Scott Haynes stands up on a scaffold 10 feet high in the garden of the Holiday Lodge Hotel and takes another deep breath. He wants to practice his jump. One final time.
Haynes has close-cropped black hair. His face is hidden behind green-rimmed sunglasses. He isn’t very big, but he comes across as extremely fit. He is hanging on a harness that has two bungee cords attached to the back of it. The cords are meant to cushion his fall.
He stretches his arms up, to either side at a 45-degree angle, and looks straight ahead. “Three, two, one -- see ya!” he says, then hops off the platform. The bungee cords extend, and Haynes lands gently on a mattress.
It may look like a children’s gym exercise, but in an emergency this procedure could save Haynes’s life. The 23-year-old from New York is training for his first BASE-jump. His technique when he jumps will decide whether his descent goes like a breeze or ends in disaster.
BASE-jumping is considered the most dangerous form of parachuting. The acronym stands for the platforms from which the jumpers leap: buildings, antennas, spans (bridges), and earth (cliffs). Free fall lasts for only a few seconds, and there’s no point in having a spare parachute; there isn’t enough time for it to open.
“BASE jumpers are happy people,” Haynes says, removing his harness after practice. He studies English at Utica College in New York, and would like to teach after graduation.
He is one of 450 jumpers to have secured a slot at the Bridge Day Festival, where, for six hours, BASE-jumpers leap off the New River Gorge Bridge near the city of Fayetteville in West Virginia. It is all legal and watched by about 80,000 spectators.
Bridge Day is the BASE-jumping scene’s Woodstock: a huge show in which worldly wise veterans, nervous beginners, and fearless swashbucklers all take part. Since 1977, when the bridge opened, the gathering has taken place on the third Saturday of every October. Participants in the 2012 event have made the Holiday Lodge Hotel in Oak Hill their temporary headquarters. For two days, this backwater town of 8,000 people becomes the center of the BASE-jumping world.
Anyone who wants to jump on Bridge Day has to have done at least 100 skydives. Skydiving is the precursor to BASE-jumping; when you leap out of an airplane and are in free fall for minutes, you learn how to stabilize yourself in the air and how to control the parachute. Haynes has 110 skydives to his name, plus the training course he took for BASE-jumping beginners. “You learn how to deal with emergencies,” he says of the course, “like when one of your lines gets wrapped around your parachute and you go into a tailspin.”
Haynes says that there are two kinds of people. “Some like to have both feet on the ground. Others start dreaming of flying when they’re children.” Haynes definitely belongs to the latter group, but has concerns about his debut BASE-jump. “I’m in a complete panic,” he says, going on to explain that he’s jumping “because it makes me feel alive. Anyone who’s had that feeling of happiness once can’t escape it. It’s like a gambler who’s hit the jackpot.”
He says that some skydivers would sell their clothes to be able to afford a new parachute: “They display classic symptoms of addiction.” Haynes has traveled to Oak Hill, even though there isn’t a single hotel room available. He’ll spend the night before his first BASE-jump in a tent in the garden of the Holiday Lodge.
In the hotel’s lobby, jumpers have requisitioned every square inch of space, kneeling down on the carpet in front of their parachutes, pulling any creases straight, and spreading their lines out neatly next to each other.
Most BASE-jumps performed beyond Bridge Day are illegal. The BASE-jumping scene is rarely as transparent as it is here. If you want to become a BASE-jumper, you have to prove yourself first by assisting jumpers you know. Then you look for a mentor, an experienced BASE-jumper who will prepare novices for their first jump, explain all the risks, and shatter false expectations.
Dan Blakeley is one of those mentors. A brawny guy with a firm handshake but soft facial features, Blakeley is packing a parachute for a fellow jumper, a gig that earns him $50 a pack. He has done more than 6,000 skydives and 500 BASE-jumps, and initiated about 50 jumpers in the art of the latter.
“I don’t care how much experience someone has,” Blakeley says. “Some people just shouldn’t become BASE-jumpers. I find out how quickly a person makes decisions. For example: Someone knocks over a drink and the glass rolls off the table. Is that person the type who catches it? There are people who are clumsy by nature. To those people I have to say, ‘Sorry, no.’
“The worst thing that could have happened to my sport was YouTube. Kids see a spectacular BASE-jump, but what they don’t see is the years of work and training that come before it.”
Blakeley has seen friends die, and he almost drowned a couple of years ago when he landed in the water after a jump from a bridge went wrong. But he has never thought of stopping. “BASE-jumping is my life,” he says. “I love it when my heart begins to race.”
Blakeley has stopped discussing the dangers of his sport with other people, but he will happily explain to anyone he thinks is truly interested that “BASE-jumpers are not crazy people who are tired of life. I plan to die on my porch when I’m old and gray.”
The jumpers in the Holiday Lodge are afflicted by a strange combination of hyperactivity and tension. They all have their own ways of dealing with the pressure: going to bed early, asking like-minded people for advice, cracking open a third can of Bud Light.
It is quiet in the first-floor corridor where Ace Henderson is packing his parachute. It is a ritual, each and every time, folding a piece of cloth the size of a tent into your rucksack so perfectly that you can depend on it.
Henderson is a quiet master of his craft. There is something meditative about watching him. He lies down flat on his parachute to squeeze out any air. He smooths out any creases, and secures the folded parachute with pegs. Henderson moves his fingers with the precision of a diamond cutter as he tenses the lines in parallel along the ground and then places them in a figure eight. You can’t help feeling that he’s taking care of an old friend. The procedure takes about 30 minutes, then he closes his rucksack. “I wanted to do it properly,” he says.
The next morning, the drive from the hotel out to the New River Gorge Bridge takes less than five minutes, after which cars get stuck in a throng of people. Bridge Day is a local festival, too. The streets are lined with hot dog stands. Parents carry children on their shoulders. Cameras are busy clicking. People marvel at the brave participants and their crazy hobby.
The New River Gorge Bridge stretches for about half a mile over the New River Gorge National River. The spectators all head toward the middle of the bridge, where the jumping platform juts out from the edge of the road. It is a drop of 875 feet down to the river basin.
The jumpers look out over an impressive panorama of red and brown deciduous trees dotting a hilly landscape that stretches out as far as the eye can see. Rescue boats circle down below on the river. Viewed from up above on the bridge, they look like little toy ships.
The BASE-jumpers begin leaping from the bridge at one-minute intervals beginning at 9 a.m. It is a surreal spectacle: bodies falling, parachutes popping open and then a gentle drift down toward the river. The jumpers either tiptoe tentatively off the bridge or confidently perform somersaults. Some look serious. Some make faces. A lot of them shout “See ya!” before taking the leap. It sounds as if they are trying to reassure themselves.
The first amazing moment of the day comes at 10 a.m. Donald Cripps climbs onto the platform. At 83, Donald is the oldest jumper in the field. He is a small man with a friendly face. Cripps was already retired when he started skydiving. Before that, he served as a technician with the Marines. Today he is attempting his second BASE-jump, and he shows no sign of nerves. He is probably the most relaxed participant this year. He did his first two parachute jumps in the early 1950s, during the Korean War. Most of the people here weren’t even born then.
Cripps waves to the crowd. “Have a nice day!” he says, and promptly jumps off the bridge.
Anyone who thinks that the show from the jumping platform can’t be topped is later disabused of the notion when the human catapult is fired. The organizers have allocated 24 places for this monstrosity, a prototype that has been painted a gaudy red and whose design can only make you think of machines from pictures of medieval sieges. The contraption is powered by compressed air.
At 10:45 a.m., Joe Nesbitt makes himself comfortable sitting backwards on the ejector seat. He only answers questions from bystanders in incomplete sentences. “Wanted to try something new,” he says, when asked what drove him to this. His version of “No, he hasn’t told his family” is “I’ll send them a photo after.”
Sssssss! After the short, loud hiss, the steel arm goes up and Nesbitt is flung from the bridge in a high arc. The man turns out to be a consummate pro. He does three backflips and then opens his parachute. You wouldn’t mind seeing the look on his parents’ faces when they see the visual evidence of all this later.
At 11 a.m., the wacky emotional highlight of the event -- a wedding ceremony on the abyss -- takes place. Erika Terranova swigs nervously from her water bottle every 30 seconds. She is wearing a white hoodie and a lace ribbon in her hair. Erika is about to marry Patrick Steiner and then jump off the bridge strapped to her newlywed husband.
The wind blows snippets of their vows of fidelity down from the platform toward the crowd. “I will always support you ... believe in you ... respect you.” At 11:15 on the dot, Erika and Patrick are man and wife. The tandem harness is placed on the bride. “I do,” says Erika. You can hear the fear of the jump wrapped up with her pre-wedding nerves.
Shortly afterward, the bride and groom plunge down toward the New River, the crowd cheering them on, and the ceremony is complete.
At 2 p.m., with an hour to go until the end of the event, the line for the jumping platform goes on and on. Spectators who want to watch the last jumpers from below squeeze into one of the yellow school buses making shuttle runs from the bridge to the riverbank. The vehicles creak their way down the winding roads into the valley on a journey that takes about 20 minutes. Those getting out at the end of the ride are rewarded with a garishly grotesque mixture of drama and ecstasy: Jumpers who land too early are dragged over the broken stones of the shore, still attached to their parachutes. Just a few feet away, rescue boats pull jubilant BASE-jumpers out of the river.
At the edge of the landing zone -- soaking wet and with a broad grin on his face -- is Scott Haynes. He has jumped twice today. At breakfast he ate a cereal bar. He couldn’t get anything else down.
“I assume you know what BASE stands for?” Haynes asks. “I’m going to start looking for an antenna, a building, and then a cliff.”
Check out the March 2013 issue of Red Bulletin magazine (on newsstands February 12) for more articles. To read the magazine on your iPad, download the Red Bulletin iPad app.