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Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Love and BASE Jumping: Q &A With Bob Ash, Fiance of Bay Area BASE Jumping Victim, Shannon Dean

Posted By on Wed, Feb 9, 2011 at 7:00 AM

click to enlarge Shannon Dean, BASE jumper - BOB ASH AND SHANNON DEAN IN MAUI IN 2005
  • Bob Ash and Shannon Dean in Maui in 2005
  • Shannon Dean, BASE jumper

Our feature story this week looks into the sport of BASE jumping - leaping off buildings, antennas spans and earth with a parachute. A website chronicles the sport's 161 casualties to date. 

One of the victims was a Bay Area woman. In 2006, Bob Ash witnessed his fiance Shannon Dean fall to her death off the Perrine Bridge in Twin Falls, Idaho, one of the only legal places to jump in the country. The two had lived together in San Mateo; Dean was 35 years old, Ash 42. The Chronicle covered Dean's death, but Ash has since gone on a journey of his own. "It all happened for a reason," he says. He's currently living in Shasta County and penning a book about the experience.

(Some of Ash's quotes have slightly tweaked for easier reading, without changing the meaning.)

How did you meet Shannon?
I met her skydiving. I'd been jumping for 15 years and she showed up at the drop zone with her boyfriend at the time...I had weird premonitions about her before I even knew her very well. I always felt a connection to her. I just felt she was going to be a part of my life.

Did you have second thoughts about dating someone involved in such a dangerous

click to enlarge BOB ASH AND SHANNON DEAN IN MAUI IN 2005
  • Bob Ash and Shannon Dean in Maui in 2005
I had to do some soul-searching about whether this is something I

wanted to get into. There was a risk versus reward. We talked about this

at great length and I think the reward was worth it for her. A week

before she died we really got into a conversation about how important it

was for her. It was a part of her that made her whole.

I felt very comfortable with their safety protocol. I watched how meticulous she was about her BASE jumping and the

parachute packing, and her mindframe as she climbs up the tower, the

focus. I was very proud of how serious she took the whole thing.  

What did Shannon get out of BASE jumping?
She grew up in

an abusive family. So when she was growing up she dealt with insecurity

and never really having a place in the world. BASE jumping is scary for

everybody, I don't care who it is. For her, the ability to be that

strong and overcome it [was empowering], the whole process of overcoming

the fear, and realizing it's just her, there's nobody else that

controls this part of her destiny, that she's 100 percent in control of


I could feel the confidence exude from her when she would

jump. The result of it was joy. Regardless if it was in the middle of the

night, and she had to climb a barbed wire fence and climb up an antenna,

when she landed it wasn't like whew, I'm alive. It was more a life

affirmation, some sort of connection with everything that exists. You

know those moments where you feel more alive than you ever have?

Did you go with her on jumps?

on our first dates around San Francisco, she would be pointing up to

the tops of buildings and [saying] I want to jump off the top of that. She was

like a four year old going to Disneyland - uncontrollable giddiness. So

how can you deny someone something that makes them feel that way?


our second date she said I want to show you something. We came to an

upscale condo complex. We walked in, she waved at the security guard, we

get on the elevator, we get out on the top floor, about 30-40 stories

high. She said, 'This is the first building I'm going to jump off.' She

showed me what she was going to do and I saw how much thought she had

put into it. She never got the chance to do it.

click to enlarge Dean on the Perrine Bridge days before her death
  • Dean on the Perrine Bridge days before her death
Why did you head to Idaho that particular weekend?

had just sold a business in the Bay Area a week before the

accident. Shannon had just come back from an injury and hadn't been BASE

jumping a lot. For her birthday, she said she wanted to go Twin Falls.

How did that final jump come up?
That weekend she'd

done three jumps on Saturday, Sunday was rained out. Monday

we were on our way to the airport, and it was such a beautiful day

after the storm. The winds were calm. We looked at the clock and figured

we had plenty of time to make one more jump. We were driving out of town at

the time. 

So what happened?
I've watched the video I was filming at the

time, and I still don't really understand how these pieces fit together.

Physically it was a beautiful exit: she was completely stable, she

reached back. What happened is when she threw the pilot chute

out, the whole thing pushed onto her back in the triangle of dead air on

your back with the air going up and over. All skydivers have had this

happen to us before. In skydiving, you have a bunch of time, and you

have to dip a shoulder to change the wind. In skydiving, it's a very

solve-able problem.

Shannon turned her shoulder to clear it, but

she just didn't have enough time. It's really a matter of one second. That's the difference between life and death: one second. Her body

simultaneously hit the water as the chute began to open.

What did you do after she hit?

reaction was pain and horror. I started running down the edge of the

bridge as fast as I could. All I could think of was getting down to her

and about two-thirds of the way down I just stopped and this thing

happened to me. There was something in me that knew there was some form

of consciousness

beyond what I knew, because I felt her presence. She was in a place of pure joy, pure bliss.

Ash went to India, where the couple had planned to marry, and spread Shannon's ashes in a traditional

ceremony. Ash began practicing yoga there, and has since become a yoga


Ash at a ceremony in India to spread Dean's ashes
  • Ash at a ceremony in India to spread Dean's ashes
How has this changed you?
I promised Shannon I would get over

this and I stopped trying to plan things and attach myself to outcomes

of things, because when you have an experience like this, you realize

everything could change in a second.

I was finally able to open

to the idea of God. I was always a show-me kind of guy, that until I

met something that proved it, I kept it at arm's length. But the thing

is, something happened to me that I can't ignore. I became part of

something I don't fully understand.

What was the BASE jumping community's reaction to her death?

the time I got home from Idaho, I'd gotten 200 emails from all over the

world from the BASE jumping and skydiving community. They are just the

most amazing people in the world.

Shannon's mom was so upset

that she wanted to make it her life's work to ban BASE jumping. She

didn't know Shannon the way we did; she didn't know this joy and happiness.

We had a memorial service in Southern California, and I drove down with a dozen skydivers. When we

were there we could see the pain in that family. It was like they'd

never overcome this. We had a reception afterward and the skydivers

started talking to the non-skydivers, and they talked about how much joy

she had doing it and it changed the entire event. The whole family

could see another side of Shannon. By the time we left, I don't think

the ban of BASE jumping was ever discussed again.

Shannon Dean in Maui in 2005
  • Shannon Dean in Maui in 2005

All photos provided by Bob Ash

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Lauren Smiley


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