A message came across my feed a couple months ago from a friend I haven’t seen in a few years. He’s a skydiver, instructor, BASE jumper, and soon to be FAA Master Rigger. Originally from North Carolina, Rob Pelon now lives in Arizona and works anything but a 9 to 5 job. He has the privilege of performing various roles working with the Marine Corps Special Operations community’s free fall parachute operations program. Night operations, high altitude, oxygen, combat equipment… Like I said anything but ordinary. Rob was interested in saving a bit of money and trying something a bit different from his normal summertime Euro-BASE trip. He inquired about the prospect of coming out to Washington at the end of the summer and checking out the big wall BASE scene. I was super fired up and told him to come on out. Rob decided to let me in on a little project that he had particularly in mind. There is a VERY big jump in the North Cascades that Rob wanted to take a look at and jump.
Over the next couple months Rob and I sent images, videos, GPS grids, summit notes, and topo maps to each other. We went over different ideas, potential issues, solutions, and the overall plan. Things were looking good and getting exciting! Since this little, long-weekend adventure was going to involve several days of mixed climbing, long hikes, thousands of feet in altitude, cameras, potential trailblazing, and route finding it meant the packing list and preparation was going to be extensive. There’s a fine line between packing what you’ll need to be competent and packing what you’ll NEED to be competent. As the adage goes, ounces make pounds. Before you know it, you’re Atlas with the world on your back and you’re no longer effective, or having any fun. On the flip side, if you skimp on the absolute essentials, your time in the mountains will be absolutely miserable.
As the weekend approached, I kept a keen eye on the weather. Late August/early September in Washington typically yields unbelievably consistent, reliable, and beautiful weather. This summer in particular had been long, hot and dry (since May). As Murphy would have it, after months of warm, dry weather with bluebird skies, “our weekend” was going to provide us with a 4,000’ ceiling at best, 50-70 degree temps., and 40-70% chances of rain…. So much for consistent and reliable. I maintained communication with Rob and remained mildly optimistic about our chances at the big stuff. We even both decided to remain packed slider up.
A couple days prior to picking Rob up from the airport, my good buddy Jeff Inman arrived back in Washington from North Carolina. Originally from Washington state, he was super fired up about being back on the best coast and I decided to invite him to come along for the weekend. Jeff and I were on the United States Army Special Operations Command (USASOC) parachute demonstration team together and hadn’t seen each other in several years. Jeff isn’t a BASE jumper, but is one hell of a skydiver and an even better canopy pilot. Jeff was stoked and began packing his gear.
The morning I left to pick up Rob from the airport confirmed the weather forecast. Gray skies, cool temps and the occasional light drizzle. Yuck. With mustaches on our lips, Jeff and I arrived at the airport, gave a little bromance to Rob, packed his gear into the car, provided him with a
complementary ‘stache, and headed to the mountains. Rob is currently living in Arizona and was pumped to see all the green that western Washington had to offer. And the mountains. Wide-eyed and maybe a little envious, Rob was glued to the car window breathing heavily at the craggy peaks of the great and wonderful Washington Cascades. Although not high by other mountain range standards, the craggy, still snow capped peaks, rise up from the rivers and valleys that lie at their feet in almost a subservient manner. As we continue to drive east, and notice that the clouds are barely above 2,000’ AGL, our optimism continues to fade that we will get a jump in today. Deciding to pull in to a local park near our first big wall destination, we discuss unpacking our rigs and aiming for a local 360’ cliff above the park. After going over the potential timeline for different options, we go with the quick slider down option and get to work unpacking and reconfiguring our rig. As the rain began to fall, we picked up some trash bags to keep our rigs protected from the elements. All re-packed up, the three of us make the short hike up the cliffside enjoying the fresh, clean air. Once at the exit point, Rob and I talk about the jump and get the game plan down. A quick exit count and we are off. First me, then Rob immediately after. WOOO!!! The fall and canopy flight are short, but it was just the rejuvenation that we needed to get this party started. High fives, hugs and smiles are aplenty we stashed our gear and headed off to begin packing our rigs again. Welcome to the Great PNW, Rob!!!
Still early in the day, we decided to head over to a nearby lake that sits at the base of one of our goals for the weekend. The 5,700’ peak of Mt. Baring has 3,500’ of flyable vertical and offers one of the best views of the North Cascades in the state. An arduous hike taking anywhere from 2-4+ hours to hike/climb, Mt. Baring is seeing quite a bit of notoriety in the last few years. Today however, things are not looking promising. With clouds covering over two-thirds of it’s north face, we decide to set up camp and see what the morning has to offer. Staying minimal, our hammock/sleeping bag/rain-fly set up was absolutely MONEY! Off the ground and out of the weather, I’d be hard pressed to remember a time when I slept that well.
The next morning was a repeat of the day prior. Low clouds, mixed precip, and a forecast that was worse than the day before, we decided to head north to check out what Rob came here for. A nearly 7,000 foot vertical peak known as Whitehorse Mountain.
Standing just south of Darrington, Washington, Whitehorse is a 6,840’ summit that involves switchbacks, bushwhacking, glacial travel and mixed climbing to bag. And you climb/hike every bit of it. Starting at the valley floor at an old closed forestry road, you make your way up and along the west ridge before traversing around the southwest shoulder onto the glacier. However, we would first be walking to and scouting the various potential landing areas we had been sending each other back and forth via email for the last couple months. After walking nearly 10 miles and driving even more, we plotted our points, gained our bearing on the area and headed to town for dinner and beers.
Although we clearly “weren’t from ‘round here,” the folks at The Red Top Tavern in downtown Darrington were more than courteous and inviting from the moment we walked in. After a full spread of free food, an invitation to their horseshoe tournament and a couple beers, we said our goodbyes and headed back to Whitehorse to bivy for the night. The HUNDREDS of piles of bear scat on the landing area recon gave me the feeling that I may in fact become a human sized bear burrito that night. Fortunately for us, we only had to deal with several owls that woke us up from a dead sleep on multiple occasions. That was by far the loudest owls I have ever heard in my entire life. They must have been at least 20 feet tall. No kidding.
The morning came early and the days aren't getting any longer this time of year, so we packed up camp and started up the mountain. After an hour or so of switchbacks and steep muddy trails through deadfall, we found our way to the trail less traveled area and had to use trail notes and terrain association to stay on course. The massive amounts of blueberry bushes along the trail and handfuls of blueberries helped keep our minds off of the hike and keep our bellies full. After 4,000’ of vertical, several hours in the clouds with only 100’ of visibility at times, and intermittent rain for hours the trail had basically vanished and we began crossing larger open areas with very little guidance or direction.
The day continued to wear on as we confirmed and denied several routes and paths attempting to follow the natural lines of drift. Finally, after 5,500’ and nearly 7 hours, we decided to turn back. It was hard being one mile and 1,500 vertical feet shy of our goal, but regardless of headlamps and GPS points plotted along the way, we all collectively decided that this was not the route we wanted to wander down in the dark. Fighting darkness at our heels, we made our way down the mountain in seemingly record time. At the car just after dark, the three of us stripped out of our soggy clothes and shoes and put on fresh cloths and sandals. Even after putting all of our soaked clothes, socks and shoes in sealed trash bags, the car smelled like a man-sandwich spread with toe-jam, topped with thick slices of from-unda cheese. Pwhew!!! We didn’t care though. The sandals felt great and we stopped at the first eatery we came across.
Tails seemingly between our legs, I sent out a random text to a fellow BASE jumper and fixed-wing pilot friend Kevin while driving home. Kevin had been asking me to go up and fly with him for months now to scout some potential exits. Something was always getting in the way though.
Work, school, family…. You know, life. I asked if he wanted to go fly for a few hours the next day to catch up, see what we were up to all weekend, and hopefully see something we weren’t able to see the two days before. He was in! Jeff wasn’t going to be sticking around for the flight the next day, so it would be just the three of us. The next morning I sent Kevin the specifics on the locations so that he could plan the flight while Rob gathered up the DSLR, GoPros and GPS. We met Kevin at the airport, hopped into the plane and took off. Now I have to tell you, I’ve never taken off and landed in a small aircraft without a parachute before. So this experience was going to be anything but boring. This was also the first small aircraft that had actual seats, interior and doors that open normally (most Cessna jump doors open upward instead of the normal “car door” style). Aside from all of that and another broken 3,000-4,000 foot ceiling, the flight was great. We made our way north to Darrington telling stories, catching up on what’s been going on, and listening to all of the grumpy air traffic controllers in the greater Seattle area. If you’re not already aware, Seattle is a MAJOR flying region and there is almost always a lot of air traffic. The low ceiling meant all of the “Sunday Drivers not flying with instruments were sandwiched between the ground and the broken ceiling. Hence all of the grumpy controllers trying to manage their airspace. We finally make our way into the Sauk River valley where Darrington is located and fly a few circles over the landing areas (which are really just logging roads and pot holes in the trees) and get a glimpse of the massive ridge line that must be cleared on the flight after exit and a very short peek at the wall below the exit point which was still shrouded in the clouds.
After a few circles, we were finally BINGO on fuel (the point where you have just enough fuel to make it back home) and had to head back. Bummed we didn’t get to fly over the summit and see the rest of the hike and exit point, but stoked we got to go fly on an awesome day in the Northwest with such great friends. We ended the day with wings, beer, stories and smiles. I couldn't really ask for more.
As I drove home the next day after dropping Rob off at the airport, I reflected back on the weekend. For months Rob and I fed off of each others stoke for a weekend full of big hikes, big flights and new exit points. We didn’t meet hardly any of our pre-determined goals. Zero wingsuit flights, we didn’t even finish the hike or find the exit point. I know It is very much a cliche, but the weekend wasn’t really about the jumps. It was about the journey leading up to the jumps. We had some amazing adventures in some amazing places with some pretty amazing friends. What more could we have asked for!? One thing is for certain. When we do finally make it to the exit and make those flights, it will be some of the sweetest high fives, the biggest, brightest smiles and the most epic bro hugs ever. To be continued…