Just before he steps off the edge and hurls his body into the air, BASE jumper Randy Schultz utters a word to himself: freedom. It's an abstract noun that gives him a concrete reason to defy gravity and death to jump from cliffs, bridges and mountains.
One such morning a few months ago, he got a chance to say that word from the second peak of the Stawamus Chief. Schultz and his friend started early in the morning, hiked up the Chief in two hours to reach the second peak at 7 a.m. A mild wind blew and as the first light of the morning broke the two BASE jumpers checked their chutes and prepared to jump.
"I felt calm and happy," Schultz said recalling the experience at a coffee shop in Brackendale. "I stood up there and let my skin feel the fresh air."
Then he walked back a few steps, took a deep breath and ran to hurl himself straight into the air.
It's the thrill that the BASE jumper is after; it's not audience or fame he seeks. It's a solitary sport in every sense of the word; you make the decision to jump from something high and if something goes wrong, you take the blame - if you are still alive.
And yet, its daredevil practitioners say there is a method to this seemingly reckless madness.
"We are not crazy guys with a death wish," says Kane Gray, a BASE jumper and a Squamish resident who has made the Chief his launch pad for several BASE jumps. A trained sky diving instructor, he says he did 5,000 sky diving stunts before he could even think of BASE jumping. (BASE is an acronym for the four categories of fixed objects one could jump from: buildings, antennae, spans and earth.)
His first BASE jump, from a 360-foot cliff in New Zealand, left him shaken, but also excited to try the sport again. Once he got over that first jump, he tried the sport in Canada, New Zealand, and the United States.
"It's the ultimate thrill and for me it's been a progression from my sky diving skill," he said.
For Randy Schultz, Gray's partner in BASE jumping, it's been a slow progression from snowboarding to sky diving and then finally to BASE jumping. Schultz said he took lessons at Twin Bridge, Utah and made 200 sky diving jumps before he could make his first BASE jump from the Chief. Even then, he brought a mentor along with him who could read the wind and guide him on the nuances.
"You have to work at it for years before the first jump," Schultz says.
A short man with ruddy cheeks that seem to get a fresh shot of colour every time BASE jumping is mentioned, Schultz is the kind of guy who could easily become the sport's official ambassador.
The limitations of skydiving helped persuade Schultz to try BASE jumping.
"You are dependent on a plane and sometimes they don't fly on the weekends," he says of his reason to try BASE jumping.
Along the way, he started Over the Edge Productions, giving lesser mortals a chance to have some visceral fun viewing photos and videos of him and others performing the jumps.
In one of the photos he displayed on his laptop, Schultz is dressed like a bird, an Icarus-like figure flapping his wings between two peaks on Baffin Island.
"I was trying to turn left," Schultz explained the picture coolly, as if it was his car or his bike he was talking about and not his own body fluttering thousands of feet from the ground.
As they hurl toward the ground, BASE jumpers have but a few seconds to open their chutes. In those few seconds, Schultz and Gray say, their senses are hyper acute; everything around them is crystal clear.
"You can even hear the click of the chute opening," Gray said.
"You are aware, very aware. You see leaves and birds," Schultz says and smiles, "I've flown with a lot of sea gulls."
Although BASE jumping attempts were recorded in the early 20 th century, the sport's modern inventor was an American named Carl Boenish, who made a video of his first jump in 1978 in Yosemite National Park. Now, there are BASE jumping associations all over the world, with annual events and competitions. It remains, however, a small community with a few thousand members.
BASE jumping is legal in many park sites, like the Squamish Chief, but it's illegal in most urban settings. It's also illegal in the U.S. and New Zealand. But in Europe, Schultz points out eagerly, it's a sport that is fully legal. And in some small towns in Norway, BASE jumping is a revenue generator.
After the rescue of two BASE jumpers from the Stawamus Chief in the last month some voices were raised about regulating the sport. Both Schultz and Gray scoff at the suggestion.
"What are the cops going to do, like stand at the base of the Chief, looking up for BASE jumpers all day?" Schultz asks.
Besides, they say regulations would go against the very spirit of BASE jumping - freedom.
BASE jumper rescued on Chief
A BASE jumper was rescued from the Stawamus Chief Monday afternoon.
The man had jumped from the Chief but got blown on to the rock face, where he was stranded.
The man secured himself on a ledge while he waited for search and rescue personnel to rappel down the mountain to him. Police said he did not appear injured.
On July 14 rescue crews had to rappel down the Chief to another stranded BASE jumper.