A photographer heads to Moab for a dose of winter solitude to find thrill-seeking BASE jumpers in a perfect light
It was too good to pass up. A break in the winter’s arctic chill had presented a perfect opportunity to spend a quiet weekend in Moab, Utah − so I took it. With a plan to mountain bike and photograph the legendary landscape, I hopped into my 1987 Sky Blue Vanagon and arrived in Moab late on a February night.
Despite the warm daytime temperatures, the night air was chilly and crisp while a full moon revealed a fresh layer of snow clinging to the ground. The contrasting lights and darks under the silvery moonlight were intoxicating, a dreamy sight as I retired into the back of my van to await morning.
First things first
Rising early for a solo bike ride, I caught the setting moon just at the light of dawn. By the time I had arrived back to the van, my biking buddy, Aaron, had arrived from Durango, Colorado.
As we prepared to set out for the Captain Ahab Trail, I watched a solo BASE jumper land near the trailhead. As he gathered his parachute, I approached and excitedly asked if he would be in the area the next day. And, if so, would he be willing to take a photographer − me − with him? To my delight, he introduced himself as Jake and said he would be visiting a favorite “exit point” (a jump-off spot on a cliff) the next morning. And he graciously agreed to allow me to tag along. Sweet!
After a day of mountain biking with Aaron I took a solo hike to the exit point to assess the situation for taking photos. I wanted to be prepared for the next day, but also look like I knew what I was doing! On the hike I learned that in addition to camera gear, I would need to haul an array of climbing equipment.
Time to exit
The next morning, I met up with Jake and another jumper named Mick who just happened to be there at the same time. Mick set out a wind flag. It danced in rhythm to the wind gusts, instilling some doubt as to whether a jump was possible. Regardless, the jumpers tossed gear on their backs and began the 1,500-foot climb to the exit point. I followed close behind.
The efficient nature of BASE jumping became increasingly apparent during the hike as I considered the weight of my gear compared to the jumpers’ lightweight parachutes. If the conditions were safe enough to jump, they would sail back to the trailhead in moments, whereas I would be taking the long way down lugging heavy equipment.
Safety was foremost on their minds, though. They were looking forward to the jump but knew hiking back down was a real possibility. My nervousness faded, however, during discussions about safety and the factors affecting their ability to execute a jump.
Doing the right thing
Then, with a sudden turn, Mick and Jake slipped off the main trail through a twist of juniper as though it were a magical doorway into another world.
“Don’t step on that crusty soil,” Mick said to Jake. “Always look for a way around…on the rock.” Their footsteps were mindful to avoid anything that would leave more than a hint of their presence. Were they trying to avoid followers and keep this area to themselves?
I don’t think so. Their careful side-stepping stemmed from a true respect for the land – an almost ironic divergence from the extremity of their sport and an “adrenaline junky” typecast. They were intent on avoiding the cryptobiotic soil, a biological soil crust thousands of years in the making. It seems that every sport has its bad apples, but these practitioners hold high values for the environment and work at Leave No Trace ethics.
At the end of our climb, I set up my camera equipment. Mick and Jake candidly discussed factors which could lead to a fatality. The BASE jumpers checked each other’s gear for safety, the condition of the exit and the wind. Then they checked again, while offering another tease about me being solidly roped to a rock anchor. But teasing aside, they were methodical and precise and considerate of my safety.
I rappelled to a good position as a quiet pause swept over the scene — even the gentle breeze fell silent. The first jumper’s footsteps toward the exit made no sound. My rapid camera shutter broke the silence before the first parachute deployed with an impressive “pop” that could be heard echoing off the canyon walls. Suddenly it was as though the entire earth exhaled, gently accepting the first jumper to the ground moments later.
The same scenario with no less magnitude played out a second time, leaving this solo photographer reveling in the moment. It was easy to appreciate the beauty of it all – regardless of how one can relate to the sport.
Purely for the fun of it
Returning to the parking lot, I was surprised to find that the jumpers had quietly disappeared. Although they may be thrill-seekers, they were not seeking fame. Perhaps they knew that this humble photographer wouldn’t make them famous anyway.
Famous or not, the BASE jumpers left an impression on me, not solely because of their extreme sport. Their high regard for the environment and respect for safety was reassuring to this fellow adventurer.
Inspired, I spent the remainder of the day hiking without a soul in sight. But that’s another story.
ROBERT STUMP is an outdoor enthusiast, photographer and writer outside of his normal job based in Cortez, Colorado. His outdoor pursuits usually involve skis, a mountain bike, or a rope, and on the rare occasion, all three.