Way back in 1977, long before terms like “extreme skiing” and “BASE jumping” were part of the lexicon, the opening sequence of The Spy Who Loved Me blew people’s minds. It begins with Roger Moore’s James Bond leaving a lover behind in a mountaintop cabin because, though she needs him, “so does England.”
She traitorously alerts a bunch of heavily armed ski bums, who chase him down the slopes. Bond fights them off with some epic freestyle skiing — and a ski pole gun, of course — before launching off a cliff. His skis detach and he seems to be helplessly free falling. Then a Union Jack parachute opens, the theme music kicks in, and we are gloriously reminded to always bet on Bond.
I'm guessing most of the theater audience members’ jaws dropped, momentarily, before they cheered, watched the opening credits and got into the flick. Ski geeks, however, probably found themselves asking a critical question: how the hell did the stuntman get his skis off in mid-air that way? After all, almost all alpine bindings release with downward pressure, which isn’t exactly plentiful whilst plummeting through the sky.
Veteran climber and skier Rick Sylvester, who performed this epic feat on Canada’s Mount Asgard in July 1976, has given a number of interviews explaining how he pulled it off. Turns out it was nothing new for him, as he first tried the stunt off Yosemite’s El Capitan in 1972. Only once, however, has he addressed the now obscure piece of gear that made it possible.
“It was during a chance meeting at the Squaw post office that I explained which binding, the original Spademan which had no toe piece, I used, and the simple release system I devised with it,” he commented on a Reddit post about the stunt. “Whereas most alpine ski bindings require downward pressure to be released, the idea here was that the binding needed for this purpose would be one requiring upward pressure, an upward pull, to be released in midair.”
That binding was designed in the 1960s by Dr. Richard Spademan, a Tahoe-area physician frustrated by the rash of injuries caused by the quick-release bindings of the time. Because force or torque could cause his version to release in any direction, it was much less likely to lead to fractures, sprains and other injuries resulting from someone getting stuck in their skis during a crash.
It's the height of irony: a ski binding designed for safety was essential to one of the most dangerous stunts ever captured on film.
In a tragic twist, the legendary freestyle skier Shane McConkey died in the Dolomites while performing an update of the stunt that included aerial tricks and wingsuit flying. McConkey was using a similar old-school, easy-release binding, the Tyrolia 480. But after a double backflip, he got tangled up with his skis, became inverted and was unable to deploy his parachute before falling to his death in March of 2009. (His incredible life is celebrated in the 2013 Red Bull documentary McConkey — highly recommended by yours truly.)
Sylvester went on to stunt for Moore again a few years later, falling off the side of a mountain in Greece for 1981's For Your Eyes Only. But his greatest work happened in 1978, when he helped rescue several people trapped after a deadly ski tram collapse during a blizzard at Squaw Valley.
The Spademan binding, meanwhile, enjoyed most of its popularity in the late ’70s, which owes more to its actual effectiveness than the film itself. Although The Spy Who Loved Me was a huge hit, raking in $185.4 million worldwide on a $13.5 million budget, almost no one knew of the binding's key role.
However, production missteps — combined with the development of safer toe-and-heel bindings — led to the Spademan's downfall in the early ’80s. It remained a favorite of rental shops for some time, thanks to the fact that it had a single mounting plate, meaning it could accommodate different sizes of boots without adjustment, but it has since faded into obscurity.
However, if you ever get the itch to don a yellow onesie and get all James Bond-y on your own, you can still find Spademans on eBay from time to time. In fact, there’s a pair on there right now. Starting bid? $40.