Buy a reprint of this issue.
Two hundred BASE jumpers, along with highliners, climbers and other outdoor adventurers, fill up the large Gravel Pit Lanes bowling alley in Moab, Utah. It’s controlled chaos with food orders booming over the loudspeaker, bowling games underway and four volunteers selling raffle tickets at a table. At the front of the room, Matt Lajeunesse fights his yearly battle with the sound system as he directs people to the raffle table and touts the 59 donated prizes, including a canopy from Atair, a Blacksheep container, a Squirrel Crux, a Phoenix Fly Onesie, flight time at iFly Utah, Sterling ropes, Gibbon slacklines and Adidas gift cards.
It’s the annual Turkey Boogie fundraiser that Laj has organized for the past five years, and it’s taken on a life of its own.
“Back in 2002, there were 8 of us jumping in Moab over Thanksgiving,” says Jimmy Pouchert. “The hotels were empty. It would be easy to say oh, the good old days, but I embrace change, because it’s the only thing that is constant. I think it’s great that it’s gone the direction it has, with Laj and crew organizing the donations from the manufacturers and the jumpers buying the raffle tickets. We used to cut a small check to Search and Rescue—this is a whole different level.”
“The first year [I organized the raffle] we raised $3,600,” says Laj. “It took every bit of energy I had and every resource I could possibly hunt down. And I came up with $3,600. Somehow it’s become something much bigger than I ever thought it was going to.”
The raffle started out as a way to give back to Grand County Search and Rescue (SAR) and the majority of money raised has gone to SAR. But last year Jim Webster, head of Grand County SAR, told Laj, “Matt, you’ve given us over $40,000, and that’s great—we need it. But have you considered spreading the money around a little?” That led to the first donation to the Bureau of Land Management and this year donations were also made to Moab EMS and the National Park Service.
“There’s definitely some humor to it, giving NPS a thousand bucks,” says Laj. “I’ve been talking to them for two years and maintaining some kind of positive relationship but it’s slow going, to say the least.”
It’s a sad truth that BASE jumpers are not known for their great relationships with communities and agencies in areas where BASE jumping happens. From the first clashes with NPS in Yosemite, where BASE started, the individualistic nature of the sport and the personalities it attracts have led to friction.
“BASE jumpers love to have the fuck-you attitude like, ‘Yeah, we’re renegades or rebels,’” says Laj. “And sure, that’s awesome, that’s part of it. But there are so many BASE jumpers that are anti-authority. And that’s not helpful at all. Trying to be a good ambassador of BASE will help with the future of BASE.”
For a long time BASE was largely an under-the-radar activity. Only a few hundred people around the world were jumpers, there were few events (and fewer repeating events) and without the internet and social media, many people never knew it existed. As BASE has become more visible and the number of jumpers has grown, so have the problems.
BASE jumpers have firsthand knowledge of the allure of the sport and the beauty of the community, so it can be jarring to realize how differently others view it—and that there might be some validity to their opinions. When the public is exposed to BASE via jumpers using emergency services over and over without insurance or any attempt to pay back costs, damaging the environment or local objects, making irresponsible or misrepresentative YouTube videos or throwing wildly inconsiderate parties that negatively affect the local community, it’s easy to understand how they could develop the perception that BASE is comprised of selfish, thoughtless assholes.
For jumpers who feel at war with the world, that might be exactly the perception they want. But for jumpers in BASE for the activity itself, that attitude is directly counterproductive.
“It’s about actually taking care of what we love,” says Laj. “In terms of protecting our community, and what we want in terms of events and parks and things, it takes a little bit of thought.
“What it comes down to is that on a super individual level, everyone needs to care just a little bit. BASE is so important to people and it really can be one of the most powerful and special things with an incredible community and the opportunity to go to incredible places. People just need to give back—put a little bit of thought, a little bit of attention, a little bit of caring into what is apparently so important and special to us.”
As with everything, it’s best when it’s a group effort. Laj has organized the fundraiser for five years running, but it wouldn’t have been possible without the help of many others, from the sponsors to the volunteers to the supplementary fundraising efforts by Taz (T-shirts sales), Mike Cook (documentary sales) and Tom Grayson (Safeish jersey sales). In 2017, the combined efforts raised over $20,000, bringing the total to $58,000 raised over five years.
“I would love to get more people involved because I know other people have ideas, or have strengths where I have weaknesses,” says Laj. “It’s like with the parties—not everyone’s the DJ, but someone’s really good with fire and someone’s really good with lights and we come together and say, ‘I’ve got a lot of weaknesses but this is my strength.’ ‘Well sweet, this is my strength and if we put our strengths together, it’s going to be awesome.’ I see the community the same way. Not everyone has organizational skills. Not everyone can fly a drone, not everyone can make the calls, not everyone has money. But we all have something.”
Some may want to give back but have no idea where to start, which is why the example set by Laj—raising money for local agencies and opening dialogues with government entities, even those hostile to BASE jumpers—is so important. At a time when public lands are at risk, it’s vital that we get involved and make it known what side we’re on.
“When I first started talking to someone at NPS [about donating money], she was like, ‘What are you talking about, you know that BASE jumping’s not allowed in national parks,’” says Laj. “And I said, ‘Well, I think a foundation for many of us that are jumping out here, and probably all over, is that we’re active in the outdoors. We have a passion for going to these crazy places. For most of us, it’s not just the act but the places it takes us.’ I told her that long before I ever saw a parachute, I was living in a car driving from national park to national park. The outdoors do matter to me. So we connected on that level, and she said, ‘I see what you’re saying.’”
“Ours is a community that loves, inspires and takes care of our own intensely. We have so much love and energy, it’s only right that we cascade it back out, not only to those who are there for us when we’re in need but to the communities, the landscape and as far as we can reach,” says Julie Wentz, who was given the ‘Heart of BASE’ award by Laj at the fundraiser this year. “Matt Laj is one of those bursting souls that puts intention into real action.”
Laj insists that he doesn’t have all the answers and has no desire to preach to people but he believes that if BASE is to survive and thrive, jumpers have to step up and take responsibility, for everything from protecting the outdoors to improved personal safety.
Jimmy Pouchert agrees. “One concern that I have, and it’s one that Marta and I have always had, is that some jumpers are coming to Moab without doing the work first and they are getting hurt because of it. Moab will eat you up and spit you out; it’s all ‘low’ and there’s always a cliff right behind you on opening. Our advanced courses are specifically tailored to get jumpers ready for Moab. We take it so seriously because we’ve seen way too many times what happens to people who don’t. We don’t want to see anyone get hurt and when rescues have to happen for the wrong reasons, that hurts everything so many people have worked so hard for so long on building.”
The flip side of having a lot of freedom is taking responsibility and as BASE grows and evolves, it’s a balance that will come due.
“For me, the Space Net is the best example that defines everything we’re talking about, from the community to Turkey Boogie to national parks,” says Laj. “There’s obviously nothing like the Space Net. But it became this place for people not really to apply themselves—for people to be given jumps and experiences versus earning them. How many people jumped that net, and it mattered to a lot of people, but not one of them did anything to establish any kind of protection for BASE jumping there or working with Gobble Gobble. Everyone was there, in my eyes, to take. To show up and be given this experience. Not one person did anything to secure that jumping would be something that could happen.
“I had a million people messaging asking why why why [they couldn’t jump the Space Net this year]. I had maybe five people the night prior saying, ‘We’re going to go get insurance,’ and that just wasn’t an option anymore.
“I think some of it is everyone isn’t in the know or in the loop about everything that goes on. But if something is special to you, like the Space Net, like BASE jumping, like national parks, you have to realize that and protect it, just like anything else, like a relationship, like a job, like a pet. You have to take care of the things you love and for some reason I don’t see a whole lot of that.
“I’m for sure not perfect—that’s not what I’m trying to say. For every good thing I’ve done, I’ve had a time where I’ve been perfectly belligerent and naked and acting a fool. But if people took care of what mattered to them, it would be amazing.”
Like this article?
Get more just like it every month, delivered straight to your mailbox. Subscribe today!