Base Jumper Rigger Lee Interview: The Enigmatic Adventurer

Enigma
1. An obscure speech or writing 2. Something hard to understand or explain 3: an inscrutable or mysterious person

If ever there was a man that fit the definition, it would be the BASE world’s Rigger Lee. He will tell you that he is an open book; however for many he fits the bill. I set the interview in motion with a standard 58 question document for this series of profiles and what I received in return where some of the most intriguing answers. In Lee, you will discover a man who claims to have set no goals and yet has achieved a great deal in his lifetime.

Lee’s story begins in Irving, Texas, while he has spent most of his life referring to his mother’s home in Euless as his residence for the purpose of collecting his mail. His partner at “the shop,” friends and family have grown accustomed to Lee being “away” from his home base for 6 or more months out of the year. Lee is known to have packed up and disappeared for a month or two at a time, “wandering about the country.”

Lee’s enterprises managed from “the shop” include a sign store, rigging loft and T-shirt company. A current project is constructing sailing covers, but he still thinks of “the shop” as being more of a “hangout” for when they “aren’t out playing,” than as place of business.

A 37’ Endeavor, ketch rigged became the latest addition to Lee’s toys to make his fascination with sailing came full circle. The recent purchase is docked in Houston, Texas. Lee explained to me his reasoning behind the sailing fascination. “A friend of mine had bought a 16 foot Hobie. I had been out with him on that a couple of times, and pretty much, I was hooked. The Hobie was too much fun and with it a sense of freedom that comes with sailing. There is no motor and it beats the hell out of paddling.” He went on to elaborate, “I had spent a month on Lake Powell with a kayak and sailing sure beat the hell out of paddling 250 miles with the wind blowing. I developed an interest in sailing prior to even those experiences. I recall taking a ferry across the North Sea. Standing by the window and gazing at the waves changing as we left the mouth of the harbor. I have the same emotions when I am in the mountains, the desert or flying. You couldn’t imagine three more different environments and yet they bring forth the same feeling. I suppose it is all about being beyond the boundaries of civilization and societies rules. I am leaving behind all of the false entrapments and regulations that are supposed to insure my safety at the expense of my freedom. I don’t know what it is exactly, but I do find that I enjoy it as much as I do the other adventurous sports that I participate in.”

Lee doesn’t have an iPod filled with music; instead he thinks the first thing he loaded onto his was a book on tape. Books are a part of his life. While stranded in the Arctic with a disabled snowmobile, he read a book by Tanya Abbie titled “Maiden Voyage.” He is also quite a fan of Captain Joshua Slocum’s books. As one of his reads he listed “West is the Night,” by Beryl Markham; the story of a woman raised in East Africa who in the 1930s, became an African bush pilot, and in September 1936, became the first person to fly solo across the Atlantic from east to west. I sensed that the solo adventurers and explorers in the books Lee read would consider him a kindred spirit.

Lee was a 19 year old college student when he was baptized into the world of skydiving. As a high school gymnast he had always wanted to give bungee jumping a try. During the fall season of his sophomore year of college he signed up for bungee jumping from a hot air balloon at the local small airport outside of Dallas, Texas. When he arrived on the following Saturday, the wind was too intense for the balloonist to tether the balloon for the bungee jumps. Lee instead ended up meeting with skydivers at that same airport before leaving with his refunded check in hand. The skydivers were more than willing to have him spend his money with them and he made his first tandem jump that day in 1991.

Years later while working for John Stanford at the Adventure Loft he was introduced to BASE jumping and his first BASE jumper, Ernie Long. Ernie and two companions had come to the shop in need of a tail pocket being sewn onto a new Raven3 canopy. Ernie had both feet casted and the men were struggling with Lee’s assistance to even get him through the door. Apparently, as best as Lee could piece together the story, Ernie had a mishap out in Moab Utah. There was talk of “a worn out canopy, a cliff, and being able to see the ring on a woman’s hand as she waved from the bottom. Then there was the problem with a boulder being in the landing area.” A whole new world had opened up to adventurer Lee.

He hadn’t begun his career as a Rigger yet, but was dead set on learning about BASE. He built himself a rig and headed off to Bridge Day, with 4 to 5 hundred skydives already in his log book. He located some help at Bridge Day in packing the rig that he had built and made his first 2 BASE jumps. Lee returned home hooked on the sport when all he initially ventured to West Virginia for was to learn about the equipment and technology. When I asked Lee what BASE jumping has contributed to his personal growth, he shared this: “It’s led me into worlds I would never experience otherwise.” One of those “worlds” is Baffin Island. For those of you, like myself who know very little about Baffin Island, here is a little data snippet.

Baffin Island, 69˚00`N 72˚00`W, is the largest island in Canada and the fifth largest island in the world, with an area of 507,000 km². It has a population of 11,000 people, most of them living in Iqaluit, which is the capital of the territory Nunavut. Much of the treeless island, and the waters around it, are protected national parks. A mountain ridge goes across the island and the highest peak is Mount Odin, raising 2147 m above sea level. The vast, unspoiled tundra, the mountainous interior, the big glaciers and the hundreds of bays and fjords of the rugged northern coast make Baffin Island to a unique place in the world.

Baffin Island has a typically arctic climate, with short summers and very cold winters where the temperature can drop down to -50 C. The average monthly temperatures are below 0 C for nine months of the year. The sea ice stays around the island throughout the summer and the harbors can just be used a few months every year.

I suspect there are not many tourists clamoring to spend their vacation time on Baffin Island, however that hasn’t stopped Lee from visiting 4 times in the past 10 years. The area has become more popular among trekkers’ and cross country skiers over the last few years. This only reiterates the fact that Lee is not your average person, nor your average BASE jumper. Seems fitting that a man who claims his favorite meal as “anything that crawls, flies or swims” would set his sights on Baffin Island’s big walls. His first expedition came in 1999. I asked Lee what draws him to Baffin Island. “Oh, man. That’s an open ended question, “Where the hell does one start?” What draws BASE jumpers there? It is the big cliffs? (I mean really big cliffs.) Some of the biggest cliffs in the world if not the biggest… we are talking 6000 foot cliffs. The whole NE coast of the island is cut with Fjords just like in Norway. There are valleys with ten times the vertical cliff face of Yosemite in California with 25 Fiords on that side of the island.” Lee has traveled solo to the island, having to ship 400lbs of food alone and equipment, along with a rifle to protect himself from the Polar Bears. Spending three months at a time solo in the Arctic is no easy feat and takes plenty of planning and preparation. One could easily add “survivalist” to Lee’s name alongside “adventurer” and “explorer.”

Lee replied to the question of marital status as such, “Are you joking? Who would have me?” When I pressed him on the matter, as there are many other skydivers, BASE jumpers and climbers who are happily married I received this explanation as part of my introduction into the world of the skydiving Drop Zones.

“Being a skydiver is a big liability relationship-wise; being a BASE jumper even more so. You spend all of your time out on little tiny airports in the middle of nowhere. The sport is 85% male and that’s if you are lucky. The 15% of females are married to a jumper or they’re there because they are dating a jumper. Very rarely does a single female show up at a drop zone wanting to learn how to jump. Females that do come out to the drop zone or become divorced from their attachment, usually find themselves surrounded by a group of men humping their leg. A woman that might be considered a 6 on a scale of 10 suddenly becomes a 10 at a drop zone. Young single men with good jobs and significant disposable income will be fighting over her attention. Now this may be all well and good for the female, but for us men that aren’t exactly A-list material, it’s a fucking death nail.” I chuckled at Lee’s explanation, but he insists “it’s the truth — a young boy wandering onto the drop zone and then like Rip Van Winkle, I wake up single at 36 years old and it’s like “how did I get here?” Besides the trips to Baffin Island, sailing, traveling, his shop, BASE jumping and skydiving, Lee named these 5 Random facts.

  • Never consumed Alcohol
  • I dip my chocolate chip cookies in vanilla pudding
  • I enjoy old Science fiction movies
  • I am old school and still indulge in text adventure games
  • As a child I spent countless hours searching for the door that would take me to the land of Narnia, after having read “The Lion, Witch, and Wardrobe”

He doesn’t have a favorite jumper. Instead he looks to the founding fathers of BASE for their foresight “to actually figure all the technical aspects of BASE, and who, with all that reasoning had the faith to hurl their selves from a cliff.” Lee’s jump philosophy: “I try to enjoy what I’m doing, that being the point of doing it. I try to not to die while doing it as that would reduce the enjoyment.” Right there folks is a “Lee-ism.” He is a fountain of information and being a card carrying BASE jumper he is chock full of opinions and yes, “Lee-isms.” He considers his biggest weakness in life and BASE jumping to be “cowardice” and offers this advice to newbie’s, “Don’t make the big mistake of seeing what other people do and thinking it’s not dangerous because they make it look easy and don’t die while doing it. Be afraid.” After all, his final thought prior to jumping is “Shiiiittt” after creating “a flow chart of the possible errors and corrections that need to be made in the jump.”

Rigger Lee claims his life isn’t organized to a point of having goals. He prefers to drift along from one interest to the next, like a ship sailing with the current. “I never really know where I will wind up going, or doing for that matter. All the past currents in my life have lead me to some interesting places and situations. One of the problems I experience with drifting is at times you can be carried over the falls, but it can be one of hell of ride. Today’s currents continue to take me to places yet explored and I have no reason to believe my life will be any less interesting tomorrow then it was yesterday.”

When Hank Caylor discovered that Rigger Lee agreed to his own interview, he can be found saying, “Rigger Lee is a freakin’ great choice. The whole world will finally know the mad genius that is Lee! This will be goooooood.” If there is a “mad genius” that is Lee, it is the way he has managed to live his life one moment, one day at a time all while remaining true to his passions and himself. An enigma? Defiantly. If you were Lee would you give away all your secrets?

Quick questions with Lee:

Q: What do you feel is your contribution to BASE?
A: I have spread the word and educated BASE jumpers about Baffin Island.

Q: What makes you unique to BASE?
A: Few people are as foolish as I am.

Q: What will your epitaph read?
A: “I can’t believe he did that”

Q: Of all your jumps is there one that stands out?
A: First Antenna. La Marto, Titon, hang over hill.

Q: What has been your life’s greatest achievement?
A: I don’t think that I have achieved it yet.

Q: What is your current dream BASE jump?
A: Getting naked with the “Baffin Babes.”

Q: Why do you think Hank chose you to be the next interview?
A: He just wants to hear stories about Baffin Island.

Q: Who do you chose as the next interview subject?
A: Walt Apel

Q: What is your favorite Science fiction movie?
A: The Men in Space Series

Lee’s Statistics:

  • Age: 36
  • Marital Status: Single
  • Location: Whitewright, Texas
  • Number of Jumps: a few hundred
  • Year of first Jump: 1993
  • Container: Rigger Lee Special
  • Canopy: Maveric or Peg

All rights reserved. No republication of this material, in any form or medium, is permitted without express permission of the author.

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