California BASE Jumpers Risk it All in One of the World’s Deadliest Extreme Sports

December 13, 2019 Updated: December 13, 2019
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BASE jumping, a fringe extension of skydiving that began in the late 1970s, is considered to be one of the world’s most dangerous extreme sports. It consists of plunging from fixed objects such as buildings, antennas, spans (such as bridges or beams), and earths (such as cliffs) — the four structures that compose the acronym BASE.

The sport requires participants to utilize their own body or the design of their winged suits to fly within very close proximity to mountainsides and weave through trees and ravines before deploying their parachutes.

In an effort to introduce more people to BASE jumping, Daniel Ristow, 22, a bicycle mechanic from Los Gatos, is creating a documentary film of his experiences, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.

He’s targeting a handful of spots where BASE jumping is legal in the Eastern Sierra, such as Mount Morrison.

“There’s a lot of science and math that goes into it—calculating angles, calculating conditions and mapping things out to very precise margins,” he told the news outlet. “Sometimes you’ll take a month of just scouting something out, waiting for conditions, hiking up there, rechecking numbers, seeing how the conditions actually line up with the forecast.”

The National Park Service has prohibited BASE jumping, however, some people still secretly jump off tall cliffs in places like Yosemite National Park. On Sept. 10, a person was filmed making an illegal jump off of Yosemite’s Glacier Point, reported KFSN-TV.

BASE jumping is considerably more perilous than skydiving because the considerable difference in altitude gives the jumpers less time to react to any problems. The risks are amplified by the fact that BASE jumpers often grow increasingly competitive with one another and attempt progressively more difficult stunts.

On Nov. 2, an unidentified 50-year-old BASE jumper from Lodi, Calif., was found dead at the bottom of a granite quarry in Jurupa Valley, about 50 miles east of Los Angeles.

While the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department initially described the death as “suspicious,” Deputy Mike Vasquez told The Epoch Times that the term was “merely cop talk.”

“At the time of the initial incident, all we knew was there was a man dead with an apparatus on which appeared to be a parachute,” he said. “Because we could never be certain about those things we initially classified it as suspicious. So my first reported statements included a belief it was related to a BASE jump and later confirmed.”

Joseph Webb, a Next Level BASE instructor for Squirrel, a company that manufactures wingsuits for BASE jumping, told The Epoch Times that human error is by far the biggest risk factor.

“It’s hard to mitigate errors; we’re only human,” he said. “That’s why we respect the long time jumpers in our sport. Learning from these mentors is how knowledge is passed down.”

Webb, who is sponsored by Squirrel and works as a wingsuit instructor at Skydive Perris in Southern California, has completed about 5,000 jumps to date.

“I’ve had a few close calls, yes, and [I’ve] learned from them just as any extreme sports athlete has,” he said. “The injuries have prompted me to get even more training, [such as] FAA certifications, United States Parachute Association ratings, learning from other base mentors, [and] skydiving.”

Todd Shoebotham, the co-founder and President of Apex BASE, the world’s largest manufacturer of BASE jumping specific equipment, grants that there are “obvious risks” associated with the sport, but claims measures have been taken to reduce them.

“Good equipment and good training have been huge,” Shoebotham told The Epoch Times. “Several accidents, including this one, appear to be because the jumper is not playing within the normal guidelines.”

Indeed, Riverside Quarry, where the deceased man’s body was recovered, is clearly designated as an area where no trespassing or jumping is permitted.

Still, the Riverside County News Source reported that the site, which boasts peaks as high as 1,000 feet, is a popular destination for BASE jumpers.

A British Journal of Sports Medicine study of 106 BASE jumping fatalities between 1981-2006 lists “human factors” as the central cause of death. During the year 2002, the study found that 1 in every 60 participants died as a result of BASE jumping.

Recent years have shown a rise in the number of BASE jumping deaths, recording 25 fatalities in 2016 alone.

“I’ve known a few people that have passed away jumping. Some very close to me,” Webb said. “Josh Sheppard was one that most of us will remember because of how he was in life.”

When asked if he’d known anyone who died as a result of BASE jumping, Shoebotham said, “Yes, too many to list.”

Still, proponents of the sport will say that the thrilling aspects of BASE jumping outweighs the potential dangers.

For Shoebotham, the appeal of the extreme sport comes from “finding some comfort in a hostile environment,” as well as “the people, the places.”

“It can be risky, just like surfing,” Webb said. “I relate it to surfing all the time, ‘let’s go out and catch some airwaves.’”

“It takes quite a bit of training so it’s like scratching an itch that only you can scratch.”