"There are very few BASE jumpers with more than 500 jumps who have not spent serious time in the hospital due to BASE accidents. Most agree that it is just a matter of time until they are seriously injured. If you are not ready to die BASE jumping, you are not ready to go BASE jumping." -- From the Snake River BASE Academy's reader.
TWIN FALLS, Idaho -- "Expect to get injured," Tom Aiello says to the small group gathered around him at 7 a.m. at the International House of Pancakes across the highway from the 486-foot high Perrine Bridge. "It's going to happen. You can avoid dying, but the only way to be sure is to walk away. You're going to meet great people, share great experiences with them, bond with them and then they die. Expect this to happen."
Welcome to Death Camp.
Tom Aiello is the anti-proselytizer of BASE. Gravity-weary souls from all over the globe seek him out to learn how to step off solid ground (buildings, antennas, spans and earth, as the acronym goes), open their parachutes and land as safely as possible. But the first thing Aiello does is try to scare them off.
To that end, Aiello tells the class about an experience he had at Bridge Day, a legal BASE jumping event off the New River Gorge Bridge in Fayetteville, W.Va., that attracts hundreds of jumpers, both green and seasoned, each year. Green was the kind Aiello ran into on another bridge during the day's festivities. Three men asked Aiello to help them. The first took his leap and made it safely to the ground. The second, weighing in at 210 pounds, got off the bridge in the right position, but his parachute opened facing the wrong way, and he found himself heading back toward the bridge. His inexperience must have led to panic -- he never touched the controls of his canopy -- and he slammed into one of the bridge's pillars with his legs out. Aiello and the third jumper ran to the bottom of the bridge and found him with both legs nearly severed below the knee, attached by mere threads of flesh. His friends ran off to find help and Aiello remained with the injured jumper, leg bones in plain view, and listened to his life story: He'd been married two months ago, hadn't given a lot of thought to BASE jumping (this was his ninth BASE jump) and was trying to lose weight.
"You need to be prepared to be in my shoes as well as his," Aiello says.
It's hard to imagine that the eager pupils pawing their mugs of coffee as Aiello speaks -- sweet-natured and reasonable individuals, by all appearances -- are thinking, "Yep, that's for me. I am prepared to lose a few limbs or watch someone else do so." Though they do not, perhaps, fit the image of the fearless adrenaline addict one expects to see hurling himself off precipices high and low -- heavily tattooed (though some tattoos are on display), young (though a few meet that criterion), drug taking (though no doubt a variety has been consumed), maniacal or suicidal -- no one gets up, pays the bill, walks out on both fully attached legs to join the nearest checkers club.
In fact, their willingness to participate is underscored by the course's first activity. "Dear _____," says an otherwise white page in the course reader Aiello had sent them months earlier, "I've died BASE jumping." Aiello instructs them to write the rest of this letter to their families, and asks that they point out they alone are responsible for their own deaths. Aiello then enumerates (enumeration being his other chief passion) why they are writing such a letter:
It's a waiver for the class.
So they can think about how BASE jumping affects other people in their lives.
So their families won't become angry at the BASE jumping community (or take legal action).
Should they die, it'll be the last communication their families have. It's somehow soothing to hear something from the dead other than the abrupt silence a fatal accident usually brings. And the families won't feel they are somehow responsible for driving the deceased to BASE.
"In the end, if you get hurt BASE jumping," says Aiello, "it's your own damn fault."
The accident left Aiello motionless for three weeks, and kept him in the hospital for three months, wearing a colostomy bag the whole time, an experience, he assures everybody, that was just as bad as it sounds. Months after leaving the hospital, he was jumping again. "If it had stopped me, that would be a pretty good sign I didn't know what I was getting into," he tells the class.
The reasons he got into BASE were very different from the reasons that brought this current crop of students to the sport. Aiello divides BASE jumpers into three categories: BASE tourists, who seek out exotic locations and intense experiences; young daredevils, who want to be bad, rad, and hard-core; and the "black death" jumpers, who, from some inner turmoil, seek to meet death, and not necessarily to beat it. Aiello was decidedly of the last camp: "What I was doing was from personal, emotional distress. I didn't care about being cool, about what anyone thought."
Aiello grew up in Atascadero, a rural town in Central California. His high school had a hitching post for students who rode their horses to class. Aiello was an honor student and captain of the swim team; he managed to set nearly all of the school swim records. He never touched a cigarette or a drop of alcohol, dreamed of becoming an astronaut. He once skipped a week of school to stay home and read. When he returned, the school's guidance counselor sent him to a psychologist to figure out why he'd played hooky. "She had this very sophisticated idea that kids who read more go to school more," he says. She asked Aiello how many books he'd read in the past month, and when he told her -- 27 -- she assumed he was lying. "I spent the next two hours writing plot summaries," Aiello says.
Aiello was accepted at Harvard and Berkeley, but his space-walking dreams took him to the Air Force Academy. Before long, though, they discovered he was colorblind. "I wanted to be an astronaut, and that was the road I was going down and it all fell apart," he says. "So I ended up looking for something else."
The relationship, however, was not working out. She was a good deal younger and not ready for the kind of commitment Aiello was ready for: "We were on, then off, then on and off and on and off. During that period I started BASE jumping. Certainly if things had worked out with that girl, I would be an attorney in Atlanta or something." He took up skydiving solely to learn how to BASE jump, making more than 300 skydives in one summer. Once he and the girlfriend called it quits completely, Aiello started jumping full throttle -- 293 BASE jumps his first year, many of those low-altitude jumps, in high winds, often with no real landing area. "Where I was, it was easy to take big risky jumps. If I ended up dying on some BASE jump, I was OK with that," he says. "Was she racked with guilt that I was BASE jumping at that point in time? I certainly hoped so."
He sat down with his father to explain he was depressed and had taken up BASE as "the next best thing to suicide." His father knew it was useless to try to stop his strong-willed son.
If Aiello was half-hoping to kill himself, BASE offered ample opportunities. Two years after his first accident during the jump with Weston, Aiello took a 5-second delay off a 600-foot cliff in Arizona. Had his parachute opened properly, he would have had just 50 feet to spare until impact. Instead, it opened facing the cliff, with a line twist that prevented full inflation. He smashed into the cliff wall and then into the ground. On the way down, he figured he'd finally managed to kill himself -- instead, he just broke his back again. This time surgery wasn't possible, so he spent three months in a body cast. Afterward, he had to go through the additional agony of morphine withdrawal, complete with hallucinations.
As a result of the two accidents, Aiello is unable to participate in safer forms of exercise. Where he was once a toned, washboard-bellied bundle of muscle -- the result of his jogging and avid mountain climbing -- he now stands somewhere between pudgy and stocky. Whatever state they left his body in, the accidents did nothing to dampen his need to jump. Six months after the second accident, he was at it again.
Aiello is not training his pupils to jump off only the Perrine Bridge, but is using that relatively safe launching point to train them to jump off an array of other tall objects, the vast majority of which are illegal. Paradoxically, this necessitates an ethical code. Aiello often talks about what's "good for BASE." As he explains to the class, jumpers should leave no trace of what they've been doing, to avoid alerting the authorities and possibly "burning" sites for future jumpers. The code also commands BASE jumpers to contact local jumpers to find out how, and when, it's best to jump at their sites.
Should any students think the code so much schoolmarmishness, Aiello has other ways of persuading them. Breaking out a videotape, he begins to speak of a jumper named John Vincent.
Back in those early days of BASE jumping in the mid-1990s, Vincent, seeking notoriety, would jump off various high points in various towns and send a videotape of the event to the local news station. In Atlanta one afternoon, Vincent espied a crane both extended to a sufficient altitude and well placed for safe landings. At 5:30 p.m., he scaled it, leaped off it, and then publicized the jump.
As it happened, the crane was ideally located for the purposes of BASE jumping because a group of local BASE jumpers had paid the crane operator a large quantity of beer to ideally locate it for them. The construction company for whom the crane operator worked unraveled the truth after the video aired and subsequently fired the unlucky fellow.
A lost job, a lost site: The Atlanta BASE jumpers sought vengeance.
Aiello assures the class the tape they are about to watch is the only copy. An apartment door appears on screen. Several individuals, heads covered in pantyhose, wait by the door as one rings the buzzer. Upon John Vincent's appearance -- a groggy one, as if he'd just woken from an afternoon stupor -- they force their way into his home and pin him down on his couch. Several members of the group hold him and duct-tape his limbs while others roll out a sheet of plastic on the floor. At first, he seems to think it's some kind of joke, but when they start to wrestle him off the couch, he offers a modest struggle, and one of his few intelligible comments: "Guys, get off me."
Having subdued him on the plastic in a supine position, they begin to coat him in tar and, once he's sufficiently blackened, dust him with a generous helping of feathers.
To be sure Vincent knows from which quarter this reprisal comes, one member of the party informs him, "Hey, man, we're you're BASE buddies."
"Don't be that guy," Aiello says to his students as the screen goes tar-hued.
One jumper turns out to have a few more worries than the rest. While the others open a beer or two and proceed to the pilot chute lecture, Joan Garvey takes a dozen steps off the ladder before she's satisfied. On first glance, her extra cautiousness isn't the only thing that sets her apart from her fellow students. A 5-foot, 55-year-old Nebraska lawyer and mother of four, Garvey is the lone female in the class, and the only parent. Her oldest child, now 36, owns the popular Omaha bar Brother's Lounge, across the street from her home. Garvey wrote a different "I've died BASE jumping" letter for each of her children and wept as she did so. "However exciting all this might seem," she paraphrased later, "I want you to know the best years of my life were those I spent watching you grow into the beautiful people you have become."
Whatever her height, her sex and her familial responsibilities, Garvey has as much adventure in her blood as anyone else in the class. One of Aiello's students, the paragliding champ J.C. Brown, says, "If these people hadn't been born at this time, they'd be leading wagon trains west or crewing on a ship going through uncharted oceans." (His own "I've died BASE jumping" letter was a version of a letter he has long kept on hand. "Greetings from beyond the grave!" it starts, and includes the following: "Sometimes I felt more at home in the air than on the ground. I loved the risk involved, and I loved managing that risk, so don't blame anyone but me for the consequences of my actions, OK?") In fact, Garvey's great-grandmother crossed this country in a covered wagon, giving a lock of her ruby red hair to the Native Americans on the way. Garvey's father was a glider pilot in World War II and flew paratroopers into Normandy following the D-Day invasion. Her own flirtation with death started on day one: She was born a month late, with her umbilical cord around her neck. "I didn't want to come into this world, and I tried to hang myself on the way out," she says.
Nineteen years later, she was married and had her first child, Lallaya. Soon after, her husband was drafted and sent to Vietnam. By the time Lallaya was 18 months old, she was penniless. With only spare change in her pocket and the name of the village in Thailand where her husband was stationed, she and the babe set off to find him, hitchhiking on military aircraft all the way. Find him she did, but she never scraped up enough money to return on her own, so they stayed in Thailand until her husband had finished his tour. That adventure was followed by another child and then divorce.
She went back to college, bringing the children with her to class. She often went days without eating so the kids could. After getting certified as a physician's assistant, she found a job at the state penitentiary. "There were a few stabbings," she says of her time there. One of them occurred when the doctors were out -- a shiv had entered the right atrium of a prisoner's heart, and blood was spurting out of his chest like a geyser. The nurses, though, were afraid to go near him. Garvey sat on him to hold him down and stuffed gauze in his chest.
While working at the penitentiary, Garvey met a lawyer, married him and had two more children. By the time the kids were old enough to take care of themselves, she also had become a lawyer. She says her husband didn't like the competition, and another divorce ensued; after a lifetime of caregiving, she found herself alone. To cheer her up, her eldest took Garvey for a tandem skydive. Thus began the slippery slope that eventually led to mastery of the wingsuit, a full-body jumper with webbing between the arms and torso, as well as between the legs, which lets sky divers fly at a 45-degree angle to the ground. She's now a wingsuit instructor, with 700-odd skydives, 200 of those with wings.
"My initial reaction to BASE jumping is that it was something I would never do," she says. "What drew me to it was seeing the wingsuit BASE jumps. That's as close to being a bird or an eagle as you can get, to soar off a cliff." While she was participating in a wingsuit event in Russia several years ago, a few of her fellow sky fliers convinced her to make what is still her only BASE jump, off an antenna. But they didn't quite tell her how. The result was that she opened her parachute upside down. Still, she managed to land unharmed on a pile of gravel, only to be chased by the nearest Russian construction worker. An experience she wanted to repeat, an opening she did not.
Aiello explains that the bruises they are sure to find on their inner thighs after their first jump will not be from a hard opening, as some in the past have been fooled into thinking, but from the excessive leg grip they are likely to apply to the railing proper as they climb over.
While the others are satisfied with one or two of these practice jumps, Garvey takes half a dozen. And when the group begins to march along the bridge to the exit point, she runs back for yet a few more from the landing. "I can do this," she says to herself, her countenance quite pale.
On the bridge, finally, they check each other's gear --- that the harness is on correctly, that the bridle from the pilot chute is threaded properly, that pins and Velcro are in order. Then Aiello double-checks each container.
An Israeli named Noam Ktalav climbs over, glances back at the group and pushes an oddly conical tongue out between his lips. Turning his face back to the expanse before him, he counts down --"Three, two, one, see ya!" -- and is gone.
For Garvey, the climb over the railing is more of an actual climb, its top being somewhat higher than her crotch. Clenching the bars tightly, first with thighs, then with fingers, she makes it slowly over. She pauses, refrains from exhibiting any playful expressions, shouts out a serious count, and then she is off -- a little too upright, notes Aiello.
Falling bodies never look natural. Between the letting go and the falling there always appears to be some kind of jump cut. The transition never seems continuous, never seems like one action leading to another, never seems real. One moment they are people with emotions and desires and all the rest of it, hanging from the outside of the railing, almost entirely over the precipice and then -- cut -- they are falling objects, shrinking away, dead weight heading to an uncertain ending, until the pilot chute grasps air, and the main unfolds neatly. From above, the mechanics look smooth, the canopy unhinging properly in midair. But from within the harness, no matter how well the jumper knows his gear, one can only hope that it all comes out the way it's supposed to.
The students' post-jump demeanor could hardly be more different from their appearance minutes earlier. Garvey's color is back and her face radiates glee and a new intrepidness. That same woman so recently shaking at the practice railing, talking herself forward, now proclaims she is ready to make jump after jump after jump. "The feeling I got was of dying and coming back to life," she says. "It was like momentarily going into another dimension. For a minute, I wasn't on this world -- a total feeling of nothingness. And then you're back." Such are the rewards of conquering fear.
At the sight of any open canopy on laptop or TV screen she points and exclaims, "pair-shoot, pair-shoot," just as she does at the bridge's side when she sees one pop open.
"You're training her young," says one guest. Aiello emits a forceful, "No!" Later, he explains the reasons he got into BASE "were essentially not very positive traits in my personality. I would prefer that she grow up happy, healthy and well-adjusted. I sort of hope that my daughter grows up not needing that."
Anna-Grace is the other thing that occupies Aiello. When he's not teaching BASE, he's a stay-at-home dad. Both projects are funded by Aiello's wife, Dr. Cheri Wiggins, and her rehabilitation practice. In fact, she's the only reason he charges for any of his classes -- he doesn't want her to have to pay for day care to support his BASE-teaching habit. For Death Camp, he flies his mother out from California to keep an eye on her granddaughter.
Wiggins, however much she supports Aiello's BASE teaching financially, has no interest in making a jump herself. "When I was younger, I made this rule for myself: no firefighters, no police officers, no military. I don't like risk ... but I ended up married to a BASE jumper." In fact, she moved to Twin Falls so Aiello could jump and teach.
There was a time when Aiello said and wrote that if he ever had a child, his jumping days would be over. That didn't happen, exactly, but he "definitely has a different acceptable level of risk at this point because of Anna-Grace," Wiggins says. "I'd be really, really, really surprised if he said he was going to jump off a building. Then we'd have to talk." Luckily, the highest building in Twin Falls is five stories -- jumpable, as Aiello would say, but not landable.
Anna-Grace isn't the only thing that changed Aiello's jumping habits. "At some point," he once wrote on a BASE-jumping Web site, "I realized that the reasons I had begun jumping (to, as I once hyperbolized, 'fill the gaping wound in my soul') were not exactly the same as the reasons I continued to jump. The real Black Death jumps were filling that metaphorical hole. But there were some jumps (a particular 650-foot dam near my home was especially good) that seemed to be reaching into my soul, and giving me a strange sort of peace." Standing on the edge, the second between throwing the pilot chute and the opening of the main canopy, grappling with a malfunction -- all of these moments brought a Zen-like state, a consciousness free of language and entirely in the moment.
Around the same time Aiello had begun to understand this quasi-spiritual side of jumping, another truth was hammered home. While encased in his body cast after his second accident, a jumper friend of his, Dr. Nik Hartshorne (aka "Dr. Death" who performed the autopsy on Kurt Cobain), called to tell him another friend of theirs, Lee Werling, had died while jumping from an antenna in Florida. Hartshorne's voice was filled with pain as he reported the news. "It was then, for the first time, that I came face-to-face with the simple truth," Aiello wrote, "that Dr. Death cared more for the jumpers than he did for the jumping. And it came to me that I was one of those jumpers." The bond between people who chose to face death for pleasure was stronger than that of any other friendship he'd had. And it was that much more painful when they died. Two months later, Hartshorne too was killed, when he struck the cliff wall on a jump in Lauterbrunnen, Switzerland.
Hartshorne had "saved me from my own personal damnation," Aiello wrote. "The jumping itself was important, even critical, but it was the jumpers who turned the corner. And somehow it was the death of one of them that made all the difference. I do not know how to repay this debt. But, I think that I must continue jumping, and caring, and helping others who walk this road."
As vacuum-marinated, freshly charred beef makes its way to the table, Aiello waves a book in the air. "Everyone must sign this guest book!" he says. "Everyone that has signed it is still alive. Three people who have eaten here but not signed it have gone in."
The reel progresses from near misses, to broken bones, to death and gore. First, we see a mild impact with an antenna. Another jumper lands on a boulder far from the landing area and breaks a big toe ("Which, in BASE, is basically uninjured," Aiello says). At the Royal Gorge annual legal jump, a woman botches a landing and snaps her back against a railroad track. Her screams are high-pitched, breathy, horrific: "I hurt my back! I hurt my back! I hurt my back!" Minutes later, she's in an open emergency car racing down the tracks, joking with the paramedics as she's leaving the site. "I feel fine," she says. "But you can't feel anything," says one of her caretakers.
The video continues rolling and quickly turns into one of the sequels to "Faces of Death," documentary footage of people dying in various ways. Jan Davis jumps off El Capitan with a borrowed rig and never manages to figure out the pilot chute was mounted on the leg harness (Aiello: "The lesson here -- know your gear"). Then another jumper goes skittering down a cliff wall he never could have cleared. "He's dead," say his friends videotaping from another ledge. Then there's Dwain Weston, whose mesmerizing aerials put Aiello in the hospital. This time it's Weston's accident we're viewing, though not, strictly speaking, from a BASE jump. We see him, in a wingsuit, try to buzz his friends on a bridge below, having jumped from a plane some minutes earlier. Misjudging by less than a foot, his leg slams against the railing, severing it at the hip while the rest him falls to the rocks below. Half a dozen angles show the impact, each one accompanied by the screams of friends.
It's the screams more than the visuals that introduce a different kind of fear. Not of heights, death, or of pain, but of the horror of loss.
And it's cold. Aiello decides to walk everyone off the bridge. A nervous wait ensues.
With night comes a seeming calm, and again the group climbs back up the stairs and across the pedestrian side of the bridge. Dusk's fingers are well below the horizon, and, over the railing, in the shadow of the bridge, lies an opaque black; beyond that, the landing area. The wind sock on the streetlamp above whips about, first inflated, then limp, then inflated, then limp.
Behind the group, a well-seasoned jumper whispers that if he had his gear on and was all rigged up, he wouldn't jump: "I don't like the wind." Gert-Louis Cilliers, a South African student, is about to climb the railing. "You mean you wouldn't jump or you wouldn't let a student jump?" the seasoned one is asked. "I can't make any decisions for anyone else," he answers. Cilliers belts out an Afrikaans-disfigured count -- "Thray, toe, wan, say ya!" -- and jumps into the darkness. There's some kind of hesitation in his opening and then, after the canopy is fully inflated, it seems to collapse in the center. It rebounds quickly enough, but he no longer has enough flying time to make it to the landing area, so he touches down on the river's shore. Before long, his headlamp goes on and a tiny light jerks about as he gathers up his gear, a firefly in the grass from up on the bridge.
Much discussion follows: Was the jump too hairy? Aiello echoes the experienced jumper -- they all have to make their own decision. Three-fifths of the jumpers, still on the bridge, are more than happy to walk off. Arno Shute, another South African, not pleased to leave his friend and countryman to make the long dark hike back alone, decides to go for it. He leaps into the black and his parachute soon opens with ease. But then the wind blows him back beneath the bridge -- a sure object strike off anything other than a bridge. After he lands, a cry reverberates up the canyon walls -- not one of pain, but a signal that all's OK. Soon after, though, Aiello's phone rings. It's Shute warning the others not to follow. Too much turbulence above the trees.
Life is full of risks, of course, and the molten chocolate cake at the Chili's across from the Perrine Bridge presents a formidable one to the abdomen. It's popular with the BASE crowd, and so it's to Chili's that the Death Campers retire. The conversation there turns briefly to politics, and it comes out that one of the students, the Australian Jamie Mills, was in Iraq for three months to train the police there. "It's a f------ good time," he says. "No rules. You can drive as fast as you want, blow up as much as you want. It's like BASE jumping. Takes you back to when we were cavemen ... well, maybe not cavemen, but when you went out on the battlefield and only half the men came back." And the money was good: He made $500 a day.
As the molten cake and other edibles arrive, Shute relates the story of a jump he witnessed just hours earlier: Two men leaped together from the nonpedestrian side of the bridge, planning to fly under it to the landing area. To be sure their parachutes didn't open at the same time and collide, one of them was to jump with pilot chute in hand and take no delay -- a "go and throw" -- while the other would free-fall before opening. Upon jumping, however, the latter seemed to forget who was supposed to do what. After falling for a second or so, he reached up for his lines, only to find there was nothing but air above him. He apparently also forgot he hadn't yet opened his parachute. With the time lost fumbling for risers and then for the pilot chute, he opened with few feet to spare and was unable to make the landing area. Instead, he touched down on boulders, banged up his hip, and was seen walking out white as a sheet.
"Let me tell you," Ktalav says later, "you know how there always is that guy who talks too much and wants to show off and you know he is going to go in? He was that guy."
"Yeah, it's a crazy sport," Shute says.
"No, it's the crazy people," Ktalav replies.
"Well," Aiello says, "it's a little bit the sport."
Michael Abrams is a freelance writer in New York and author of "Birdmen, Batmen, and Skyflyers: Wingsuits and the Pioneers Who Flew in Them, Fell in Them, and Perfected Them," which is now available in paperback at Amazon.com. He has written for several magazines, including Wired, Discover and Men's Health. He's also a palindromist and plays a mean ukulele.