Down But Not Out
A message came across my feed a couple months ago from a friend I haven’t seen in a few years. He’s a skydiver, instructor, BASE jumper, and soon to be FAA Master Rigger. Rob was interested in saving a bit of money and trying something a bit different from his normal summertime Euro-BASE trip. He inquired about the prospect of coming out to Washington at the end of the summer and checking out the big wall BASE scene. I was super fired up and told him to come on out. Rob decided to let me in on a little project that he had particularly in mind. There is a VERY big jump in the North Cascades that Rob wanted to take a look at and jump.
Over the next couple months Rob and I shared logistical,geographical and meteorological information back and forth and began solidifying our plan for the trip. As the weekend approached, I kept a keen eye on the weather. Late August/early September in Washington typically yields unbelievably consistent, reliable, and beautiful weather. This summer in particular had been long, hot and dry (since May). As Murphy would have it, after months of warm, dry weather with bluebird skies, “our weekend” was going to provide us with a 4,000’ ceiling at best, 50-70 degree temps., and 40-70% chances of rain… So much for consistent and reliable. I maintained communication with Rob and remained mildly optimistic about our chances at the big stuff. We even both decided to remain packed slider up.
A couple days prior to picking Rob up from the airport, my good buddy Jeff Inman arrived back in Washington from North Carolina. Originally from Washington state, he was super fired up about being back on the best coast and I decided to invite him to come along for the weekend. Jeff isn’t a BASE jumper, but is one hell of a skydiver and an even better canopy pilot. Jeff was stoked and began packing his gear.
The morning I left to pick up Rob from the airport confirmed the weather forecast. Gray skies, cool temps and the occasional light drizzle. Yuck. Jeff and I arrived at the airport, gave a little bromance to Rob, packed his gear into the car, and headed to the mountains.
Rob is currently living in Arizona and was pumped to see all the green that western Washington had to offer. And the mountains. Wide-eyed and maybe a little envious, Rob was glued to the car window breathing heavily at the craggy peaks of the great and wonderful Washington Cascades. As we continue to drive east, and notice that the clouds are barely above 2,000’ AGL, our optimism continues to fade that we will get a jump in today. Things felt down, but not out. We decided to reconfigure our rigs for a local 360’ cliff. As the rain began to fall, we picked up some trash bags to keep our rigs protected from the elements. The three of us make the short hike up the cliffside enjoying the fresh, clean air. Once at the exit point, Rob and I talk about the jump and get the game plan down.
A quick exit count and we are off. First me, then Rob immediately after. WOOO!!! The fall and canopy flight are short, but it was just the rejuvenation that we needed to get this party started. High fives, hugs and smiles are aplenty we stashed our gear and headed off to begin packing our rigs again. Welcome to the great PNW, Rob!!!
Still early in the day, we decided to head over to a nearby lake that sits at the base of one of our goals for the weekend. Today however, things are not looking promising. With clouds covering over two-thirds of it’s north face, we decide to set up camp and see what the morning has to offer. Staying minimal, our hammock/sleeping bag/rain-fly set up was absolutely MONEY! Off the ground and out of the weather, I’d be hard pressed to remember a time when I slept that well.
The next morning was a repeat of the day prior. Low clouds, mixed precipitation, and a forecast that was worse than the day before, we decided to head north to check out what Rob came here for. A nearly 7,000 foot vertical peak which stands just south of Darrington, Washington, It involves switchbacks, bushwhacking, glacial travel and mixed climbing to bag. And you climb/hike every bit of it. Starting at the valley floor at an old closed forestry road, you make your way up and along the west ridge before traversing around the southwest shoulder onto the glacier. However, we would first be walking to and scouting the various potential landing areas. After walking nearly 10 miles and driving even more, we plotted our points, gained our bearing on the area and headed to town for dinner and beers.
Although we clearly “weren’t from ‘round here,” the locals were more than courteous and inviting from the moment we walked in. After a full spread of free food, an invitation to their horseshoe tournament and a couple beers, we said our goodbyes and headed back to the mountain to bivy for the night. The HUNDREDS of piles of bear scat on the landing area recon gave me the feeling that I may in fact become a human sized bear burrito that night. Fortunately for us, we only had to deal with several owls that woke us up from a dead sleep on multiple occasions throughout the night. That was by far the loudest owls I have ever heard in my entire life. They must have been at least 20 feet tall. No kidding.
The morning came early and the days aren’t getting any longer this time of year, so we packed up camp and started up the mountain. After an hour or so of switchbacks and steep muddy trails through deadfall, we found our way to the trail less traveled area and had to use trail notes and terrain association to stay on course. The massive amounts of blueberries helped keep our minds off of the hike and our bellies full.
After 4,000’ of vertical, several hours in the clouds with only 100’ of visibility at times and intermittent rain for hours, the trail had basically vanished and we began crossing larger open areas with very little guidance or direction. The day continued to wear on as we confirmed and denied several routes and paths attempting to follow the natural lines of drift. Finally, after 5,500’ and nearly 7 hours, we decided to turn back. It was hard being one mile and 1,500 vertical feet shy of our goal, but regardless of headlamps and GPS points plotted along the way, we all collectively decided that this was not the route we wanted to wander down in the dark. Fighting darkness at our heels, we made our way down the mountain in seemingly record time.
Tails between our legs, I sent out a random text to a fellow BASE jumper and fixed-wing pilot friend Kevin while driving home. Kevin had been asking me to go up and fly with him for months now to scout some potential exits. Something was always getting in the way though. Work, school, family… You know, life.
I asked if he wanted to go fly for a few hours the next day to catch up, see what we were up to all weekend, and hopefully see something we weren’t able to see the two days before. He was in! The next morning we met Kevin at the airport, hopped into the plane and took off. Now I have to tell you, I’ve never taken off and landed in a small aircraft without a parachute before. So this experience was going to be anything but boring. This was also the first small aircraft that had actual seats, interior and doors that open normally (most Cessna jump doors open upward instead of the normal “car door” style). Aside from all of that and another broken 3,000-4,000 foot ceiling, the flight was great. We made our way north to Darrington telling stories, catching up on what’s been going on, and listening to all of the grumpy air traffic controllers in the greater Seattle area. We finally make our way into the Sauk River valley where Darrington is located and fly a few circles over the landing areas (which are really just logging roads and pot holes in the trees) and get a glimpse of the massive ridge line that must be cleared on the flight after exit and a very short peek at the wall below the exit point which was still shrouded in the clouds. After a few circles, we were finally BINGO on fuel (the point where you have just enough fuel to make it back home) and had to head back. Bummed we didn’t get to fly over the summit and see the rest of the hike and exit point, but stoked we got to go fly on an awesome day in the Northwest with such great friends. We ended the day with wings, beers, stories and smiles. I couldn’t really ask for more.
As I drove home the next day after dropping Rob off at the airport, I reflected back on the weekend. For months Rob and I fed off of each others stoke for a weekend full of big hikes, big flights and new exit points. We didn’t meet hardly any of our pre-determined goals. Zero wingsuit flights, we didn’t even finish the hike or find the exit point. I know It is very much a cliche, but the weekend wasn’t really about the jumps. It was about the journey leading up to the jumps. We had some amazing adventures in some amazing places with some pretty amazing friends. What more could we have asked for!? One thing is for certain. When we do finally make it to the exit and make those flights, it will be some of the sweetest high fives, the biggest, brightest smiles and the most epic bro hugs ever. To be continued…