Mike Lechlinski and I were squashed into hammocks lashed high on the granite face of El Capitan during an early ascent of The Shield, a wall so steep and so long “it takes five minutes to see the ground.” Shortly past dawn we heard the whooshing sound, louder and closer, soon a hellish roar. Rockfall. Of course the wall is gently overhanging so any falling objects would harmlessly sail past. But this all happened faster than thought, so I instinctively burrowed deep as two meteors in human form streaked right over our heads at 130 miles per.
I screamed for the living daylights and watched the jumpers plummet into the void. Maybe a thousand feet past us their arms dove-tailed back and they tracked away from the cliff and popped their chutes, swooping over treetops and landing, soft as eiderdown, maybe 50 feet into the meadow. A beater station wagon rumbled up as they snatched their red and orange canopies, jogged over and quickly motored off. On a scale of one to a shitload, this 60-second lark ranked up there with being born and slow dancing with Teresa Fontana in junior high.
In 1984 the world of adventure sports—including this quite illegal BASE jump—was catching fire and anyone in that orbit was expected to blaze like hell. From our first sorties free climbing big walls to jungleering in Borneo, the mantra never changed: Capture the fucking flag. We watched this attitude trigger the X-treme adventure-sport craze, and one of the most visually dramatic gigs to spontaneously combust in that world was BASE jumping, the acronym for parachuting from a B: building, A: antenna, S: span and E: earth (a cliff).
Half a dozen years after my close encounter on The Shield, I needed something bold to gain traction in the TV business where I hoped to quickly win the trophy girls and crazy money. I was just out of grad school, with a fistful of so-fucking-what degrees, tired of being broke and determined to let Yosemite recede into my past. But secretly I was not so much waving at the train as reaching for it, afraid of being left behind.
David Paradine Television was a boutique production house with Sunset Boulevard offices, owned by the British talk-show maven and future Richard Nixon interviewer, David Frost. They hired me as an associate producer. The salary was modest, but my future glimmered. We had several hour-long Guinness Book of World Records specials that we needed to style out with electrifying content. The previous couple of episodes had featured a dull bombardment of magicians, carnivorous spiders and an English mastiff named Claudius, said to be the world’s largest dog. I was brought on to hose out the dog shit, so to speak, and boost the numbers.
I knew going in that staging world-class adventures for television was dangerous, but so what. I was handy with danger and was eager to debut BASE jumping on prime-time national television. The plan felt like money. The tricky bit was roping someone in to do the jumping.
My immediate boss, Ian, suave and contained, and classically educated at Eton, was all for fielding exciting acts. BASE jumping was only one of several adventure pursuits, each riskier than the last, that I’d scribbled onto our dance card, and which the network, indemnified of responsibility, was anxious to broadcast. Ratings were everything, of course, but in Jack Daniel’s moments Ian sometimes asked, “We’re not going to get anyone killed doing this, are we?”
“Not if I can help it,” I said.
The stars aligned and in late June I flew to London and joined Carl Boenish and his wife, Jean. Carl, 43, was a freefall cinematographer who in the 1970s had filmed the first jumps from El Capitan. He had a face like a coral reef and was later dubbed “the father of modern BASE jumping.” Jean, 19 years Carl’s junior, brainy, wholesome, and distant as polar ice, lived her life in a language I didn’t understand.
From London, Carl, Jean and I flew on to Oslo. The Norwegian airlines were on strike, which left us to wad eight duffel bags into a rental Volvo wagon and head for the Troll Peaks in Romsdalen Valley, eight hours north. Clouds boiled off frosted ridges. The narrow road meandered through green valleys laced with alpine streams, glinting under the midnight sun. When we stopped for beers at an inn (sodas for the Boenishs), I noticed the date, 1509, chiseled on the stone hearth.
Finally we crept into the sleepy town of Andalsnes, hedged on all sides by misty cliffs including the Trollveggen Wall, Europe’s tallest vertical rock face—a brooding gneiss hulk featuring several notorious rock climbs, and the proposed site of our world-record BASE jump. Even in deep dusk I sensed the town was very small and very old. “Built when the mountain was built,” I heard it said of Andalsnes.
I breakfasted on pickled cod, peanut butter and black coffee and we zigzagged up a steep road to the highest path and set out on a leg-busting trudge for Trollveggen’s summit. We were joined by Fred Husoy, a young local and one of the finest adventure climbers in Europe. His intimate knowledge of the massif would figure huge in locating our jump site.
[Also Read Learning to Dream | Ascent 2013]
We shouldered packs and started humping up wet slabs and shifty moraines toward a snowy col. Carl hiked so slowly that I finally took his pack, but halfway up he once more had fallen well behind. Fred pulled on his raincoat against the drizzle, insisting we pick it up or get blown off the mountain by afternoon storms. We slogged ankle-deep through a snowfield. When Carl caught up, wet clouds draped everything. No amount of coaxing could make him hike faster. Finally, a little stone hut 20 minutes shy of the summit ridge offered a welcome roof from the shower.
Carl limped in and collapsed. When he pulled up a pant leg, Fred and I stared. Just above the ankle, Carl’s leg took a shocking jag, a full inch off plumb. I felt small and mean to have pushed him, wondering how he could he hike at all with that leg.
“Jesus. When did that happen?” I asked.
His leg had snapped in a hang-gliding accident several years back, said Carl, laughing and clenching his way through an exposition on natural healing.
“I don’t know, Carl,” I said. “An orthopod could surely fix that. It’s hideous.”
Carl swished the air with his hand. Who needed doctors when God Almighty would do the heavy lifting? I watched his fingers tremble as he pulled up his sock, wondering if belief was the strength that shaped his stubbornness. It felt genius, and totally reckless, to stake my future on a man living off star dust and voodoo.
A week before, we’d spent five days organizing at Carl’s house in Hawthorne, a small suburb of L.A. From the moment I stepped through the door, Jean eyeballed me with steely calculation, as though if she looked away I might kipe the china. Her clothes, flawless though plain, and the house, so ordered and spotless, symbolized American sobriety and respectability. Nothing admitted she and Carl dove off cliffs for a living.
As Carl raked through his garage full of gear, we’d talk—or rather he’d preach—about Baby Jesus, Coco Joe or whoever. Suddenly Carl would dash to his piano and butcher Schubert or Brubeck, then jump back into conversation, his drift ranging from electrical engineering to terra-cotta sculpture to trampolines and particle physics, galvanized by a screwy amalgam of mysticism and personal revelations. Often he would heave all this out in the same rambling riptide. Ian thought he was on LSD.
But Carl’s laugh was so large and his stoke so pure I found myself giddy by the inspired way he met the world. Each mind is a different, distant island, but both of us were drawn to crazy shit. That didn’t tell me why peril became our tonic, only that in the brotherhood of adventurers, guys like Carl Boenish drove the bus.
Outside our little stone hut in the Troll Peaks the shower slacked off and we continued up snowy slabs toward the summit ridge, a mile-long dinosaur’s back of sudden clefts, precarious boxcar blocks and pinnacles digging into the sky.
Just off the ridge the wall dropped nearly 6,000 feet to the Trondheim Valley. The rubbly slabs angled down behind us to a high glacial plateau where perpetual snow framed a tiny lake of aquamarine. Black and white clouds masked the ridge, cutting visibility to several hundred feet and making it difficult to know where we were. Without Fred’s knowledge of the labyrinthine summit backbone, we would have wandered blind.
The clouds parted for a moment and we lay belly-down and stuck our heads out over the vast, sucking drop. As the clouds converged, Carl rubbed his leg, laughing, grimacing, and laying out his requirements.
The wall beneath his launch must overhang for hundreds of feet, he said, long enough for a plunging BASE jumper to reach near-terminal velocity. Only at top speed, when the air became thick as water, could his lay-out positioning create enough horizontal draft to track, actually fly out and away from the wall to pop the chute—just as we had witnessed on The Shield.
The new parachutes didn’t simply drop vertically, but sported a four-to-one glide ratio—four feet forward for every one foot down. Back then, it was not unheard of for twisted lines to deploy a chute backwards, wrenching the jumper around and into, not away from, the cliff.
“Here, that would be fatal,” said Carl with raccoon eyes, peering back over the brink.
Just to our left, a striking, 200-foot-high spire canted off the lip like a tilted smokestack. The most prominent spires along the ridgeline had long before been named after chess pieces. This one was called The Castle, later re-named Stabben Pinnacle, though I can’t say why. An exit from the summit, hanging out over oblivion like that, had to be safer than leaping straight off the summit ridge, so it seemed an obvious feature to investigate.
Carl hung back as Fred and I scrambled up the soaking Stabben to start rock tests. The top was a flat and shattered little parapet. We wobbled a trash-can-sized boulder over to the lip and shoved it off. Five, six ... Bam!—a sound like mortar fire.
“No good,” said Carl, yelling up from the ridgeline. “Way too soon to impact.”
The rocks continued rattling down for ages. We tried again. This time I leaned over the lip and watched the rock whiz downward, swallowed in fog 300 feet below. Three, four ... Bam! My head snapped up. Had to be jutting ledges just below the fog line. We pushed off more rocks and kept hearing the quick, violent impact of stone on stone.
“Forget it,” Carl yelled up. “Stabben will never do. It’d be crazy.”
The flinty smell of shattered rock lofted up as Fred and I downclimbed the pinnacle and joined Carl. For another hour we continued with the rock tests, at various points along the brink, and I could almost feel death watching, perhaps laughing. That’s what made it so heady to try and sort this out. But every rock we shouldered off dashed the wall after a few seconds. When lightning cracked all around we jogged for the valley. Carl crawled slowly behind.
Norwegians are a handsome people, normally demure, until you pull the cork on Friday afternoon and the dritt hits the ventilere. That night most every young person in town crammed into the small pub in the downstairs part of my hotel where we drank Frydenlund like mad and danced to The Who.
Several pitchers later a smashing brunette grabbed a handful of my shirt. More curious than courageous, she couldn’t find the words. So I trotted out the only Norwegian phrase I had memorized from a handbook in my room: “Hvor kan jeg kjøpe en viking hjelm?” (Where can I purchase a Viking helmet?)
“Are you a Viking?” she asked in flawless English.
“I used to dream about them,” I said.
She looked me right in the eye and said, “You’re going to marry me.”
That night I saw eternity and it looked like this: A girl and a boy dancing in a crowd on an unswept floor in a bar on a 500-year-old street.
Aud was working some boring retail job in Andalunes during summer break from nursing school. We spent all of our free time together and I learned there are moments where nothing is so grim as being alone. I was always basically alone because I’d always been a shark who could only live in motion. Then Aud drew the restlessness out of me like a thorn, and I saw light leaking through a soul cracked open. Over the next month, as we got the jump site dialed in and waited for good weather, when I wasn’t with Aud I was usually thinking about her.
The next day as Carl recovered in his hotel room, Fred and I humped back up to the summit ridge for the first of many recons, trying to locate a viable launch point. The existing “World’s longest BASE jump,” first established three years before, exited the ridge well east and some 400 feet lower than Stabben Pinnacle. That left us to scour the quarter-mile-long serpentine ridge between Stabben and the old site—an elaborate task for sure.
Over the following weeks Fred and I developed a true partnership. When we weren’t kicking around the cloudy ramparts of Trollveggen, we’d snag Aud and go bouldering on huge, mossy erratics, or hike up the back side of spectacular peaks or along jagged ridges snaking through the sky. I was 28; Fred and Aud were in their early 20s, all of us charter adults, carving out our place in the world. But for a suspended moment, we shared an enchantment.
Twice more Fred and I explored the summit ridge, ever dashed by hailstorms. Meanwhile, Ian and I were watching the rain wash our budget into the talus, and my inability to nail down a jump site was wearing me out. The urgency to jump and be done was real because Norway was the end of the production schedule, and the crew looked toward Paris, the Greek Islands or home. We had to get this done.
On the fifth scout, after a nasty piece of scrambling and several tension traverses, we located what we knew was the highest possible exit from the ridge—The Bishop, to use the old chess name. But again, we got weathered off before we could begin rock tests.
We returned early the next day and lucky for us the sky bore an incomprehensible blue distance, the entire ridge terrifically visible and spilling down on both sides for thousands of feet. We definitely were on the apex, walking freely on a made-to-order, 10-by-50-foot ledge terminating in an abyss more striking than the lip of the Grand Canyon.
Lashed taut to two separate lines, I bent over the void and started lobbing off bowling-ball-sized rocks while Fred timed the free-fall. The rocks whizzed and accelerated ferociously and dropped clean from sight.
Twelve, 13 ... I looked over at Fred and smiled.
This could be it. Seventeen, 18 ... BANG! I had to squint to see the puff of white smoke thousands of feet below.
That rock had just free-fallen farther than Half Dome is high. No question, The Bishop was the record site. Fred pointed out the original launch spot, still far left and 300-something feet below. I chucked another rock and we watched it shrink to a pea and burst like a sneeze near the base, the echo volleying up from the amphitheater. I tried to imagine strapping on a chute and plunging off, but my brain froze up.
From a distance, Trollveggen was a towering colossus: a 2,000-foot-high talus slope topped by a 3,600-foot rock wall. At its steepest, the summit ridge overhung the base of the cliff by 160 feet. Up close, however, the greatest rock wall in Europe was all fractured statuary, a vertical rubble pile top to bottom. We ascended our fixed rope, reversed the traverse and just as the first drops fell we hoofed for the valley with the good news.
For the next five days Aud, Fred and I stayed glued to the Oslo news channel, glancing up through thundershowers for some telling blue patch and milling around the production HQ in the bottom of the hotel. Helicopters were on standby, film cameras loaded, every angle reckoned, all logistics figured to the minute. Meanwhile, journalists throughout Scandinavia streamed into Andalsnes. The local paper started running full-page spreads in a town where the breaking news usually concerned someone hooking a lunker in a local creek.
Approached and pried, Carl would laugh, then let fly with his goofy babbling as journalists feigned understanding but took no notes. Then Jean answered in two sentences of cold facts and figures. A celebrated Oslo stringer, a steel-eyed blond with a tongue like a carving knife, worked a different line, citing previous jumping tragedies and questioning the sanity of something that had every authority biting their nails.
We slunk around. Rain fell in sheets. Tension mounted. With all the media hoopla, all the delays, emerging details raised the story’s sails sky high. Norwegian television ran nightly updates. The big Oslo station sent a video truck. With a week’s momentum, the production took on the pomp and blather of Hollywood—precisely what I’d hoped to avoid. Several journalists took to quoting Carl directly. Quite naturally, the translation to Norwegian was problematic (“like Ted Hughes on peyote,” Ian suggested), but the waiting game was somewhat relieved by trying to guess what the hell Carl was talking about.
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All of Scandinavia stood by. Every day in limbo meant thousands of dollars lost to feed and house the crew and keep the circus in town. Suddenly there was an impatience for what required the most steadfast deliberation. Throughout, the Boenishes were ready to go. At 8:00 p.m., July 5, 1984, the weather finally broke.
We started scrambling, desperate to shoot something, even in bad light. In two hours, cameramen were choppered into position. Then the helicopter dumped Carl, Jean, Fred, and me into a small notch only 40 feet from the launch site on The Bishop. This avoided having to wheedle the Boenish’s across the traverses that all along had given Fred and me fits.
Carl pulled on a flaming red jumpsuit and gamboled around with enough energy to charge a power plant. Jean began assiduous study of the launch site. I pitched off a rock that whistled into the night. Others followed to verify my estimates, but divulged another hazard.
“Sure, they drop forever,” laughed Carl, “and that’s a good thing. But they’re never more than 10 feet from the wall.”
That left no margin for error. If they couldn’t stick the perfect, horizontal free-fall position, if they carved the air even slightly back tilted—head higher than feet—they could possibly track backwards. Carl explained with his hands, one hand as the wall, the other for the jumper. When his hands smacked together, Fred and I cringed. Jean, cool as the Ramsdahl Fjord, seemed confident but rolled more stones toward the lip.
Approaching midnight, the light faded to a gray pall. Far below, the great stone amphitheater swallowed the night. Suddenly, the radio coughed out: “Come on, Long, let’s get on with it!” The crew was freezing and the director of photography had declared it almost too dark to film.
“Hey,” said Carl, suddenly lucid, “I can’t be rushed to jump off this cliff, screaming past those ledges at midnight!”
I quoted this verbatim into the radio, and people backed off. This particular jump was dangerous, but in another way it was all dangerous. Rather than try a tandem jump—Jean first, followed closely by Carl—Carl decided to make a practice jump while the cameramen previewed and assessed the angles. The midnight sun was too low for full glory but a run-through was vital to dial in the details. The sky was clear and flawless, so with some little fortune we would enjoy another 12 hours of clear weather. After Carl’s trial jump, we’d resume in a few hours, when full light returned.
Carl strapped on his parachute and I tried to capture his hyperactivity on film. But it was too dark to pull a focus. I packed away the Ariflex, grabbed a still camera and turned to the drama before the jump.
“Ten minutes,” said Carl, bug-eyed, jaw working, hands fidgety. Jean helped Carl with the last straps. Cued by a week of front-page spreads, the road below was jammed with cars and people, headlights winking in 1:00 a.m. gloom.
“Five minutes,” said Carl. He pulled some streamers from his pack. Leaning off the ropes, I lobbed them off. No wind. They fell straight down, shrinking to a blur. Everything was set.
“One minute,” said Carl, his voice pinched. He cinched his helmet and slid twitching fingers into white gloves. I pitched off a final rock and Carl tracked it, visualizing his line.
He unclipped the rope and stepped up to the lip. Horns sounded below. I was tied off to several ropes, feet on the edge, with a panoramic view of it all. Carl’s shoes tapped like a rhythm machine, eyes lost. He started his countdown, which Fred mimicked into the radio: “Four, three, two, one! ”
And he was off.
Seeing someone jump straight off a cliff like this is so counter to a climber’s instincts that Carl might as well have jumped into the next world. The void felt to swallow him and the trailing vortex sucked part of me down as well, ripping the air from my chest.
After a few seconds Carl’s arms went out to stabilize. His legs bent and straightened while his jumpsuit whipped like a flag. With roaring acceleration Carl passed several ledges with 10 feet to spare, body whooshing, ripping the air with a violent report. After 1,000 feet his arms snapped to his sides and he started flying horizontally away from the wall, tracking 50, 100, 150 feet, at 130 miles per hour, a swooping red dot. Thirteen seconds, 14, 15 ... Pop! His yellow chute unfurled big as a circus tent and he casually glided down to the meadow. The picture-perfect jump.
Fred and I crabbed back from the lip, looked at each other and started laughing. Old Man Gravity had hurled Carl with such velocity and violence it sounded as though he was ripping the sky in half with his bare hands. Then at the zero hour as the ground rushed up, a swath of nylon and several yards of kite string cheated Old Man Gravity of certain death. We had to see it to believe it, then check with each other to make sure.
Back at the hotel at 3:30 a.m., it was madness among the news crews, gnashing producers, frantic journalists, film loaders, battery chargers, pilots, and hangers-on, all guzzling espresso (club soda for the Boenishes) and ducking out to check for clouds. Everyone was anxious to get back to the Troll Wall, film the jump and clear out. A chartered jet was gassed and awaited the crew once the filming was over, hopefully by noon. At 4 o’clock I laid down with Aud for a few Z’s, but I was so charged with coffee and expectations that it was difficult to even lie still.
At 6:00 a.m., two helicopters ground up through Persian blue skies and deposited us on The Bishop. In 30 minutes we were set. After some rock tests, and checking everything humanly possible, Jean tiptoed to the lip, Carl just behind her. I was five feet away, lashed to a rope, toes curled over the brink, shouldering a 16-mm film camera. A hundred feet straight out in space the helicopter yawed and hovered like a dragonfly. Fred gave the order to roll cameras and the Boenishes stepped off the lip and dropped into the void.
Jean later wrote: “Eyes fixed on the horizon, I raise my arms into a good exit position. Then from behind, ‘Three! Two! One!’ For an instant my eyes dart down to reaffirm one solid step before the open air. Go! One lunging step forward and I’m off, Carl right on my heels. Freedom! Silence accelerates into the rushing sound as my body rolls forward. I quickly realize that the last downward glance has been an indulgence now taking its toll, for I roll past the prone into a head-down dive which takes me too close to the wall. The first ledge is rushing towards me as I strain to keep from flipping over onto my back.”
Through the viewfinder I saw Jean dive-bombing for the first ledge. I freaked and ripped away the camera to see her scream by, a few feet from doom.
“Holy shit!” Fred yelled.
Jean somehow arched back to prone, her hands came back and the duo swooped away from the wall, shrinking to colorful specks, still flying, 200 feet out, still free falling, farther out.
“Pull the chute!” I screamed.
Sixteen seconds, 17: POP! POP! It was history. A world record, no injuries. Cameramen raved over the radios. Newsmen and bystanders swarmed the Boenishes after their pin-point landing. The world toppled off our shoulders. Fred and I were done, wasted.
It was all smiles, chocolate strawberries and champagne back at the hotel (mint tea for Jean and Carl). Ian and I both thought we had a shot at an Emmy with this one and my career in television glowed. Aside from the delays, the show had gone without a hitch but the crew was scrambling to pack and leave on the charter. Ian was so concerned about an accident that he seemed panicked to clear out lest something happen retroactively.
That afternoon the charter jetted for London and those left behind, including half the kids in Andalsnes, moved to the bar in the bottom of the hotel, where several story lines began to converge.
A Norwegian named Stein Erik Gabrielsen and his fellow countryman Eric (last name unknown) had arrived in Andalsnes only hours before. When I met them in the bar I assumed they were two more Euro BASE jumpers drawn there by the big news, now splashed across Europe.
In fact, while Fred, Carl and I had been scouting Trollveggan’s summit ridge, Stein and Eric (both working in America, and unaware of our plans) had purchased one-way tickets to Norway to attempt the world-record jump off the Troll Wall, something they’d been planning for going on three years. They would have gotten the record, too, had they not gone on a two-week bender the moment they hooked up with friends in Oslo. Then a girl showed Stein the newspaper story about how Carl and Jean were already in Andalsnes, waiting for the clouds to lift.
Stein later wrote how he and Eric straightaway bolted for Andalsnes and arrived in late evening. With the midnight sun they walked to the base of the Troll Wall, anxious to scope out their record site. That’s where they met “a drunk old Norwegian dude pointing at the cliffs in their ominous dark presence and saying, ‘That is the Devil’s mountain.’”
They walked back to town and decided to spend their last kroner on beer at the pub where several dozen of us were just finishing our wrap party, a Hollywood tradition. I was the final holdover from the American production crew, there to settle accounts and hang with Aud. Stein and Eric joined the bash only to learn the Boenishes had scooped them by a few hours. At best they could only repeat the record, the adventure-sports version of an asphalt cigar. Their consolation was sharing the $500 of production money I had left to spend on booze.
Stein and Eric found Carl, congratulated him and asked about his launch site. Carl said he jumped from The Bishop. Stein had surveyed the ridge and felt The Castle (Stabben Pinnacle) looked higher. Carl said to check a chess set. The Bishop is always taller than The Castle. When Eric said that, regardless, he and Eric were going to jump The Castle the next day, “Carl became visibly nervous,” Stein later wrote, “and suggested we all meet at their hotel for breakfast next morning around 10 a.m. Then they could go jump together.” Broke and happy about the prospect of a free meal, Stein and Eric agreed.
We closed down the bar and, half-mashed on Akvavit, Aud and I staggered to her apartment and I passed out for 12 hours.
The following morning Stein and Eric met Jean at the hotel. Jean said Carl was in town, arranging their travel back to the States, and invited them to sit down to breakfast. An hour passed and still no Carl. Jean kept glancing at her watch, then out at the driveway, then back at the map of Trollveggen hanging on the wall.
Finally Jean said she was sorry to have deceived them, but Carl had been afraid they would usurp his record so he had left at sunrise to go jump The Castle. Jean figured he had already jumped and was probably at the landing field, waiting for a ride. Why didn’t Stein and Eric take the rental Volvo and go pick him up, then head back up the mountain for round two? Jean needed to pack.
Stein and Eric drove to the landing zone in the big meadow around the time I started sorting gear and racking the bare minimum for a racehorse, one-day ascent of the Troll Wall. I’d changed my mind a hundred times and finally I just couldn’t blow off Europe’s biggest cliff when it was right down the road. I heard a quick rap on Aud’s door, then in rushed Fred.
“Carl’s been in an accident,” he said, “and it looks bad.”
A car accident? When I heard that Carl had supposedly hiked up at dawn, and had jumped from Stabben Pinnacle, I figured Jean was bluffing. After the last two days of heavy activity, Carl would be resting his bum leg for sure.
Our production had caused such a stir that for going on a week, jumpers like Stein and Eric had been streaming in from Sweden, Iceland, Denmark and beyond; any accident had been theirs, I said, not Carl’s. Fred shook his head. Carl had hustled two teenage brothers, both local climbers, to hike him up. One of the boys, Arnstein Myskja, had witnessed Carl’s accident and was there with Fred, trembling in his boots.
Ten minutes later I was dashing across peat bogs toward a vantage point with a clear view of the Troll Wall. I frantically glassed the lower face, nearly a mile away. Carl’s body had to be somewhere on the lower slabs, but I examined every inch and saw nothing. Then I spotted his red parachute, unfurled and breeze-blown on a shaded terrace. For 10 minutes the binoculars were frozen in my hands as I waited for some movement, a twitch.
“Goddamn it, Carl. Get up … signal … ”
The red canopy billowed gently from the updraft.
Fred drove up and put a hand on my shoulder. I followed him to a grassy field surrounding the Grand Manor of an expatriate British lord. A pall tumbled from gray clouds as the media streamed in, occasionally stealing glances our way. My center could not hold much longer; I was starting to fly apart. The police chief arrived and I told him what I’d seen. The part about no movement ended our conversation. I didn’t have the sack to call Jean, but the chief did. Barely. Tears flowed from his eyes even though his face remained stoic and his voice calm and sober.
“I ... regret to inform you that your husband has been in an accident, and it doesn’t look good.”
This last detail was the bare truth and took enormous courage to admit. I went outside and pulled on my harness. Nobody knew if Carl was dead, or even seriously injured, and I told everyone as much, confronting some with the news, yelling it. They nodded slowly and shrank away, huddling under trees, waiting.
The whop, whop of the giant rescue chopper ricocheted up the valley. It landed in a clearing, arching trees, buckling photographers, scaring all with its powerful thumping. Fred went and I stayed behind, shivering in a T-shirt and glaring straight up into the rain. Aud came over but I couldn’t look at her. I thought about nothing, vaguely aware of the chopper’s hammering pitch in the distance. When it returned the crew filed out, looking at the ground. Fred walked over. His face was terrible. Under the lenses of six photographers, we fled back to the lord’s house.
“Stabben?!” I yelled. As a free citizen Carl could do as he pleased, but Stabben Pinnacle? Carl himself had called the site crazy.
The doctor, little more than 30 years old, requested that I go aboard to identify the body. (Someone must have gone down on a cable cum litter to retrieve Carl’s body off that terrace, but I never asked and was never told.)
“For what?” I begged.
The doctor looked away, and I knew the ordeal was far from over.
We walked through wet, knee-high grass toward the ship. Amber light glinted off new puddles. The day seemed strange and fantastic.
We moved into the hold of the huge chopper and back to Carl’s body, looking like he’d just laid down to get some weight off that bum leg. Regret was nowhere on his face and the young doctor and I stood there, mourning a life cut in half, gazing from death as if unhurt. But he’d screamed a music too high to scale, and the harpies got him. I was not so selfish to believe it was my doing, but the distance Carl had tracked away from us made adventuring feel absurd.
I joined the crowd gathering on the grassy field, all of us desperately looking at each other—someone had to know why and how come. We watched the coroner and two policemen heft Carl’s black-bagged body into a white van and roll off into the mist. It felt criminal to leave it at that; but Carl could not die again. That was all. The end.
Fred and I silently drove to Aud’s place and I wandered in a traceless land. Even Aud couldn’t help me now. Why Carl had jumped from Stabben hung over me like an axe. That evening I went and found Arnstein, the oldest of the two teen-aged brothers who had guided Carl that morning.
It had taken them nearly five hours to basically short-rope Carl up the back-side trail and up to the summit of Stabben Pinnacle. Carl conducted rock tests and in seconds, as before, they smashed off outcroppings jutting directly into the flight path. But Carl was hell-bent on going—no matter what.
As Arnstein described to me and others, Carl was a goner from the moment he launched off the lip, or tried to. On his last exit step he stumbled and, unable to push off and get some separation from the wall, he tossed out his pilot chute. With so little airspeed, it lazily fluttered up, slowly pulling his main chute out of the pack. One side of the chute’s chambers filled with air and flew forward. With one side totally deflated, the inflated side wrenched the canopy sharply, whipping Carl around and slamming him into the cliff.
He continued tumbling down, said Arnstein, his lines and the canopy spooling around him like a cocoon. Five-thousand feet later, Carl’s tightly wound body impacted the lower slab at 130 miles an hour “and bounced 30 feet in the air like a basketball.” Arnstein was so mortified by what he’d just seen—and shot on his Nikon—that he yanked the film from the roll so the images of Carl’s last moments were lost forever.
A few days later, Jean hired several local climbers to hike her up to Stabben Pinnacle where she checked the site firsthand and did what a wife does where her husband has just died. Then she traversed the ridge to the original, 1981 launch site, jumped off and–I was told—touched down for a perfect meadow landing. Years later I read that she actually landed downwind, slammed on her face and was dragged for over 50 yards. God only knows the truth.
I found myself circling around Aud’s room. For several weeks I’d agonized over leaving Norway without her—a puzzling concern for a nomad like me. But things were shifting. TV work had stretched before me like a cargo cult runway, inviting a rich future to appear. Then Carl crash landed and it felt likely that I was one-and-done with production work. Staring at the white stucco walls in Aud’s apartment, I couldn’t see any future at all.
I don’t remember saying goodbye to Aud and Fred, but I must have. I only remember driving through the dark dawn shadow of the Troll Wall, heading for the airport in Molde. The giant cliff dominated the landscape but thankfully it had weathered back in and I couldn’t see the wall for all the clouds and rain.
Over the years, Carl and Jean’s Norway jump described a seminal event in the short history of BASE jumping. It came as little surprise when in 2012 a producer called saying they were making a feature-length documentary on Carl, and could I come over to Andalsnes and do an interview? A paid trip to Europe sounded excellent and I found myself back in Norway soon after.
Everything about the Trondheim Valley, and that towering junker Trollveggen, was more impressive than what I remembered—which wasn’t much. Andalsnes had modernized but still looked like a berg out of a Harry Potter novel. But my feel for the place was gone. Thirty years can fiddle with the strongest memories. Mix in drink, work, a failed marriage and it’s a wonder I remember anything.
Then I met back up with Fred and we went bouldering at the old haunts—the mushy fields and cow pies, the scabby orange lichen on the rock, staring up at the monstrous Troll Wall, talking shit as we got hosed on problems we’d once hiked in old Fires—and the memories stirred. I talked to Aud on the phone and her voice pulled me back. But I still felt lost.
The next day I met the film crew at a grassy campground directly beneath Trollveggen, rearing up a mile beyond us. The director, a jocular young woman from Los Angeles, never missed a meal and had loads of passionate intensity. The director of photography was a sloe-eyed Swede who’d tuck an entire tin of snoose behind his lower lip, then pace, mulling the next shot and spewing pools of “backy” juice like the spoor of a wounded elk. The two went back and forth about the lighting, arguing like they meant it, so I didn’t sit down for the interview till around noon, and by then it was raining.
They’d paid handsomely to get me there so I felt obliged to drop into deep thoughts and important feelings. But I couldn’t elbow past my tough-guy noir. The director bore in. As I recounted the details, and Carl’s eccentric stoke and fearlessness, the top layer didn’t so much wear thin and translucent as things underneath started bubbling up. Yet I spoke without color owing to the gray way the past came back to me. Then the questions moved onto Stabben Pinnacle, and the rescue chopper, and standing in a drizzle and glaring straight up, and I slammed through the looking glass.
For several minutes I said nothing, sinking lower and lower in my chair. The rain beat down and we stopped filming. I didn’t move. The director pulled a blanket over my shoulders. For an instant I could see my life with jarring clarity as it ran from that July day in Andalsnes all those years before, and how my native love for cinematic narratives never made it off that rescue chopper. The part of me that can actually write was wedged like an iron strut between then and now, even as I continued to muddle along in productions I didn’t believe in, without passion or inspiration, an also-ran in an industry made for me. This was a selfish take on “The Jump,” as they were calling it, but to me, just then, Carl’s death was the Godzilla that ruled my unconscious, setting me on my screwy course in life.
The next hour passed in a kind of hallucination. I’m not certain what I said, only that I meant every word of it, and it was mostly news to me. I normally measure my words, but I’d waited all these years to empty myself, never suspecting as much, so I let it rip.
I came back to myself when the director asked why I thought Carl had risked a jump that he’d previously deemed fatal. This question had for years lingered over The Jump, adding texture and intrigue to the strangeness of Carl’s last words.
As Arnstein had later told Stein Erik Gabrielsen, just as Carl stepped toward the edge of Stabben Pinnacle, he suddenly paused and asked, “Do you boys know the Bible?”
Wide-eyed and breathless, they said, “Yes, of course.”
“Remember when the Devil takes Jesus high up onto the Temple roof,” asked Carl, “and tempts him to cast himself off, for surely the angels will rescue him?”
“Yes,” Arnstein had said. He knew the story.
Carl reached one hand over the other shoulder, patted his parachute and said, “I don’t need angels.”
Then he turned, took two steps toward the edge, and on the third step, he stumbled.
That night I sat in my room in a daze. For years I’d stepped on the gas and whoosh—I was on the far side of life. But a slipstream lingered. Like perfume on a pillow. Like Aud. We’d spoken several times and thought it best not to meet in person. But when I called and asked her to reconsider, she was in the lobby 10 minutes later. The woman had barely changed. Same stylish bob and crushing tenderness.
We stared at each other, stunned to remember that once we’d been young together. I could have ridden that feeling into the ground. Instead I powered up my laptop and showed Aud photos of my two daughters, Marjohny, with all the freckles, and Marianne, recently an M.D., both stunners because they take after their mother. When Aud’s daughter came to pick her up, I was staring at Aud herself, from way back when. It was crazy.
Stein Erik Gabrielsen and his friend Eric had barely arrived in Andalsness when a local drunkard pointed to Trollveggen and said, “That is the Devil’s mountain.” Eight hours later, Carl died quoting the Devil tempting Jesus to fly. Stein quit drinking on the spot and hasn’t jumped since. Eric, a genius in the air, jumped the Troll Wall three times over the days following Carl’s death. On his last jump, Eric logged a 30-second free fall with only a two-second canopy ride before landing in the rocks, miraculously unhurt. He decided not to document the record free fall because the only way for someone to top it was to bounce. “Get me out of here before I die,” he told Stein. Eric is currently a healer in Berlin and skydives regularly.
Stein runs a small church (Saint Galileo) and teaches kite surfing in Miami. He still gets occasional flashes of Eric nearly going in during his astonishing, 30-second free fall. “For now,” he wrote in 2010, “I am content with the knowledge that I am a fool. Every day I thank my angels and pray for wisdom.”
In the winter of 1989, Arnstein Myskja, the teenaged guide who witnessed Carl’s last jump, was killed by an avalanche while climbing the Mjelva Gully just above the Mjelva Boulder, the
lichen-flecked stone where Fred and I climbed waiting for the clouds to part on Trollveggan.
Aud is a nurse’s supervisor, has two gorgeous daughters and is married to a fellow Norwegian who manages oil platforms in the North Sea.
Half a dozen years after The Jump, while parachuting onto the summit of a towering Tepui in the Venezuelan rain forest, Jean Boenish compound-fractured her leg, greatly curtailing her BASE jumping career.
Fred Husoy went on to climb many new routes in the Trondheim Valley, then ventured to the Alps and Himalaya. He led the local rescue team for many years, and through innovative, often perilous efforts, saved dozens of climbers injured on the Troll Wall. He is married to a doctor and has two sons.
A few months after returning from Norway I came tumbling down in a climbing gym, of all places. The first thing I saw when I rolled up was my tibia jutting out of a fist-sized hole in my shin. I spent the next 35 days in the hospital. One time in the wee hours when I couldn’t sleep and the morphine carried me to the ethers, I gazed down and saw a girl and a boy dancing to The Who on an unswept floor in a bar on a 500-year old street.♦
ABOUT JOHN LONG
“In a perfect world I’d only write literary fiction and make a killing. In this world I’d have to live out of a dumpster to follow that route so I don’t. Sometimes I write adventure narratives. I’m never exactly sure what I’m doing so the process can feel like dental work with a backhoe. But now and again a story chooses me and it’s more like transcribing than creating. Those are usually the good ones, when I’m barely trying.”
Of John Long’s nearly 50 books, over 2 million copies are in print.