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How the Greatest Bond Stunt Came to Be

The first-ever ski BASE jump had its humble beginnings at Tahoe and led to a legendary 007 moment
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KISS OF LIFE: Many may be unaware that the success of Ian Fleming’s Bond novels was largely attributed to President John F. Kennedy having mentioned that he read some of them. This was the kiss of life, like getting on Oprah or Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show.


ALL IN THE FAMILY: Since Cubby’s death, his son-in-law Michael Wilson along with Cubby’s daughter Barbara have been producers of all Bond films. Thus, the most successful franchise in the history of film is a family business. Cubby told Sylvester that his family brought the broccoli seed to America.


CHAIN OF LEGENDS: It’s well known that local legend Shane McConkey was inspired by Sylvester’s ski BASE adventures. In turn, he had been inspired by Shane’s father, Jim, during a Learn to Ski Week at Sugar Bowl in 1962

BY RICK SYLVESTER

The year 2017 marked the 40th anniversary of James Bond’s The Spy Who Loved Me. Where did the time go? Where did my life go? One local historian and pundit opined the stunt I performed doubling for Roger Moore playing James Bond as part of the opening pre-credit sequence represented a “game changer.” I’m not sure I agree, or even know what she meant.

Though the movie was panned by Time’s film critic — “the opening stunt’s great but the rest of the film goes downhill” (Hmmm, a little ski pun here?) — it was a commercial success. The San Francisco Chronicle called it the “greatest Bond stunt in history.” Newsweek’s film critic took it further and said it was the greatest stunt in the history of cinema. I found these statements interesting, as despite playing Bond twice, I never regarded myself as a stuntman per se, but merely a climber, skier, former distance runner, former wrestler, and novice parachutist who just happened to have come up with a rather odd idea.

But enough. Way too much bragging. Here’s some of what happened.

The Phone Call

For a very long time I thought the best part of the whole thing was the phone call. I picked up the receiver to hear, “This is London calling. I’m Cubby Broccoli, like the vegetable [that’s how he introduced himself], the producer of the Bond films … we’re wondering if you’d be interested in performing your jump in the next Bond film.”

The “jump” he was referring to was what I then called a ski parachute jump, featured in a Canadian Club Whisky ad that was circulating at the time. Years before Mountain Dew and Red Bull, Canadian Club ran print ads based around an adventure motif.

Cubby’s son-in-law Michael Wilson had seen the ad, which gave them the idea of adding it to the film. It wasn’t in Ian Fleming’s book. The only one of his Bond novels that had a ski sequence was On Her Majesty’s Secret Service with one-time Bond George Lazenby.

Now this was pretty heady stuff. It was certainly the first transatlantic call, not to mention conference call, I’d ever received in my life. And you have to also understand that I’d just signed up for unemployment insurance following the end of the ski season and my job as a Squaw ski instructor. But there was a problem, a big problem. I’d never intended to do the thing more than once, and this would make number four. The thing was dangerous.

So, the call was great, except that it meant I’d have to do another jump, pay the piper. Now, I should back up a bit, provide some background.

Prophetic Dream

A couple of acquaintances have claimed they gave me the idea. I don’t think so. It was entirely self-inflicted. Fall of ‘69, I was working construction in Hilo, Hawaii, following a summer in Switzerland teaching and guiding climbing. Perhaps due to being in such a warm climate and my bedding consisting of one thin sheet rather than my usual sleeping bag, I recall having a series of vivid dreams. And one of them had to do with skiing off El Capitan, Yosemite Valley’s iconic monolith. A fair amount of my climbing had involved it, both short-ish free climbs at its base and early big wall multi-day routes, often involving the requisite amount of hard work and suffering. My initial idea of skiing off El Cap preceded the idea of using a parachute.

That came later, when it occurred to me the jump I envisioned required a safe way down. I asked for some time off from ski school to go to the Bay Area to learn how to parachute jump. Skydiving had been on my to-do list but now I needed to learn how, not for the sake of it, but as a means to do what I’d begun to think of as “the world’s greatest ski jump.” This represented the first step toward the absurd scheme.

Perusing the yellow pages I’d found a jump center located at the Oakland Airport, but it was only open on weekends, so I ended up at the Antioch airport, which turned out to be a sort of do-or-die operation, with a spotty safety record. I somehow survived. The airport no longer exists; it was razed for the higher valuation usage of a housing development.

But before I departed the Oakland facility, a couple of important things happened. Perry Stevens, its owner and an innovator in the field, mentioned that my ‘world’s greatest ski jump’ really wasn’t, that it was primarily a skydive, only rather than jumping out of a plane or helicopter I was exiting off a cliff. Actually, I’d already suspected as much. Also, in contrast to my original idea of popping the chute as soon as I cleared the edge Perry said I needed to first get rid of the skis. A malfunction caused by the deploying chute getting entangled with them might prove fatal. He even suggested I tape over the buckles on my boots. Nothing should protrude.

To release the skis, I engineered a simple system which consisted of running a piece of half-inch wide climbing webbing from the ski binding up to the side of my pants, almost knee high. I affixed a small wood toggle to its top. And I’d sewn small pieces of Velcro to my pants and to the webbing just below the toggle to eliminate the need to reach all the way down to the bindings. That saved a second or two, and who knew if this might make a difference. Most rear binding components require downward pressure for release, applied by pushing on with one’s ski pole or stomping on. But the Spademans I selected were the opposite, opening via an upward pull, and there was no toe piece, eliminating another potential snagging point.

Within a couple of weeks, I completed more than 50 jumps in Antioch. I’d learned the basics, hopefully enough to pull off the stunt. I’d also made one jump with the ski bindings attached to short 2x4 wood planks to practice the release system. It went as planned.

Shortly after my final jump I headed to Yosemite and hiked to El Cap’s top. Bad surprise — the snow had melted far back from the edge. Going through with the jump would require an enormous amount of shoveling, beyond what I felt was feasible for me to do. That was it. I’d have to wait until the following year. All my built-up momentum came to a sudden halt, and I wondered and worried if my interest in the project would dissipate, maybe due to gaining some sanity in the meantime.

As the months went by there was time to ponder. The whole thing had been sort of rushed. My plan had been to just do it as a pure adventure, solo, without even any photography. But now I began to think that the exploit might be so good visually, it would be a shame not to capture it on film. I eventually came up with the idea of a whole feature film, a comedy climaxing with the jump, consisting of a lot of physical action, sort of à la Buster Keaton, my great silent film cinematic hero. But I didn’t know any filmmakers.

Then one day, at Squaw’s Chamois, if I remember correctly, a couple of guys approached. They’d heard about my little project. One of them I had seen on the slopes, Bob Stokes. The other would later become a hero to many due to the production role he played in a “frank” commercially successful film. His initials are M.M.

They envisioned making what would later become known as a ski porn film. They were interested in including my jump and M.M. claimed to know a filmmaker in Utah that he could engage, plus crew. We had a team.

First-Ever Ski BASE Jump

Summer turned to fall and fall changed to winter as these things inevitably do. And suddenly it was again time to start thinking, worrying, about my little project. Yes, I was still committed, but I’d be less than candid if I didn’t admit I was also still quite concerned. I did a few more refresher skydives at Antioch. As the ski porn film production team made its round of ski resorts, I did a couple of jumps at the Salt Lake City airport, landing on the slopes of Snowbird. Was that even legal? And then it was time to assemble the team and the film crew in Yosemite for the project’s final chapter, my little rendezvous with destiny.

Atop El Cap a small take-off snow ramp was built to clear a bit of granite and manzanita at the cliff‘s edge. Everyone camped out overnight, concerned about being discovered and stopped by the park service. More troublesome to me were some problems I had with the M.M. character, which interfered with my desire and need to solely concentrate on the upcoming scary thing. Finally, I donned skis and chute and when everything and everyone was ready I pushed off to begin the several hundred-foot run to the edge of the abyss. Like the old saw about sex, it was better to be occupied with than preoccupied.

And then the jump happened. It was successful. I achieved my goal, and I didn’t lose my life — which somehow also seemed a worthwhile and important facet of the project. Due to a lower chute opening than planned I didn’t make it to El Cap Meadow as planned essentially the only wide open safe landing area in that portion of the valley. I fell short, no pun intended, landing in a tall pine tree. Luckily the chute hooked over its top, and I descended awkwardly in my Lange boots branch by branch, which ran out the last 20 or so feet. At least the trunk’s diameter wasn’t too wide to prevent bear hugging my way to the ground.

Unfortunately, my luck ended when it came to the film results. They were essentially zilch. The run to the edge got recorded, but once I launched into space I disappeared from view after something like only 15 feet. I might as well have skied off a 20-foot drop rather than the nearly 3,000-foot precipice. So, it was a “pass” for the adventure but “fail” for its photographic component.

Two weeks later I repeated the jump, with far better results. I hired a group of fellow American Alpine Club members from Southern California. Besides being skilled climbers they worked as filmmakers, cameramen, sound men, and so on. They had been the crew responsible for filming the spectacular Totem Pole climbing sequence of Clint Eastwood’s The Eiger Sanction, based on the bestselling mystery novel. The jump went well, and I got the skis off earlier, maybe a quarter of the way down rather than half way as before.

There was one camera angle missing, however, potentially the best — one that in my mind could be shot only from a chopper. Was it really worth doing the jump again, in this quest for the perfect angle? Yes, I decided it was … Unfortunately, jump number three was a failure and it was mostly my fault. I lost track of time shooting footage for my planned film, so when the jump took place, the camera was shooting directly into the sun. Also, the snow was so slow, and there was a malfunction of the rented camera on the chopper. Quite a disaster.

Even still, the media caught wind of the first jump. What I thought at best should have been a page 10 gimmick human-interest item ended up occupying most of the front pages of major dailies like the San Francisco Chronicle and Los Angeles Times. I’ve long assumed this must have been due to a slow news day, and that there was some confusion over whether or not I’d actually done the thing. When contacted by the media, the park service originally denied it had happened, as it had been kept in the dark. Later, I had a nice meeting with Chief Ranger Jack Morehead who was somewhat of a climber himself. There are two small rock towers toward the west end of Yosemite Valley, Pat and Jack Pinnacles, named after him and his wife. We ended up getting along just fine.

Canadian Club took note of the hoopla and used the images from the second jump in its advertising. And really, that’s how I ended up as 007.

Setting Up the Famous Jump

For the movie, I recommended Mt. Asgard for the jump sequence to the Bond team. It’s a double summited peak, 6,600 feet in elevation, 25 miles north of the Arctic Circle on Canada’s Baffin Island. It’s a spectacular land, somewhat resembling multitudes of Yosemite Valleys but before the Ice Age departed. At Asgard I would have no worry of tree encounters, the timber line petering out something like 800 miles to the south.

The stunt, filmed during the brief Arctic summer, reputedly cost around a quarter of a million dollars. The original budget for the film was $14 million but ultimately came in around $21 million. Either way, that stunt, the most expensive ever at that point, represented a huge chunk of the entire budget. And this despite the fact that it didn’t involve constructing any elaborate and expensive sets. It wasn’t even as long as it seemed since the cameras were somewhat over cranked, i.e. it was shot partially in slow motion. Actually, I always thought gravity should have gotten an equal credit.

Rene Dupont, a Canadian, was the production coordinator. Early on he took me aside and said something like, “Rick, if you’re not confident, if you don’t think it’s safe, you don’t have to do it. Your life is more important than anything else. And don’t worry about the expense, the money.”

Those were words I needed to hear. Asgard presented somewhat of an unknown to me, especially compared to El Cap. For example, I wasn’t familiar with the wind patterns which could pose a potential hazard. In addition, I’d never been atop Asgard before, much less ski BASE jumped off it.

Camera locations were selected, closely approximating the ones that had been worked out at El Cap. The chopper camera slightly tangential to my flight path was to yield the key master shot. Another camera was positioned right at the cliff’s edge to my right. Its cameraman could pan my ski run and follow me into space. And the third camera would be perched on a small ledge directly beneath where I would exit the tower, a few feet above the cameraman’s head. It would be equipped with a wide-angle lens and its footage was intended to be used for only a brief edit-in.

The fellow who’d be operating that camera was not very happy with his situation. Due to Canadian labor laws, at least 10 percent of the crew had to be Canadian, and he was the token local. But I’m not sure he would have accepted his post had he fully understood what it entailed. Rob Richardson from West Virginia, a great guy who was along as my assistant, affixed a safety line to the hesitant cameraman. He still wasn’t thrilled on his narrow ledge with the toes of his boots protruding over the 2,000-foot drop. We tried to reassure him of the strength of modern climbing ropes, that essentially it would take a few thousand pounds of force, more than any fall could ever generate, to break one. Yet he wasn’t satisfied. “Fine,” he said. “As far as you’re concerned I weigh 20,000 pounds and I want to be tied into five ropes.”

In the lead up to the shoot, WDIs (wind drift indicators used at jump centers) were tossed over the edge to assess wind conditions, along with a few snowballs which the camera operators could use as a rehearsal to track my flight. As the days passed, I grew concerned. The good weather couldn’t last forever, especially at a location like this. north of the Arctic Circle. The dietary main staple, Arctic char, was tasty, but was becoming a bit wearying, even for a dirtbag climber. Sure enough, the weather changed. A constant drizzle, known as Scottish mist, set in. All work came to a halt. The crew stayed put at our home base in Pangnirtung, about 50 flying miles from Mt. Asgard.

All of a Sudden

Then the calls started coming. They emanated from Eon headquarters in London and their gist was, “Has he done it yet?” It put pressure on me. I knew that with each passing day the costs were increasing. At one point, I suggested we do reconnaissance flights to see if the weather was better at Asgard than at our basecamp. The flights to and fro were scenic wonders. I’ve always thought pilots are the only ones who get better views than climbers.

Then conditions worsened. The Scottish mist turned to heavy rain that night. With little hope the next day would be nice, I OD’d on the Olympics, the unapologetic addict I am, watching until the closing credits and getting to bed pretty late. Sure enough, the next morning dawned with more of the same. Unfortunately, it was my turn to be the passenger on the a.m. flight. I was grumpy from lack of sleep and it proved a fruitless mission.

Yet just a few short hours later, the afternoon flight returned and suddenly there was a huge ruckus. “It’s clear at the mountain! Hurry up, everyone! We’ve got to get going before we lose the light!” What? How could this be? Last night had been the worst weather yet. What about Rene’s alleged concern for my safety? He surely seemed to be forgetting about that. Did the pressure from those phone calls get to him? Those were some of the thoughts that passed through my head.

And there was another factor, one I’d mentioned to no one. I was getting scared. The old thing about pushing it, daring the devil, doing another jump, and this time not just for adventure but for filthy lucre, had begun haunting me. Awakening day after day to poor weather, I was experiencing melancholic thoughts like “one more day of life.” All this made the scramble to get to the shoot an unpleasant surprise.

As we flew to the film site, it was clear that the fellows on the scouting flight had not lied. It certainly wasn’t sunny but it also wasn’t raining or snowing. Clouds swirled about Asgard creating an ethereal effect. The glacier was obscured in what looked like cotton candy. Everyone disembarked and hurriedly began preparing what they had to do. I clipped into my skis, tied into a rope, and got belayed by Rob as I sideslipped the short, steep-ish slope to the edge to smooth out the snow since it bore a bit of crust — never my favored condition. This is apparent in the film to viewers who are observant.

I donned my chute and checked to make sure everything was in order. Throughout all the hubbub around me as everyone set up, I was not all that happy. Finally, John Glen, the film editor, asked if I was ready. I couldn’t come up with a reason to answer in the negative, so I replied yes. Over his radio he gave the “cameras rolling” instruction and then the nod to me to begin.

I kicked off and a few seconds later dropped my poles just before the edge. Once into space I got rid of the skis, but then experienced some trouble getting stable. Skydivers wear bulky jumpsuits and normal foot apparel. This helps compress the air beneath them which enables them to have the control to enact various positions and maneuvers, but during my ski BASE jumps I was clad in tight ski clothing and heavy ski boots. That combination, along with my relative inexperience in skydiving had affected my ability to get into the proper arched-back spread-eagle body position before pulling the ripcord. It’s why I fell so far on the first El Cap jump before getting the chute deployed. The next two jumps saw vast improvement, but now it appeared I’d regressed. Finally, I felt I was close enough to a stable position and I pulled. A chute in the design of the British Union Jack flag opened beautifully. Except one of the skis struck the chute — well, nothing’s perfect. I sailed down and landed nicely on the glacier, no trees to worry about.

But my skydiving inexperience almost cost the film its opening sequence. Because I’d taken too long to get stable and open the chute, I’d fallen out of range of the chopper camera, the all important master shot. This was not the plan. The film was sent to a laboratory in Montreal. We waited — it seemed like ages — for the results. Finally we got an answer: It was ok. It wasn’t what was intended but it would suffice. Ah, the issues of dealing with nonprofessionals.

The team packed out, but Rob and I stayed, wanting to climb Asgard. The weather thwarted us, so we had an epic multi-day hike out with huge loads on our backs. We saw that the next good weather day didn’t happen for another week — London’s patience wouldn’t have lasted that long. The stunt which became iconic happened only by the narrowest margin.

His role in delivering the opening stunt made John Glen’s career. He was promoted from editor-in-chief to director, a position he occupied for the next five Bond films, more than anyone else. The franchise continued, with just about each film bigger and financially more successful than the previous one, despite a series of different actors playing of Bond. In 1980, I returned to the series when Cubby hired me again to double for Roger Moore in For Your Eyes Only, doing a 170-foot fall off a rock spire in the Greek Meteora region. Rene, a really fine man, went on to co-produce the classic film A Christmas Story.

To my amazement I, a humble stunt double, was given an opening credit in The Spy Who Loved Me, something that to my knowledge was unprecedented in the history of cinema. I also got invited to a sneak preview of the film at a theater in Westwood a block or so from the UCLA campus. When the stunt screened, I heard a woman whisper to her companion in the row behind us, “How do they do that?” Her friend answered, “They use dummies.” My mother, who was with me, swiveled around and said, “Yes, my son, the dummy.”

True story.

Check out Rick Sylvester - James Bond Stunts on Facebook for photos and memorabilia from Sylvester’s stints as 007.

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January 11, 2018