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Radical perspectives

Posted: November 18, 2011 - 1:00am  |  Updated: November 18, 2011 - 1:02am
A composite image of Craig Brown jumping off a cliff on Mount Stroller White.   Photo by Chris Miller
Photo by Chris Miller
A composite image of Craig Brown jumping off a cliff on Mount Stroller White.

Living in Alaska provides one with a plethora of amazing views, especially those snow-capped mountains, beckoning to the snow lovers of all ages and experience.

Born on an Arizona Air Force base and living in Germany until age 5, Craig Brown came to Alaska in 1978 and it’s been home ever since — even when traveling many months of the year. His love of snow and winter sports was cultivated at a young age; growing up in Anchorage his family cross-country skied in the winter months. Brown took up downhill skiing at age 14 and after seeing the seminal 1988 ski film “Blizzard of Aahhhs,” he became inspired.

“I know that’s a cliche,” admitted Brown, “but it documented some pretty great ski antics that I had never seen before, and I thought, ‘if these guys can do it — I want to do it.’”

During his senior year of high school, at age 18, Brown began competing in extreme skiing competitions. He continued competing for years, traveling anywhere he could, reaching the top levels of competition in the winter of 1999-2000.

“It was a lot of fun, traveling a lot, leaving Alaska to compete, testing myself against peers in the sport and meeting new people,” he said. “Ultimately, it wasn’t about competing with other people, I wanted to get out and ski for my own purposes.”

During these travels, Brown was introduced to people who were involved in skydiving and BASE jumping. BASE jumping involves jumping off (B) buildings, (A) antennae, (S) spans, and (E) earth and deploying a parachute to glide safely back to the ground. While on the road, he experienced his first skydive in 2000, was licensed in 2004, and experienced his first BASE jump in 2005, in Twin Falls, Idaho. Perrine Bridge in Twin Falls is one of a few structures legal to jump from and many begin their BASE jumping adventures there. The average person may prefer the feeling of two feet planted firmly on the ground, but for some, that’s not enough.

“I liked the idea of seeing the world from that perspective, I wanted to experience if for myself. It’s the most radical shift of perspective you can get in this world.” Brown said.

Not satisfied with simply experiencing the thrills and chills of extreme winter sports himself, Brown has dedicated time and effort to sharing this world with others. Though summers are mostly spent traveling, sometimes guiding river rafting trips and doing more jumps, wintery Alaska is home and that’s where his heart is. Brown is a heli-ski guide in the winters, slated to work with Alaska Powder Descents, based in Juneau, and Southeast Alaska Backcountry Adventures (SEABA) based in Haines, this year. He is also planning to revive an event he organized for the first time in 2005.

Having met so many like-minded athletes in his travels, Brown wanted to share his home state with them, his peers and teachers. In 2005, he organized the first AKX (Alaska Extreme) Extreme Winter Sports event. Through his own determination and with the help of the friends he made along the way, he managed to pull together a ski plane, a couple dozen snow machines, and some athletes. The first event took place in Cooper’s Landing on the Kenai Peninsula and was a success, with some special thanks to Kevin Krein, associate professor of philosophy and director of outdoor studies at the University of Alaska Southeast and part owner of Alaska Powder Descents, and Christian Page of Anchorage for their help and support.

The event, while relatively small and unknown to much of the world outside the extreme winter sports crowd, grew the next year with more skydivers, skiers, snowboarders, and BASE jumpers participating. At the time, pulling off some really limit-pushing jumps, there was only one other group of athletes coming close to what they were doing, according to Brown.

The event took a hiatus, but this winter the festival is expected to return to the slopes in Haines, with support from SEABA. Brown is working hard putting the event together and he feels confident that it will be another success, especially with many returning athletes and some lead athletes from the Red Bull team committed to participate.

When Brown talks about confidence, he doesn’t mean ego or arrogance; he emphasizes the careful preparation that goes into each trip, each jump, each event. Having been backcountry skiing for the past 20 years, Brown explains it is a lifetime process, learning and striving to gain skills. As a heli-skiing guide since 2008 and ski instructor for much longer, he is responsible for the wellbeing of himself and others. Through “practice, practice and more practice” Brown has the logistics down: rescue, risk, communication — and he trusts himself — a key ingredient to success in extreme sports.

“When you’re doing this, adrenaline kicks in and it has a physiological affect on the body,” began Brown, and after a pretty thorough scientific explanation of the body’s physiological reaction to fear, the tone became a little more personal when he explained how to function when your body wants to do anything but that.

“It’s about good breathing techniques, in through the nose and out through the mouth — that kind of meditative breathing will help you keep calm. It’s like the eye of the hurricane — if you can be there, mentally and emotionally, you can stay calm in the midst of all that’s going on. Some people call it being centered.”

Whether a person is interested in backcountry skiing, heli-skiing, skydiving or BASE jumping, Brown mentions practice again. And trust.

“The greatest obstacle or fear to overcome is trusting your judgement, trusting yourself. Not foolishly, blindly or naively, but trusting that you’ve assessed the avalanche conditions, assessed an object for jumping — are these factors all in place? Trusting your own judgment is a doozy when your life is on the line, and other people’s lives too.”

BASE jumping is one of Brown’s most thrilling pursuits these days. He’s currently in Lodi, Calif., preparing to do his 47th jump, his first with a wing-suit. Brown became an official BASE jumper last year when he completed a jump in his final category: buildings. With 46 jumps in eight states under his belt, Brown continues to seek or cultivate new challenges.

“I’ve opened up a few objects of my own,” said Brown. If one is new to the lingo, Brown assessed the objects, whether they be antennae or cliffs, and determined they were safe jumps. Then he jumped.

“Ultimately, it’s physics. And if you can wrap your brain around that, then it’s just a matter of how much you trust yourself.”

Trust. Will power. Determination. Practice. And physics.

Of around 100 skydiving jumps and almost 47 BASE jumps, Brown can easily pinpoint his favorite jump, and it’s right here in Juneau. It stands out for a number of reasons: it was his first independent jump, the first site he had assessed himself, it was on his skis, and it was back home. It was an 800-foot ski jump off Stroller White. Brown brought up another moment in film history when talking about ski BASE jumps: a James Bond film, “The Spy Who Loved Me,” in which Rick Sylvester performs an epic ski jump before the opening credits, inspiring Brown and, undoubtedly, many others. For Brown, the biggest thing was bringing BASE jumping back home to Alaska and getting to share it with his friends and co-workers, Northstar Trekking at the time, where he has been employed seasonally over a number of years.

If Brown is truly after new and radical perspectives, his path in life has been well chosen. He’s traveled extensively, made friends wherever he’s gone, talked with the founders of BASE jumping, learned, taught, and seen the world from some pretty lofty heights.

For more photos from Chris Miller, visit www.csmphotos.com, for more information on Alaska Powder Descents in Juneau and SEABA in Haines, visit www.alaskapowder.com or www.seaba-heli.com respectively.

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