Baffin Islands: Legends of the Fall

These dizzying cliffs have become a go-to for BASE jumpers. But is the thrill worth the risk?

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Baffin Islands: Legends of the Fall
Photo: Krystle Wright

Leo Houlding and his best friend, Sean “Stanley” Leary, stare into the snowy abyss from the edge of a 1,200-metre-high outcropping, 100 kilometres north of the Arctic Circle. With a five-member crew, the pair have spent the last 12 days hauling 300 kilograms of climbing gear and camera equipment up the sheer northwest face of Mount Asgard, a granite monolith in Auyuittuq National Park, relying on an assortment of pulleys and ropes to keep from plummeting to their deaths. Now the two climbers are finally on top of the world, with the sun beating down on their faces. In just a few minutes, it will all be over.

Houlding contemplates the jump. 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 his wingsuit again, then recites the BASE jumper’s mantra: “Nice and relaxed.” The letters in BASE stand for each of the four features-buildings, antennas, spans (or bridges) and earth (or cliffs)-jumpers use as a platform for their stunts.

After a brief countdown, Houlding leans out and throws his arms open, emulating the owl. Leary follows, spreading his limbs so the thin nylon webs of his wingsuit generate as much lift as possible.

For 40 seconds the two soar down the face of the cliff, half flying, half falling at breakneck speeds of more than 160 kilometres an hour, surrounded by snow-capped peaks. They peel away from the mountain, then reach back and deploy their pilot chutes, drifting down ever so gently like snowflakes. As his feet hit the ground, Leary lets out a final high-pitched wolf call, and the credits for The Asgard Project roll. 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.

The easternmost island in Nunavut’s Arctic Archipelago, Baffin stretches across the Northwest Passage like 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; with cliffs that reach more than two kilometres above sea level, it has the landscape to match. “It’s epic,” says Houlding. “It’s like flying into a Tolkien novel.”

It may seem counterintuitive, but the higher a ledge is, the safer it is to jump off, because the distance gives BASE jumpers more time to troubleshoot an equipment failure, should something go wrong. It also allows them to pull off additional aerial manoeuvres, such as flips or proximity flights, along the face of the mountain. “It’s not hard to find a cliff that has a four- or six-second rock drop,” says BASE jumper J.T. Holmes. (A rock drop involves throwing a rock off a structure to gauge its height.) “But on Baffin, you throw a rock off and start counting, and you kind of lose track before it hits.”

Holmes started out as a professional free skier in the late ’90s and took up BASE jumping in 2002, after hearing Vancouver native Shane McConkey, a good friend, talk about the sport. “What they were doing was really mind-blowing,” says Holmes.

Now in his early 30s, Holmes claims to have accomplished more than 1,400 BASE jumps, becoming a poster boy for the sport. In the spring of 2012, tire manufacturer Pirelli asked him to appear in one of its commercials, and he saw an opportunity to travel to Baffin. “I sent the producers a couple photos, and they saw how powerful the landscape was,” he says.

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The only hitch: the cliffs 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 too high.

Houlding and Leary felt the authorities’ wrath when Parks Canada took them to court more than a year after The Asgard Project came out. The men, who became aware of the regulations shortly before their trip, had permission to fly a plane over the park and parachute down, but they couldn’t get around the BASE jumping ban. Leary and Houlding were ordered to contribute $1,000 to an environmental fund and had to publicly apologize for the trespass. Houlding, who claims that more people have died hiking, climbing and skiing in Auyuittuq, disagrees with the policy. “We broke the rule,” he says, “but it’s a stupid rule.”

Lucky for BASE jumpers, some of the highest cliffs on the island are located in the Sam Ford Fjord on the Baffin’s northeast knuckle, where Mother Nature is the only one enforcing any laws. There are hundreds of “exit points”-the term BASE jumpers use to describe the ledges they leap from-lining the valley’s summits, which measure between 900 and 1,500 metres and can be hiked, for the most part, in less than a day.

The final cut of the Pirelli commercial shows two BASE jumpers skiing down a mountain before sailing off the peak and parachuting to safety, while a car follows in their wake. Holmes stood in for the car, which was edited in over his trajectory after the fact. The commercial was hailed as bold and daring, but the idea of skiing off a mountain on Baffin with a parachute strapped to your back can be traced to James Bond.

Rick Sylvester still remembers the first time he flew over Auyuittuq National Park’s Weasel River Valley in the mid-’70s. “It was like 20 Yosemite Valleys,” he says. Considered one of the birthplaces of BASE jumping, Yosemite is where Sylvester started skiing off cliffs and skydiving into the valleys below in the early ’70s.

Sylvester had only done a total of three jumps when a Canadian Club ad featuring him in flight made it into the hands of a film crew member. Before he knew it, Sylvester was being asked to stand in as the stuntman for leading man Roger Moore in the 1977 box-office hit The Spy Who Loved Me. The memorable shot, in which Bond skis off the edge of an Austrian mountain before deploying a Union Jack parachute and gliding to safety, is actually Rick Sylvester jumping off Mount Asgard.

His jump put Baffin on the map; to this day, 007 aficionados often refer to the scene as one of the greatest Bond stunts of all time. Now, at 72, Sylvester, who describes himself as “more of a stop-and-smell-the-flowers kind of guy,” is an unlikely hero for the BASE community. “I relate more to Woody Allen than I do to James Bond,” he says. Indeed, looking back, Sylvester considers The Spy Who Loved Me an aberration on his resumé, and with good reason: the stunt would end up being his final BASE jump.

Nearly 40 years later, BASE jumpers are challenging what is possible with a parachute, a peak and a desire to defy the laws of gravity. Each BASE jumper has a personal risk-taking philosophy. Sylvester thinks it can be explained by the existence of an “adventure gene.” Houlding describes the urge to seek out increasingly larger thrills as a “logical progression,” saying, “You can’t do the same things again and again and blow your mind in the same way.”

But representing BASE jumpers as reckless adrenalin junkies obscures the fact that successfully completing a jump requires 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.”

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Collin Scott, a BASE jumper from Colorado, laments that the sport is misrepresented in the media. “The thing that everybody gets wrong is the adrenalin side. I do get a rush, but it’s not the rush you would think.”

Unlike professional extreme athletes like Holmes, Scott has a day job selling software to large corpor­ations. Still, at 40 years old, he has made two trips to Baffin and completed more than 400 BASE jumps. For Scott, jumping off a cliff is a form of antigravity meditation. “My mind goes a mile a minute. I 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 up there with nothing but a wingsuit and a parachute to break his fall. He is silent. I wait as he gathers his thoughts. “Have you ever had a dream where you’re flying?” he asks before trailing off. Instead of interrupting with my next question, I continue waiting. Then he starts to speak. “I’m sorry,” he says. I can tell he’s imagining himself soaring down the face of one of Baffin’s walls. “I can’t find the words.”

Baffin is on every BASE jumper’s bucket list, but the Sam Ford Fjord is no easy feat. To get there, you 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 can camp out in the snow-covered valley for weeks at a time. Factor in that the weather can turn at any moment-even in the short summer season-and you can see why Houlding says Baffin is “not a place for punters.”

Scott’s most recent excursion to Sam Ford Fjord, organized in 2010, is likely one of the largest ever BASE jumping expeditions to Baffin: the one-month trip saw 23 people from seven different countries trekking to the remote valley. Having been to Baffin on an earlier expedition with eight BASE jumpers in 2008, Scott knew he needed to get in touch with Levi Palituq. “There are other people who 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, Palituq grew up in Clyde River, where he learned to hunt and survive on the land in and around the fjord. He became an outdoor guide just 12 years ago, when he took a tourist on a dogsled trip. Since then, his phone hasn’t stopped ringing. “My name is known all over the world now,” Palituq tells me.

There are no official numbers available on how many BASE jumpers visit Baffin, but Palituq says he has led at least one expedition every second year since he started the business. It’s clear why BASE jumpers appreciate him. Everyone I speak to says Palituq and his team go above and beyond to make sure every expedition runs as smoothly as possible, whether that entails organizing half a dozen snowmobiles, setting up camp or sourcing food.

Palituq 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, he has developed an appreciation for the practice. “I think it’s one of the best natural highs a person can get,” he says. Palituq is so taken by their aerial feats that he tells me he hopes to do a BASE jump of his own. “The hair on the back of my neck rises when I watch them.”

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Like Palituq, adventure photographer Krystle Wright was mesmerized the first time she saw BASE jumpers in action. She befriended BASE jumper Jim Mitchell while shooting expeditions in her native Australia in 2007; later, Mitchell invited her to document Scott’s 2010 Baffin expedition. “I had a curiosity about the sport. And once I started shooting it, I was tempted,” she says.

Blizzards initially kept people from jumping, and everyone was eager to get out of camp several weeks into the expedition. On the afternoon of May 8, Wright followed Mitchell and some other jumpers up an exit known as French Touch to take some shots.

When he reached the summit, Mitchell-who had racked up more than 700 BASE jumps in his career-hesitated, even though the jump he was getting ready for was one he’d done several times before. Eventually he decided to go ahead, and Wright moved into place. Her photograph of Mitchell leaping off the edge would be the last shot ever taken of him. “The day Jim died was the day I stopped dreaming about BASE jumping,” she says.

Every BASE jumper knows what’s at stake when they step off the edge, but that doesn’t make it any easier when tragedy strikes. In March 2014, Stanley Leary’s body was recovered, still rigged into his BASE jumping gear, 90 metres beneath a mountain ridge in Utah. A month later, Timothy Dutton, who shot the Pirelli commercial with J.T. Holmes, died in a skydiving accident. As of November 26, there had been 24 BASE jumping deaths recorded in 2014.

Leary’s wife was seven months pregnant when she lost her husband. Houlding is the father of a small child, and Leary’s death spooked him-he may never BASE jump again. “The reason we jump is partly because of the risk involved. When you bring spouses and dependents into the mix, the water’s a lot muddier.”

Holmes is no stranger to tragedy, but he’s making a living out of being on the cutting edge of extreme sports. At the moment he is single and plans to keep jumping. For BASE jumping to evolve, he says, people like him will have to redefine the sport. That may mean riskier experimental jumps in remote corners of the world, which could result in more exposure for areas like Baffin-and the possibility of more accidents.

“It’s important for BASE jumpers to be creative as the discipline evolves,” he says, “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 Rick Sylvester is still around. 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 and Leo Houlding plan to return; Krystle Wright would love to make another visit as well. Baffin’s landscape is too powerful for them to leave its summits behind for good.

© 2014 By Cody Punter (Will Carnehan). Up Here (Pctober/November 2014)

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