A Bystander Saves a BASE Jumper’s Life
A climber in the right place at the right time leads a daring rescue of a BASE jumper stranded high on a cliff.
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River Barry, a climber in the right place at the right time, leads a daring rescue of a BASE jumper stranded high on a cliff.
Host: Most of us view our outdoor adventures as something we do for ourselves. While not necessarily solitary, we climb those peaks, scale those walls, and sleep in the dirt for our own benefit. Some practitioners of more extreme sports like climbing, high-alpine expeditions, and BAE jumping are even accused of selfishness.
This refrain is all too common after an athlete’s untimely death in the mountains. But for the majority of us, we balance our tolerance for risk by acquiring the necessary skills to keep ourselves safe. We practice our knots, self arresting, and first aid in order to protect ourselves and our partners, but without much thought for the greater good.
But the skills we’re quietly mastering with each expedition can turn into superpowers. When a crisis arises, we might just find that the resume we’ve been building makes us exactly the right person to help a stranger in need.
River: My name is River Barry. I’m a mental health therapist. I have a passion for the outdoors. I used to work in wilderness therapy, so a lot of crisis response and emotional first aid happening there.
Justin: My name is Justin Beitler. I’m based in Las Vegas, Nevada. I’m a bass jumper and a pilot.
River: I would say that I love climbing more than anything else. I do. I started logging climbs in 2019, but I don’t just climb. I like to rotate sports. So in the warmer seasons, I’m mountain biking and route climbing, and then in the colder seasons, I’m ice climbing and splitboarding.
Justin: I was in Moab for Thanksgiving. A bunch of friends and I had gone there to go BASE jumping.
And if you don’t know what BASE jumping is, it’s jumping with a parachute. But instead of jumping out of an airplane, you jump off of a fixed object. So a BASE is actually an acronym that stands for Building Antenna Span (being a bridge) and Earth (being a cliff).
Host: Moab, Utah is an outdoor enthusiast’s mecca.
Although the town itself is only 5 square miles, cooler months bring an onslaught of adventurers due to its proximity to endless miles of desert hiking, mountain biking, canyoneering, rock climbing, whitewater rafting, dramatic red rock scenery, cheap camping, and two national parks. The week of last Thanksgiving, Justin was in town during the annual local BASE jumping festival: Turkey Boogie 2022.
And River was visiting Moab after having spent some time climbing in nearby Indian Creek, one of the most iconic desert climbing destinations for signature crack climbing on sandstone towers.
River: I had just left Indian Creek that morning. We were driving out, one of my really good friends came down. She doesn’t really climb too much; we decided we’re gonna go to King Creek and hop on some bikes and get some riding in.
So we had just rolled up, and we were in the parking lot. We were gearing up, got my knee pads on. I had already moved my chain,
Justin: and one of my friends called and they’re like, “Hey, do you want to come on this jump with me?” And I’m saying, “No, I’m really tired.” And they go, “We really want you there. It’ll be a lot of fun if you came.” And I had to roll my eyes and just like, “Fine, I’ll go do this jump.”
Host: The Kane Creek trailhead where River was planning to start her bike ride is also adjacent to a very popular BASE jumping area. From the parking lot. Bikers and hikers can watch people huck themselves off the cliffs above and parachute down to the ground. At the same time River was gearing up, a group of BASE jumpers had assembled at the top of the cliff, including Justin and another one of his friends who was visiting from Australia.
Justin: We get up to the top of this jump and everyone starts putting their gear on and going through the normal rituals. If you’ve never been on a BASE jump before, it’s just an interesting dynamic of all the things that take place before you go on this jump. Everyone, I think, wonders how do you figure out who’s gonna go first?
What is it like? It’s really tense. You’re all about to jump off of this cliff, which is a little bit of a crazy thing to do. It’s really scary. Generally, everyone’s just kind of terrified and walking around. pretending like they’re not terrified, but everyone knows everyone else is terrified.
River: I was doing tire pressure; everything was ready to go. Literally we’re about to pedal away, type of deal.
Justin: I kind of lined up, did the jump. Everything felt good. Right after you open your parachute, your mood changes from being terrified to just being super ecstatically happy, like you survived some big traumatic event or something.
I’m celebrating on the way down. Right about that time, I looked up at the cliff to see my other friend jumping, and you knew right away that it wasn’t gonna be good. When you’re jumping with a parachute off cliffs, there’s only a few things that can really go wrong. One of them is your parachute opening facing the wrong direction.
You need to try to respond quickly and turn the parachute and turn it away from the cliff and fly away from the cliff. The problem is we really don’t have much time to do that. The only distance that you have from the cliff is how hard you ran off of it or pushed off of it, and you might have a couple seconds to try to reach up, get the controls of your parachute.
His parachute opened backwards and it spun his body just a little bit. When he reached up, his controls weren’t in the spot where he was expecting them to be, and so he hit the cliff and he hit the cliff pretty hard. And so now you’re in a position where your parachute’s still trying to fly forward into the cliff and it can’t do that.
So it just rags down the cliff all the way toward the ground, and then his parachute caught on a sort of an outcropping of rock.
River: This person is hanging up in the air just delicately. It looks fragile, the situation. And I remember so vividly. Instantly praying, like I don’t really believe in organized religion, but I’m a very spiritual person and I just say, Great Divine, please help this person.
In no way did I think that I was going to be part of it, really at that point in time because I just didn’t understand how I could be part of it.
Host: The Australian BASE jumper was dangling about 80 feet up the cliff wall held only by his parachute, which had snagged on a ledge.
Justin: It’s time to get into gear and start helping. So I put all my gear down and I just started running up to the cliff. I don’t even really know what I thought I was gonna do, but I just felt like I needed to get up there. I needed to start gathering information and figuring things out. I see my friend up there, he’s not moving, not moving at all, and the first thought that I had was, he may be a goner.
It was really kind of a scary moment that you didn’t hear anything, you didn’t see anything. My brain just kind of went into this mode of gathering resources. I have a friend that has a rope. I have another friend that’s got some harnesses. The one thing that we don’t have that we really need is some trad gear, some rock climbing gear.
Host: Justin thought that in theory someone could climb up the rock to his friend, but without trad gear or pieces of hardware that a climber places in the rock, they had no way to protect against a fall.
Justin: Right about that time, one of my other buddies arrived on the scene and I told him, “Okay, I’ve gotta, I’ve gotta go stay here with our friend. If he wakes up, keep him calm, tell him not to move, he can’t move around too much, or he might fall.” And that was really the thing I was worried the most about this. I didn’t know what was holding him up. If he moved around, maybe that parachute’s gonna slip, and he might fall.
River: And then all of a sudden a stranger just runs up to me; he’s standing by my van and he just starts asking, not just me, but everybody in the parking lot. “Does anybody have rock climbing gear?”
Justin: And that’s when this girl just piped up from across the parking lot, “Okay, I’ve got gear. What do you need?” And that was River.
River: I had a double rack. I’d just come from Indian Creek plus I had my van of all my things and I had a couple harnesses and what used to be a 70 meter but now is a 69 meter rope and grabbed all my gear, put it in a creek pack and he just took the pack and ran away.
It was crazy. Now I think about it and I’m like, “I just gave a stranger thousands and thousands of dollars worth of my gear. That’s crazy.” And he was just, “Meet me up there and at this time.” I’m like, “This dude must be some crusher trad climber, and he’s gonna go save this dude. I’m gonna go to belay him and help out.”
I had this instinct to just run with him, but then I was like, “Wait a second. I’m in biking gear. I need to take a minute to breathe and put on climbing gear and pack some food, some water, a puffy, first aid stuff.” Just take a minute to make sure I was taking care of me also, so I could help out in the best way possible.
I had not even gotten Justin’s name yet, but the stranger that I had briefly met in the parking lot was there, and I was just like, “Okay, cool. We’re gearing up.” I get everything out of my pack. “I just wanna let you know this is what my climbing resume looks like. I just want you to know I’m a safe belayer. What’s your resume look like?”
Justin: I told her, I said, “Look, I’m just planning on aiding this thing, meaning that I’m just gonna put slings and anything that I can and basically build myself a ladder to climb the gear and not the rock.”
River: And I’m looking at his plan and I’m like, “Oh, that doesn’t make any sense.”
host: River began to realize that unlike her, Justin didn’t have much experience placing his own gear or climbing desert cracks. The route up to the injured BASE jumper looked dirty and filled with loose rock. Clearly no one had ever climbed it, but it was a perfect crack, just like the one she’d just been climbing in Indian Creek, and it led directly to the injured BASE jumper.
River: And then I just all of a sudden hop into this go mode. This incredible state of being where you just don’t think, all you do is just do what you need to get done. It’s so beautiful that the human body has the ability to do this, and it still shocks me to this day.
Justin: And she was all of a sudden this ball of confidence that she just started barking orders of, “All right, Justin, you’ve got this harness on. I need that one. Take it off. We’re switching harnesses.” There’s another guy there. She says, “Okay, you need to go over there, start getting my rope flaked out.” So I get ready to climb and I need those shoes, and she’s just, “Boom, here we go.” This is the person that we need to lead this charge to go get my friend.
River: I walk up to the crack and I’m not trying to be below it too much as I tie into the rope because I don’t want the BASE jumper to fall on me, and I tie in and walk up to the crack, ready to climb. Before I climbed I was just like, “Wait a second.” And I look at Justin. I’m like, “What’s your name? What’s this guy’s name up there?” And I just pray for the three of us.
Justin: Please just watch over us. Watch over my friend. And I was just really impressed by that. I’m not particularly a religious or spiritual person. I was really impressed that we’re in this position where there’s a lot of pressure to move quickly. It’s really tense, and it’s really scary, and she was totally in control. I’m gonna do things on my terms. I’m gonna do them when I’m ready to do them.
River: I wasn’t thinking about anything other than just going, we had a brief plan of if the BASE jumper was falling from the air that Justin would yell, “rock,” and I would tuck into the rock.
Justin: You just had to block it outta your mind. It would’ve been pretty catastrophic. Some 150 pound guy or 180 pound guy falls 80 feet on top of you. It’s probably not gonna end well, and that was about all we said because if you start talking about the reality of the situation, which is you’re probably going to get really hurt or maybe even killed if this guy falls, it’s a little bit overwhelming.
River: I just planned on not looking at all whatsoever and the thought came and I made the plan for myself, but then I pushed it away and just did what I needed to get done. As I start going up, it just becomes so clear that this crack had never been touched before by humans.
It was just so covered in sand. There are rocks pulling off that I’m not expecting to come off. It’s just chausey. I’m pushing giant rocks into the cracks so that they don’t fall on Justin, who doesn’t have a helmet on because I only had the one and it was pretty delicate. As I go up, about halfway up I was pretty stoked to hear breathing. It was like, “Oh, he is alive.” We didn’t actually really fully know, or at least I remember questioning it and I remember just yelling to him as I was going up. “You’re a badass.” I would just yell something similar to that. “You got this, I’m coming for you.”
Justin: She just got into the zone and was on it. It was like any other day of climbing, and I’ll never forget every time he would wake up, then she starts caring for him and you could hear her look up at him and just say, “Hey man, just, you’re gonna be alright.”
River: Once I was going up and almost to him,
Justin: my friend starts coming in and out of consciousness, and it’s clear that something’s on with him because he just starts screaming in pain.
I guess we figured out at that time he has probably broken his leg. And you would wake up and scream and talk about his leg and then he would pass out again.
River: When he started begging me to help him out, stress flooded me, and I started to really feel I was starting to rush.
Justin: You could see her body start getting a little bit tense. You could hear her breathing start coming up. She’s starting to get, rushed.
Host: We will be right back.
Now let’s get back to the episode.
River: I had to really tune him out, completely stop listening to what he was saying. And in response, I just started a mantra out loud. And this was around the time I was trying to figure out the last anchor. And I was like, “Take your time, place safe gear, take your time, place safe gear.”
And I just had to completely stop listening to him.
Justin: And right about then is when I think Search and Rescue started to show up.
River: I think a huge part of this experience was the helicopter had come in a little too early. It was really time sensitive because we didn’t know if it was gonna keep holding. The more pain that the BASE jumper became in, the more shifting he was doing and trying to get the weight off of his leg, and we were really worried it was gonna just knock him off.
So I don’t ever want it to sound like “Wow. The helicopter really messed up.” But in the moment, I can’t communicate with my belayer. There’s sand blasting me in the face. I’m just getting blasted. I can’t make upward progression at all because my belayer has me tight on my last piece and I can’t move at all.
And then we’ve got the delicacy of this parachute just hanging out on this corner of this lip and a windstorm is coming in from the helicopter.
Justin: So it was, it was pretty tenuous but I’m trying to keep belaying River and telling people like, “Please wave the helicopter to go away.” And finally the helicopter crew saw us and waved off.
But that certainly brought the energy level of everybody up pretty high. I just kept having this image in my mind that he was gonna fall, and so shortly after that, River arrived at my friend, built an anchor, and she just started asking me like, “Okay, what do I do?” So we start just giving her directions. “You take this thing. Clip it into this part of his harness. That’s a load-bearing piece.” Just trying to explain to her as efficiently as possible which pieces she could clip, what things to do.
River: Then I was able to clip him in as soon as possible to like a couple pieces and equalized him,
Justin: And it was just, I can’t even describe the feeling that I had as soon. As you heard the clip of that carabiner connected to his harness and I knew he’s gonna be safe. Because even if he falls, he’s got something that’s gonna catch him. It was a really, really powerful moment.
River: I knew I needed to get higher still because to transfer the weight to me appropriately, I would need to be a bit higher than him so that when he swung down, it was the smallest drop possible.
I felt really confident in this anchor and was able to equalize it nicely and get myself on it. I don’t really have any formal rescue training, but I had spent some time with a self rescue book in the past, and I remember reading about really wanting the victim between your legs when you’re lowering them.
Pulling from some of that background knowledge, I was like, “Okay, I know that I need him between my legs below me.” So I get him, I get a locker and a double link sling connected to my belay loop. And then with Justin talking to me from the ground, he was able to guide me to know what to clip on the BASE jumper’s harness, and was able to secure him to my belay loop that way.
Host: Now River and the BASE jumper were both anchored into the wall with climbing gear and attached to one another by their harnesses. Now they had to disconnect him from the stuck parachute and lower him down to the ground.
River: And then it came to be a moment of truth in some ways. The BASE jumper had a knife on him, which was super helpful because he was conscious to hand me the knife, which was really great. It was the time to start cutting ropes. And the parachute is this spaghetti mess all over his body.
Justin: I just said, look, all of these lines need to be cut. What ensued was a scene out of a cartoon where you just have a character who just erupts into this ball of arms and dust flying everywhere, and there were just little bits of line just shooting out from the wall like they had been shot out of a cannon.
River: And then it came to those last three strands that were like taut and holding all of his weight.
Justin: And she kind of looked down at me like, “You’re sure I should be cutting these lines?” Okay, one last check. “Go ahead and cut the line.”
River: And I remember really not wanting to clip them. Everything in my body says don’t do this, but I have to do it right this second. There’s no other choice. And I cut him and
Justin: he dropped down not that far, just a few inches, and suddenly he’s weighted onto her, got all the gear held, and the parachute slipped right off the rock. I remember looking up and getting this feeling, and all of a sudden I would think to myself, “Gosh, I think it’s starting to rain, but I don’t see any clouds around here. Oh, it’s not rain. I’m getting covered in a lot of blood right now.”
River: We were able to sit in that spot to get ready for the lower. He’s in a lot of pain at this point, so we’re just trying to move as quickly but as efficiently as possible. His legs are pretty beat up, and he’s got some injuries to his face.
I remember the urgency of the situation was really starting to hit. I got eye level with him and he was like, “You need to help me get the weight off of this leg.” I’m trying to keep his body upright because he’s on a weight-bearing loop that’s on his right part of his chest, so it’s got him sideways. I’m trying my best to keep him as upright as possible, but also trying to be mindful of his leg hitting the wall. At one point he screamed and I realized his leg had touched the wall in a way, or got caught on the wall. And I was like, “Oh my gosh; this poor dude.” And so I’m trying to control it as much as possible.
And there’s some videos of me talking to him and I’m like, “We’re almost done. We’re almost done. We’re going to have a beer after this and we’re going to laugh about it. We’re gonna be friends after this.” So I think it’s funny; I knew that this person was gonna be someone I was gonna be so connected with. Once we got to the ground, I was relieved.
Wow. We did it.
Justin: There was a medic there. There were a bunch of our friends that were military, medically trained guys. Everyone, they had already been spending all this time formulating their own plan of when he gets down, they had assigned tasks, who was gonna do what. They were really well prepared.
River: I just remember my whole body is already vibrating at that point and Justin kinda wraps his arms around me in this big old hug.
Justin: Just told her, “Hey, it’s over. You did it. You got him down. He’s safe.”
River: At that moment, I was just like, “Wow. That’s crazy to hear.”
Justin: I think she knew at that point she had done her job. She had done a great job. I just remembered just being so thankful that she was there and that she was willing to do all of this for us.
River: It didn’t really fully hit me until more hugs came and more thank yous came at the scene. I had to wait around to see A) if I could help anymore, but B) to get my gear back from the climb. And so while I was hanging around and the medical team’s preparing him for the helicopter to get medevacked, all of his friends just came up giving hugs and thank yous, that’s when I was just like, “Oh my gosh. I think this is a big deal.”
Justin: They airlifted him out to the hospital in Grand Junction. It turns out he had had a pretty nasty break to his right femur, so they had to put him into surgery and it was about a day of doing surgeries and recoveries and everything before he came out and we could see him again.
River: I hung out with all of his friends quite a bit, which was amazing. What a beautiful way to process such a challenging thing is to be there with people that were there and people that really understood this very intense experience. I did a lot of journaling because it feels so important to get it right.
Every little detail feels so important. I just think it’s crazy that it feels like everything was so perfectly aligned. It felt like I was supposed to be there. And that he was supposed to live, and so many little things line up for that. When I was at the van, I could have been gone pedaling away five minutes after that. If it had happened five minutes later, I wouldn’t have been in that parking lot. There’s little other things; I had just learned how to aid climb I think two weeks before the rescue, which gave me the skills needed to progress in an efficient manner up to him.
Just so many little things that just blow my mind. Wow, this is pretty incredible for all of these things to be in alignment for a really awful situation to go the best possible way.
Host: In a regular episode of Out Alive, this would be the natural end to the story, but while doing some research about BASE jumping in general, I happened to come across a BASE jumper who said they had recently went with River on her first BASE jump. I immediately reached back out to River to find out more.
River: I recently returned back to the route. To do that I really didn’t want a big group of people or anything. I really just wanted Justin, who was my belayer from the rescue. In prepping for going back to the route. Justin was like, “Hey, do you wanna try BASE jumping?”
Well, I’m usually the person to say yes to things, especially new opportunities. I was like, “Yeah, if the conditions are right.” I think it might have been 10 minutes between the text messages, and he’s like, “It’s booked.” And I was like, “Oh wow. That’s actually a different feeling than just talking about it.”
It was actually quite terrifying to think about at the time.
Matt: I run a company called Tandem Base, Moab. I’ve got just over 1500 BASE jumps, 11,000 skydives in 17 years. And it’s taken me around the world, made all kinds of friends, seen all kinds of places, and I wouldn’t trade any of it.
Host: This is Matt, the BASE jumper I just happened to connect with. While this seemed like a huge coincidence, I quickly learned that the BASE jumping community is pretty tight. Not only does Matt own his own company taking people on tandem BASE jumps, but he also works search and rescue. He was called to the scene the day Justin’s friend crashed.
Matt: So Justin contacted me saying, “Do you have any availability for tandems?” I said I do and I had a feeling it was gonna be River. I’m pretty active in the Moab BASE jumping scene. I heard what was happening. I was in the parking lot watching her climb. I had not met her, heard how it all played out, and thought it was pretty darn awesome. I allowed everyone to take 48 hours and let emotions relax and settle. Then I was like, “Hey, I need to reach out to this person.” This person did BASE jumpers a tremendous solid and I’m just really impressed. So through the magic of social media, I reached out that way, but truly I didn’t actually give her a hug and introduce myself until about a week ago when she ended up doing a BASE jump with us.
River: So I did a tandem BASE jump. So what that means is that I’ve got a full body harness on that BASE jumpers used, and he’s got one on and he clips me to him.
Matt: There I was one Saturday morning, about a month after the rescue, standing there with her about to take her on a BASE jump, which to me it takes tremendous courage and really cool character.
River: I instantly started thinking about all of the possibilities. It’s interesting, when we were at the top, I felt the most triggered by seeing the harnesses, and starting to put the harness on. Instantly, I was back in that place when we pulled out the harnesses and felt my body flood with adrenaline and just had to take a minute. It was time for us to start going towards the edge and I was pretty much just like, “Alright, River. You’re not allowed to think. No thinking at all whatsoever. Only doing.” So in the video, you hear me say, “No thinking, only doing, no thinking, only doing.”
I’m really big on mantras. I definitely never thought that I would BASE jump. I was standing completely on the edge of this cliff. It’s around a 400-foot cliff. It looks similar to the cliff that my new friend had crashed on. And so I’m looking down this 400-foot cliff and just like, “Okay, this is a really intense feeling, but try not to think at all.”
And then we did the countdown and we jumped. All of a sudden it’s like when you’re at a roller coaster and it starts going down, you lose your whole guts. Your guts just drop outta your body type of feeling. It’s that feeling only you feel like you’re dying because you’re just plummeting in air and then the chute pops open, and it is the best feeling in the whole entire world when that chute just pops open.
Host: Working on this story, I couldn’t help find the entire idea of BASE jumping a little ludicrous, but I really wanted to understand. So with 17 years of experience under his belt, I decided to ask Matt, “Do you think that somebody who hasn’t experienced BASE jumping can understand it?”
Matt: Ooh, fully, probably not. I don’t know that you can understand anything that you really haven’t experienced and all you’re doing is judging the book by its cover. I’d say the average person, probably not. No. I think it’s one of those things that you need to sink your teeth into, and maybe it’s in your spirit. I think there’s something, to me it makes total sense when for the average person or the majority of the population, to look at BASE jumping in and say, absolutely not. It’s against every survival instinct we have. Right? I think a lot of people label us adrenaline junkies, and I understand that. For me, I’m in the outdoors, I get to experience places that 99.9% of the population is just never going to go.
The moments before a BASE jump, anything else that’s happening in your life, in your head, in your job, in your relationship, it goes away. Everything needs to be calming. You need to be operating with a super clear mind and you need to focus on the task at hand. If you’re doing it well, and you’re operating within your experience and comfort zone, you find total peace, complete calmness.
It’s just clarity. Nothing else in the universe matters except for you, where you are standing, and what you’re about to do. That’s not to say there’s not always risk involved. I’ve lost friends BASE jumping. Yes, I’ve lost friends in car accidents. I’ve lost a friend to suicide. I’ve lost a friend to cancer. I guess what I know is that we get a finite amount of time here. And what matters to most BASE jumpers is packing that with experience. I think most of us are people that want to think less about the bank account and more about that memory bucket. “Hey, how much did I get out of life?” And that doesn’t mean being overwhelmingly reckless or crazy or mindless. It just means to fill your life with incredible experiences. And that’s certainly what BASE jumping is.
Host: In January, River returned to the scene of the accident and made the first free ascent of the crack, meaning she climbed it under the power of her own body without pulling on gear to aid her ascent. She added a permanent anchor so that others could climb the route and gave it a grade of 5.10+. River named the route “Lifeline.”
River: I don’t have rescue experience. I don’t think I’m the most sendy climber. I’m a competent climber. I’ve done a lot of wonderful things that have equipped me for this and have the skills for this rescue. I wouldn’t say that I was the perfect person for it. I didn’t think I was gonna be part of that.
I wasn’t running up like, “Oh, what can I do to help?” I felt very removed from this situation until Justin came to me. So I’m not saying, “Be like me. I’m exceptional. I’m just saying in general, if you can try to help, help. You don’t have to be a superstar. Joe Schmos can still be helpful, you know.”
This episode of Out Alive was produced and written by me, Louisa Albanese with writing and editing by Zoe Gates. Scoring and Sound Design was by Jason Patton. Additional production by Emma Veidt. Thank you to River Berry, Justin Beitler and Matt Lajeunesse for sharing your stories with us. Thanks to listening to Out Alive, and if you have a backcountry survival story that you’re interested in sharing, you can email me at [email protected]