BASE jumpers, who engage in what is widely regarded as the world’s most dangerous recreational activity, have embraced risk and invention for the past 50 years without a lot of fanfare.
The sport has roots in skydiving, but athletes launch from cliffs, buildings, and antennas instead of airplanes.
“There is basically no carbon footprint, and we get to go hiking when we jump,” said Mario Richard, Owner of Moab Base Adventures.
With the help of YouTube, the sport’s prominence is growing, said Matthias Giraud, a professional big mountain skier/ BASE jumper and Fort Lewis College Alumni.
Popular YouTube videos are documenting the adolescence of new genres in BASE jumping. Popular clips display, skiers pulling their parachute after launching off 100- meter cliffs, climbers jumping from desert spires instead of rappelling from them, and athletes using specially designed apparel that resembles a flying squirrel to soar only meters above mountain ridges before opening their parachutes.
On one such video posted by his sponsor, GoPro, footage from Giraud’s helmet camera records his perspective when he safely skis off of a cliff into flight. He turns around to watch a massive avalanche, triggered by the ski descent, pour over the cliff.
“The YouTube explosion is good and bad”, Giraud said. “It’s a good thing because it promotes the sport and I benefit from it as a professional, but more people are rushing into the sport without realizing how much experience is needed.”
Giraud is part of a movement in BASE jumping that combines flying with other adventure sports like skiing and climbing.
When he first glimpsed Engineer Peak from U.S. Highway 550, Giraud said an obsession was born in him to ski the prominent chute on the South Face. The chute funnels over a cliff that is hundreds of feet high, so the college freshman had to learn to fly to make it a reality.
For the next year he commuted to Durango’s nearest skydiving operation in Belen, N.M. for dozens of jumps between business classes at F.L.C.
He successfully completed the Engineer ski base descent in 2008, which helped launch him into his current career as a professional adventure athlete.
“FLC was a crucial element to getting where I am today,” Giraud said in a phone interview from his home in Portland, Ore. “It was perfect because I could study business, work in the ski industry at Purgatory, and be in the mountains every day.”
Lately, he’s been combining technical mountaineering climbs, such as the Matterhorn in the Alps, with ski descents of 45-degree slopes that end in cliff bands.
“Now the base jump is being used as a tool to ski lines that would be un-survivable otherwise,” Giraud said.
The sport is also branching out in the desert southwest, and a community of up to 20 jumpers now call Moab home, Richard said.
Part of Moab’s BASE jumping appeal lies in its legality, because most of the land is managed by the Bureau of Land Management. Base jumping in most national parks and monuments is illegal in the U.S., Richard said.
Base jumpers there are blending their passions by climbing pinnacles in the Fisher Towers or Castle Valley, setting up slacklines between them, and then crossing them with a BASE parachute instead of the traditional nylon leash attachment to save them in falls, Richard said.
Slacklining is an emerging sport where athletes cross spans balancing on tubular nylon webbing that is highly tensioned between two fixed objects.
Also in Moab, Richard is exposing virgin jumpers to the BASE experience of jumping from a cliff, by using a modified tandem jumping technique used in skydiving.
For $500, a novice can forgo the accepted standard of 100 skydives before a solo BASE jump. The student is harnessed to Richard for the jump, and he handles the piloting.
Most of his novice clients are mountain bikers or hikers, and people’s motivation behind the sport varies, Richard said.
“We turn it into a lifestyle,” said Richard. “We walk our dog to the top of a cliff, jump, and he meets us at the car. It’s how we walk our dog.”
The “we” is referring to his wife, Steph Davis, who has been a prominent professional climber for over a decade.
Their partnership carries over into the business, since Davis leads experienced BASE jumpers up Utah’s technical rock climbing routes like Castleton Tower and Ancient Art, and he guides the tandem jumps, Richard said.
Despite new tools for guiding novices and increased Internet prominence, the sport is still far from mainstream.
About 1600 jumpers have their “BASE number,” which is awarded for jumping from each category represented by the BASE acronym: Building, Antennae, Span (bridge), and Earth (cliff).
The sport's fatal accident registry is maintained by its most popular online publication, blincmagazine.com. While it reports only 2-4 jumper fatalities per year are reported in the 1980’s, in recent years 12-20 BASE jumpers have died, totaling 201 BASE fatalities.
Increased fatalities are related to the sport's growing popularity and as a new tool in BASE-jumping called wingsuits, Giraud said.
Wingsuits, which are nylon suits that resemble wings, allow jumpers to “plane” out in horizontal flight for 2-3 feet for every foot of vertical descent.
A 2007 Stavenger University study in Norway reported a fatality rate of 1 in every 2,317 jumps, and a non-fatal accident rate 10 times higher.
A Bandolier Healthcare study reported that BASE jumping was reported to have a fatality rate 43 times higher than parachuting from a plane.