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BASE Jumping: Articles: General: The History of BASE Jumping

The History of BASE Jumping updated

by BASEwiki


Using parachutes to descend from fixed objects is a pastime that evidence suggests has been practiced, though infrequently, for at least the last 900 years. Unlike most leaps that were practiced from the 12th century, today’s BASE jumps emphasize launching without a previously inflated canopy. So, nearly anything that stands immobile and vertical or overhung could be considered jumpable.

From the late 1700s through the 19th century, the advent of manned balloons drew the development of parachuting largely away from fixed objects to jumping from aircraft. It was not until the 20th century that fixed-object jumping slowly began to pick up momentum again as an extension of sport parachuting from aircraft. The early 1900s saw the odd bridge jump and one stuntman’s static line jump from the Statue of Liberty. The military’s closest involvement to fixed-object jumping became represented by it’s parachute training towers, built shortly before World War II. Otherwise, parachuting from fixed objects has had only civilian and sport applications.

There are recorded examples of fixed object jumping from the early 1900s. Frederick Law jumped from the Statue of Liberty in 1912; Fausto Vrancic did several parachute jumps in 1934 from a dedicated parachute tower. Michael Pelkey and Brian Schubert jumped the cliff “El Capitan” in Yosemite Valley in 1966; and in 1976, Rick Sylvester jumped Canada’s Mt Asgard for the opening sequence of the James Bond movie “The Spy Who Loved Me”, giving the wider world its first look at BASE jumping. However, these and other sporadic incidents were one-off experiments, not the systematic pursuit of a new form of parachuting.

By the 1960s sport parachuting from aircraft had developed to the point that experienced skydivers began to more seriously consider trying their wings from non-flying objects. At the increased frequency of about one per year, people made calculated leaps from cliffs in the Italian Dolomites, El Capitan in Yosemite National Park, oil well derricks, or still the odd bridge. Unfortunately, most of these early leaps were poorly recorded, so little is known of them except that they were all done with contemporary round canopies and with varying degrees of success.

Finally, in the next decade, BASE jumping began blossoming into a sport in it’s own right. In 1970, parachutist Don Boyles, using a standard military surplus B-4 container and 28-foot military surplus round canopy, successfully freefall jumped from the 1,053-foot-high Royal Gorge Bridge in Colorado. Then, the following two years, Rick Sylvester made three more jumps from El Capitan, this time by skiing off with a triangular-shaped Thunderbow canopy. Sylvester was an expert skier and novice skydiver who would, in 1976, repeat the stunt for a James Bond movie, this time with a round canopy from 3,600-foot Mt. Asgard on Baffin Island in Canada. Though newer, better performing square-style parachutes were being developed at the time, in 1975, Owen Quinn made a highly publicized jump from the 110-story New York World Trade Center using a round canopy. But it was really the El Capitan ski jumps that proved to be an important catalyst in the popularization of fixed-object jumping a few years later.

By 1977, a small group of very experienced skydivers (some of whom were also expert hang glider pilots, and all pioneers) had realized that with the new, modern, high-glide-ratio square canopies, the overhanging El Capitan now could be repeatedly jumped with consistency in reaching the meadow landing are instead of landing in the rocks or trees directly below. These jumpers made plans to jump El Capitan the following year. The thought was finally right for the concept of powerless self-flight to branch off from aircraft launches and return to it’s pure roots of using objects for altitude, as had been done until the 18th century.


On August 18, 1978, after putting a year of thoughtful research into the concept, Carl Boenish and three other expert skydivers made the first modern leaps from El Capitan, and popular BASE jumping was born. The jumpers used their regular aircraft skydiving gear: a state-of-the-art piggyback dual container system with a round reserve and a square main, Cape-well or three-ring riser quick-releases, leg straps with B-12 snaps or thread-through closures, and standard 36-inch pocket-stowed pull-out pilot chutes.

Unfortunately, El Capitan is located in Yosemite National Park, where an administrative regulation was in effect which called for a “responsible sanctioning organization” for the activity, and this requirement unexpectedly proved to be a major bureaucratic hurdle to cliff jumping there for years to come. When initially contacted by the National Park Service, the United States Parachute Association neither had knowledge of the activity nor could sanction it due the fact that cliff jumps originated below the minimum opening altitude of the USPA’s Basic Safety Regulations, so they refused to become involved. Bureaucracies being generally unable to deal with the individual, the Park administrators consequently decided to take a stand against cliff jumping activities in their jurisdiction and began arresting and citing jumpers with violation of two ostensibly applicable sections of the CODE OF FEDERAL REGULATIONS, title36: 2.2 Air delivery, and 2.36 Powerless flight. The precedent was set, and the National Park Service became an unexpected source of ill-founded legal problems for cliff jumpers in Yosemite and everywhere else in the National Park system.

Nevertheless, the movie film and still photograph coverage of the recent pioneering jumps was shared throughout the general skydiving community and created a wave of jumper enthusiasm that swept over the Park as of the following May. Legal difficulties notwithstanding, over 50 more jumps were made by almost as many different jumpers by the end of 1979. The jumpers shared the necessary technical information by word of mouth, though dissemination was far from comprehensive, El Capitan is a very forgiving jump site and skydivers were able to get enough basic information to make the leap safely.

As the rate of jumping increased, it was apparent that both skydivers and spectators both loved and were inspired by cliff jumping and that it was bound to continue. So Yosemite chief ranger Bill Wendt made a sincere attempt to help cliff jumpers get organized sufficiently according to regulations for permits to be issued for the activity.

Then, in early 1980, the USPA decided that it could be involved after all, and cliff jumpers united in what they thought was a cooperative effort with the Park officials, and permits for jumping from El Capitan were first issued by the National Park Service on July 1, 1980. Over the next nine weeks, 372 jumps were made from El Capitan. However, a few major wrinkles had yet to be ironed out in overseeing of the activity: several accidents, conflicts and Park damage resulted from insufficient preparatory and technical information being available to the burgeoning number of jumpers. Moreover, the burdensome administrative requirements doomed the program to failure, an outcome then-Park superintendent Bob Binneweis claimed publicly was his goal all along. With no other organization in existence at the time for fixed-object jumpers, and USPA eager to wash its hands of the problem, permits again became unavailable after September 9, 1980.

In halting it’s issuance of permits though, NPS officials failed to discern that cliff jumping should have been allowed once again after a sufficient period had passed for making organizational and regulatory changes; otherwise, cliff jumping would not stop but only be driven underground and away from acceptable safety measures, which it was at Yosemite. But progress and development of the sport did not stop; cliff jumping did continue, there and elsewhere, and the focus turned to perfecting techniques and discovering other types of fixed objects that could be jumped.


The years 1979 and 1980 were pioneering times in fixed-object jumping. It was a period of great excitement during which an ever-increasing number of skydivers began to expand their abilities beyond the use of aircraft. A complete foundation was laid for the future development of fixed-object jumping in which movie and still film coverage played an invaluable role.

In August 1979, John Noak, Dave Blattel, Robin Heid and Carl Boenish jumped from the Royal Gorge Bridge in Colorado. Boenish, responsible for having organized, filmed, and taken part in the previous year’s historic jumps from El Capitan, filmed this event too and he was destined to take part in and film nearly every major fixed-object jumping development until his death on July 7, 1984. On this trip to the Royal Gorge, all of the jumpers were using equipment similar to the state-of-the-art equipment used at El Capitan. However, due to the lower altitude-1,053 feet agl- and the tighter landing area, two jumpers freefell, but two used pilot chute assists. This worked very well in contrast to the jumpers who free fell from the bridge. After this experience, one of the jumpers suggested accelerating the square canopy openings by removing the slider. Not quite a year later, this method had been tried, proven, and accepted as the primary equipment alteration.

In 1980, some direct experimentation was done with airspeed on exit. Fixed-object jumpers theorized that a build-up in momentum could aid both stability on launch and better clearance from the object, much as the acceleration of previous ski jumps had carried the jumper off the edge and away in a condition more closely related to familiar aircraft skydiving. One jumper tested a launch over the railing of a 450-foot-high bridge from the bed of a truck traveling at 70 mph. He exited less than half way across the bridge so that the forward throw of the launch would carry him to the deepest part of the ravine for deployment. The jumper used a pilot chute deployed round canopy freely packed in a piggyback container, which he insisted on tacking closed with only a strand of home sewing thread. The canopy came out 45 degrees to horizontal and opened at an unimpressive altitude as the jumper, who had slipped on push-off, was head down and terribly unstable during deployment to the point where a smoke canister he was wearing on his foot burned part of the canopy during extraction. Some months later, better stability data was obtained at El Capitan during the permitted jumping season: observation of running launches, standing launches, and two exits made while riding skateboards off of the edge, revealed that extra momentum magnified, but did not improve, the quality of stability on exit, but extra momentum always increased the distance that could be attained from the object.

In the latter half of 1980, th cliff jumpers’ repertoire expanded to include television and radio antenna towers, the second highest bridge in the US- West Virginia’s New River Gorge- and two new major cliff sites at opposite ends of the spectrum- Norway’s mile high Trollveggen, and Arizona’s 580-foot-high Canyon de Chelly. The same equipment was still being used, but technique was being perfected. All of these sites, plus others, afforded jumpers places to test and expand the limits of the new sport with regards to multiple-jumper launches, exit techniques, canopy and equipment specifications, static line versus free fall, and effects of wind conditions. Generally, fixed-object jumping remained similar to aircraft skydiving in nearly all respects except for the still-air launch, the on-heading opening requirement, and the stricter time constraints. However, a multiple-jumper exit, also called relative work, presented a new set of challenges.

At El Capitan, it was quickly discovered that skydiving techniques of simply holding on to one another as a means to exit together as a unit did not work. The formation would immediately fall apart upon launch due to the differences in acceleration of the jumpers. Even when just one jumper would exit right behind, and within reach of another, though there was less than one-half second difference in launch times, a 10-foot separation would result. Ideally, the jumpers would exit side-by-side, as they could at other sites, and then accelerate together at the same rate. Other than side-by-side formations, true relative work had yet to be perfected in fixed-object jumping.

The first jumps from the 580-foot-high wall at Canyon de Chelly in Arizona, exhibit the striking progression of the sport of fixed-object jumping when compared to later jumps made at the same site. On October 3, 1980, the standard pin-closed skydiving piggyback main and reserve set-up with a normal sized pilot chute was still being used for all fixed-object jumping. On that day, the first four jumps were made from Canyon de Chelly using static-lined 23-foot Piglet round canopies for solo exits. Square canopies were not used due to insufficient wall clearance in case of an off-heading opening. Free fall was not considered because of the insufficient margin for reserve deployment altitude in case of an emergency.

In contrast, almost two years later, and at a different site, lighter F-111 26-foot R4–2 round canopies with large pilot chutes had been free fallen for three seconds from a 400-foot cliff over water, and openings were found to be just about halfway down. Armed with the new information and equipment, by 1983 the Canyon de Chelly site was being visited consistently by jumpers doing two-person exits, one behind the other, taking two and four second respective freefall delays. Even one modified three-person exit was done with the third jumper launching as soon as the first person’s canopy open. The very end of 1980 marked the end of the pioneering era of fixed-object jumping and the beginning of a continuing era of development. The legwork had been completed for the first sport building jumps to be history in less than one month and periodic media coverage was being given to fixed-object jumping as a spectacular thrill seeking activity, but far-sighted jumpers could see their new pastime becoming an accepted sport before the turn of the century. Already, improved equipment was being designed and tested, and there were about 500 fixed-object jumpers worldwide.


Though aircraft skydiving gear had been used through 1980, in 1981, to ensure “equal opportunity deployment”, more appropriate equipment was developed for lower altitude objects, particularly since most BASE jumps were then being made from sites much more challenging than El Capitan. Fast, on-heading parachute deployment is one of the most important needs of the fixed-object jumper, so Jim Handbury created a harness and Velcro-closed container system from a normal skydiving harness with a modified container arrangement.

The Acronym

The acronym “BASE” was coined by film-maker Carl Boenish, who in 1978 filmed the first jumps from El Capitan to be made using ram-air parachutes and freefall tracking technique, which effectively defines modern BASE jumping. These jumps were repeated, not as a publicity exercise or as a movie stunt, but as a true recreational activity. It was this which popularised BASE jumping more widely among parachutists. Boenish continued to publish films and informational magazines on BASE jumping until his 1984 death on a cliff jump in Norway.

Nick Di Giovanni has written some great stories about BASE history that are worth reading! Especially recommended are The Acronym, August 8th 1978 and The Tool.

Submitted by BASEwiki on 2007-06-04 | Last Modified on 2010-04-13

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Where did you get this information, where would I be able to find this information in an way that my English teacher will find acceptable?

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