I try to make a trip to a local BASE exit at least once or twice a week. Weather, work, school and family certainly “get in the way” or at least make it difficult from time to time, but I usually manage in one way or another. One of my favorite local spots is about an hour and fifteen minute drive from my house east of Seattle. It’s right where the North and South fork of the Skykomish river intersect at the town of Index, WA. The spot has been a local favorite for climbers for decades. The Skykomish river is also very well known for it’s whitewater kayaking and rafting.
Besides an impressive view of the Cascade Range along scenic WA Hwy 2, the Index town wall as it is affectionately known is a great spot for BASE jumping. There are several exits along the wall that are in the 350-450 ft range and offer a multitude of variations of jumps. One thing that is a constant when jumping the town wall (regardless of which exit you jump) is the potential for a close encounter with a train. The primary landing area is in fact a train track. Although there are several “outs” in the event that you need to deviate from your original plan, all the planets (or at least a few of them) have to align. There is a nearby gun range (that is only doable if the wind cooperates and have no off heading or malfunction), the “hole” (which is really just a pothole clearing of trees near the base of the wall), and the swamp (which really isn’t an out, it has just happened that people have landed there). The majority of the time, people use these outs due to a malfunction that prevents them from landing along the tracks. But in the event of a train, these are typically a must.
Trains in this area come and go like love. In spurts. There are parts of the day when you don’t see a train for hours and hours. Then there are times when you have two or three trains within the course of an hour or two. The majority of them are freight trains that are making their way from Tacoma and Seattle, eastward towards Spokane and beyond. These freights don’t seem to follow a schedule like the passenger trains. So prediction is difficult. Since the wall faces the east, trains approaching from the east are easily seen and heard for several miles. However, when coming from the west, their approach is masked by the granite structures that we jump from. You actually can’t see or hear eastbound trains until they make their last turn and are basically right along the wall.
I’ve only had an interaction with a train once before in several years of jumping the Index wall. It was actually my first jump on the wall with a good friend and Northwest O.G. BASE jumper. He went first and I took stills of his exit and canopy flight. About 5 seconds into his flight, I heard and saw the train approaching from the west. I sent him a yell on the radio that there was a train coming and continued taking stills. I know, I know… What a pal. But I didn’t want to miss this moment and there wasn’t much I could do for him at this point anyway. He landed safely along side of the train, but his canopy was damaged as it got snagged on the train after he landed. I was amazed that he was safe and that he was able to land in such a narrow area between the trees and the train. However the damage to his canopy was substantial and he was lucky to not have been dragged after his canopy was snagged. I then enjoyed a care free jump, knowing that I would not have to worry about a train coming by for at least another half hour or so.
Fast forward about 7 years and I’m at the running exit on the upper wall. I’m doing a solo jump and decided to run “virtual ground crew” with my wife. This basically involves letting someone know where you are jumping and calling them before and after your jump to let them know you are about to jump and then ok after the jump. On this particular jump I decided to use my ear buds, call my wife, and keep her on the line the whole time throughout the jump. I had never done this with her before and I was really hoping that things wouldn’t go bad, thus sending her into a massive panic attack. I give her a call, explain what I was going to do and give an exit count. 3, 2, 1, C-ya. A few short seconds later my canopy opens and begins to fly. I let her know that all is good. We chat a little about how we had never done this before and that it’s pretty cool. As I fly closer to the landing area (train tracks) I let her know “As long as there isn’t a train, everything should be fine.” I kid you not, no more than two seconds later I see the light of the train and hear the blare of the horn. I use a couple colorful words and tell her that there IS IN FACT A TRAIN COMING! I was still pretty high above the tracks and it seemed that the train wasn’t going too fast. I decide to crank out a quick 360 degree turn to bleed off as much altitude as I could as fast as I could. My wife at this point is a little frantic and rambling on about things that I’m not really paying too much attention to. I’m more focused on the speed and distance of the train and the speed of my descent. I land as close to the edge of the tree line as I safely can and tug on my canopy to get it as far away from the tracks and the approaching train as I can. Within seconds the train is rumbling past me wailing on the horn. I give the conductor a quick wave and smile at the camera giving a relieved but ecstatic wave. “All is good,” I tell my wife while laughing. She is still in a bit of a panic as I repeat to a few more times to make sure it sinks in that I didn’t smack into the side of the train or didn’t pull some James Bond move and land in the back of one of the carts and subsequently ask her to pick me up in Missoula.
I found myself laughing almost uncontrollably for several minutes as I gathered up my canopy and walked back to my car. I enjoyed the scenery a little more than usual as well. I guess I can chalk this up to experience. Every jump is different. No matter how comfortable you are with an object or exit point, stay on point and enjoy the ride. And I guess I’ll have to find someone else to run virtual ground crew for me too.