SkiBASE sounds and seems simple enough. Ski a line down a mountain that “cliffs out” to a cliff drop that isn’t survivable without the use of a parachute. What began as a way to simply ski lines that were previously unable to be skied turned out to be exactly what most things in the adventure world become; a sport of their own. Today, there are those who look at ski lines or even just runs that cliff out for the specific purpose of flying off of them. While skiers like Matthias Giraud have spent the last ten years pioneering more first SkiBASE jumps than arguable anyone else alive (or dead), I have been hesitant to venture into these austere waters due to poor timing in personal/professional schedule, weather conditions, snow conditions, the availability of a worthy and competent partner/mentor and, most of all, fear.
This isn’t to say that considering SkiBASE hadn’t consumed a fair amount of my interest and time as much as it was just due to the aforementioned factors (most notably fear), that I just didn’t put forth the requisite amount of time and effort into making it a reality.
In a very odd and fortunate series of events, the first half of January 2019 would turn out to be a very productive, fruitful, and downright fun couple of weeks. It would also be the first time in at least five years that I would be truly scared. Terrified might be a more accurate word actually.
The Pacific Northwest was enjoying a snow year that we hadn’t seen in quite some time. Many days saw the snow report measured in feet rather than inches. It was dumping and I was enjoying every bit of it. A month or two prior, SOFLETE’s self-proclaimed “Main of the People” Doug had mentioned a SOFLETE getaway weekend at Lake Tahoe that he promised would be a great time. In true anal retentive, former action hero style, I did a little backward planning and set up a loose road trip schedule that would culminate in a long weekend at Heavenly Ski Area in South Lake Tahoe, CA/NV.
Once I had my end date, I began looking at places along the way that I wanted to pass through or visit and where I had friends. The two big friends that came up were Matthias in Bend, OR and Kristian Geissler in Auburn, CA, which is in the foothills of the Sierras near Lake Tahoe. Immediately, the talk of a SkiBASE came up when I contacted each of them about their schedule and availability during my timeline. Matthias had his eyes on opening a new SkiBASE in the Central Oregon Cascades, but the approach is long and the long-range weather forecast looked problematic at best. We would eventually settle on skiing some of the best powder tree skiing that Mt. Bachelor has ever delivered. Kristian (semi-affectionately known as Slambo to his reluctant and so-called friends) was very keen to have me join him at one of the OG SkiBASE sites, Lover’s Leap in the California Sierras. I told him I was in. But in reality, I wasn’t sure.
As I mentioned before, personal/professional schedule, weather conditions, snow conditions, and the availability of a worthy and competent partner/mentor are all things that had kept me from performing my first SkiBASE. My personal and professional schedule was wide open for two weeks. One factor down. Slambo is what many consider an innovator in SkiBASE and he was basically going to drag me to the exit. Availability of a worthy and competent partner/mentor? Check. Tahoe had been receiving a bombardment of snow this winter. So most likely, snow conditions would not be a factor. The only thing left was the weather conditions on the days were would attempt. Of course, fear was in there somewhere too, but that’d have to be addressed on the mountain.
Alas, we booked it and off to SkiBASE I was.
My enjoyment of the drive through the Central Oregon Cascades, Crater Lake and Mt. Shasta was intermittently interrupted by the idea that A: I am not that great of a skier and B: I’m a mediocre BASE jumper at best. Yet there I was, driving down to Lake Tahoe to combine the two.
What was I thinking?! I was constantly checking the weather in between texts with Slambo, secretly hoping it would turn to shit and I would be let off the hook from going to Lover’s Leap. To my mental misfortune, the weather forecast only got better and better.
In a strange turn of events, the six hours before I arrived at Slambo’s house and the approximately eighteen hours before heading out to Lover’s Leap saw the snow level drastically rise to around 7,000 feet MSL (Means Sea Level), which is the exact exit height of Lover’s Leap. This, combined with yet another big storm that was approaching the Sierras (but would be gone and give way to a huge high-pressure system of clear skies and calm winds), meant rain. And lots of it. What this means in ski and SkiBASE talk is big problems with the snowpack. Rain severely degrades the amount and quality of snow. In SkiBASE, you need a sufficient amount and quality of snow in order to safely ski to the point at which you exit the cliff. Without a sufficient amount and quality of snow, the bushes, rocks, trees and otherwise natural terrain of the mountain create significant issues and obstacles the skier has to (sometimes literally) hurdle in order to arrive at the exit safely.
Was this the excuse I had been hoping for?
I arrived at Slambo’s house at the tail end of the driving rainstorm my weather apps had forecasted. It was beginning to clear up and calm down. Shit. Slambo and I talked through things. The approach, the gear, the weather, the jump. My anxiety was building, but I was doing my best to mask it.
The next morning, we woke up hours before sunrise, finalized packing up his new and improved ride, the “Slamborghini,” and headed to the granite vertical extensions of the mighty Sierras.
Before arriving at the area, you drive by the cliff for a couple of minutes (although, to me, it felt like thirty). The good news is you get a good look at the cliff, the approach and the snow level in the landing area. The bad news is that the warm weather and rain did exactly what I was afraid of. The most recent dump of three-to-five feet of snow gave way to a bony (rocky) landing area and what looked to be a thin, bony covering of snow at the exit.
“Not good,” I thought.
Slambo however, remained ever optimistic. We arrived at the parking spot, got our gear on, felt the very light breeze on our face coming from the southeast, and began skiing the crusty, cruddy, refreeze snow layer on top of a degraded base of soft snow. After repeatedly skimming across and punching through the refreeze crap, we finally got to the part where we would begin our bootpack (hiking in ski boots) uphill. We would go from a good, firm layer that we would barely push through the surface to punching down to knee-deep postholes, to waist-deep, to chest-deep, and back to any one of the aforementioned and in no particular order or pattern. It was somewhat miserable, and I loved it. Not only did it take my mind off of the task I had waiting for me at the top, but it also provided me a level of solace of a different time where shared misery was not only a way of life but a way to bond with those next to me. I was able to stop, look around, and enjoy this cool, clear, unbelievably gorgeous morning in the Sierras with a good friend. SkiBASE or not, this was a great day and I realized how fortunate I was to be where I was and to be with the person I was with.
Finally, at the exit, Slambo and I dropped our gear, put on our skis and stepped over to scope out the landing area, feel the winds and assess the snow conditions at the in-run and exit. It wasn’t great, but it wasn’t terrible. We began patting down the snow to firm things up and used the shovels we brought (and would eventually tie down to a tree for future use) at a local hardware store to transport snow from surrounding areas to what would be our path to the exit.
It was during this process that we realized what we were working with; soft, cruddy snow that you would easily punch through if you stepped wrong; tree bushes that were protruding slightly onto the in-run; and a massive rock that put a huge “hump” in the middle of the in-run. This would mean that you would have to “pre-jump” the bump (get light on your skis prior to a bump) to stay on the snow in order to avoid catching air and potentially getting bumped or knocked off the in-run just meters from the exit.
To make things that much more “fun” there was a massive tree on the left of the exit. Slambo decided he would stand just a few feet to the right of the exit to give me an assessment of the winds before dropping in. Perfect. All I had to do was get as much speed as possible, avoid getting bucked off the in-run by a massive rock we covered up with snow, then maintain speed as I approached the exit, avoid the tree on the left, avoid my friend on the right (hitting him would most likely send the two of us tumbling off the cliff uncontrollably and would most likely result in at least one of our deaths), and exit clean, stable and controlled. Oh yeah, I also had to have an on-heading opening of my parachute to avoid crashing into the cliff I just skied off of.
Needless to say, tension was mounting.
I repeatedly apologized to Slambo for taking too much time to get ready and mentally prepare for my run. The nice thing about good friends in this type of environment and activity is that they understand the process. Not everyone’s process is the same, we all have our own unique idiosyncrasies, but we all have a process. Slambo understood as much.
Once all of my gear checks were done, gear was donned, and we gave each other the head nod that says “ok, here we go,” I began the last part of my “I’m super stressed out and need to calm down and focus” process. I began a methodical and repetitive process of mental imagery. For roughly five minutes, I repeatedly imagined and, in a stationary position, acted out the ski run and jump. I had done this type of thing probably hundreds if not thousands of times before in many other aspects of my life. Everything from studying imagery, GRGs and reconnaissance video of objectives and the scheme of maneuver of hundreds of missions in my former life, to wingsuit BASE jump lines, to mountaineering ascent lines, to ski lines that made me want to walk down.
I looked at Slambo, gave him my usual, “Alright man, see ya,” went through a couple more “mental flows,” pointed my skis down the hill, and sent it.
I don’t really remember the big bump, I don’t really remember the tree, and I don’t really remember seeing Slambo standing two feet from the edge of the cliff and two feet from the edge of the in-run. I just remember focusing on the line and the exit. I was “looking between the trees.” Something that you must do when you are running through a gauntlet of obstacles that you don’t want to hit. You don’t focus on the things you don’t want to hit, run into, or direction you don’t want to go. You just look at your line. You “look between the trees.”
Once I was in the air, I felt at home. Even with 184-cm planks on my feet that can act as rudders or huge, flip-inducing drag devices, I felt good. I threw my pilot chute after what felt like five seconds (though, it was really only a second). Within another second, my parachute was open, which sent me flying straight ahead. Now, I’m not one that hoots and hollers and lets off overt displays of elation much, but I let out the biggest, “WOOOOO” that my somewhat still tense diaphragm would allow. I flew my parachute to one of the only open areas that the low snow level provided for a safe, non-snagging landing and set it down. Without taking a moment to enjoy myself, I moved to the side of the “landing area” to allow Slambo as much room as possible to set his canopy down safely. Within another few minutes, he flew off the cliff, banged an awesome on-heading opening and flew towards me. Once safe on the snow, I allowed myself to be fully elated. We did it. I was stoked but that was about the only emotion I could come up with. I didn’t really know what to think, feel, or even say, except that I was stoked and thankful for Slambo.
We packed up our gear and began skiing down to the town of Strawberry, where we would hitchhike back up the highway to our car. As we skied, I kept looking over my shoulder, back at the cliff. The whole morning was so surreal. It was like a dream, but one that came true. I had trusted my friend, trusted my ability, and trusted my process to make the outcome what I desired. All the work I had put into my skiing, jumping, and even rigging over the years culminated into this small, successful moment for me, a type of moment that I hadn’t had for years.
In the weeks and months that followed, I continued to process the moments leading up to, during and after the jump. To this day, it all still seems surreal. And though took about ten years for my first SkiBASE to happen, I would end up doing my second jump just over a month later. It’s funny how that sort of thing happens. I guess when it rains it pours.
I am certainly thankful for the help, advice, patience, and support from my friends and mentors over the years and up to and since my first SkiBASE. Much like military or law enforcement service, their experience, guidance, support, and even their willingness (or unwillingness) to put up with my bullshit helped to keep me informed, on track, and ultimately, out of trouble.
And like any process that involves a challenge, I learned a lot about myself, about life and about the world around me.
Here are just a few of them.
Take the moments from your previous experiences, learn from them and carry them forward.
Be aware of your process. Be diligent and present in the moment.
Don’t allow emotion to cloud your judgment or actions.
Do not waste mental and emotional energy on the negative. Be aware of hazards and of what could go wrong, but focus intently on what you want to do and the outcome you are working towards.
Zach Carbo is a former member of the 75th Ranger Regiment and a sponsored SOFLETE athlete, living life to the beat of his own drummer in the PNW. Follow him on Instagram: @livngthehighlife