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North Face of the Eiger #1

North Face of the Eiger #1 by moe Viletto | Blue Skies Magazine i69: September 2015 | http://blueskiesmag.com/2016/10/17/north-face-of-the-eiger-1/
Eric and me after the first Eiger jump.
Written by Moe Viletto

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Originally printed in issue #69 (September 2015) of Blue Skies Magazine.
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In the mid-1980s I was sitting on a picnic table at Perris Valley Skydiving with my very good friend Ralph Eidem. We were eyeing up an older gent doing some stretches and practice pilot chute pulls.

(I say “older;” I was 35 at the time and Ralph 14 years my senior. But those are only chronological numbers. Most of the “numerically older people” I know who jump are ageless. They just keep playing hard with the game of life and adjust as the physical part starts to self-destruct. I know because I worked hard and played hard as a kid. My father’s parents came from a mining family as did my mother’s side. At age 16, I had a home delivery coal route. My dad fronted me 2 grand to build a summer’s stock pile of coal when it was cheap. In winter I would shovel 1.5 tons on to the truck, drive it to school and deliver after. When the stock was gone, I ended up with 2 grand after gas and paying off my dad … Repeat. I always had money compared to others my age. I played hard too; hunting, fishing, kayaking, water and snow skiing, skating, mountain biking, backpacking and I started throwing myself at Mother Earth at age 20 and she hasn’t stopped me yet. But yes, the aches and pains for all the fun and abuse for over 63 years on the planet catches up.)

I got pulled away from the picnic table to answer some rigging questions for a customer. As I was leaving I noticed the older gent approaching Ralph. His name is Eric Jones—a relatively common, somewhat drab old name. But later I found nothing common or drab about this older fellow. In fact Ralph comes off like an ordinary “Joe” as well, but once you get to know the man inside, you will find a very interesting character. Allow me to give you a little insight on these two very special friends.

Ralph

I met Ralph in 1981 when I moved my 10-year-old rigging company, Tailored for Survival, from Pennsylvania to Perris, California. Ralph started jumping in 1978, just before AFF, but he didn’t last long between the archaic equipment and the harsh landings under round canopies. Modern ram-air technology appeared and drew him back into the sport; our friendship began when I started doing his rigging.

Very early in our relationship I was suspicious of him. He was way way too generous to me. It even crossed my mind that he liked little boys i.e., me. But as time went on and I got to know him better, I realized how much of a giver he was.

North Face of the Eiger #1 by moe Viletto | Blue Skies Magazine i69: September 2015 | http://blueskiesmag.com/2016/10/17/north-face-of-the-eiger-1/

Black Death Ralph Eidem at his best.

This guy woke up on his bathroom floor from a near drug overdose in 1974. His pet python and monkey were dead from neglect and he was pretty close to facing ol’ Grim himself. He gathered himself up, got clean and, with his girlfriend Pat Knapp, started a successful insurance company in a rented garage that grew and stands tall to this day.

North Face of the Eiger #1 by moe Viletto | Blue Skies Magazine i69: September 2015 | http://blueskiesmag.com/2016/10/17/north-face-of-the-eiger-1/

Me, Eric, Ralph’s girlfriend Pat Knapp, and Ralph.

The majority of his life is about helping out the other guy. For example, he pulled two soon-to-be gangbangers out of the gutters of Los Angeles, cleaned them up and they run his business today. With their new lifestyle, those two kids put their siblings through school and kept them out of trouble. He has taken jumpers with drug issues and helped them get on track. He serves food at a soup kitchen during the holidays.

For years, I remember him getting his shoes shined—whether they needed it or not—by the same little old man where he got his car washed. He tipped generously, to say the least. Mostly he gave that man time. To this day Ralph visits him in a home and brings him 5-gallon jars of pickles. ‘Cause that’s what the old dude enjoys.

When I broke up with my girlfriend he bought our house so I could keep my shop running, insisting I pay no rent—just to take care of his gear and help keep him alive.

When we met, he asked me to join him to kick Para Gear’s butt as a competitor in the parachute equipment industry. I thanked him but told him I didn’t want to work that hard. He said if I ever needed any help with my growing business to let him know. Only knowing him for a short time I went to him with a business proposal asking for a $10,000 loan so I could get office equipment and stock some gear. He never looked at the proposal. He opened his desk drawer and wrote me a check for 25 grand with no stipulations on paying him back. It scared me more than anything I had ever done. Money is a great way to ruin a friendship. I didn’t let that happen and paid him back quickly.

He is my life coach and he doesn’t even know it. We remain best friends till the end. I could go on and on about his generosity. As this story goes on, you will see how generous of a man he truly is. He is a rare breed for sure.

Ralph got me started BASE jumping in 1984. He said, “Let’s go check out this Bridge Day thing at the New River Gorge in West Virginia.”

I answered, “Ralph, that sounds crazy and besides, I don’t know anything about BASE.” Hardly anyone did at the time.

He replied, “You’re a rigger. Figure out how to keep us alive. I will cover all the costs.”

“OK,” I said, “if the only thing it would potentially cost me is my life, then let’s go!”

To prepare as best we could, we made several balloon jumps to perfect our exits. I modified our skydiving rigs which had round reserves. I made us 52-inch pilot chutes (overkill). I installed RSLs should we need to chop a malfunctioning main. I also installed high mount D-rings on the harnesses to attach hand deployed hang gliding reserves as a last hope of getting out more nylon should our reserves malfunction. I built and installed mesh sliders for a faster main deployment as well as free packed our 9-cell mains using the “Coil of Death” method. I replaced the leg and chest strap hardware with quick ejectors. Should we land in the drink, a simple pull on the hardware would free us from the harness without having to unthread anything. We each had 2 sets of floatation devices: one for the gear and one for the body … dead or alive.

We carried 2 hook knives: one to clear a line over and one to slit our wrists should we chicken out. Time to impact was about eight seconds and we had about 12 seconds of tasks and procedures planned. The running joke was, “We had enough shit to keep us busy ‘til AFTER impact and there would be no time for fear.”

On the day of the jump Ralph said, “Just follow me, Moe, and all will be OK.”

North Face of the Eiger #1 by moe Viletto | Blue Skies Magazine i69: September 2015 | http://blueskiesmag.com/2016/10/17/north-face-of-the-eiger-1/

1984 Bridge Day. Dropping a black marble for good luck.

Well I didn’t quite follow him as he landed on the sandbar and I in the drink. I have never heard the end of that! After I dried out, I sat on the railing and watched hundreds of BASE jumps being made with pretty much skydiving gear, bikini sliders, a long bridle and a larger pilot chute. Sometimes, just plain ol’ skydiving gear. The bad body positions, kicked main D-bags, bridles around arms and legs, and between-the-leg deployments were the norm. And the shit worked! I thought there could be a smidge of sanity with this newly developing extreme sport, provided we pay attention to the new environment and developing techniques and specific gear that works better than modified skydiving gear.

I did some BASE rigging 2 years earlier for two early pioneers who ended up becoming my mentors. That jump and designing and building BASE specific gear changed my life … again. Even more than skydiving had done in 1971. I was now hooked on BASE.

Not long after that jump, I ended a 13-year relationship with my girlfriend. Not caring much about my life at that point, I started to pursue and help to pioneer BASE quite maniacally. BASE jumpers started dying on a regular basis, including Carl Boenish, the father of our sport, and Ralph backed off on BASE. I think he felt like he led me into this new madness of what wasn’t considered a sport and would feel somewhat responsible for my death. But I continued to press on with it and his life became more involved with his insurance biz and he had some health issues as well.

Eric

Eric Jones grew up as a farm boy in North Wales in the United Kingdom. I would define him as an adventurer. He is worthy of a Google search. Rock and mountain climbing became his passion for life. Punching holes into the sides of hundreds of concrete blocks and then cementing hand-picked rocks into the holes, he built his own climbing gym. He opened a cafe that caters to climbers and tourists to this day. His home in Tremadog borders the National Park of Snowdonia in Wales where he hikes, climbs and paraglides.

For many years in a row on his birthday, he would visit an abandoned 300’ deep slate pit and do massive pendulum swings into the pit from the span of a 3’’ thick cable that was once used to mine slate. He had to stop because he had been busted by the law too many times. Years later he took me there and nursed me out, with climbing protection, that 3’’ rusty cable to the center of the pit and I BASE jumped it, landing within feet of car-sized, bone-cutting slate!

North Face of the Eiger #1 by moe Viletto | Blue Skies Magazine i69: September 2015 | http://blueskiesmag.com/2016/10/17/north-face-of-the-eiger-1/

Eric and me before jumping into the slate pit.

He has been on the peaks of some of the well-known biggies in all of the Alps including The Matterhorn and Mont Blanc. He was on the crew of Rienhold Messner’s oxygen-less climb of Mount Everest in1978. He made a parachute jump onto the North Pole. With 2 friends he pulled a wooden sled and sometimes used an inflated round parachute, to help cross the Patagonia Ice Cap in 52 days. He discovered an unnamed mountain and named it Mimosa after a ship that took the first Welsh settlers out of Patagonia in 1865. At 61, the BBC documented his BASE jump from the tallest waterfall in the world: Angel Falls at 3,212 feet. He worked on the movie “Five Days One Summer” with Sean Connery rigging ropes for the stuntmen and actors. In fact he scarily looks and sounds a lot like Mr. Connery as well. Eric, at the age of 66, and I made 1,400’ subterranean BASE jumps into the Cave of the Swallows in Mexico for a BBC special. At age 75 he BASE jumped the New River Gorge Bridge after getting weathered out years earlier.

Alone, he jumped a 1,023’ antenna near his home with instructions from me over the telephone and after watching me jump the same antenna years earlier. He had climbed that tower many times before, “just because” and long before BASE jumping existed.

He was in one of two hot air balloons that were the first to cross over the peak of Mount Everest. Well he wasn’t really “in” one of the balloons; he was in a barrel strapped to the outside because there was no room in the basket due to the necessary number of fuel tanks and the pilot … with a rig on, of course. It’s an epic story where the balloon catches fire. (Read about it: “Ballooning Over Everest.”)

Today at 78 he still rides a crotch-rocket Suzuki on the windy back roads of North Wales. And of course, he still climbs. His memoir, “A Life on the Edge,” was released last year in Welsh; the English version has just come out.

North Face of the Eiger #1 by moe Viletto | Blue Skies Magazine i69: September 2015 | http://blueskiesmag.com/2016/10/17/north-face-of-the-eiger-1/

Eric Jones


So Eric—the older gent at 50—saw Ralph sitting on the picnic table at Perris and, noting he was an older jumper, went over to befriend him. They both loved motorcycles, skydiving and adventure. They hit it off and later the three of us went to dinner. The conversation revolved around parachutes of course. Eric is a low ego kind of guy. His accomplishments were for him and not to impress anyone else. In fact he hates talking about himself. Of course BASE was part of the conversation and Eric (who was the first Brit to solo climb the North Face of the Eiger in Switzerland at 43, a relatively old age for a climber, in 1980) asked what we thought about making a BASE jump from the Eiger. Without hesitation Ralph piped, “Let’s do it!”

The Eiger is only a 13,000-foot mountain. Not much, altitude wise, compared to peaks twice its size. But it is The North Face that makes it a real challenge for a climber. It is near vertical and constantly rains down ice and rock. Eric has the scars to prove it.

As time went by we made some jumps together. None of us were shit-hot skydivers but Eric had the least experience. He made his first sport jump in 1961. He had about 200 jumps over a 20-plus-year period—not what you would exactly call current. Some would say he was a bounce waiting to happen. Eric didn’t chase jump fads, trends or numbers. He enjoyed the thrill of plummeting at the earth knowing he could become one with it and enjoyed the beautiful environment surrounding him along the way, whatever the outcome. He knew how to live in the moment. Old timers used to say, “Boogie till ya bounce, ‘cause you’re gonna bounce, one way or another.” Car wreck, heart attack, war, The Big C, fill in the blank: _________. But Eric knew where he stood, skill-wise, and enjoyed the freedom of flight in spite of the risks, and he was a very current paraglider pilot so his canopy skills were sharp.

Some of the jumps I made with him were quite interesting to say the least. The majority of his exits were a bit unstable and not normally on heading. When he would track away sometimes he would end up right back where he started. His body position at pull time wasn’t the most stable. He was a mountain goat, not a falcon. Some special and very specific attention to train for this jump would be a challenge. In terms of climbing skills, Ralph and I were equivalent to Eric as a skydiver. We needed to improve all our skills and tailor the jump relative to them.

Skydiving came first and we made enough jumps at Perris to rectify basic flying skills. Eric continued jumping regularly when he returned home to North Wales; some hot air balloon jumps helped immensely.

BASE jumping had started to become the not-so-lunatic-fringe sport that it started out as in the early ‘80s. I had designed and built us complete harness/container systems and modified Raven reserve canopies, as there were no BASE specific parachutes at the time. Eric used his Pegasus skydiving canopy, which was a favorite in the pre BASE-specific ram-air era, after a few modifications as well.

Eric did most of the homework on finding a suitable exit point on the North Face. The most obvious is called “The Mushroom” which is where the majority of today’s jumps are made. The Shroom allows for a terminal delay, but higher is not necessarily safer. The more time in freefall and under canopy, the more time to get into trouble, especially with the freefall skills Eric had at the time. To train for such a high exit point would require more time, skydiving, balloon jumping and cash. We could simplify the training and the jump at the same time and actually be safer by going lower. (NOTE: YOU CAN NOT SIMPLIFY A BASE JUMP).

Knowing every nook and cranny on the North Face, Eric found a super overhung cliff called The Rostock Column which is technically part of the North Face and below the Shroom. He figured it was 400 feet to impact and 900 feet to the landing area, which was huge. Finding a specific exit point would be done on-site.

Sponsoring the trip and flying first class as only Ralph would have it, we were off to North Wales to meet Eric in “Terrible Dog,” as Ralph nicknamed the town Tremadog. We spent a week there to train before going to Switzerland. Eric’s climbing skills were superb. Mountaineering is where he shone. He trained us in his handmade gym on rope management and taught us enough technical skills to keep us safe-ish.

North Face of the Eiger #1 by moe Viletto | Blue Skies Magazine i69: September 2015 | http://blueskiesmag.com/2016/10/17/north-face-of-the-eiger-1/

Eric in his element.

We rented a clunker of a plane to get some air time under our belts and get used to the flight characteristics of the canopies. We jumped intending to land at Eric’s cafe but the spot was off and we were scattered across the lush Welsh countryside.

We went to the local indoor public swimming pool where we performed a bunch of exits. I was amused observing the “normal people” watching us 3 older men standing on the edge of the pool with plastic bags in our right hands and counting down, “3,2,1—Go !” If they were thinking we were lunatics … ehhh, they weren’t far off. Eric paid them no mind. He was on a mission to live through this. He would jump up and out, arch, toss the plastic bag and belly smack into the pool. Eric’s cherry red belly showed me that he could have good body position and pitch. No time to get into trouble when it came down to the real thing. Now he was just betting his life on his gear, which is what we all do all the time. This jump was acrobatic: not aerodynamic until the canopy opens. I felt confident that on opening, should the canopy go off heading and with the major overhung cliff which allowed a skosh more time and space, along with being a current paraglider pilot, he could avoid shpanking the wall. It was good for all 3 of us, really.

Eric bought a used van and we drove a night and two days to Switzerland. Well Eric, the insomniac that he is, drove us nonstop. Ralph set us up individually in luxury in the town of Grindelwald with the perfect view of the Eiger’s North Face. Three or four days passed until the clouds cleared before we saw our baby. The weather in this environment can change in an instant.

North Face of the Eiger #1 by moe Viletto | Blue Skies Magazine i69: September 2015 | http://blueskiesmag.com/2016/10/17/north-face-of-the-eiger-1/

The team in front of the van Eric bought for the trip to Switzerland.

We did some day hikes to get acclimated and organized our jump and climbing gear. Bad weather quickly closed in again but we were set to go as soon as it cleared. Ralph’s phone rang interrupting our lunch. It was from the wife of one of his closest friends back in the States; he had had a major heart attack. Immediately, Ralph started to pack up to be by his friend’s side. All the money, time and effort he put into making this expedition happen became secondary. He apologized and insisted that Eric and I continue on with the mission. That is the kind of man Ralph Eidem is: Friends first.

Of course we were all bummed but in Ralph’s and my minds, this mission was truly for Eric. He was the first Brit to solo climb the North Face of The Eiger and he would be the first to jump from it.

North Face of the Eiger #1 by moe Viletto | Blue Skies Magazine i69: September 2015 | http://blueskiesmag.com/2016/10/17/north-face-of-the-eiger-1/

Eric and Sammy Skull.

The weather eventually cleared. Eric and I went to recon the approach and exit point sans BASE gear. We went up the west flank. Eric showed me the spot where the Reaper nipped him with his scythe. After a different climb, when he was coming down what he called “the weenie slope” he stopped to decide whether or not to put on his crampons. Suddenly he lost footing and went for the big slide down a massive ice field. Trying to get a purchase with his ice ax to no avail, he eventually stopped on the edge of a 1,000-foot cliff that surely would have killed him.

We continued on and came to the Rostock Column. With no rope protection we skirted around the side of a rotten flakey rock face. This was nothing to Eric. I told him I refused to go back that way without protection. Sometimes getting to the exit point can be more risky than the jump itself. Finally we reached our exit point. Lying on our stomachs, the rock drops verified our 400-foot drop. We found an easier egress and returned to Grindelwald.

The next day, Oct. 2, 1989, we returned to make the leap. We found a safer route to the exit point but it required a bit of rappelling. We would make one more trip back after the jump to retrieve the ropes and camera. The weather was perfect with absolutely no wind. Working our way down to the exit point, Eric warned me of verglas: black ice.

There were 3 steps to get down to the perfect exit point, the last of which was slick, invisible ice. Eric casually worked his way down and warned me again of its treachery. I was filming with an 8 mm video camera. I asked, “Mate, if you can, without losing it, turn around so I can take your picture.” No big deal for this mountain man as he was very relaxed and nonchalantly turned around, balancing on the sheet of black ice for the photo. “Got it, mate. Have a good one.” My heart was hammering. Eric was still as cool as the icy perch he was standing on.

North Face of the Eiger #1 by moe Viletto | Blue Skies Magazine i69: September 2015 | http://blueskiesmag.com/2016/10/17/north-face-of-the-eiger-1/

Eric on the verglass just before exiting The North Face of the Eiger.

As a side note, after this jump Eric came back to the states and we went to jump a building under construction in Hollywood. It was a relatively safe-ish jump for a building. The exit was a corner with a gang plank that we affixed to the steel beams jutting out, offering us a little more air space should we have an off heading opening. Eric stood tall and was about to go when some cars appeared after a traffic signal had changed. I told him to hold up. He did. Just when he was ready to go for the second time, more traffic came around the blind corner. “Hold up again, mate—more cars.” At this point he backed up and off the gangplank and collected himself. Finally traffic was clear from the 4 lanes of The Avenue of The Stars. He performed perfectly and corrected his 45-degree off-heading opening and landed softly in the street. After I jumped I asked him, “Eric, why did you back all the way off the plank? You looked a little nervous there. When we did the Eiger you stood on that black ice as calm as ever. Here you had solid footing on a 10-inch wide plank. What was the issue? ” He replied, “I was out of me element, mate!” He was so much at home and at peace in the mountains … not so much here in Hollyweird.

Back to the Eiger.

I had good footing on the snow and watched him disappear through the view finder. And just like being at the swimming pool in Terrible Dog, he nailed the exit. A second or so later I heard his canopy crack open. It took a while before he reappeared in the view finder with an on heading opening and a “Woohoo!”

I backed off and set up the camera to capture my jump. Boiling with adrenaline from Eric’s jump and anticipating my own, I could not get a solid purchase on the black ice. I eased myself down and sat on the second step testing and trying to get a solid foot hold on the icy ledge one step below. I just couldn’t do it. Only Eric or maybe a mountain goat could. So I stood up on the second step which put me about 3 feet back from the edge. I pushed hard and got off cleanly and cracked open. Landing next to an oh-so-elated friend, we celebrated with cheers—although the jump was bittersweet as we really missed not having our teammate Ralph along to share the joy.

North Face of the Eiger #1 by moe Viletto | Blue Skies Magazine i69: September 2015 | http://blueskiesmag.com/2016/10/17/north-face-of-the-eiger-1/

Eric and me after the first Eiger jump.

The next day we went back and retrieved the ropes and camera. We watched the video over and over reliving that very special moment.

Ralph’s friend blew up his heart and died. For years I noticed Ralph always buying clothing for young girls. I didn’t ask why. I saw him do many things that didn’t seem to match up with what looked like an ordinary single man’s life. It turns out this very special man cared for and helped his best friend’s wife and daughters through financially hard times, giving up the jump and adventure of a lifetime. And more. A true, selfless, one of a kind, gentle giant of a man with a heart of gold, who teamed up to help Eric Jones become the first man to BASE jump from The North Face of The Eiger.

North Face of the Eiger #1 by moe Viletto | Blue Skies Magazine i69: September 2015 | http://blueskiesmag.com/2016/10/17/north-face-of-the-eiger-1/

Eric, Me and Ralph, horsing around.

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