POZZA DI FASSA, Italy — The Torri del Vajolet stands sentry over the Val di Fassa, its limestone cliffs and pillars hanging like a white, three-fingered glove over a tiny glacial lake and alpine inn in northern Italy.
Chris LaBounty had already solo-climbed a nearby peak that morning of June 23, and jumped without incident high in the Alps on the edge of a mountain nature reserve, a Mecca for wingsuit BASE jumping.
The Swanton native soloed the 9,255-foot tower again in the afternoon, confidently. His wife, Colleen, waited below out of view. He planned to zip past the restaurant where she wait, in his suit with webbing between legs and arms, specially designed for falling, filling with air, then catching like the wings of a bird, sending him racing along the spines and ridges of the mountains until he pulled his parachute and dropped to safety. Like he had done for almost a decade.
LaBounty, 40, had already lived a lifetime of experiences before that afternoon, a journey that took him from Quail Drive in Highgate, to earning a doctorate in electrical engineering in California, pioneering new climbing and BASE jumping routes, summiting Denali in Alaska and appearing on American Ninja Warrior, largely on a dare from his two adoring daughters.
The weather was calm that afternoon. An experienced and calculated jumper, LaBounty would often sit at exit points for hours calculating the variables. This jump was no different. But something went wrong in a sport where there is no room for error.
Before LaBounty climbed and flew, he rode his bike. For hours the neighborhood kids would ride up and down Quail Drive, exploring Highgate.
Labounty, with friends Barry Loomis, Miles Trudell and Joe Swan, would sometimes ride his bike to a quarry in a cow pasture, filled with milky green water, a 30-foot cliff hanging above the pool on the far side.
When they found the quarry, naturally they dared each other to jump. Before any of them had time to shy away from the edge, Chris LaBounty had already made the plunge.
“We all said we were going to do it. And I held back. Chris was the first one out. He jumped right out because he was very adventurous,” said Swan, who has known LaBounty for 38 years. “He was always willing to do stuff first. He didn’t feel like anything would happen. He just had that carefree attitude.”
Late on the evening of June 23, after Swan had gone to bed, his phone rang. It was a call from his brother. Joe returned the call the next morning to hear there had been an accident.
LaBounty, who lives with his wife and two children in California, had visited Highgate around Halloween. His mother, Johanne, was battling stage IV cancer. Still, Chris made time to visit with Joe, to have a beer or two talking mostly about his family and reminiscing about growing up.
Franklin County was never far from LaBounty’s heart. Once his daughters were old enough, Colleen and Chris would leave the children with family in Vermont, staying for a week to visit before departing on a trip, or staying an extra few days on the return.
“He was always, I would consider, homegrown,” Swan said. “He always wanted to stay connected with his friends.”
Swan hadn’t spoken with Loomis or Trudell in years. But they were the first ones he called when he heard the news about Chris.
“Cuts and bruises, sleeping at night in tents, all the stuff you do as kid … when I found out, my first thought, didn’t matter what it was, it was getting ahold of Miles and getting ahold of Barry. They knew Chris. They were friends with Chris. We all grew up together.”
LaBounty’s mother passed away June 13, just hours before he and his wife departed for Vermont from California. They considered canceling the trip to Italy as he helped his brother Andrew and sister Cynthia with funeral arrangements.
A week later, many of those same people were gathered together in Vermont for Chris’s memorial.
“I didn’t really think it was true until I came to the memorial service. Walk through the doors, this can’t be right. This can’t be it,” Swan said. “At least he died doing something he loved to do.”
Chris might’ve been the smartest person in the room, but he didn’t want you to know that, said Swan. He attended Highgate Elementary, and graduated from Missisquoi Valley Union in 1993.
“That was a pretty darned good class,” said MVU assistant principal Jay Hartman, who was a teacher at the time. “That was a very involved group of students, and he was among them, whether it was Skit Night, musicals, they were very active.”
The 1993 MVU yearbook shows Chris played hockey, track and field, and wrestled, all for the varsity teams. “He was a good athlete, not a great one,” Hartman said.
Chris excelled in math and sciences in high school. He took a heavy load of advanced math classes, as well as two early computer programming courses called Pascal. Chris was in honors English and took four years of French at the school, graduating in the top 15 percent of the class.
“He was a good one. Unfortunately we lost him too soon,” Hartman added.
Chris earned his undergraduate degree from University of Vermont, then went to the University of California-Santa Barbara for his doctorate in electrical engineering, which he earned by age 25.
He met his future wife there in 1997. Colleen, a San Diego County native, lived in the same student apartment building. She was a senior, he was a first-year grad student.
Chris wasn’t a BASE jumper then, or even a climber. But he maximized every opportunity to go outdoors, whether it was hiking or kayaking.
They married in 2002, and it was then that Chris began to find his passion on the rocks and snow in the high mountains. He climbed Denali, North America’s highest peak, in 2003 with his brother, and with friends Brandon Thau and Neal Harder he began exploring new routes on peaks deep in the Sierra Nevadas.
“Once he sets his mind to learn something, he excels at it and he excels quickly,” his wife said recently by phone.
LaBounty and Harder spent three and a half days on El Capitan in Yosemite in 2007, one of the biggest, most technical climbing walls in the world, a series of pitches only a small percentage of climbers ever try.
“He’s an inspiring guy. He’s fun to be around. Climbing has a lot of technical knowledge involved and he picked it up really fast,” Harder said.
Chris later climbed El Cap, the “Lurking Fear” route with Thau, this time in 24 hours. The two met through work, and quickly found a compatibility as climbing partners, particularly in their ability to meet each other’s commitment level when it came to leaving work and heading to a climb on the weekends.
Both LaBounty and Thau managed their climbing careers while balancing families. The pitches Harder, Thau and LaBounty pioneered in the Sierras often involved long hikes to isolated peaks.
LaBounty also summited the north face of the Eiger, the Matterhorn, and Mt. Blanc, Europe’s highest peak.
On one of LaBounty’s earliest climbs with Thau, who taught him much about the sport, he brought only climbing shoes, forgetting boots for the hike out. He suffered silently on the long walk back, losing a toenail or two along the way.
“It’s very hard to find a partner like that,” Thau said. “It’s a rare breed for sure.”
Thau and LaBounty had climbs planned throughout the summer. Now, Brandon said, he is left with an emptiness when he thinks of climbing. “I’m kind of at a loss right now,” he said. “I lost my momentum for sure.”
Colleen wasn’t a climber, but one day Chris came home and announced they were going to buy her climbing shoes.
“I didn’t object. I said, ‘sure, I’ll give it a try.’ And it turned out I did enjoy it,” Colleen said.
Soon, the two were often taking weekend climbing excursions together. Labounty always climbed closely with her, patiently teaching. He would put her on a less challenging line while climbing next to her up his own, more difficult pitch.
For work, Labounty often traveled to China. Colleen had no desire to go with him. “It didn’t sound fun,” she said. “He said he was going to take me whether I wanted to go or not. I know the girls were interested.”
LaBounty’s Facebook page and YouTube channel are filled with videos of him punching through heavy, wet, early summer Sierra snowpack, or negotiating crumbling rock. Harder tried skydiving with LaBounty around 2009, but didn’t take it any further. For LaBounty, that feeling stuck.
There is a natural progression from rock climbing to BASE jumping and eventually, BASE jumping with a wingsuit. It starts with a deep connection to the rocks, the trees and the skies. The Sierra Nevadas were where Chris felt most free, and he spent as much time in the mountains as he could.
“He found his calm in the mountains. That’s where he was happiest,” Colleen said. “He was with you, not thinking about other things, or worrying about other stuff. He was very conscious about sharing the moment with you.”
In one of Chris’s videos, he sits high on a snow-capped mountain in China, trying to find a clear exit point over a cliff that falls away to a far off village below. Eventually, he finds a spot and soars safely away from the snow covered branches to the lush green valley below.
BASE, which stands for Building, Antenna, Span and Earth, is a sport in which participants jump from tall, fixed objects with a parachute, like skydiving, but much closer to terrain features. Wingsuits allow BASE jumpers to travel for miles, carried to the ground by a deployed parachute after participants pull away from the terrain high over the valley.
“I always had the utmost trust in him and his decision making,” Colleen said. “I knew he was one of the more careful people in the rock climbing and BASE jumping world. He took that part very seriously.”
Thau remembers being there for LaBounty’s first BASE jump. A local at the spot was supposed to jump with him, but bailed. Thau, hands shaking, recorded his jump nervously as LaBounty went anyway.
Jeff Shapiro met LaBounty at the top of the Porcelain Wall in Yosemite, Calif. in 2012. He and LaBounty had climbed together 10 days before the accident, and the two, with daughters of a similar age, talked frequently about their families on the climb. Shapiro was the first one Colleen called from Italy after the accident.
Shapiro couldn’t put a number on the amount of times they jumped together. It was quality over quantity, he said, but there was no one he trusted more in the tightly-knit BASE jumping community.
“He was experienced and smart, not just traditionally but also smart in terms of trying to manage the risk, to deal with making good decisions, to do those things consistently. That’s what made him a good jumping partner,” Shapiro said.
“We also paid attention to each other’s safety. We talked about it logically,” Shapiro added. “Chris and I were both on the same page that way.”
LaBounty was skilled enough to gain sponsorships. A sponsored climber himself, Shapiro said LaBounty was on the cutting edge of wingsuit BASE jumping, performing at a level few could because he was just that skilled.
“He had a rare combination of skillsets: incredible family man, highly educated. Accomplished at his job, respected in his field,” said Shapiro.
At times, there were sideways looks from other parents as LaBounty hung from the monkey bars at the playground upside down, or jumped from object to object, showing off for his daughters, Mabel, 10, and Anna, 8.
And they adored him for it. Chris, Colleen said, had a way of challenging people around him, a way of bringing out the best in them. The world was LaBounty’s playground, and it brought out the best in his family, too.
After years of watching their dad leap around the playground, his daughters challenged him to try out for the popular television show “American Ninja Warrior.”
LaBounty had tried to get on the show before, but every time he went to apply, the application window online had just closed. On his daughters’ prompting he tried again. They happened to be accepting applications. LaBounty sent his in.
Sure enough, his rock climbing and BASE jumping story was compelling enough that he got the call back. A month later, the show would do an all-night taping. The girls were ready to stay up late waiting for their dad to compete.
Chris made it through the obstacles, losing his balance on a harmless dismount. With over 200 competitors, the odds of actually being featured on the show are relatively low, even after getting the call back.
But on June 1, Colleen and LaBounty, with close family and friends, gathered to watch the show on national television. Sure enough, he made the edit, however briefly. Colleen remembers the cable was cutting in and out that night. But it came back long enough for the girls to see their father on TV.
“He was a great dad,” Colleen said. “He was good at inspiring other people. He pushed people, making them challenge themselves. He was a good cheerleader to improve something about yourself.”
In the late afternoon of July 22, Colleen and Chris climbed the Torri del Vajolet together, looking out over the Italian Alps as the sun lowered in the sky. It was the perfect moment on one of the many trips the two had taken.
“We would talk about nothing,” said Colleen. “We would just share the moment, the beauty. There are so many amazing places I would not have seen were it not for him.”
Ever calculated, it may have been a miscalculation in unfamiliar terrain that ultimately cost Chris his life. In the end, the tragic details don’t matter.
For the girls, life hasn’t changed much for them yet. LaBounty was often away on trips for work or for climbing. They haven’t processed the loss.
But for the many people whose lives Chris touched, from Vermont to California, through climbing and BASE jumping, exploring and playing, a deep void now exists, a void left by a person that lived every minute of life to the fullest.