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Not for the Faint of Heart: BASE Jumping

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A lone man waddles to the edge of a cliff. A little over 500 feet below him, the bottom of the cliff is dotted with rocks. Tall and unforgiving, these ancient behemoths wait for his tumble off the edge. It is just before dusk and the entire national park is laid out before him. For miles around some of the most majestic untarnished forest in all of America stretches to the horizon. The wind kicks up for a moment, something he takes dire note of, swirling the smell of earth and the bitter smell of fear upward towards his nostrils. He takes a deep breath, steadies himself, and pictures why he has finally chosen to do this. And then he leaps.

All around him people are screaming, some horrified, others enthralled. But all are too far back to stop him. They watch as his form plummets towards the earth.

He has never felt so alive, ironic this close to death, but invigorating nonetheless. The wind whips through his clothing, and his eyes quickly dry out from the sheer force of the updraft. He blinks once, twice, and reaches behind him. The ground approaches at an alarming rate now. He’d assumed he would have longer. The adrenaline finally his in full force, slowing down time. He can pick out every grain of dirt on every rock beneath him. The rushing wind has all but rendered his hearing useless, but he feels himself screaming.

And then he pulls the ripcord. His parachute billows out, the lines pulling taunt, snapping his whole body upright. He feels like he was just hit by a car, but his plummet to earth has now become a gentle floating. He realizes that he had been holding his breath and he lets it out in one big whoosh!

Above him the crowd’s cheers finally reach his ears. As he comes to a gentle stop at the base of the cliff, he turns around to salute them, and their screams echo across the national park.

This man has just completed his fourth BASE jump and will receive his BASE number, but his mind isn’t dwelling on that. It is still reeling from being so close to death, only to dart away at the last moment. Every breath he takes feels better than any breath he’s ever taken. And when the sunrise finally crests the hill to his east, it is the most beautiful of his life.

And it all took less than 15 seconds.

****

BASE jumping or B.A.S.E. (buildings, antenna, spans, earth) has been around almost as long as the modern parachute, but didn’t manifest itself into the extreme sport it is today until the late 1960s. In BASE jumping’s earliest installations, most jumpers were in fact inventors testing their parachutes.

The first modern day BASE jumpers took flight in January of 1981. Referred to as BASE #1 and #2—BASE jumpers are referred to sequentially)—Phil Smith and Phil Mayfield leapt simultaneously into history, from a skyscraper in downtown Houston, Texas. BASE jumpers are only allowed to get their numbers if they have successful jumps off all the installations that BASE stands for. At minimum, therefore, a BASE jumper needs to successfully complete four jumps, risking life and limb with each jump.

Today, just over 1,500 BASE jumpers have achieved their numbers. To gain perspective on how difficult it is to achieve BASE numbers, the total number of people to have been to space only outnumbers these individuals three to one. But why is it so hard to achieve BASE numbers? Simply flinging yourself off of a cliff doesn’t seem much of a challenge. But the answer lies simply in the technical difficulty in successfully BASE jumping (i.e. not dying).

In the earliest days of BASE, jumpers hadn’t yet modified their parachutes for the all-too-brief BASE jump. They were using the same chutes that their brethren leaping from 12,000 feet were using. And whereas a jumper from 12,000 feet can have up to almost a minute of free fall until he reaches pull altitude, a BASE jumper has a matter of seconds. Any mistake in the chute isn’t just a concern that needs to be fixed, but a death sentence.

But the more pressing issue for BASE jumpers (being afraid of death isn’t a trait often found in a person willing to jump off a cliff, so the whole parachute problem was more of an occupational hazard), was access to BASE locations. Early on, and to this day, death was very common among BASE jumpers. While they have made advances in both jumping technique and chute technology, a study in 2002 placed the death rate for BASE jumpers at 1 in 60. While this was a minor concern for the jumpers themselves, the people who owned the buildings, bridges, or antenna saw major legal ramifications of a person plummeting to their death off their property.

Therefore, many jumps were done illegally, usually at first light or at dusk so as to catch the authorities unaware. BASE jumping has slowly gained a larger swath of fans and supporters, and many places the world over now sponsor “jump days.” And while members of this elite group of parachutists are excited to finally step out of the shadows, it is still important to understand how a BASE jumper gets his or her numbers. One jumps from a building, antenna, span, and earth. Staunch advocates of the sport maintain that a jumper is not in fact a BASE jumper until he or she has a separate successful jump from each of the four criterion.

BASE jumping is a fascinating and enthralling sport, and is well depicted in pop culture (at least four James Bond movies feature BASE jumping), and it is still a growing sport. Brave men and women are still innovating and changing how BASE jumping is done. They are constantly making improvements to safety standards, equipment, and techniques. The awards, accolades, and records in the sport change hands on a nearly weekly basis, and with each new skyscraper built, BASE jumpers are in a race to jump off of it. But it is not a sport for the faint of heart or the uncommitted. These men and women log hundreds of jump hours, generally first from airplanes, before even attempting to achieve their BASE numbers.

If you find that you are one of the brazen few that wish to join in this extreme sport, realize that you must be committed. Committed to put in the hours and work necessary to safely jump. Committed to learning the newest and safest techniques for a safe jump. Then all you have to do is jump, fling yourself into the void and in the words of Tim Rigsby, Hollywood stuntman and avid base jumper: “Once you’ve thrown your pilot chute, you’re done. It’s out of your hands. From that moment on you just enjoy the view or panic.”

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