Lee “RiggerLee” Hardesty: Welcome To BASE Story

The following is a story that Rigger Lee shared with me one evening when we were discussing BASE jumping. I had just learned of Space’s one eventful experience of a BASE trip where the injury occurred minus the jump and thought there may be more of them from other jumpers.

Sure enough, Rigger Lee had his own tale of how the trip to go BASE jumping turned out more dangerous then the jump.

Let me tell you a story. It’s about the closest that I ever came to dying on a BASE jump trip. This is back in the mid ninety’s. So I’m a young BASE jumper. I’m a rigger, sewing and building my own BASE rigs and jumping the shit out of the local A’s in Texas. I’d never done a cliff jump, so I’m out in Eloy. That’s a town in AZ but there’s also a big dropzone there named Skydive Arizona, but everybody calls it Eloy. I’m there during the Christmas/New Years boogie, a big deal, and I meet this guy Kevin. He is a big guy, a rigger, packer, and BASE jumper building his own containers, just like me. He’s running the rigging loft there at Eloy and is busy as hell. I’m talking to him and I’m begging, pleading with him to take me to a cliff while I’m out that way. He telephones Marta and she vouches for me. He’s swamped during the boogie but when it was finally over he’s ready for a break; I weasel my way onto a trip he and some other people are taking to Moab. Moab was not well known then and the sites were still kind of a secret. This was like being invited into the inner circle.

Several people are going and taking different vehicles and I wind up in Kevin’s van. I have to describe this to you, it was a piece of work and this is relevant to the story. It was a big full size Ford van and it’s absolutely stripped bare to the metal walls and flat cargo floor. There were two seats and I seem to recall that there were no seatbelts. The outside was even better. No paint. There was some primer left but there seemed to be a couple of different shades of it implying a mixed heritage for different parts of the van. Everything else had been sand blasted off by the blowing dust or peeled off by the desert sun of Eloy. In fact you couldn’t see through the wind shield if the sun was at the right angle. You were fine as long as the sun was behind you. The tires were as bare as Venthers head. You don’t know him but Mike Venther shaves his head as bald as a cue ball. Again this will be relevant later. So I finish my walk around inspection of the vehicle as big Kevin walks up and climbs in. “So are you coming or not?” I’m actually not a very bright person so I toss my rig and bed roll in the back and climb in. So begins my first BASE trip.

The journey starts out well enough. We’re bullshitting and getting to know each other. We’re talking about BASE jumping and the places we’re going. We’re both riggers and the conversations soon become more technical. We’re both building rigs, talking about different canopies and canopy design. He’s telling me about his Fox, built for him by Basic Research, that would be Anne and Todd, and how they were the only ones that would build him a, I think, it was a 280 sq. ft canopy. He was a big boy. So I’m telling him about some of the things I was playing with in my designs. A break line slider to control the break lines, this was before the tailgate had really come into prominence. People were doing a lot of funky things back then. It worked; but the tailgate was easier, simpler, i.e. better.

I start telling him about this canopy that I had built for me. There was an old guy, dead now, here in Texas near Dallas that built canopies. Well I talked him into building me one of his canopies, a Laser, with a few changes. I had him reinforce it, change the trim, shorten the lines, enlarge the stabilizers, and… vent it on the bottom skin. Basically I wanted it to be more stable in deep breaks and recover from a stall faster. If I hit a building head on I wanted it to be able to pressurize from the bottom skin not just the nose which would be against the wall. I wanted it to be able to fly backwards and then recover to full flight faster. So I had him put these open slot vents in the bottom skin between the B and the C lines. I’ll spare you the details but we talked a lot about this. I was excited about the idea. Now I wasn’t jumping this canopy on this trip. I was having trouble tuning the break setting and wasn’t happy with the openings. I think we made the lines a little too short. But hey it was a test platform. I still remember Big Kevin’s response to all this. He thought it was all very interesting but and I quote “There is no fucking way I’m cutting holes in the bottom of my Fox!”

We run into “THE ICE STORM”. Yes it deserves caps. It started as we approached Flagstaff. “Once we make it past Flagstaff we’ll be alright.” No. Not by a long shot. Turns out we had run into the storm of the century. This is the desert. They don’t see rain here much less snow and ice. Indian reservations with no road maintenance. No one has chains here. We don’t think we can make it back up to Flagstaff. We keep going. We’re on a mission; one could deem it, a “mission from God”. We’re losing speed on the up hills. The tires are spinning. We’re sliding down the other side with Kevin screaming like a little girl. Forget the breaks. We keep going. I’m just setting there as he fights to save us at every turn literally. I get bored. I’m trying to talk to him. He finally notices and tells me in no uncertain terms that he hasn’t heard anything I’ve said. He’s covered with sweat in the icy van. I go back to reading my book. The Iliad. The wind is blowing. The van has more sail area then my 37 ft boat and weighs less than a child’s toy wagon. It’s a cross wind. I learn there’s a limit to how long you can be scared. After that you just get bored. I looked up when I heard the shrill scream to see us sliding sideways down the road, in the wrong lane; I look to my right out my side window at an oncoming eighteen wheeler. I go back to reading my book. I wonder when Achilles is going to get off his ass and get back into this war. Kevin must have gotten us back into our lane or the semi traded with us. I can hear his panting. It’s snowing heavily. The sun is going down. God decides we need more challenges. There’s something wrong with the van. Did I mention that there is no anti freeze in it? He hadn’t bothered to mention that to me before this point. There also seems to be an electrical problem. The headlights aren’t working or at least they’re very dim. Now the semi tractor trailers can’t see us anymore. Well that’s all to the good as they won’t be scared now. No point in worrying them needlessly, our shell of a van will just crush flat under their wheels. I don’t think we would injure them and look what all that stress and anxiety is doing to poor Kevin. We make it to an oasis in the middle of nowhere called Cameron, now famous for the Little Colorado, but unknown then.

We stayed the night there at this nice hotel in the middle of fucking nowhere. I think we were the only guest in the whole place. Had a very good meal and did our best to repair the van working with two little crescent wrenches. No rigger is without his wrench. I can’t believe Kevin got grease on my nice clean rigging tool. The crusade of 95 or whatever year it was ended there. The forces of good were turned back by the insurmountable adversities of the weather and mechanical failure. Now getting back was just as bad. It had stopped snowing but the roads were just as bad. We made it to Flagstaff and were stopped at the first place we could to buy chains. We went to all the trouble to buy chains put them on the van in the freezing cold. I think there was frostbite. It was at a turn and no shit, as we turned onto the main road we realized we no longer needed the chains. This was a major road. They had sand and plows and well, we didn’t need chains any more in fact they were causing a major vibration. I mean bad. We couldn’t go more than fifty mph. I thought the whole rear end was going to come apart.

In our defense I must say that we were both lowlander. He was from Eloy. I was from Texas. Neither of us had ever owned or driven with chains before. So we decided to pull over and take them off. More frostbite. The story gets better. The sun is going down again. We’re past the worst of the ice but the lights don’t work. We decide to pull in behind a semi and tail gate him all the way back home. He at least has lights. We can see his taillights it will keep us on the road and he’ll stop for or flatted anything in the way for us and hopefully the cops won’t see us behind him. Also a semi is tall enough that cars behind hopefully will see the lights on the top of his trailer above us and not hit us from behind. It was a good plan and it worked. Brought us all the way home to Eloy and so ended my first BASE jumping trip with not one jump made. “Welcome to BASE.”

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