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What Is BASE Jumping?

BASE jumpers leap off the edge of a building over a city skyline.
Hundreds of sites in Utah can be used for BASE jumping.
The earliest recorded BASE jump was from the Statue of Liberty.
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  • Written By: O. Wallace
  • Edited By: Niki Foster
  • Last Modified Date: 08 July 2014
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BASE jumping is an extreme sport in which a person parachutes from a fixed object. The term BASE is an acronym for Buildings, Antennas, Spans, and Earth, referring to the objects that provide the jump platform. It differs from skydiving in that it happens at a lower altitude and airspeed, and the jump occurs close to a jump platform.

Most BASE jumps occur at altitudes of less than 2,000 feet (610 m), but usually no less than 200 feet (61 m). A typical jump from 500 feet (152 m) is about 5.6 seconds to the ground if the chute doesn’t open. This height provides the jumper with only about 10 to 15 seconds of ride time with an open chute. Adrenaline junkies love the danger involved with the short distance, and there’s no room for mistakes or accidents.

The earliest recorded BASE jump was by Frederick Law, who jumped from the Statue of Liberty in 1912. Brian Schubert made El Capitan in Yosemite National Park a “must-jump” in 1966. The sport has been glamorized in numerous movies, including James Bond and XXX.

Film maker Carl Boenish was perhaps the most instrumental in bringing BASE jumping to the mainstream consciousness. In fact, it was Boenish who coined the term BASE, and he filmed several jumps that inspired many to take the leap themselves. He died doing what he loved, on a jump in Norway in 1984.

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The excitement of a jump comes from its inherent danger. A BASE jumper gives up the “safety margins” that come with a jump at high altitudes from an airplane. The parachute system must open quickly at lower airspeeds, and due to the short duration of the jump, there is no time for a reserve chute.

Because there’s less time to gain control on a jump, there is a higher chance that the jumper may tumble; a bad jump may cause the jumper to lose control, which is hard to correct in the short distance to the ground. One of the most serious complications which can arise is when the chute opens backwards, called an “offheading” opening. This is the leading cause of serious injury and death among people who participate in the sport.

Contrary to popular belief, BASE jumping is not illegal in most places. Because jumpers make their jumps from privately owned objects or public land, charges of trespassing, breaking and entering, and reckless endangerment are usually filed. In the US, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which regulates skydiving, has no jurisdiction over the sport, so it is left up to jumpers to make sure their equipment is safe and to choose jump sites at their own risk. The National Park Service has added wording forbidding this sport in its management policy, however, and in 2000, a California federal court upheld a decision to forbid jumps at Yosemite National Park.

Jumping from cliffs on Bureau of Land Management territory is permitted, and this includes hundreds of Utah desert sites. There are few places where jumpers are allowed unfettered access, one of which is the 486 foot (148 m) Perrine Bridge in Twin Falls, Idaho, where up to 5,000 jumps occur yearly. There are other places around the world which welcome jumpers more readily.

For now, BASE jumping is still considered a “fringe” sport and is not completely accepted by traditional skydivers. Regardless, it attracts adrenaline aficionados of all ages and experience — thrill seekers who see everything as a potential jump.

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