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BASE jumping on skis — Utah is haven for extreme sport

When Rick Sylvester skied off the cliff of Canada's Mount Asgard and popped his parachute for the beginning sequence of the James Bond movie, "The Spy Who Loved Me," he not only succeeded in performing one of greatest stunts in film history, but also introduced the sport of ski BASE jumping.

Sylvester died eight years later while jumping from a cliff in Norway, but decades later, extreme skiers took another look and thought, "I can do that."

Utah has become a destination haven for BASE jumpers and ski BASE jumpers, largely because of the vast amount of Bureau of Land Management land where jumpers can do so legally.

Ski BASE jumping sites are hard to come by for two reasons. Not only do you need several hundred feet of drop, you also need a ramp to ski down.

There are a couple of excellent ski BASE jumping sites up Little Cottonwood Canyon. "Hellgate," across from Snowbird and Alta, and "Devil's Castle" above Albion Basin, are two dubiously named sites for such an extreme sport. Another favorite area is located just above the small town of Echo, just north of I-80.

A handful of skiers jump hundreds of feet into the air from the same red cliffs that Brigham Young sent armed men to hide behind while watching for Johnston's Army more than 150 years ago. In all, for simple BASE jumping, there are almost 20 cliffs within an hour of Salt Lake City, including Provo Canyon above Springville and Rock Canyon above BYU.

Max Kuszaj is a skier who moved to Utah because of the snow quality while attending the University of Utah. He now makes a living as an extreme/freestyle skier with several sponsors and a long list of credits. Kuszaj estimates there are about half a dozen ski BASE jumpers living in Utah and about 25 BASE jumpers, with many traveling from out-of-state to jump.

Like most BASE jumpers who come from a skydiving background, as a skier Kuszaj did more than 100 sky dives just so he could tackle his goal of ski BASE jumping. Kuszaj says that ski BASE jumping is much more dangerous than BASE jumping because you must also have excellent skiing skills, as there is a critical entry right before hitting the cliff and the fact that wind resistance from the skis and the weight on your feet can turn you around and spin you into the cliff.

In addition, most BASE jumpers and skydivers descend with their belly facing the earth, but when ski BASE jumping you are in a perpendicular standing position, often with a few flips in between.

Last year, Kuszaj crashed into the wall above Echo, but was able to use his canopy skills to turn around and fly back down before landing and being taken to the emergency room. This winter he took a "redemption jump" and successfully mastered the landing. Before each jump, he repeats the mantra, "I cannot fall. I cannot fall."

One of the only true Utah "natives" and the only active female ski BASE jumper in the world is 22-year-old Suzanne Graham. After playing soccer at Olympus High, she started skiing professionally in "Big Mountain" competitions, modeling for clothing and ski movies while being supported by several corporate sponsors. When Graham saw ski BASE-ing in a movie she thought, "That is the coolest thing ever. I want to do that."

For her, it combines the two things she loves the most — flying and skiing. "A 50-foot cliff isn't quite as scary now that I have jumped from 500 feet," she explains. "But it has made me make better decisions as a skier. There are some 50-foot drops that are safe while there are 20-foot cliffs that are too dangerous."

As exciting as watching a James Bond escape, or the footage on extreme sports films or on YouTube, it is nothing compared to watching it in person. It is so radical it stuns your sensibilities and simply leaves you in awe. One can only imagine what it must be for those who actually do it.

E-mail: smart@desnews.com