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Glacier National Park investigating BASE jump from Mount Siyeh

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A BASE jumper flies down toward Cracker Lake from Mount Siyeh in Glacier National Park on July 24. BASE jumping is illegal in national parks, and rangers are working to identify the person.

Glacier National Park officials are investigating a report of a rare and illegal BASE jump off of Mount Siyeh that occurred sometime Sunday. 

Jody Hildreth posted in the Facebook group Friends of Glacier National Park on Monday that he spotted a man with a parachute flying down to Cracker Lake on the north side of Mount Siyeh on Sunday while he and his daughter were hiking up to the lake. A photo attached to the post showed a person with a parachute seemingly about to land up ahead of Hildreth, in the basin below the peak. Hildreth wrote that he hiked past the person, who pointed up at the peak when asked where he jumped from. Hildreth wrote that he believed such a jump to be illegal, and he alerted rangers at the Many Glacier Ranger Station and shared the photo with them. 

Park spokeswoman Brandy Burke said on Thursday that "rangers are investigating the reports of the BASE jumper, and anyone with information can contact Glacier rangers at 406-888-7077." If the person is caught, she said, they could face up to a $5,000 fine and six months incarceration.

Mount Siyeh sits north of Going-To-The-Sun Mountain, about 10 miles west of St. Mary. It is the fifth-highest peak in the park, rising to 10,019 feet elevation, and one of six total peaks in the park higher than 10,000 feet. The mountain's vertical north face rises about 2,500 feet to the summit. The summit itself towers more than 4,000 vertical feet above Cracker Lake and Cracker Lake Campground. 

The mountain was the site of a fatal BASE jumping accident in 2014, when 22-year-old Beau Weiher, a native of southern Colorado who had recently moved to Missoula, plunged to his death from the peak. It was unclear what exactly went wrong with Weiher's jump. His body was found at the base of the mountain's north face, attached to a deployed parachute. In 1997, park officials rescued a BASE jumper who flew only 300 feet below the summit before his parachute tangled in rocks. 

BASE jumping, an offshoot of skydiving, derives its name from the four categories of objects the sport's practitioners leap off of: buildings, antennas, spans (generally bridges) and earth. Jumpers typically wear a wingsuit, sometimes called a squirrel suit due to the flying squirrel-like webs of fabric stitched between limbs that allow a jumper to fly outward and downward for a distance before deploying a parachute. 

The practice is banned in national parks, but that doesn't always stop BASE jumpers from doing it anyway. Although relatively uncommon in Glacier, the sport is popular in Utah's Zion National Park and especially in California's Yosemite, a mecca of sorts for BASE jumping and the location where it was popularized. A 1965 law governing national park lands prohibits "delivering or retrieving a person or object by parachute, helicopter, or other airborne means." 

While BASE jumping deaths often attract media attention, fatalities in national parks are rare. Deaths from BASE jumping and other forms of flying with a parachute or wing are strikingly uncommon compared with deaths from other, more common forms of use in national parks, said Jeff Shapiro, a longtime BASE jumper who lived in Missoula for 25 years. Dozens of hikers and other users die on public lands each year, he said, while many years see no BASE jumping deaths on public lands. The resources expended in a singular rescue or recovery of a jumper every few years, he argued, are far overshadowed by the resources expended with much greater frequency on other user groups.

Shapiro said that context is often missing from news stories that simply rattle off lists of other high-profile BASE jumping deaths. He added that he was close friends with most of the people he sees cited in coverage.

The law cited in prohibiting jumping, he pointed out, was developed in response to supplies being air-dropped into remote camps and concerns over illicit drug trafficking

"The idea that we're somehow violating a law that was antiquated and intended for something else is ludicrous," he said. "For someone to point their finger at BASE jumpers (or other flyers) and the Park Service to treat us like we're criminals, it's something else." 

BASE jumpers, particularly professional rock climber and jumper Dean Potter, who died in a 2015 BASE jumping accident in Yosemite alongside friend Graham Hunt, have pointed out the irony that rock climbing is legal in the parks, falling is legal in the parks, and even erecting and walking untethered on a tightrope thousands of feet above the ground is legal in the parks — but using a parachute to survive a fall is illegal. Before his death, Potter was a leading figure among BASE jumpers lobbying the National Park Service to devise a system in which jumping would be permitted. 

Tensions over BASE jumping in national parks reached a crescendo in Yosemite in the 1990s when park rangers often actively tracked and pursued suspected jumpers, staking out likely landing zones and chasing jumpers when they reached the ground. Apprehended jumpers were generally fined $2,000 and had their equipment confiscated. At least one jumper was subdued with a stun gun upon landing, and in June 1999 Frank Gambalie drowned in the Merced River while fleeing rangers after a successful jump. 

In October that year, five jumpers embarked on a publicized jump in the park in protest of the harsh enforcement of the prohibition on BASE jumping. Jan Davis, 60, was the fourth of five jumpers to leap from the park's legendary El Capitan. She used borrowed equipment for fear of her own gear being confiscated, and her parachute failed to deploy. She plummeted 3,200 feet to her death. Davis' death, Shapiro said, helped galvanize opposition to BASE jumping in national parks. 

Overall, BASE jumping deaths are rare in Yosemite and other national parks. National Park Service officials say the prohibition on BASE jumping is not because of the sport's inherent risks, but rather because the activity could become a spectacle unbefitting of national parks. 

"We’re not against BASE jumping as a sport," Scott Gediman, a Yosemite spokesman, told The New York Times after Potter's death in 2015. "But we have to look at the big picture and its appropriateness in the park." 

But appropriateness is subjective, Shapiro said. Park officials say that visitors don't want to see BASE jumpers while experiencing a park, but Shapiro said that when he's climbing a big wall in Yosemite, pizza and beer joints and tourist buses with loudspeakers coursing through the valley below "ruin my wilderness experience." 

"None of those other user groups are limited," Shapiro said, noting the much greater impacts he sees with high volumes of tourists in national parks. "The only thing that we're leaving when we BASE jump is our footprints.

"It's less a war on irresponsibility and more a war on freedom," he added. "Whose freedom is more important?"

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Outdoors Reporter

Joshua Murdock covers the outdoors and natural resources for the Missoulian.

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