Over the Edge: The State of BASE Jumping

Jeff Shapiro (in flight) and Scotty Bob Morgan opening a new route in Montana's Bitterroot Mountains.
Jeff Shapiro (in flight) and Scotty Bob Morgan opening a new route in Montana's Bitterroot Mountains.Photographs by Chad Copeland

A few days after returning from Utah’s Zion National Park, where he had gone to recover the body of his friend Sean Leary, Jeff Shapiro sat down with his wife to talk over what had been his and Leary’s mutual passion. The two were part of a small group of wingsuit pilots dedicated to finding legal places to jump in the American backcountry, off the radar of the National Park Service, which levies heavy fines against anyone caught jumping in park territory. They’d hike into the mountains and leap from cliffs, using the nylon wings stretched under their arms and between their legs to glide forward, hugging close to the slopes, darting through canyons and notches formed by rock outcroppings — all while moving at triple-digit speeds.

They call it proximity flying, and like all wingsuit BASE jumping, it’s incredibly dangerous. But for Shapiro’s wife, Kara, the knowledge that Leary was his partner had given her some comfort. Sean Leary was a talented pilot and climber. Together with Dean Potter, who would die wingsuiting this past May, Leary set a record two-and-a-half-hour climb up Yosemite’s El Capitan in 2010. She had confidence in Leary’s judgment and experience. Then he attempted the jump in Zion and impacted near a ridgeline, dying instantly.

As a professionally sponsored athlete in a sport that claims an estimated 5 percent of its participants, Shapiro had lost friends before, but Leary’s death hit hard. “It rocked my whole belief system, that you can do this safely and sustainably,” he says. He always believed he operated within a reasonable margin of error. Of course, Leary had felt the same.

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“Well,” Shapiro said to Kara. “How are you feeling?”

Kara, a Web developer with a matter-of-fact way of speaking, had a simple response.

“Think about Nya,” she said.

Nya is their 11-year-old daughter. It was the first time Kara had brought her up in this context.

“Think about Nya,” she said again. “Think about the fact that if you quit BASE jumping because you’re afraid for her or for me, what example are you setting? Your daughter believes in magic and that fairies exist and that human beings can fly because of the things you do, and that chasing your bliss and being a happy person and giving the best of yourself to the people you love the most is an important thing. And if you quit and get a normal job, what’s that going to do for Nya?”

A week after Leary’s death, three more friends would die while proximity flying in Switzerland. A few weeks later, Shapiro was gearing up to find a new exit, or launch point, in Montana’s Bitterroot Mountains and jump it for the first time. In Shapiro’s mind, it’s what his late friend wanted: to forge an American identity for wingsuit BASE jumping by finding new, as-yet-unjumped exits on rocky perches far from the national parks.

The American wingsuit BASE scene has lagged behind Europe’s for the simple reason that most of our high cliffs are in national parks, where jumping is illegal. This leaves American wingsuit pilots with two options: Jump illegally, often at night, in national parks, or find legal exits on land outside the parks. This means heading to remote regions of the American backcountry, hiking or climbing to possible exits, mapping out flight lines and landing areas, and performing the jump in conditions where, if something goes wrong, help will be much farther away than it would in a national park or at most European sites.

“It’s a very American-pioneering thing,” Shapiro says. And to make a legal American wingsuit BASE-jumping scene viable, they need to find new exits, open them, and then slowly grow the sport by carefully sharing those exits with the few wingsuit pilots they trust enough not to kill themselves attempting a jump beyond their abilities. For Sha­piro, one of those pilots is a former Marine named Scotty Bob Morgan.
Before he started jumping off cliffs, Scotty Bob Morgan was in Iraq, doing a job that most civilians would consider dangerous: He was a combat photographer who often went outside the wire throughout Anbar Province, where he took photos of the action that were later used by command. When I met him, we were both in the 2nd Marine Logistics Group. He went by Corporal Morgan then, but he’s got a new job now, and a new identity to go with it: He’s a professional wingsuit pilot. And though I never worried about him in Iraq, once he started BASE jumping, that changed.

The wingsuit pilots I’ve talked to have more dead friends than anyone I’ve ever met, including combat veterans. “I’ve lost five friends personally in the past month,” Morgan told me in the spring of last year. “There’s been a lot of reevaluation going on, but we’re still jumping.”

This makes me uneasy. Maybe I’m selfish — wishing that a friend will quit doing what he loves because I’m afraid he might die — or maybe it’s just a rational response to an extreme activity. Either way, the tension is nothing new to the history of aviation. In his Wartime Journals, Charles Lindbergh comes down, unsurprisingly, on the side of the risk takers: “Any coward can sit in his home and criticize a pilot for flying into a mountain in fog. But I would rather, by far, die on a mountainside than in bed.” Every nonjumper I talk to has a bit more respect for gravity. “Those guys are crazy” is the continual refrain.

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If so, that brand of insanity has made Morgan one of the happiest people I know. And unlike some veterans, he says, he never experienced any sense of dislocation or isolation after leaving the Corps. Perhaps it’s because the need for a sense of shared purpose in a high-risk environment that the Marine Corps offers is more than fulfilled by his new occupation. (Both he and Shapiro are sponsored by the gear company KAVU.) In fact, jumping supplanted the Corps while he was still a Marine, and he ultimately passed on a shot at the Special Operations Command in favor of hanging out around East Coast drop zones and jumping from buildings and antennas at night.

“I was learning more about myself through BASE jumping than I was learning in the Corps. I was jumping five nights a week, in D.C., Richmond, Baltimore, and Philadelphia. We’d drive three hours for a building.”

Now Morgan lives a nomadic life, sleeping in tents or in communal areas near drop zones. “Wingsuiting in America,” he says, “adds an entirely different realm to the sport in terms of responsibility. You’re in the backcountry — you need to take care of yourself.”

At sites like Lauterbrunnen, Switzerland, perhaps the most famous wingsuit BASE-jumping site in the world, gondolas whisk jumpers to the tops of cliffs to fly exits that have been jumped hundreds of times before and land on wide stretches of grassy farmland.

At Yosemite, which boasts similarly suitable cliffs, jumps are done at dusk to help jumpers evade arrest.

“A lot of BASE jumpers are into the whole ‘I’m sneaky, I’m a ninja’ thing. If I had a choice, every time I jumped, I’d jump in broad daylight,” says Morgan. Charley Kurlinkus, an ER doctor in Sacramento, California, and a wingsuit pilot, describes it as the difference “between driving a car down the road in the middle of the day and driving a car down the road in the middle of the night with no lights on [to] make sure no one sees you.” Also, late in the day, the wind patterns change. When the sun stops heating air in the bottom of the valley, the cold mountaintop air comes rushing down, slowing wingsuit deployment and causing turbulence.

“BASE jumping’s past has an issue with ethics,” Morgan says. “In the States, it’s assumed you’re reckless, you’re thrill seekers. I’d like to see it more respected as a mountain sport.”

“Pretty much anywhere you’re jumping in Europe, you’re landing in big green fields,” says Shapiro. We’ve traveled miles through the Bitterroot Mountains and have yet to see any such luxury. At one bend he points to a tiny, rocky patch near an exit that he and Morgan have flown before. “I’ve had a friend break a leg here. I’ve had a couple of friends end up in trees.”

“It goes back to the idea of radical self-reliance,” Morgan says, “which is what BASE jumping is all about.”

(Shapiro, left, and Morgan have had several friends die over the past two years.)

Opening a new exit takes time and patience. And before the two jump from a new perch in the Bitterroots, Shapiro has done hours of groundwork to prepare.

“Something I learned in the Corps is that risk is a part of life,” Morgan says. “But the extreme sports ideal — that more risk is better — you take that to the mountains, the mountains will win every time.”

There’s a small landing area near a mountain reservoir surrounded by cliffs. Shapiro takes GPS coordinates and then returns home to study the terrain on Google Earth and other topographic maps, getting a rough estimate of the overall vertical and horizontal distances. This data is key. With most unpowered aircraft — a sailplane or a hang glider, for example — anything over an optimum speed decreases the efficiency of the aircraft’s performance due to a corresponding increase in drag as air travels over the top of the wing. For wingsuits, on the other hand, faster speeds increase performance. A wingsuit pilot who flies flat and slow will have to pull his chute after covering far less distance than a pilot who builds up more speed. Shapiro wants to ensure that at every stage they’ll have enough speed to pull away from the terrain if necessary.

His early trips to the site yield a few exits with an acceptable level of risk. The next step is returning to the mountain, using a laser to get exact distances, and walking the cliffs to find an ideal exit point. He rules out his first choice — too little altitude amounting to too much risk — but there’s another possible exit, which looks more approachable even though it involves climbing up steep snow in crampons.

Up on the side of a mountain is a cliff that looks to be about 600 to 625 feet high, which is short but jumpable. The slopes beneath it stretch down 2,900 feet to a landing area, after a horizontal distance Shapiro calculates to be around 5,200 feet, meaning they’d need to maintain a glide ratio of about 1.8 feet forward for every foot of descent. That will give them a comfortable enough ratio to fly through the terrain instead of simply flying for maximum performance, since a 1.8:1 ratio gives them enough speed at any given time to pull up if they need to.

“For me, what’s most important is the beauty of the line,” Shapiro says. “It requires the same kind of eye a skier has. You’re looking for terrain that allows you to highlight your wingsuit with a sense of scale and a sense of speed as you flow with the shape of the mountain.”

This line has the right kind of terrain features. Close to the wall is a pillar of rock that extends out, creating a narrow notch in the side of the mountain. Shapiro figures they can fly through the notch, then glide 20 to 30 feet parallel to the wall before covering distance over a tree-filled plateau that has a couple of gaps where they can get within 10 feet of the terrain. To his eye, the line is not simply jumpable — it’s elegant.

We meet up at Shapiro’s home, a two-story, hipped-roof house he built himself on the outskirts of Missoula, Montana. It’s ringed with Tibetan prayer flags, and the inside is filled with photos and artwork related to flight. His mother claims he was a bird in another life. “I wasn’t attracted to BASE jumping when it was just falling,” Shapiro says. Instead, he got his start as a professional hang glider. He has also worked in industrial design, carpentry, and respiratory care.

During the time he and Morgan are together, they maintain a constant stream of technical chatter: the effects of wind conditions, different styles of packing, the newest exits, wingsuit models, other jumpers’ innovations, and whether they’re safe or a “stunt,” which is a bad word for wingsuiters. Stunts get people killed. They speak in jargon (“Do you tailgate?” Sha­prio asks. “Slider up?”) and scrutinize new equipment, analyzing the advantages and limitations of a new bridle. Inevitably they discuss what may have caused the death of their friends. Was it the suit? A failure of planning and energy management? The goggles? Or something more nebulous — like jumping in the wrong mind-set? In a sport with as little room for error as BASE jumping has, where the pilot needs to make split-second decisions about terrain features coming at him at more than 100 miles per hour, a distracted or upset pilot is that much closer to a dead pilot.

Given their meticulous, obsessive attention to every detail, you’d almost think they were cautious men. The sport can demand months of work for 50 seconds of flying, particularly in the backcountry. To even reach the point where an individual can proximity fly takes a massive time investment. The general guidelines are at least 200 skydives before attempting a normal BASE jump, then more than 100 BASE jumps with perfect exits before getting into wingsuiting.

(“For me,” Shapiro says, “what’s most important is the beauty of the line.”)

Jumpers generally start on bridges, where there is little chance of a bad takeoff sending the jumper back into the object. Next are antennas, then cliffs, and finally buildings. If the jumper has survived that process (an analysis of 20,850 BASE jumps over 10 years at the Kjerag Massif in Norway, considered one of the safest sites to cliff jump, found a fatality rate of 1 in every 2,317 jumps), he or she can move on to wingsuits. In The Great Book of BASE, a handbook for BASE jumpers published in 2010, Matt Gerdes recommends having more than 100 wingsuit skydives before attempting a wingsuit BASE jump. Then a wingsuiter’s skill needs to be slowly developed until a larger, higher-performance suit can be used. And as for when to start proximity flying?

“People who have to ask, ‘Am I ready?’ — they’re not ready,” Shapiro says.

On the morning of the jump, Shapiro gets Nya ready for school before heading to the mountains. It takes miles of hard biking up a rocky path, occasionally fording a stream created by the May snowmelt, before he and Morgan get to the proposed landing area on the side of a mountain reservoir. There’s a slight breeze moving across the water. A little bit of wind upslope can help wingsuits deploy faster. Too much wind can be deadly.

“See that small cliff?” Morgan asks. “That’s a straight shot.”

“That’s farther back than you’d think,” his friend tells him. “By the time we get up to the top, it might be convective.”

They’ve looked at the line on maps and satellite imagery, but it’s here, where they can walk the actual terrain features they’ll be flying over, that they fine-tune their plan. One change is that while Morgan will still go through the small notch close to the exit point, Shapiro will go wide to avoid possible turbulence in Morgan’s wake. It’s a slight shift toward less risk in a jump that would have been unthinkably dangerous until very recently.

Both men use Squirrel Wingsuits’ Aura, first released in mid-2013, which allows for more aggressive jumps and shorter drops. The Aura’s wings don’t need to be unzipped for pilots to control their chutes. Plus, its improved force-feed inlet system inflates the suit, mimicking a sports car spoiler to increase speed and stability.

With its new features, the Aura inflates in under three seconds. But there’s no way the cliffs surrounding us offer more than a few seconds of free fall: The men will have to inflate quickly and maneuver their wingsuits to get away from the mountain so they can begin soaring downslope. Either that, or die.

It’s a steep climb to the top, with a bit of exploring and backtracking around cliffs and blind couloirs, as ticks continually leap from the trees onto the men. “They’re the original BASE jumpers,” Shapiro jokes, flicking one away. “I have this weird superstition. I don’t kill bugs on the way up. It’s, like, I could be squished like a bug. I don’t want to squish a bug.”

Halfway up they don crampons, kicking steps into the steep snow slope as they continue their ascent to what, from the bottom, appear to be two viable cliffs.

One is covered in snow and loose rock. Immediately below is a ledge both men would have to clear, with no alternative route if something bad happened. It’s jumpable but suboptimal, and they climb to the second cliff. “This has an open lane you can sneak out of if you need to,” Shapiro says.

The day is clear, with a slight updraft. Ideal conditions. They toss rocks from the ledge and count as they fall. A rock drop is not simply about determining the length of the fall but also about observing how close the rock gets to objects below. Striking a cliff face is almost always deadly, and the shape of a mountain can produce optical illusions.

“One one hundred, two one hundred, three one hundred, four one hundred, five one hundred,” Morgan counts. Then the rock hits.

“Five,” Shapiro says. “Five’s full on, but it’s good.”

Confident that the line is flyable, the pilots step back from the edge and prepare to jump. When everything is working, Shapiro feels a sense of relaxation right before an exit. “I feel the wind on my skin,” he explains. “I feel the sun, I hear the birds behind me, I feel hyper-present, and it’s really kind of chill.” It’s a moment of facing his own mortality, he says, but in a deliberate way that allows him to separate what is trivial from what is important in his life. He thinks it makes him more present as a husband and father.

“The feeling is like sailing across an ocean to a place you’re not sure is there, and then you find it,” he says. “And then I come to my wife and ask, ‘How was your day?’ And I’m asking because I really care. I want to know.”

Morgan focuses more on the aesthetics of the experience. “When you fly something for the first time, it’s like you’re looking at a painting for the first time,” he says. “You’re looking at the terrain at an angle and a speed that are unique.”

There’s not much conversation as they ready their gear, donning their wingsuits and checking their pins, bridles, deployment positions, goggles, the weather, and, finally, their emotional states. Not worn in flight, wingsuits look somewhat ridiculous. The fabric hangs limp, unactivated by the air, the sight reminiscent of a child who has wrapped himself in bedsheets to create a makeshift toga.

Then Scotty Bob Morgan prepares to jump off, leaning forward with both feet on the edge and then, almost gently, pushing off, more of a hop than a dive. Shapiro immediately follows. The calm movements of the men and the silence in the mountains are almost anticlimactic. I’d expected to find it thrilling — that my heart rate would rise when they stepped off the cliff, or at the very least that I’d feel some kind of projected empathetic fear, but instead I find the scene quite beautiful, almost serene. They drop down, their wings catch the air, and they fly out from the cliff, curving around a rocky outcropping, looking like nothing more than giant, colorful birds.

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