came out. The men had permission to fly a plane over the park and parachute into it; but it’s impossible to get permission to jump off a cliff there. Iqaluit lawyer Vernon Finch read about their case in Nunavut News/North and took it on pro bono. Leary and Houlding paid a $1,000 fine and publicly apologized for the trespass at some film festivals where they won awards. Given that more people have died hiking, climbing and skiing in Auyuittuq, Houlding disagrees with the ban. “We broke the rule,” he says, “but it’s a stupid rule.” 

Dressed in track suits, Australians Carly Thomas and Wildman Shovel (yes, that’s really his name) jump the lower exit of the 1,300-metre Ottawa Peak over Sam Ford Fiord.

Lucky for BASE jumpers, some of the highest cliffs on the island are located in the Sam Ford Fiord on the North East knuckle of the island, where the only one enforcing any laws is Mother Nature. Not only does it have cliffs to rival those of the godly namesakes of Auyuittuq, there are dozens of “exit points”—the term BASE jumpers use to describe the ledges to leap from—lining the valley’s 300-meter summits, all of which can be hiked in less than a day. Those accessible peaks, incidentally, saved Pirelli some time and money when bad weather grounded the helicopter Holmes had booked for the week-long shoot. The climbers made it to the exit points on foot.

The resulting commercial, which was shot in the fiord, shows fellow BASE jumpers Jesse Hall and Tim Dutton skiing down a mountain before sailing off the peak and parachuting to safety, with a car chasing behind them. In the scene Holmes plays the role of the car, which was edited into the video over his trajectory after the jump. The commercial, hailed as bold and daring, won some awards of its own, but the idea of travelling to Baffin and skiing off a mountain with a parachute strapped to your back may never have occurred at all if James Bond hadn’t done it first.

Rick Sylvester still remembers the first time he flew over Auyuittuq National Park’s Weasel Valley in the mid 1970s. “My impression was this was like 20
Yosemite Valleys,” he says. Yosemite’s considered the birthplace of BASE jumping, and it’s where Sylvester started experimenting, skiing off cliffs then skydiving into the valleys below in the early ’70s. That’s before BASE jumping, which stands for the four features—Buildings, Antennae, Spans (or Bridges), and Earth (or Cliffs)—that jumpers use as a platform to jump off, was even coined. “I had to call it the less poetic ‘parachute ski-jumping,’” he laments with a laugh.

Sylvester had only done a total of three jumps when a video of him skiing off Yosemite’s iconic El Capitan landed in the lap of Lewis Gilbert, the director of the next James Bond movie. Before he knew it, Sylvester was being asked to stand in as the stuntman for Roger Moore in the opening sequence of 1977’s The Spy Who Loved Me. The final shot of the film, where Bond skis off the edge of an Austrian mountain before deploying the Union Jack parachute and gliding down to safety, is actually Rick Sylvester jumping off of Mount Asgard. 

Sylvester’s jump put Baffin on the map, and to this day movie buffs and 007 aficionados often refer to the scene as one of the greatest Bond stunts of all time. Now, at the ripe age of 72, Sylvester, who describes himself as  “more of a stop and smell the flowers kind of guy,” is admittedly an unlikely hero for BASE jumpers. “I relate more to Woody Allen than I do to James Bond,” he says. Indeed, looking back, Sylvester considers his role as 007 an aberration on his resume, and with good reason: the stunt would end up being his fourth and last ever BASE jump.

A portaledge (portable ledge) camp at 4,900 feet, almost halfway up Asgard’s north face. Campers sleeping in these hanging, canvas-covered cots are strapped in with a harness attached to the rock wall.

Nearly forty years after The Spy Who Loved Me, BASE jumpers are pushing the limits of what is possible with a parachute, a peak and an unquenchable desire to defy the laws of gravity. Each BASE jumper has their own philosophy as to what drives them to take risks. Sylvester thinks it can be described in biological terms through the existence of an “adventure gene”: “Everyone has it to some extent. That’s not scientific, but that’s the best I can do.” Houlding describes the urge to seek out a thrill that is bigger or more technical than the last as a “logical progression.” “As you do more of these things and you start to progress, you can’t do the same things over again and get the same sense of adventure and blow your mind in the same way.”

But focusing on the risk inherent in the sport and representing BASE jumpers as reckless adrenaline junkies obscures the fact that successfully completing a jump requires a great deal of preparation, control and composure. “I work hard and I train hard,” Holmes says. “A lot of the guys who are doing it have a tremendous work ethic towards their training and preparation.”

Collin Scott, a BASE jumper from Colorado, laments that the sport is often misrepresented in magazines and television programs. “The thing that everybody gets wrong is the adrenaline side of the things,” he tells me over the phone. “Trust me I do get a rush from it but it’s not the rush you would think.”  

“Have you ever had a dream where you’re flying?”

Unlike professional extreme athletes like Holmes, Scott holds down a day job selling software to large corporations in order to pursue his BASE jumping hobby. But when it comes to extreme sports he’s no slouch. At 40 he’s made two trips to Baffin and racked up more than 400 BASE jumps. For him, jumping off a cliff is like a form of anti-gravity meditation. “My mind goes a mile a minute every moment of the day. I just can’t think and focus on one thing, except when I’m jumping.”

I ask him to describe the feeling he gets when he’s falling to earth with nothing but a wingsuit and a parachute to break his fall. The line goes silent. Everything is zen for 10 seconds, then I hear him take a deep, focused breath. I wait for him to gather his thoughts. “Have you ever had a dream where you’re flying?” He asks before trailing off and returning to an abnormal pattern of heavy breathing. Instead of interrupting with my next question, I wait. Then he starts to speak again. “I’m sorry,” he says. I can’t see his face but I can tell he’s imagining himself soaring down the face of one of Baffin’s walls. “I can’t find the words.” 

If you're going to Baffin, you need to know what you’re doing. By now, Scott does; he’s been to Sam Ford Fiord twice, and the most recent trip, which he organized in 2010, is likely one of the largest-ever BASE jumping expeditions to Baffin. The one-month trip saw 23 people hailing from more than seven countries trekking to the remote valley to jump off its pristine cliffs.

Baffin is almost definitely on every BASE jumper’s bucket list, but the Sam Ford Fiord is no walk in the park. To get there, you first need to fly into Clyde River, 750 kilometres due north of Iqaluit, before making your way 70 kilometres west through the valley by snowmobile. Because it can take up to 12 hours to hike some of the peaks, there is no sense going back and forth to the hamlet, which means BASE jumpers have no choice but to camp out on the snow-covered valley for weeks at a time. Add to that the fact that even in the short summer season the weather can turn at any moment, and you can see why Houlding declares Baffin is “not a place for punters.”

“It’s a huge undertaking,” Scott tells me.

Having been to Baffin on an expedition with eight BASE jumpers in 2008, Scott knew if he was going to pull off a 23-man trip he would have to get in touch with Levi Palituk. “I think there’s other people up there that would [organize expeditions, but] I’ve never heard anyone say anything other than Levi is your guy,” says Scott.

Self-taught, with a Grade 8 education, Palituk grew up in Clyde River, where he learned to hunt and survive on the land in and around the fiord. But it wasn’t until 12 years ago when he took a tourist who had become stranded in Clyde River on a sled dog trip that he tried his hand at being an outdoor guide. Ever since then his phone hasn’t stopped ringing. “My name is known all over the world now,” Palituk tells me over the phone, having just returned from bringing four Norwegian climbers back from Sam Ford Fiord by snowmobile.

There are no official numbers available on how many BASE jumpers visit Baffin, but Palituk says he has led at least one expedition every second year since he started the business, all of which have been organized through word of mouth. Speaking with BASE jumpers, it’s clear why they come back. Whether it’s organizing a group of local hunters and half a dozen snowmobiles, setting up camp or sourcing food, everyone I speak to says Palituk and his team go above and beyond to make sure every expedition runs as smoothly as possible.

“If Levi says something’s going to get done, it’s going to get done,” says Scott.

Palituk says most people in Clyde River either ignore the BASE jumpers or write them off as crazy. Having watched dozens of people jump over the years, Palituk has not only made some lasting friendships, he has also developed an appreciation for what they do. “I think it’s one of the best natural highs that a person can get,” he says. In fact he tells me he is so drawn to the sport that he hopes to be able to do a BASE jump of his own. “The hair on the back of my neck rises when I just watch them. That’s how interested I am.”

Like palituk, adventure photographer Krystle Wright was mesmerized the first time she saw BASE jumpers in action. After befriending BASE jumpers Jim Mitchell and his wife Flo while shooting expeditions in her native Australia in 2007, Jim invited her to document Scott’s 2010 Baffin expedition. “I had a natural curiosity about the sport. And once I started shooting it, I started dreaming about it—I was tempted to start myself,” she says.

That all changed on the second last day of the expedition. After blizzards kept people from jumping for several days, everyone was eager to get out of camp. That morning she followed Jim and some other jumpers up a peak known as French Kiss to take some shots. When the team stopped for a water break halfway to the top, Wright noticed Jim wasn’t his usual fun-loving self.

“The reason we jump is partly because of the risk involved. However, when you bring spouses and dependants into the mix the water’s a lot more muddy.”

When he got to the summit, Jim, who had racked up more than 700 BASE jumps in his career, hesitated and contemplated not making the leap. The jump he was getting ready for was a technical proximity flight (where a BASE jumper uses the lift generated by a wingsuit to skim along the face of a mountain or ridge), which hed done several times before. Eventually he decided to follow another BASE jumper so that he could photograph his leap, and Krystle got in place to get her shot. Unfortunately the photo she took of him leaping off the edge would be his last.

 “The day that Jim died was the day I stopped dreaming about BASE jumping,” Krystle tells me. 

Every BASE jumper who’s stood on top of a cliff or a bridge knows what’s at stake when they step off the edge, but that doesn’t make it any easier when tragedy strikes close to home. This past March, Stanley Leary's body was recovered, still rigged into BASE jumping gear, 90 metres beneath a mountain ridge in Utah. A month later, Tim Dutton, who shot the Pirelli commercial with J.T. Holmes, died in a skydiving accident. As of September, 15 BASE jumping deaths had been recorded in 2014.

Houlding’s lost friends to extreme sports before, but Leary’s wife was seven months pregnant when he died. Houlding has a one-year-old of his own, and Leary’s death spooked him—he may never BASE jump again. “The reason we jump is partly because of the risk involved. However, when you bring spouses and dependants into the mix the water’s a lot more muddy.”

Holmes is no stranger to tragedy either, but the reality is, he’s getting paid to make a living out of being at the cutting edge of the extreme sports world. At the moment he is single and plans to keep jumping. However, he says for BASE jumping to evolve, people like him will have to start redefining the sport. And that means, for better or for worse, more risky and experimental jumps in the remotest corners of the world, like Baffin.
Exposure for the region is sure to follow, but unfortunately, likely more accidents.

“The limits have been found because proximity just means nearness and you can’t get any nearer than we’re flying now,” he says. “I think it’s actually important for BASE jumpers to try to make the next chapter be a creative one and find something new to do, because if you keep trying to get closer and closer and closer and closer for longer and longer and longer, sooner or later you might make that one mistake.”

The fear of making a mistake might explain why retired stuntman Rick Sylvester is still around to stop and smell the flowers. But even he will admit that it’s impossible to suppress the “adventure gene” entirely. It’s why, at 72, he still dreams about climbing Asgard again. “I wouldn’t bet a lot of money on me getting back, but it’s on one of my many to do lists,” he says. Collin Scott, Krystle Wright, and Leo Houlding all plan to go back. Baffin’s landscape is too powerful and awe inspiring for them to leave its summits behind for good. 

“I’m definitely going to go back to the eastern fiords at some point. They’re basically the tallest cliffs on the planet and part of me would like to climb them,” says Houlding. “Whether I’ll jump or not remains to be seen.”