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John Long’s First Big-Time TV Break Turns to Tragedy

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.

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This feature appeared in ASCENT 2013. ASCENT is Climbing’s annual compendium of the best climbing writing, storytelling and art, and was founded in 1967 by Yosemite pioneers Allen Steck and Steve Roper.

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).

Warning sign cemented into the rock at the BASE jump launch site in 1981. Photo by Arnstein Myskja

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.

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?” …

 

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