BOISE, Idaho (AP) — BASE jumpers, by nature, just want to be free.
Their sport is inherently death-defying, growing at the bleeding edge of high-risk extreme sports, and they tend to be hostile to any attempt at containing their passion.
In the U.S., their devil-may-care culture has been pushed out of urban areas, national parks and anywhere else where limits are imposed. Jumpers flock instead to the few remote areas hungry enough for tourist revenue to let them do their thing. Some say their outlaw status makes one of the world’s most dangerous sports even more risky, and needs to change.
“BASE jumping isn’t a crime,” argues Alan Lewis of Knoxville, Tennessee, who was skydiving before he tried BASE jumping 10 years ago. “It’s not allowed in most places, so we’re faced with having to trespass or do jumps at night, which isn’t as safe. I think we’re kind of getting frustrated at the whole situation.”
BASE jumping — which stands for jumping not from planes, but from fixed locations including buildings, antenna, spans or Earth– has produced stunning online videos of people parachuting from buildings and wingsuit fliers zooming shockingly close to the treetops — mostly recorded outside the United States.
Many jumpers like the system in Europe, where BASE jumping follows some basic ground rules but jumpers assume all liability. This tolerance has opened new vistas, with jumps that have people soaring like never before, using parachutes and even wingsuits, gliding for miles over breathtaking landscapes.
In Kjerag, Norway, jumpers must pay a registration fee and undergo an inspection before leaping off dramatic 3,200-foot cliffs. In Switzerland, BASE jumpers are required to have third-party liability insurance for all jumps, and some Swiss locations also urge purchasing a “landing card” to compensate farmers for any damage to their properties.
With very few places to try their sport legally in the U.S., a go-to hub for thrill-seekers is the I.B. Perrine Bridge, stretching 486 feet above the Snake River as it winds through the Idaho desert. As cars whiz by, BASE jumpers from all over the world climb over the railing and step into this abyss, no permit, age limit or registration required.
Idaho law prohibits cities, counties and transportation officials from banning BASE jumping from bridges.
“If we did anything, like put up warning signs, we would actually increase our liability,” said Nathan Jerke, spokesman for the Idaho Transportation Department.
The Twin Falls Chamber of Commerce doesn’t track BASE jumping visitors or tourism dollars, but officials say hundreds visit the town annually to jump from the bridge. The money they spend at hotels, restaurants and other spots in the town of 46,000 have become a big part of the local economy.
But their sport is being scrutinized again, with five people dying so far this year in the United States, including 73-year-old James E. Hickey, who set his parachute on fire while jumping off the Perrine bridge this month. His second chute didn’t deploy.
Also this month, Carla Jean Segil, 26, was left dangling 500 feet above the Snake River after a gust of wind blew her parachute into the bridge. She hung in the air for 40 minutes until a Twin Falls rescue crew pulled her up through a manhole.
Days before that, wingsuit fliers Dean Potter and Graham Hunt illegally jumped from a cliff as night fell in Yosemite National Park, then slammed into the sides of a narrow notch in a ridgeline about 15 seconds into their flight. These three joined hundreds who have died BASE jumping around the world, according to unofficial fatality lists kept by enthusiasts.
BASE jumpers complain that outsiders only notice their sport when someone dies or is injured, fostering fears about liability.
BASE jumping claimed 25 lives around the world last year — an outsized number for a fringe sport. Skydiving, which is highly regulated and far more common, killed 24 people in the U.S. alone last year, during 3.2 million jumps.
The chance to watch BASE jumping in person draws a crowd of 80,000 to West Virginia’s annual Bridge Day Festival, where for one day a year, hundreds of people sign up to legally take an 876-foot plunge into the New River Gorge.
Background checks have been required for these jumpers since the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks, and authorities added fingerprint checks this year as an alternative for late applicants. That has some jumpers threatening to boycott the Oct. 17 festival, saying they are being singled out as unsafe and unwanted.
BASE jumping has not been banned in areas run by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, making the high Mineral Canyon cliffs outside Moab, Utah another popular spot. But many other attractive cliffs under National Park Service control are off-limits.
“To jump from El Capitan in Yosemite, that’s the dream,” said Miles Daisher, a veteran member of the Red Bull Air Force, who made a record-breaking 57 jumps in one day from the bridge outside Twin Falls.
Yosemite spokesman Scott Gediman worked on a brief trial effort to permit BASE jumping from the stunningly sheer El Capitan monolith in 1980, but the experiment was abandoned after some refused to follow the rules, and it has remained illegal in national parks ever since.
A small group leaped off El Capitan anyway in 1999, trying to show the safety of their sport. Gediman watched a woman plummet almost 3,000 feet to her death as her parachute failed to open. He says he’s not aware of any official effort to legalize it again, despite the jumpers’ desire for unrestricted access.
Skydiving, scuba diving and many other risky sports require certifications, licenses — bureaucracy. As much as Lewis wants the government off his back, he also likes to avoid all that.
“I don’t have to have a certain license to BASE jump, I don’t need to have so many skills signed off in a book,” he said. “That no-rules attitude that we carry over to the rest of our lives.”
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