Of Sand and Fire - Base jumping in America’s adventure sports capital

Words & Video: Amy Shaw | Photos: Will Kitto, Kule Sul & Jamie Flynn


“I hate you guys! I mean I love you, but right now I hate you.” My good friend Andy, having been coerced to join us on this jump, is clinging, unprotected, to a piece of weathered rope halfway up an overhanging rock known to locals as the Lollipop.

My friends and I were on a BASE jumping trip through Utah, USA, and we might have used the word 'exposed' when describing this jump to Andy beforehand. Perhaps we should have been more specific ... The only reason I was sitting at the top already, looking bad ass, is because I had been up to jump the Lollipop two days earlier, so I was better prepared to mask my panic this time round. In hindsight, Andy called the Lollipop his favourite jump of the week we spent in Utah. I do too, in hindsight. So why is scaring yourself so much fun sometimes?

It was the week of Thanksgiving in the USA and my friends and I were attending an unofficial gathering of BASE jumpers, known as Turkey Boogie. When one thinks of the great American outdoors, the first place that usually comes to mind is either the Grand Canyon, Yosemite or Yellow Stone National Parks. But for adventure sports and recreation lovers, you might find yourself disappointed with these destinations. The reason is the national parks in the USA are so vigorously protected that any form of off-road driving, dirt bikes, ATVs, aerial sports or horse riding is prohibited. Being arrested and charged for participating in such activities as BASE jumping can put a dampener on any adventure, which is why the little-known Utah town of Moab has surreptitiously become one of the adventure sports capitals of America. This would be our base camp, for surrounding Moab and the protected Arches and Canyonlands National Parks are literally millions of acres of Bureau of Land Management (BLM) space, where adventure activities can be practiced legally, to your heart’s content.

Walking down the dusty, red drag in Moab, you are literally accosted with bike shops, ATV adventures, white water rafting and kayaking companies, horseback riding, climbing outfitters and four-wheel drive adventures. Sitting in the local brewery you rub shoulders with some of the best adventure sportsmen and women in the world, particularly in climbing and BASE jumping. Yet despite the hubbub of adventure enthusiasts, the space is so vast that once in the picturesque landscape, you could be fooled into believing you’re the only person on a foreign planet.

There are literally thousands of places to legally BASE jump in the Moab area. Every time a new spot or 'exit' is jumped, the first person to jump it has the privilege of naming it. Boulder Rush, Tombstone and Wiley Coyote were just some of the ones we jumped. An exit called The Crown has a penny on the edge that looks like it’s been there a very long time. Some silly superstitious jumper probably left it there. I’m not superstitious, but there was no way I was disturbing that coin before I jumped off a cliff. You know. Just in case.

There’s a technique in BASE jumping called 'dropping rocks'. It’s very scientific and used to determine whether a cliff is high enough to jump. You pick up a rock about the size of your fist, drop it off the cliff you intend to jump from and count the seconds till it impacts below. Assume 50 feet per second your rock remains in freefall. Also check for climbers and tourists under the exit before performing this test. The minimum height for a comfortable jump is about 150 feet. Most of the cliffs in Moab are considered on the lower end of the scale, around 250-400 feet. This allows two to three seconds of freefall before deploying your parachute. The appeal lies in the exquisite aesthetics of the area, the fun, challenging hikes and climbs to get there, and the magically surreal way the light dances red off the glowing sandstone.

As most of my group had not done much jumping in this area, we were new to most of the exits we jumped. So we dropped many rocks. On one occasion, after successfully finding the exit called Enterprise, a pancake of rock resembling its starship namesake, I videoed my buddies jumping off and was preparing to jump down myself when another group of jumpers arrived and informed me that this was not the Enterprise.

Turns out it may have been another exit called Geronimo. After much debate at the bar that night, we have scientifically decided that we have no idea if we jumped Enterprise or Geronimo.

On a previous occasion, a buddy of mine had been searching for an exit in the area called G-spot. He was alone and following directions given to him by some jumpers who had been there before. He found the G-spot and jumped safely down, but felt their description of the jump and its characteristics might have been a little off. On reviewing his helmet cam with them later, they informed him that was not G-spot and he had just opened a new exit. His exit is now called Faking It.

A cool jump for me and fellow South African jumper De Wet was one called Well Done, which we immediately re-christened as The Braai. Well Done is on a big curved sandstone rock, the curvature of which makes it difficult to reach the sheer side where it is jumpable, so some local jumpers have fixed rope to allow you to abseil (or, if you’re a hobo with no rappelling gear like me, hand-over-hand climb) down to the sheer side of the cliff. Here they have bolted a metal barbeque grill to the rock, providing a handy launch pad. Naturally De Wet and I made no short measures of the occasion, singing some boere songs whilst on the braai grill before hopping off. I’m told we are the first South Africans to jump The Braai in Moab. Hell yeah!

Another jump on the to-do list for me was an epic one called Dragon's Nest, and yes, it’s as cool as its name sounds. A rocky outcrop on the top of a mountain is the place I’d make my nest if I was a dragon. And a hike worthy of a dragon slayer! The hike involves a slightly more technical section of rope ascension, allowing only one jumper on the rope at a time. The golden rule is to keep the group small else you bottleneck at the jumar section and turn a two hour hike in to a six hour one. In the spirit of Turkey Boogie, we broke that rule, outright. Also, none of us really knew the way or how to ascend a rope, and as it turns out there are some subtle points to be observed in the set-up of a jumar, which can mean the difference between a 10 minute rope ascension and 45 minute rope ascension. This rope ascension took me 45 minutes. Then it took the guy behind me 45 minutes. And the guy after him.

As the landing areas in Moab are littered with slot canyons, boulders and aggressive flora, they’re not really the place to land a parachute in the dark. By the time the five of us were up the rope section, the sun was sinking low on the horizon and we still had a lot of ground to cover to the exit. The race against the sunset was officially on! We scrambled mercilessly up the rocky slopes; and between haggard breaths we brainstormed the plan of action should we lose the race. As the masters of survival that we are, everything was covered from sleeping in our parachutes to whether it’s ok to drink one’s own pee (Life of Pi says no). I never shared this with the boys, but I would be jumping solo in the pitch dark, boulder fields and all, before I’d go anywhere near mine or anyone else’s pee. Just saying.

It’s a good feeling hearing the lead hiker cheer. It means he’s found the exit. With excitement fuelled by success we willed our shaky legs to run the last section to join him. This mission had been an adrenalin rush from the word go, and standing on Dragon's Nest, kitting up with hearts pounding from exhaustion and just a little bit of nerves, it was truly epic. We jumped in quick succession, like a flock of little dragons learning to fly from their perch! We opened our parachutes and whooped to each other as we soared down the talus and past the beautiful Fisher Towers, and as we flew side by side, we watched the sun set over a land of sand and fire.

It’s all about pushing through one’s fear. When your heart threatens to leap from your chest and your muscles threaten to collapse from fatigue, it's about taking control of that panic and turning it into exhilaration.

The camaraderie of watching your friends achieve that with you, every day, together, learning to fly, well there’s nothing quite like it! Landing that day at the foot of Dragon's Nest, with the last rays of sun bidding us goodnight behind the famous Castleton Tower, we hugged and cheered, and we felt like dragon slayers.