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Tahoe Gives You Wings

Breeding Local BASE Jumpers
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There’s really no denying that the Tahoe community’s influence on the wide world of sports is both notable and diverse. Hosting an Olympics assured that 50 years ago. Yet many might pigeonhole Tahoe as a bastion for standard-setting skiers and snowboarders and little else. Those folks obviously never spent a day at 'Death Camp.'

Whether you call it a hobby, a sport or a passion, the art of ‘BASE’ jumping (leaping off tall buildings, antennaes, bridges, and cliffs using a parachute) is an international athletic pursuit with a lot more roots in Tahoe than you might think. Our fallen hero Shane McConkey’s contribution to BASE jumping is widely known, but even he had the parachute passed to him by other locals.

The first Tahoe BASE jumping star was stunt skier Rick Sylvester who skied off Canada’s Mount Asgard in 1976 for the ski chase sequence of the James Bond movie 'The Spy Who Loved Me.' Sylvester’s stunt gave the world its very first look at not only BASE jumping, but ski-BASE where the jumper launches off a ski jump at the top of the cliff.

The next local BASE legend arrived on the scene in the early ‘90s — Frank 'the Gambler' Gambalie. Frank the Gambler was undoubtedly one of the most daring athletes Tahoe has ever known and was responsible for exposing BASE jumping to the mainstream media. He was the first American BASE jumper to be sponsored by Red Bull, and the Obermeyer posters of him ski-BASE jumping were hung proudly on many local bar and bedroom walls. You may think you’re hard-core because you work for a resort, get a free pass, and ski whenever you want, but Gambalie got a job as a Squaw Valley Cable Car security guard so that he could BASE jump off the Tram Car undetected, which he did nearly every day he worked according to those that knew him well.

Before Gambalie’s tragic post-jump drowning while trying to evade Yosemite Park Police in 1999, he was able to mentor and influence several other local BASE jumpers including Miles Daisher, Greg Nevelo, and McConkey, all of whom went on to become members of the elite Red Bull Airforce whose exploits continue to define the sport.

McConkey made his mark taking the niche of ski-BASE to new levels. He skied off a bunch of huge cliffs in Europe and did the first double back–flip ski-BASE jump, but he also pioneered several comparably tiny local jump locations that were arguably more daring efforts including Lover’s Leap down in South Lake Tahoe.

The passion and energy McConkey held for BASE jumping was not lost upon his passing in 2009. McConkey passed the torch to his good friend and Squaw Valley resident JT Holmes on the Red Bull team and also introduced dozens of virgin locals to BASE by offering friends an experience he called 'Death Camp.' Joining McConkey for a day at Death Camp meant he would take you down to the Foresthill Bridge in Auburn and guide you through your first BASE jump — no previous skydiving experience required.

Rolling back into the present tense, Tahoe is now home to both BASE jumping professionals like Holmes and Daisher, as well as hundreds of local folks who jump for fun and the seemingly hopelessly addictive rush of human flight. To help pass on this local athletic tradition and inspire both fledgling and would-be local BASE jumpers I wanted to finish off with a quick overview of the industry-recommended training regiment for learning to BASE jump.

The new standard is that you need to have completed 150 to 200 skydives to be eligible to purchase BASE jumping equipment from most manufacturers. That said, your first step towards a BASE career is to go to one of the skydiving centers in Lodi, Calif., and start skydiving out of planes — a lot. Once you have established yourself as a competent and experienced skydiver, you can enroll in one of several 'First BASE Jump Courses' that are offered in the U.S. Leaving such a course you’ll have a half-dozen BASE jumps under your belt.

It goes without saying that BASE jumping is inherently an EXTREMELY dangerous sport and small mistakes can become fatal mistakes in a heartbeat. For that reason you can never have too much experience in preparation for when some aspect of your jump goes awry, be it a sudden gust of wind or an equipment malfunction. This is where the role of the mentor comes in and why most successful BASE jumpers have been nurtured and encouraged by another passionate jumper. Once you’ve planted your feet firmly in the world of BASE jumping, learning first hand from a trusted friend who can pass on rich and detailed instruction is the preferred path towards the farther reaches of the discipline including wingsuit flying and ski-BASE.

If you have even a vague interest in starting this BASE jumping progression, I highly recommend that you pick up a copy of a new BASE jumping reference book by Matt Gerdes, 'The Great Book Of Base.' Between jaw-dropping images and no-punches-pulled descriptions of the ever present dangers, you’ll either start packing for Lodi the minute you’re done reading the last page or you’ll put it down with your hands shaking, never to contemplate jumping again. 'The Great Book of Base' is available online at

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Reader comments so far...

Lucila (not verified)
"I really liked the way Seth chose to describe the history of the sport, the background, the heroes..!!! I loved the phrase "rolling back to the present tense" and in this present encourage those who are passionate about BASE jumping to go for their dream! Thank you for the informative story written with such passion!"

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June 14, 2018