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Stawamus Chief Mountain proving irresistible to BASE jumpers

A BASE jumper, left, and two mountain climbers who assisted him after he became stranded on Stawamus Chief Mountain make their way through the parking lot of Stawamus Chief Provincial Park Monday. BASE jumpers use parachutes, but substitute high points such as cliffs or bridges for airplanes.

brian thompson The Globe and Mail

It's a sport that most skydivers dismiss as far too dangerous, but BASE jumping's popularity is growing and, for those inclined to throw themselves off tall objects, Chief Mountain is as good a place as any.

Two rescues off the face of that peak in just over two weeks provide strong evidence that these daredevil athletes, who are known for being somewhat reclusive, are flocking to Stawamus Chief Provincial Park, about five kilometres south of Squamish, B.C.

"It's obviously becoming more popular [here]" said Squamish RCMP Corporal Dave Ritchie. "… Two weeks ago, it was an Australian jumper and this time it was a European."

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BASE is an acronym for the variety of structures from which jumpers might chose to hurl themselves - building, antennae, span or earth. They use a parachute and substitute high points such as cliffs or bridges for an airplane. The relatively low altitude of their jumps, and proximity of body-crushing obstacles, lend the sport some extra risk factors compared to skydiving.

One is being blown back into whatever the athlete has jumped off of, an event known as a "wall strike."

The most recent rescue happened Monday morning when a BASE jumper became stranded halfway up the face of the mountain. Police said conditions weren't windy, and it remains unclear how the jumper became stranded. After a call to 911, a helicopter was dispatched and was able to make contact with the jumper by hovering above him, and it was established that he was uninjured.

Two mountain climbers were able to guide the jumper to safety below, Cpl. Ritchie said.

Similar events unfolded in mid-July, when wind pushed another jumper into a crevice in the mountain face. A friend and fellow jumper contacted Squamish Search and Rescue, and the jumper, who had broken his lower leg, was evacuated to safety, Cpl. Ritchie said.

After the July rescue on Chief Mountain, concerns were raised that the sport should be somehow regulated. A pair of BASE jumpers who spoke with a local newspaper, the Squamish Reporter, dismissed the suggestion.

"What are the cops gonna do, like stand at the base of the Chief, looking up for BASE jumpers all day?" said Kane Gray, a trained skydiving instructor and BASE jumper who lives in Squamish.

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The extreme sport was born in 1978, when the man known as "the father of BASE jumping," Carl Boenish, shot footage of himself jumping off cliffs, bridges, radio antennas and office buildings.

The number of BASE jumpers across the globe has been estimated in the thousands, and the death of extreme athlete Shane McConkey rocked the tightly-knit community. Mr. McConkey, who was born in Vancouver, died last year while attempting a trick that blended skiing and BASE jumping.

In an interview with The Globe and Mail, Jim McConkey, Shane's father, recalled how his son nearly died while BASE jumping off Stawamus Chief Mountain in 2003. A swirling gust of wind caused him to crash twice into its 700-metre granite face.

Two weeks before he died, Shane McConkey explained his passion for extreme skiing and BASE jumping to The Globe. "It's the most fun thing ever - nothing comes close," he said.

Although BASE jumping is allowed in Stawamus Chief Provincial Park, it is outlawed in many urban settings and national parks. Tomasz Juzyszyn, a BASE jumper from Toronto, said despite physical and legal risks, increased safety through improved equipment is helping the sport's popularity grow.

"Honestly, it is hard to justify," he said, referring to the risks. "… But that moment when you start free falling, you are thinking nothing and you are in that moment. … It's a shortcut to meditation."

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Education reporter

Kate Hammer started her journalism career in New York, chasing crime and breaking news for The New York Times. She came to the Globe and Mail in 2008 to do much of the same and ended up investigating allegations of animal cruelty and mismanagement at the Toronto Humane Society. More

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