Base jumper Kelsey Rice had already parachuted to the bottom of a 350-metre-high cliff near Nordegg and was watching his brother when something went terribly wrong.
Sheldon Rice’s parachute opened right on cue. But instead of drifting safely down as three others had before him, the Rocky Mountain House father-of-three slammed into the rock face.
The impact shattered his kneecap and left him bruised and bleeding on a scree slope at the bottom of the sheer cliff as other base jumpers rushed to help him late Tuesday afternoon.
“His bell was rung pretty hard,” said Kelsey. “He was still kind of confused. He wasn’t 100 per cent sure of what had gone on.
“He just knew that there was a steering issue that he couldn’t control or couldn’t fix. And by the time he was trying to correct and get away from the wall, it was just too late.
“He had a completely fully-inflated canopy, which is what saved his life coming down that wall.
“He probably came down 500 feet along that wall.”
Kelsey said his brother was dazed but conscious and could answer questions about his birthday and those of his children when he got to him.
The younger brother’s biggest concern in the long wait to get out to safety was that there might be unseen internal injuries that could prove fatal.
Sheldon is recovering in Calgary’s Foothills Medical Centre following an operation on his knee. He also has a hairline fracture to one leg, a couple of broken vertebrae, and minor lesions to his liver and a kidney, among other bumps and bruises.
Despite the damage, he is expected to recover fully.
Kelsey said the conditions were perfect for the jump, which had been meticulously planned for months by the group of 10 base jumpers who had been taxied to the cliff by helicopter.
“It had nothing to do with the wind. We had the most beautiful conditions a guy could possibly ask for up there. The spot we jumped from was, in the base world, a super safe place to jump from.”
Kelsey, 37, and his brother have been jumping together since 1996. Sheldon has 3,000 parachute jumps under his belt and dozens of base jumps and is very experienced.
When he landed, the remaining five base jumpers took their turns parachuting down. Base jumping protocol calls on all available to help when something goes wrong with another jumper and you can’t do that looking down from the top of the cliff.
Kelsey is beyond praise for the search and rescue volunteers and professionals who responded.
“My God, it was like angels coming down, it truly was,” said the father of three from Rocky Mountain House.
Rocky Search and Rescue president Ed Van Heeren was one of eight members of the specially-trained group that was flown in by Ahlstrom Air to the site about 23 km from Hwy 11 in the Cline River area southwest of Nordegg around noon.
The rescue was a major co-operative effort by close to two dozen search and rescue volunteers and emergency services responders and local helicopter companies from Rocky Mountain House and Nordegg, as well as the Kananaskis Country Public Safety Section.
“When we got to him, he had lacerations on his face and his forward,” said Van Heeren. “His one leg was in pretty bad shape and he had a whole bunch of undetermined injuries, internal injuries.
“We stabilized the patient as best as we could and lowered him down to a safer, more stable area on the scree slope,” he said.
“We helped package him for transport by long line by Alpine Helicopters and the (Kananaskis County Public Safety Section).”
A long line involves slinging a basket below a helicopter to move injured climbers. The man was then transferred into an Ahlstrom helicopter and taken to the Cline River helipad, where STARS was waiting with its own helicopter to take the patient to Calgary.
Kelsey said his brother will recover. And when he does, he hopes his base jumping days are over.
“I’m really hoping that he doesn’t,” he said, adding it was so difficult to see his brother hurt.
“For my own selfish reasons, I hope he doesn’t so I would never have to feel that again because it was my brother.”
Kelsey, though, will jump again.
“Yeah, I think I will,” he said. “It’s all I know how to do I guess. It’s what I’ve lived for for the last 20 years.”