Going To Extremes

BASE Jumpers Risk Lives, Tempt Law

In the last century, more than 150 people have died trying to conquer Mount Everest. That may sound like the most extreme of extreme sports. But at least mountain climbers have something to hold onto.

Some people, however, go to extremes you may never have imagined. They have nothing to grab but air. They spend their days hurling themselves off buildings or mountains, just for the thrill of it. Correspondent Vicki Mabrey in the spring of 2000 investigated the dangerous sport of BASE jumping.

In 20 years, 40 people have died BASE jumping. But the people who get their kicks tempting fate are also testing the law and fighting to defend their sport.

BASE stands for buildings, aerials, spans and earth, and jumpers usually have to trespass to get to the tops of them.

And BASE jumping is, literally, a leap of faith - that your parachute will open in time, that you won't hit the ground at 120 miles an hour, that this jump won't be your last.

"We love life and don't have death wishes," Henry Boger says. "We realize every time we get on the cliff and we jump off, I mean, theoretically, we've committed suicide until we make a conscious decision to save our lives. It's suicide without the commitment; it's true."

Boger is a daredevil by profession, a skydiver. BASE jumping is his hobby. "There are so many people I've talked to that have dreamed about, 'Oh, I'd love to step over the edge of cliffs and jump off.' And we actually do that," he says.

BASE jumpers are a tight-knit group of only a few thousand people who share a bond made even stronger because almost everyone who does it knows someone who has died doing it.

As extraordinary as they sound, BASE jumpers are surprisingly ordinary people. For example, Mick Knutson is president of a software company in California and Joe Webber, a dentist from Indiana.

"I do dentistry to provide me with the income to do this," Webber says.

In February 2000, they came to some cliffs above the Colorado River near Moab, Utah, to jump. Hurtling more than 100 miles an hour, they covered 400 feet in seconds.

They say the sport provides a rush, the ultimate high. Jumpers will spend hours preparing, packing, hiking, all for a 30-second thrill.

What does it feel like after stepping over the edge?

"One second to me here actually feels like a minute," Webber says. "Time slows down. Your senses are heightened. It's an incredible awareness."

Watching death-defying stunts in James Bond movies and television commercials is as close as most people get to this sport. Tom Sanders, a BASE jumper himself, has filmed movie stunts and hundreds of these jumps all over the world.

"It's just a very misunderstood sport," Sanders says. "We're not risking our life for something foolish. It's really, really a great experience."

He has footage of men jumping off cliffs with the grace and poise of Olympic divers Some can jump off, do a double back flip and open a parachute.

Some would say it's more dangerous than skydiving. That's why all BASE jumpers must master skydiving first. Skydivers have the advantage of height, as much as 14,000 feet. And they have a full minute to open a parachute. They also have a second chute, in case the first one fails.

BASE jumpers have only a few hundred feet, a few seconds, and one parachute.

But BASE jumping is more than dangerous; in many places it is illegal.

Avery Badenhop organizes legal BASE jumping competitions around the world. If he chooses to jump illegally, he must stay one step ahead of the law.

"I don't need anybody to save me from killing myself," Badenhop says. "If I jolly well want to do something dangerous, it's up to me."

Badenhop, Boger, Webber and Knutson have all become criminals for their sport. They all have jumped illegally. Their stunts include leaping from a bridge in San Francisco and from a building in Indianapolis. The crime is trespassing, Badenhop says.

They just pull into town and pick out a suitable building. Why do they do it? For sport, fun and excitement.

The illegal jumping would stop, they say, if only they were permitted to jump from the country's best cliffs. But those are in the forbidden territory of state and national parks. And in one looms BASE jumpers' own Everest. Yosemite's El Capitan, at 3,600 feet, is as tall as three Empire State buildings and is the ultimate jumping-off point.

BASE jumping wasn't always forbidden there. Twenty years ago, Yosemite gave it a three-month trial. But BASE jumpers repeatedly broke rules and didn't get the necessary permits. So the sport was banned.

"I'd say we tried it, and it doesn't work," says Dennis Galvin, the deputy director of the National Park Service. He says jumping was banned for a lot of reasons, "for gathering spectators in the floor of the valley; for...threatening an endangered species, for the inability to land in prescribed areas, for disrupting the serenity of the valley."

National parks weren't set up so that everybody could recreate any way they wanted, he says; they were set up to be saved for future generations.

BASE jumpers might contend that they are taxpayers; national parks belong to everyone, and it's their right to jump there.

Galvin would argue that certain rights are granted under the Constitution, but BASE jumping is not one of them.

But BASE jumpers point out that the parks allow other dangerous sports, such as hang gliding and rock climbing. They accuse the Park Service of discrimination. And, flouting the law, they continue to jump. Some 6,000 illegal jumps off El Capitan have been made over the last 20 or so years.

One was by Frank Gamboli. After his jump, he saw park rangers closing in on him. He tried to escape by swimming across a river and drowned.

"After the death of Frank Gamboli there was quite an uproar," Badenhop recalls. "There were many, many rumors and threats of a mass jump."

In October 1999, in fact, Badenhop and a few others decided to jump from El Capitan in protest. While civil disobedience conjures up the notion of Mahatma Gandhi or Martin Luther King Jr. crusading for a cause, can practicing this sport really be civil disobedience?

"It might not be your cause, but it's our cause," Badenhop says. "And it's not the biggest cause in the world. And it's not going to change the globe. It's not going to change humanity. But it's going to change the quality of my life, and that's important to me."

One protestor that day was Jan Davis, the wife of stunt filmmaker Tom Sanders, who was there to record the protest. "My wife had been jumping for 15 years. She was definitely the queen of BASE jumping and the queen of skydiving," Sanders says.

On that day, to make a statement, Davis dressed like a prisoner. She knew the Park Service would confiscate her gear, so she didn't use her best, most expensive equipment. Three others who had jumped before her had already been arrested and handcuffed.

"I saw her exit," Sanders says. "I wasn't concerned for her safety. Now, I know that sounds ridiculous. But there are jumps that I worried a lot about. But this is a very, very forgiving BASE jump. And yet, she died there."

"As far as I could tell, she looked, she had (a) good, stable exit," Sanders says. "There was never any tumbling. And she just continued to fall, and fall, and fall."

"But when she continued to fall, and once I saw the trees come into frame, I knew it was too late," he adds. "It was awful. I lost my best friend," Sanders says.

Davis' death was the sixth in Yosemite since the Park Service banned BASE jumping about 20 years ago.

"Jan Davis is dead because of Park Service policy and her decisions," Sanders contends. "Frank Gamboli is dead because of Park Service policy and his decisions. It happens."

The National Park Service accepts no responsibility for these or other BASE-jumping deaths. It maintains that Davis' death was a tragic accident caused by equipment failure.

BASE jumpers were shaken by Davis' death but not deterred. The death of Davis didn't change Webber's mind. "It strengthened my belief in my cause," he says.

This sport may turn participants into criminals. "We're not criminals," says Webber. "Only in the eyes of the people who want to restrict us from participating in our sport."

To avoid that, some are being more selective about where they jump. The federal Bureau of Land Management allows BASE jumping on its property. But its cliffs are lower and therefore more dangerous.

For now, Badenhop and his friends are willing to forgo El Capitan, but only temporarily.

"When my probatin is up, Yosemite is still there, and there's still a cause there," says one.

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