BASE Jumping is a form of sky-diving that a lot of people know a small amount about, but only a small amount of people really know a lot about. Chances are, you’ll have seen BASE jumping videos of people flying through the skies in squirrel suits, and you can have a good stab at what many of the letters of the acronym BASE stand for, but how much do you really know about BASE Jumping?

What is BASE

BASE Jumping, derives from sky diving which, in turn, is a sub-genre of parachuting. The BASE part of the name is an acronym, which stands for Building, Antenna, Span, and Earth.

Buildings are the trickiest of the four elements for BASE Jumpers to fly from, as many have locked doors, CCTV, and security, all of which make getting in, up, and down difficult. As such, buildings that are still under construction prove popular with canny BASE Jumpers.

Antennas are significantly more popular than buildings because they can be as tall as any building on earth, but are easier to access, often have less security, and can be found in remote places, such as fields, deserts, and plains.

BASE Jumping from a span, better known as a bridge - Photo: iStock

Spans are more commonly known as bridges, but wisdom dictated that BASE Jumping, as opposed to BABE Jumping was a wiser name. The ideal span would be wide, but also cross a suitably deep canyon or gorge, allowing enough time for the Jumper's canopy to open. The most famous bridge in BASE Jumping is the New River Gorge Bridge in West Virginia, USA. On one day every year, the bridge is open for legal BASE Jumps, which coincides with a local festival on what is known in the area as Bridge Day.

Finally, Earth is any large, natural formation that is suitably big enough to jump from. Cliffs, Mountains with steep enough drops, and canyons are mong the most popular. El Capitan, the rock formation in Yosemite Park in considered by many to be the spiritual birthplace of BASE Jumping.

These four elements are the most common places Jumpers exit off. The Jumping part of the name, of course, refers to participants leaping from their chosen structure - known as a BASE Object - from where they free-fall to earth before deploying their parachute at the last possible moment.

The History Of BASE Jumping

Although unrecognisable from BASE Jumps today, people have been jumping from fixed objects for over 900 years. Much of the time, these were attempts made with already inflated parachutes which, of course, differs from the unopened parachute style practiced by todays BASE Jumpers.

Advancing technology lead to manned air balloons, and eventually aircraft, and the momentum switched from this early form of BASE Jumping towards what could be considered the early forms of sky diving.

However, by the 1960’s parachuting and sky diving from aircraft became a little too mundane for the more experienced thrill seekers in the scene, and jumping from fixed objects started to enjoy a resurgence.

Carl Boenish, the father of BASE Jumping - Photo: iStock

The term BASE Jumping is credited to legendary daredevil Carl Boenish, a freefall cinematographer and a man that many regard as the ‘Father of BASE Jumping’.

Towards the end of the late 1970’s, he began making parachute jumps from the iconic El Capitan in Yosemite National Park, California. Boenish filmed many of his jumps, which acted as the genesis for what we know today as BASE Jumping.

It was around this time that the public were first exposed to BASE Jumping on a mass scale when expert skier and amateur sky diver Rick Sylvester doubled as James Bond and BASE Jumped off the edge of a snowy cliff in The Spy Who Loved Me.

BASE Jumping continued to grow in popularity as the 1970’s rolled into the 1980’s, with El Capitan becoming the spiritual home of the movement. However, authorities insisted a “responsible sanctioning organisation" took responsibility for BASE Jumping in the area.

In lieu of an existing governing body, the Parks Authority contacted the United States Parachute Association, but they claimed no knowledge of BASE Jumping because jumps started below the minimum height required In it’s own Basic Safety Regulations. This didn’t stop BASE Jumping continuing to grow in popularity, and the frequency of jumps only increased.

Of course, today BASE Jumping is globally recognised, although still seen by many as a pastime for only the most fearless of daredevils. It features in Hollywood films and commercials for established brands.

BASE Jumping has also spawned the even more risky sport of Winguit Flying, also known as Proximity Flying. This is where Jumpers use specially adapted squirrel suits to control their descent from the BASE object, flying close to the ground as it rushes beneath them at in excess of 200mph.

Iconic BASE Jumping location, El Capitan in Yosemite Park - Photo: iStock

Essential BASE Jumping Equipment

What equipment do you need for BASE Jumping? They layman would be forgiven for thinking that it’s as simple as strapping any old parachute to your back and leaping off something big. However, things are a lot more complex than that. When the margin for error is as low as it is in BASE Jumping, it’s hardly surprising.

BASE Jumpers use specially designed ram-air parachutes. These are the distinctive rectangular shaped ‘chutes. Sky Divers also use these canopies but, critically, BASE Jumpers use specially modified sliders with theirs.

A slider is a piece of material that sits on the lines between the parachute and the harness, and allows the canopy to open quickly, while reducing the potential damage to the entire apparatus.

The ram-air parachute, favoured by BASE Jumpers - Photo: ascskydiving.com

The best parachute for BASE Jumping, according to popular opinion within the community, is the seven cell ram-air, as opposed to the nine cell favoured by sky divers. The seven cell deploys more quickly, and is smaller in size, which vitally reduces the risk of the canopy hitting the object the BASE Jumper is leaping from, which can cause it to collapse, resulting in injury and even death.

A new seven cell ram-air set-up will generally cost between £1,500 and £2,000. Second hand canopies are available. However, given how integral a parachute is to survival when BASE Jumping, we recommend purchasing one from a well established, reputable retailer.

If a jump is high enough, the Jumper will pack their parachute in a harness, sometimes called a rig, that will allow the canopy to automatically deploy. However, on shorter jumps, there is not the time to open a 'chute this way, so the Jumper will simply hold their canopy, and throw it behind them after leaping.

BASE Jumping rigs are typically small in size, due to the reduced size of the parachutes they have to carry, and a new one will cost around £700.

A BASE Jumper holding on to his pilot 'chute prior to a jump - Photo: iStock

Helmets and body armour are also essential equipment for BASE Jumping. Although the ground presents the most fatal risk in any jump, hitting objects while falling, such as trees, the BASE object itself, and even bird-strikes can be a problem for Jumpers. You can expect to pay around about £80 for both torso and leg armour. A good BASE Jumping helmet will be approved for airsport, and cost around £75

BASE Jumping Deaths

BASE Jumping deaths are, sadly, all too common. While the equipment used is designed to be as safe as possible, and jumpers take every precaution to ensure nothing goes wrong, the sport is inherently dangerous. One British newspaper once dubbed it “the world’s most dangerous sport"

In fact, statistics kept by Blinc Magazine suggest that in the 34 years between April 1981 and October 2015, there have been in excess of 270 fatalities during BASE jumps. That’s almost eight deaths a year.

However, it should be noted that this number is significantly less that the fatalities in the same period within skiing, swimming, and running.

Furthermore, BASE Jumping is somewhat shrouded in secrecy, largely due to the fact that many desirable jump locations still require the law to be broken. As such, the specific number of jumps are impossible to record, as is BASE Jumping fatality rate, so any figures should be considered, at best, inaccurate.

The first high profile BASE Jumping death occurred in 1984 when Carl Boenish Jumped from the Troll Wall in Norway. Two days earlier he’d completed a televised BASE Jump that, at 6,000 feet, broke the record for the highest BASE Jump in history.

Boenish’s body was found two days later by two local mountain climbers. It remains unclear what caused the accident, although both tangled lines, or his parachute failing to open being commonly held theories.

Deaths in BASE Jumping was the focus of the media spotlight again in 2015, when the sport lost three more people in just a few days. On 7th May a 73 year old BASE Jumper died after leaping from the Perrine Bridge in Idaho. James E Hickey, an experiences sky diver, had set fire to his own parachute as part of a stunt, when the tragedy occurred.

73 year old BASE Jumper James H Kickey dies while jumping from the Perrine Bridge in Idaho

BASE Jumping deaths 73 year old BASE Jumper dies

A video showing the BASE Jumper's death, which we have chosen not to show, suggests that he had planned to ditch his flaming canopy, and deploy a second chute.

Just nine days later, on 16th May 2015, tragedy struck again as two BASE Jumpers died on the same day, in the same incident. Celebrated climber Dean Potter and Graham Hunt, Potter's jump partner jumped from Taff Point in Yosemite National Park.

Park Authorities were alerted when the paid failed to meet their girlfriends are a pre-arranged rendezvous point. A search party found their bodies the following day, and it appeared that they had not managed to deploy their parachutes.

If you are contemplating trying BASE Jumping, it is vital that you are aware of the inherent dangers and risk of fatality associated with the sport.

Read more about BASE jumping fatalities here.

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