“I mean, opening a parachute is kind of like driving a car down the freeway and throwing a tent out the window and hoping it’ll set itself up right every time.”
Tom says it and then laughs. He knows as well as anyone how a jump can be precarious, and how the line between thrilling and deadly can be so thin.
Tom Aiello is the founder of Snake River BASE Academy. It’s a school in Twin Falls, Idaho, that teaches how to BASE jump.
For those who don’t know, BASE jumping is like skydiving, except instead of jumping with a parachute out of a plane high above the ground, you jump off a fixed object; either a Building, an Antennae, a Span, or the Earth. So for example, if you were to climb to the top of the CN Tower with a parachute strapped to your back, deploy it mere seconds after leaping from the edge, 553 metres above the busy streets of Toronto, and then safely glide to the ground, that would be a successful BASE jump. If you managed to avoid the police on your way back home, then you’d get bonus points. Because in Canada BASE is illegal without special permit.
This is likely intended to deter people from engaging in the sport. However, people have been BASE jumping since at least 1978, when film-maker Carl Boenish filmed jumps from El Capitan, a rock formation in Yosemite National Park. And they will surely continue. With no legal spaces to jump, participants are forced to jump wherever they can. This can lead to complications, although as I was told by Tom, sometimes complications are exactly what BASE is about.
Base jumping is not skydiving. Therefore we have nothing to say about it.
If you ask the Canadian Sport Parachuting Association about their stance on BASE jumping, they vehemently decline to comment. “Base jumping is not skydiving,” a representative from the organisation told me in an email. “Therefore we have nothing to say about it.” But BASE jumping is sport parachuting. It’s not skydiving, but it is still a sport involving a parachute. So why don’t they have anything to say about it? I suspect the answer has something to do with article 2.11 of the Canadian Sport Parachuting Association’s Handbook of Basic Safety Rules for Students and Instructors. It states:
“The student’s main parachute must be activated at a minimum altitude of 3000 feet AGL (above ground level).”
That’s 914 metres. And in BASE, that’s often not possible.
It’s difficult to find precise records of BASE jumps, but according to basejumper.com, an online community of base jumpers, the probable lowest ever successful BASE jump was performed by a man named Jim Bruckhauser who allegedly jumped from a height of 33.5 metres. That’s approximately one-thirtieth of the required altitude for deployment according to the CSPA handbook. And even then, 33.5 metres is the height at which he jumped, not the height at which he deployed his parachute.
According to the United States Parachute Association (USPA), most skydiver parachutes take 600 to 1200 feet of free fall to deploy. BASE jumpers don’t have that kind of time. That means Jim likely used a static line. Instead of pulling a strap to release the chute, he probably tied the chute to the object he jumped from. When he jumped, the line yanked on his back pack and deployed the parachute.
In skydiving, if the parachute doesn’t open, there’s still time. There are back up parachutes. The USPA says that approximately one in every 333 parachute deployments will fail. At 914 metres from the ground, there is still time to deploy the backup chute. Terminal velocity is about 200 km/h for a human. A body falling at terminal velocity will have 18 seconds to deploy a back up parachute if the initial one fails at 914 metres. Double malfunctions are exceedingly rare. The odds are about 1 in 111,111. A botched skydive does not necessarily result in death. The same cannot be said for a botched BASE jump.
You get one shot. If you mess up, or if the chute doesn’t deploy, or if you hit an unexpectedly strong gust of wind, or if your body positioning isn’t exactly quite right, you get hurt. Quite likely, you die. In 2016, 37 BASE jumps resulted in death. It was the sport’s most deadly year. BLiNC Magazine, a website devoted to BASE, has an unofficial list of all known base jumping deaths since 1981. The number is 328.
The danger of base jumping is one of the main reasons Tom started Snake River BASE Academy 12 years ago.
“I realized that I had a lot of friends who had died and I thought it would be important to maintain some technical knowledge and, I don’t know if ‘make the sport safer’ is the right description, but give people a better idea of what they were doing so they could make decisions about what they wanted to do.”
As Tom repeatedly told me, there is no making BASE safe. There are safer jumps. And there are more dangerous jumps.
“There are safer jumpers and jumpers who take larger risks, but it’s impossible to completely eliminate all variables. You could take the most experienced jumper in the world and put them on the easiest jump in the world and they could still get hurt.”
Part of the problem with BASE jumping, and one of the biggest reasons it hasn’t been made safer sooner, is a very practical one. When an experienced and knowledgeable jumper dies they can’t pass on their knowledge to anyone else. Because, you know, they’re dead.
Other sports don’t have this problem. Other sports aren’t as dangerous. In basketball, players can become mentors and in some cases coaches as they get older. They can pass down their knowledge and wisdom to younger athletes, to prevent them from making the same mistakes both on and off the court. There are a lot of BASE jumpers who never get the same chance.
“We had an ebb and flow of knowledge in the BASE world. What happened is people would get into jumping and learn a bunch of stuff and then they would, you know, die or get hurt or just move on with their lives. The knowledge they had would sort of get lost. A new person would get into the sport and they’d have to re-invent everything. There was a lot of knowledge loss going on. So I was trying to create some kind of place or system to prevent that.”
Tom identified that the most common cause of injury in BASE was a botched landing. So he developed a series of classes to make landing safer. He also identified that the most serious cause of injury was hitting the object that had been jumped off, so he developed a series of classes to address that problem as well.
However, classes can only go so far. As Tom put it, the major cause of danger in BASE is just a person’s decision making.
“The kind of person who’s attracted to base jumping is generally not the kind of person who’s going to make every decision in the their life calculated to reduce every possible physical risk, right? If they were they would not be BASE jumping.
“I mean, I know people who will look at a jump and be like ‘okay so 20 per cent chance I get killed on this jump; okay, I’m okay with that, I’m going to do the jump.’ You can’t say ‘K lets make this safer,’ when the number one variable is the decisions that each participant is going to make.”
The first time I spoke to Tom I asked him how BASE could be made safer. He said he would tell me, but he said he was more interested in flipping the question on its head.
“We all know lots of ways to make any particular jump safer. The real question is why we choose not to do those things.”
All the base jumpers I spoke to seemed well aware of the risks. While no one seemed like they took the possibility of death or injury lightly, in most cases the risk was not so much a deterrent, as a motivator.
One such person is Connor Brown. But Connor isn’t a BASE jumper. While Tom represents one end of the spectrum as far BASE jumpers go, Connor represents the other; the seasoned veteran on one side and the rookie on the other.
Connor’s path to BASE is following a similar trajectory to Tom’s. Before he jumped, Tom was a rock climber. Nearly 20 years ago he was climbing in Yosemite National Park, in California, and two guys came flying past on their way down. At the time, BASE hadn’t experienced much mainstream exposure, so Tom wasn’t even sure what was going on. All he knew was that it looked like something he wanted to do.
He did some research on his own and discovered that they were BASE jumpers. So Tom started sky diving. He had the sole intent of graduating to BASE one day. Three months and 350 skydives later, he successfully completed his first BASE jump.
At the time this was rare. Few people got into skydiving with the sole purpose of one day getting into BASE. But now it’s common — because it’s entirely necessary.
Skydiving teaches the basic parachute and body control skills necessary to complete a BASE jump. According to Tom, it’s very uncommon that anyone attempts a BASE jump without first completing a few hundred skydives. This is Connor’s path. He too is a rock climber (not to mention a cliff jumper and downhill skier), and about to take his first skydive lessons. And for him, the adrenaline of extreme sports is a major motivating factor.
“I love doing all these things and the feeling of adrenaline that comes with them makes me feel I’m truly living my life…I’ve heard and seen about it growing up and thought that I would never be able to do something like that, but I had those same thoughts for climbing which ended up turning into something I do all the time now.”
You hear about accidents all the time. I personally am scared of what could happen to me, it’s a good motivator to take my time.
Unlike Tom, Connor was aware of BASE jumping long before he decided to get into it. Thanks to all the media exposure of the sport in the last decade, he’s known for years that it’s something he wants to try. At the same time, a lot of that media has centred around deaths or injuries related to the sport. As a result, Connor knows exactly what he’s getting into.
“You hear about accidents all the time. I personally am scared of what could happen to me, it’s a good motivator to take my time to learn all the necessary skills and get the knowledge needed in order to be ready for it.
“I feel as though lots of people are turned away from so many things because they are dangerous, but I feel that I wouldn’t be satisfied with my life if I sat by and watched it go by.”
To both Connor and Tom, BASE is ultimately about deciding what an acceptable amount of risk is. And the answer to that question will be different for everyone.
“I do a very easy set of jumps at this point in my life,” Tom says. “You know, I’ve got two kids, I’ve got other things that I have responsibilities towards, so the jumps that I was making 15 years ago are very very different than the jumps that I’m doing today. But it wouldn’t be appropriate for me to try to tell all of the guys who are 20 years younger than me, ‘oh, well, you guys shouldn’t be doing that stuff.’ The truth is, I was doing that stuff, I mean their life is their life, my life is my life. They make a decision about what’s appropriate in their life, I make a decision about what’s appropriate in my life, that’s kind of how it works. “
Twin Falls, Idaho, is considered by Tom to be the world’s friendliest BASE city. The Chamber of Commerce uses BASE to promote tourism for the area, and numerous local merchants and hotels offer BASE discounts. The Academy is located near Perrine Bridge, the only man-made structure in the United States where BASE jumping is allowed without a permit year-round.
You might see it as a place that is occupied by going to the gym in a lot of people’s lives
During the summer, Tom jumps when he’s teaching because the kids are at home. But during the school year he’ll take them to school, drop them off and then go to the bridge for a jump before getting on with his day.
“The place that BASE takes in my life is it’s the time when I’m out doing my own thing. The phone’s not ringing, the kids don’t need anything, so you might see it as a place that is occupied by going to the gym in a lot of people’s lives. It’s that thing you do for an hour every morning where you go out, you get a little activity. Nobody’s coming after you; nobody needs anything. You just have your own space.”