Bombs Away: A Guide to Skydiving

BASE Jumping

Once the basics of jumping become old hat, some thrill seekers turn to BASE jumping, the most radical of the parachute sports. BASE is an acronym for Building, Antenna, Span, Earth, and the name accurately describes the central difference between this form of jumping and skydiving: Rather than jumping from aircraft, BASE enthusiasts leap from stationary objects such as bridges or buildings or from natural precipices.

BASE jumping is a particularly dangerous pastime because the parachute is deployed at very low altitudes, leaving little room for error. BASE jumpers have leaped from Angel Falls in Venezuela—at 3,212 the world's tallest waterfall—and from the top of the World Trade Center. But the biggest organized gathering of BASE jumpers—and thus far the only one that is legally sanctioned—takes place annually on the third weekend of October at the New River Gorge Bridge in Fayette County, West Virginia. There, for one day each year, hundreds of jumpers leap from the center of the 876-foot-high span. The so-called Bridge Day Festival—actually a local celebration of the anniversary of the completion of the bridge—now attracts thousands of curious onlookers and plenty of media attention.
Jumpers flock to Bridge Day for good reason. The New River Gorge Bridge offers a fairly high takeoff point, and, unlike a cliff, waterfall, or tall building, the yawning airspace beyond the arched span provides clear, unobstructed sailing for the descent. But the land area is tight, and is surrounded by trees, rocks, and fast water, so accurate landing skills are important—and experience with water landing is a plus.

Obviously, this adventure is only for experts with lots of jumping experience. Skydivers leaping from airplanes typically deploy their parachutes at a minimum of 2,000 to 2,500 feet, leaving them plenty of time to deploy a reserve chute if the main canopy malfunctions. When making a BASE jump at a site like New River Gorge Bridge, there is typically not enough time to deploy a reserve parachute. The implication is clear: If your primary chute fails, the chances of survival are slim.

Still, serious injuries (apart from a few broken ankles) are uncommon on Bridge Day, in large part because participants must be veteran parachutists schooled in the special skills needed to jump this location. For them, the jumpfest at New River Gorge Bridge is a great celebration of the sport. It offers the best opportunity to experience BASE jumping legally, with support and emergency services close at hand.


Paul McMenamin is the author, editor, and photo director of the original Ultimate Adventure Sourcebook.

Published: 8 Oct 2001 | Last Updated: 14 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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