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Base Jumping for Beginners

The New River Gorge snakes 66 miles through West Virginia. At the bottom of it is the river itself, popularly believed to be one of the oldest in the States. The steeply rising slopes on either side are densely wooded; and in the autumn, which it now is, are famous for the richness of their colours. Far above the river, above the trees, above the massive steel supports of America’s longest single-arch bridge, I am standing on a wooden platform three feet wide. The celebrated display of leaves carpeting the gorge is in my peripheral vision: I am not here to enjoy the view. In fact, I’m doing my best to block it out, along with the bustle of the several thousand people crowding the bridge behind me. I am about to step over the edge of the platform, to launch my fragile body into the still air 876 feet above the surface of the water.

Bridge Day has been a West Virginia institution for the last 24 years. On each third Saturday in October, some 200,000 visitors descend on the small town of Fayetteville to set foot on the New River Gorge Bridge, which is closed to pedestrians on every day but this. It’s a little like a county fair on a massive scale. Attractions include the bridge itself together with its spectacular views, a vast array of roadside stalls, and feats of derring-do: a group of rapellers will descend from the steel girders to the valley floor, and some 400 BASE jumpers, myself and my friends among them, will take it in turns to freefall from the bridge and land by parachute in the fast-flowing water, or in a small clearing at the shoreline.

The bridge from upriver

It’s October 2003, and I am in the US to make my first ever BASE jump. My American friend Stacey, her boyfriend Dave and I have spent the previous few days in their home state of Michigan, skydiving at their local dropzone and making preparations for Bridge Day, before driving the 500 miles south to West Virginia. It’s a long trip, and to pass the time we’ve bought a bag of balloons and instructions on how to make various animals. Dave is behind the wheel but still manages to join in. It occurs to me that if we can survive being chauffeured by a man dividing his attention between the freeway and the pink latex monkey he is twisting into shape – a better monkey than mine – then we can probably cope with whatever the coming weekend has in store.

We arrive in Fayetteville two days early. Most of Friday is to be taken up with BASE seminars at the local Holiday Inn where many of the jumpers are staying, but we have Thursday to ourselves. The sun is shining as we drive onto the bridge. Dave stops the car halfway across and Stacey and I get out to hurriedly look over the edge, mindful that we’ll all be in trouble if a police car happens to pass by. The view is reassuringly familiar from the photos I’ve seen over the past few months: there’s the landing area, there the railway track: but it’s difficult to imagine what it will be like to drop into that enormous abyss.

We drive down the winding track to the bottom of the gorge and scout out the landing area. Another jumper is here already, picking up some of the larger stones and throwing them into the water. It’s a futile gesture: the beach is strewn with rocks of all sizes, on an uphill slope and divided by a clump of trees. In the water near the shoreline are boulders the size of cars. It’s a sobering reminder that we are occasional visitors here: this is not a ready-made dropzone. ‘It’s not all that high,’ says Stacey, looking up at the underside of the bridge. She means that she’d feel safer with a little more altitude. Skydivers are used to jumping from aircraft two-and-a-half miles up, riding a cushion of air so far above the ground that we seem to be floating on the wind: even at 3,000 feet, approaching the normal minimum safe height for opening a parachute, the unforgiving earth still appears distant, unthreatening. In BASE, even on a jump as high as this one, you are already in the belly of the beast.

In the afternoon we take the opportunity to hike through the woodland along the sides of the gorge. There are some breathtaking overlooks en route. Stacey crawls to the lip of a rock ledge and gazes down at the treetops hundreds of feet below. “Nobody touch me!”, she pleads. A couple of yards behind her, I attempt a smile for the camera while my stomach churns and reminds me of how uncomfortable I feel when close to a long drop. For the first time I begin to wonder whether I’ll have the courage to jump from an even greater height two days from now.

View from the landing zone

Friday morning, and the foyer of the Fayetteville Holiday Inn has been taken over. Every square foot of carpet is covered by brightly-coloured fabric as dozens of BASE jumpers pack and repack their parachutes, the first-timers getting advice from the old hands. There are waivers to be signed, a disclaimer to read to camera, and kit checks. Experienced jumpers have purpose-designed BASE gear, but the bridge is high enough to allow regular skydiving rigs to be used so long as they have specific modifications designed to ensure a fast-opening canopy. The most important of these is an outsized pilot chute. The pilot chute is designed to catch air, open the parachute container and drag the main canopy out of its deployment bag. In BASE jumping, the pilot chute must be large enough to do its job at lower airspeeds than in skydiving: Bridge Day requirements specify a minimum diameter of forty inches. The rigger struggles to stretch mine to the required width against his rule as I watch nervously. If it’s too small then I have no kit to jump. Eventually he’s satisfied. “Close enough,” he says.

Later that evening there is a mandatory briefing. There are talks from event organiser Jason Bell, the local sheriff, and the chief of the boat crews who will be standing by to pull jumpers out of the river. Inevitably, safety is at the top of the agenda. We learn that of only two fatalities suffered in twenty one years of Bridge Day BASE, one was a drowning and the other the result of a jumper whose pilot chute wasn’t sufficiently large. Although I daresay at the time he thought it “close enough”.

Early Saturday morning. Even though we are among the last group scheduled to jump, we are in town before dawn, since otherwise it will be impossible to find parking space even remotely near the bridge. There are still a few unused balloons in the car, and we spend a little time making adornments for our helmets. Stacey opts for fish: I’ve long since given up on modelling animals, and attempt a more abstract design, joking that it will act as a flotation device should I end up in the river. We are restless and eager to get to the site, but still there are checks to be made. On the approach to the bridge we lay our parachute rigs down in the road so that a local law enforcement officer can guide her sniffer dog around them. Bridge Day was cancelled two years ago in the wake of the September 11th attacks, and any large structure still looks like a potential terrorist target.

Finally stepping onto the bridge itself, we pass the already swelling crowds of tourists. One of the stalls offers the chance to have your photograph taken with a tiger cub. The creature looks unhappy in its cramped cage, and it’s not difficult to sympathise: most skydivers are familiar with the frank scrutiny that people normally reserve for zoo animals, and today that feeling is amplified. We, the rappelers and the tiger cub are all freaks in this particular show.

We find a space at one side of the bridge where we can put our gear down and watch the many parachutists who will exit before us. I feel improbably calm. To our left is the flatbed truck supporting the two exit ramps from which most of the jumpers will launch. There is also a springboard for the more experienced and acrobatically-inclined. Far below – impossibly far – the rescue boats prowl the river like sharks.

A flash of movement catches my eye: away to the left, without any noise or fuss, someone is falling into space. To the observer it’s almost banal, and it’s difficult to imagine the intensity of the experience. A few seconds into his freefall, the figure releases his pilot chute and, almost instantly, his canopy crashes open. At terminal velocity an opening like that could break your neck, but in BASE it’s essential to survival. I watch the top of his parachute as it makes a lazy right-hand circuit over the river and crosses the shoreline.

Time passes quickly.  Every jump we watch is an education. There are good exits, spectacularly bad exits, water landings, fancy dress jumps. The biggest cheers are for the acrobats, throwing double gainers off the bridge as if showing off at the local swimming pool.

Finally it’s time for our group to join the queue. The platform and the steps leading up to it have the appearance of a gallows scaffold. Among the crowds of onlookers there must be at least a handful of ghouls hoping for spectacular disaster. On nearing the jump point I am thoroughly checked over by a marshal: “Ok, just gonna prep you a little bit here”. He loosens the Velcro closures on my rig to make sure that nothing will impede the deployment of the canopy. He also checks the routing of the bridle line from the rig’s closing pin to the pilot chute which I will hold in my hand for this first jump. His colleague at the far end of the ramp is watching the jumper before me to make sure he is clear. Then he turns back towards me with an encouraging grin. “Okay, the ramp’s yours. Have a good jump.” “Thanks.” I walk past him, looking at my feet in preference to the distant, shimmering water.

Part of the challenge of BASE jumping is that there’s no hurry. When exiting from an aircraft travelling at 70 knots, you leave in a timely fashion or risk not being able to land back on the dropzone. But at the top of a fixed object, you have time to contemplate what you’re about to do. The danger is in not knowing whether that delay will make you more ready or less so. I have paused just long enough to let the fear creep in, but I have no doubt now that I will jump. Irrationally, the worst thing that could happen in the next few seconds would be for me to turn around and step down from the ramp. So instead I make the decision to go.

Hiking nearby

I once watched a first-time student being dispatched from the aircraft at my local dropzone. All fledgling jumpers are taught to begin a safety count upon exit, and on completion to look up and check that their parachute is fully inflated. On this occasion the student was so fixated on the count that he forgot the exit, and on being given the command to go sat in the door happily yelling out, “One thousand! Two thousand! Three thousand!”, before his instructor managed to get his attention and point out that he had little chance of checking his canopy until he had left the aeroplane. Too much information: he could remember either his exit position or his safety count, and his overloaded brain chose the easier option. Eleven years after my own first skydive, I’m a student again myself, and have my own safety count to think about. My head is full of yesterday’s briefing. Head up, look at the horizon, hard arch, positive but not too aggressive, don’t leave your feet behind, throw the pilot chute at around four seconds, and certainly don’t leave it any longer than six. Too much information, but also suddenly not enough. Under stressful conditions we tend to count too fast, but what if I count too slowly? A few hours ago we were laughing, kidding ourselves that we were getting useful practice by doing belly flops onto the soft mattresses of our motel beds. Now, the closest horizontal surface is nearly 900 feet straight down, 8.8 seconds away by the ‘quick’ route; and as unyielding as concrete from this height. This is nothing like falling onto a bed.

In the photo of me leaving the ramp, my expression is difficult to read. Is it concentration, barely concealed fear, resignation? The simultaneous video recording shows not the manly leap I had hoped for but a slightly comical, even effeminate bunny hop, as though I were taking part in the world’s most extreme game of hopscotch. Whatever, I am no longer on the bridge. The world opens up below me and normality evaporates in an instant. I am still gripping the pilot chute between clenched fingers: for the next few seconds I will literally hold my life in the palm of my hand. How many seconds? I have forgotten to start counting, so I begin at two. The walls of the gorge are slowly swallowing up the sky, and behind me I sense the steel girders of the bridge racing past. The river, the boulders and the trees must be accelerating towards me but I’m not about to look down. I am still arching my body hard into the gathering airflow to maintain a good position for opening while keeping a silent count. At four I pitch the pilot chute, throwing it hard outwards into the wind. After an interminable second or two, during which nothing at all seems to happen, I am wrenched upright by the parachute harness. The canopy has opened cleanly but off-heading, and is flying not directly out across the river but towards the rappelling lines hanging from the right-hand end of the bridge. One incident at a recent Bridge Day involved a collision between a BASE jumper and a rapeller: I waste no time in pulling the canopy back onto course. There are only a few seconds available in which to prepare for landing, and the valley limits the room for manoeuvre. Just before touchdown I know I am going to come up short. Sure enough, I end up knee-deep in water at the shoreline. The momentum of the canopy combined with the drag on my legs pulls me forward into the river, but the length of the suspension lines is enough to put the canopy itself onto dry land. Nothing so trivial as wet clothes could bother me now. I have just survived, even come close to enjoying, my first BASE jump. From somewhere behind me Stacey’s canopy flies over my head and she lands hard on the stony beach. Dave is not far behind her.

We take our time repacking our gear. Without the luxury of a reserve parachute – the low altitude rules out that option – packing the main canopy correctly takes on a new level of importance. Besides, there will still be plenty of time to make a second jump, and once the bus has dropped us back at the top of the bridge there is virtually no queue. Get up, get off. This time I manage a peace sign for the cameras before exit, and make a good landing on the beach. But those few seconds in between remain a perfectly unique experience: exhilarating, scary, intense.

Reunited once more in the packing area, Stacey hugs me.

“Who BASE jumps?”

“We do.”  

Or did, because like many Bridge Day participants those were my first and last BASE jumps of the year. But in a few short weeks from now, I know precisely where I’ll be – standing on a wooden platform three feet wide, about to launch my fragile body into the still air 876 feet above the surface of the water.

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