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A bridge over the river -- fly!

10/31/2009
A parachutist strikes a pose as he falls from the New River Gorge Bridge in West Virginia. W. H. "Chip" Gross

FAYETTEVILLE, W.Va. -- It's the most extreme of the extreme sports: BASE jumping.

One day each year -- always on the third Saturday of October -- West Virginia invites parachutists to take the leap from the state's New River Gorge Bridge, the longest single-arch bridge in the Western Hemisphere.

BASE jumpers respond by the hundreds, coming not only from almost every state in the nation, but as many as a dozen foreign countries.

"We usually have 450 jumpers and some 150,000 spectators attend," said Cindy Dragan of the Fayette County Chamber of Commerce. "It's the largest one-day event in West Virginia, and the largest extreme sports event in the world. And this year, Oct. 17 was the 30th anniversary of Bridge Day."

BASE is an acronym for the structures from which jumpers in the sport launch themselves: buildings, antennas, spans (such as bridges), and earth (such as cliffs).

What makes BASE jumping so risky is the relatively short distances jumpers fall. In the case of the New River Gorge Bridge, it's just 876 feet to the river below.

PHOTO GALLERY

Launch Gallery

In skydiving, by contrast, parachutists plunge thousands of feet to Earth from an airplane. This allows time to make adjustments should things not go as planned. But in BASE jumping, there is no second chance.

Jumpers don't even wear a backup, emergency parachute, as there is no time to deploy it. So done right, BASE jumping can be the thrill of a lifetime. But done wrong, well … and yes, there have been a few fatalities at Bridge Day. However, most injuries are minor, as was the case again this year.

BASE jumpers don't dwell on the negatives of the sport. These adrenaline junkies are too busy having fun challenging themselves, pushing life to the limit.

One such jumper is Brian Hoaglin, age 31, of Cleveland. He was asked why he BASE jumps.

"I get that question a lot, and never feel like I have a good answer," Hoaglin said. "I guess I do it because there is no other way to get this feeling. I mean, just look over the edge of that bridge and see all that empty space below. There's no way to describe BASE jumping, other than it's a total adrenaline rush."

A professional engineer, Hoaglin estimates he's made 15 or so jumps from the New River Gorge Bridge, about 85 total BASE jumps, and many more skydives. He added that BASE jumping is different from skydiving in that there is no wind or noise, as when jumping from an airplane.

"When you skydive, you have a 100 mph headwind from the airplane, so even though you haven't developed any downward speed yet, you still have wind in your face when you exit. And because of that headwind, you can immediately start steering your body.

"In BASE jumping, you just fall. So if you have a bad exit, such as rotating the wrong way, your body will continue rotating in that direction for the next three or four seconds. The bottom line is that BASE jumping is just much more intense. And less forgiving …"

Jeffrey Skeele, a construction superintendent from Columbus, Ohio, was making his first BASE jump at Bridge Day, having completed 150 previous skydives.

"I do it for the fun," he said. "It's hard to describe … just something you have to experience to understand, but it's definitely an adrenaline rush."

Some jumpers even launch themselves from the bridge multiple times during the day. Such was the case with Pete Certain of Huntsville, Ala.

"I jumped from the bridge for the first time last year, making seven jumps that day," he said. "I've already jumped twice today and am in line now for No. 3."

An experienced jumper, Certain estimates he's made about 2,000 skydives and 250 BASE jumps.

"My favorite BASE jump was in a cave in Mexico," he said, "landing some 1,400 feet on the cave floor below."

Baleatina Trajanovska was one of the foreign jumpers, hailing from Macedonia, a country north of Greece.

Missing a front eye tooth, she looked like one tough gal.

"I've been jumping since 1997 and have made about 1,850 jumps, mostly skydives," she said with a thick accent while standing in line for her second jump of the day. "I do it for the party nature of these events, the people involved in the sport, the challenge …"

A second activity going on beneath the bridge on Bridge Day was the ascending and descending into the New River Gorge by some 300 rappellers. Either cavers, firemen, EMTs, rescue personnel, climbers, or rope instructors, they covered vertical distances anywhere from 700 to 850 feet, depending upon their anchor point on the catwalk of the bridge.

One of the rappellers was Ben Sinsheimer, age 27, of Plymouth, Mich. An experienced caver, he said, "I'm here to rappel off the New River Bridge for the first time."

Asked why he does it, Sinsheimer had a quick, two-word answer: "It's fun!"

He then went on to explain, "Rappelling is technical, definitely a mechanical system, and I'm an engineer, so this kind of stuff really appeals to me."

A typical engineer, he logs both temperature and altitude as he moves up and down the rope with instruments he carries with him.

Matt Little of Newcomerstown, Ohio, was part of the same rappelling group as Sinsheimer. Known as the Cleveland Grotto, group members enjoy exploring caves together around the country.

Joking about what his mother has to say about his choice of recreational activities, Little said smiling, "She says I'm to call her afterwards, not before."

BASE jumpers, too, seem to have a sense of humor about what they do. Take, for instance, the jumper who jumped from the bridge wearing a Scottish kilt.

"And I'm not wearing any underwear," he grinned.

I'll leave the mental picture of his landing to your imagination, but suffice to say that the New River Gorge National Park rangers monitoring the landing zone were not pleased.

W. H. "Chip" Gross is a frequent contributor to ESPNoutdoors.com, and may be reached for comment about this story through his Web site, www.chipgross.com.