Largest Organized Base Jump Event in the World
On the third Saturday of every October, BASE jumpers from across the globe zero their sights on the New River Gorge Bridge, giddy with excitement to huck themselves into a dizzying free fall before splashing into the swift waters of the world’s second-oldest river 876 feet below.
Even more spectators flock to Fayetteville to celebrate Bridge Day and the once-a-year opportunity to hang their heads over the rail, soak up the exposure, and watch aerial acrobats fly in the largest legal organized BASE jumping gathering in the world. While the majority of Bridge Day attendees have no desire to leave the safety of the bridge, many have thought at one time or another, “How can I do that?”
We caught up with Marcus Ellison, BASE Adviser to the Bridge Day Commission, who asked that very question over 10 years ago. “When I started skydiving, my full intention was to BASE jump off the New River Gorge Bridge,” says Ellison, a Fayetteville native. “Growing up here and watching Bridge Day every year totally drove me to do this.”
Ellison told us what steps need to be taken—yes, there are many—before you can hurl yourself along with 400+ others into the depths of the Gorge. Or if you simply prefer to spectate, albeit with sweaty palms and a case of second-hand vertigo, we’ve got the best locations to catch all the BASE action on October 21.
A Brief History of BASE Jumping
BASE jumping is the act of jumping from a fixed structure with either a parachute or a wingsuit as a means of landing safely on ground or, as is often the case with Bridge Day, in water. BASE is an acronym for the four structures from which participants jump: buildings, antennae, span (bridge), earth (cliff).
Although folks of various mental capacities and perceived levels of bravery have been leaping from objects with parachutes of questionable quality for over 900 years, the first true BASE jump is generally attributed to a group led by filmmaker Carl Boenish, who coined the term in 1978 while filming jumps from El Capitan in Yosemite Valley.
Public exposure to Boenish’s films, as well as the opening scene of James Bond’s “The Spy Who Loved Me,” ushered in the era of BASE as a recreational pursuit. In 1980, the inaugural Bridge Day was held on the Mountain State’s iconic span, just as BASE jumping was taking off. The coincidental timing provided a perfect marriage of activity and opportunity, and the standard National Park Service ban on BASE jumping was suspended for one day to allow legal BASE jumps from the Western Hemisphere’s longest single-arch bridge. According to Ellison, nearly 100 jumpers floated through the Gorge that first year; that number doubled in 1981. By 1982, and every year since, around 400 BASE jumpers have launched from the deck each Bridge Day.
How Do I BASE Jump?
BASE jumping comes in two flavors: solo and tandem. The road to becoming a solo jumper is long and arduous, while a tandem jump is the expressway to a one-time BASE experience.
The first big step to becoming a solo BASE jumper is taken high in the sky from the door of an airplane. That’s right, aspirant BASE jumpers must be accomplished skydivers if they have any hopes of jumping from the bridge. Because BASE jumps occur at relatively low altitudes, one must learn proper body position, control, and falling physics before jumping from a fixed object. The amount of skydives required to take a BASE jump course varies.
“BASE jumping doesn’t have a regulatory body that controls what the criteria are to become a BASE jumper,” says Ellison. “A lot of people in the country that teach first BASE jump courses set their own requirements, but there’s some consistency across the board. It’s a fairly small community, everyone knows everyone like a small town.”
If you’re planning on making the bridge your inaugural entry into the world of BASE, which many rookies do, you’ll need to have completed at least 100 skydives, and take a First Jump Course. Two courses are provided through the Bridge Day Commission: a one-day primer for experiences parachutists, and a three-day extended course geared toward those with less experience.
First-time jumpers can register for the 1 Day First Jump prep course on October 20, a course specific to Bridge Day that will cover all info pertinent to jumping from the bridge. The course is taught through Twin Falls Base, a company based in Twin Falls, Idaho that trains jumpers on the 486-foot high Perrine Bridge—the only manmade structure in America where it is legal and free to BASE jump year-round without a permit. The 3 Day First Jump course is taught by Johnny Utah, a three-time World Champion BASE jumper with over 2,500 jumps under his chute.
Tandem jumping—being strapped to a pro in a two-person harness and larger parachute—is far more accessible, simply requiring disposable income and the will to put your life in someone else’s hands.
“For Bridge Day, because of its unique nature, we’re allowed to do a tandem jump here,” says Ellison. “You need zero training or experience flying chutes, the person you’re attached to is the professional and is able to manage all the aspects of the jump.”
Tandem spots are snagged up quickly—only 15 were allotted for 2017 with professional BASE jumper Sean Chuma of Tandem BASE—and come at a premium of $1,200. Or, you can test your luck before your test your luck by purchasing a $20 raffle ticket to win a single tandem jump. Funds raised from the raffle go to a local charity chosen by the Commission.
The official Bridge Day website has plenty of information for prospective solo and tandem jumpers, including pages for safety, landing zone, gear, transportation, and info regarding the $75 registration fee. For the full scoop, visit https://officialbridgeday.com/base/.
Where to Watch
While it may seem obvious that the bridge deck offers close-up views of the frenetic BASE action, railing spots are coveted, and the further you are from either side of the jumping platform, the more obscured your view becomes. The energy on the bridge is palpable, however, and the M.C. usually provides some entertaining chatter to accompany the steady stream of jumpers.
For a ground-up experience, make the trek down to Fayette Station to watch jumpers fall, inflate their chutes, and splash into the river or land on the giant bullseye. To get to Fayette Station, an Into the Gorge Shuttle pass must be purchased through Adventures on the Gorge at $25 per seat. As of press time, sports were running out, so check in with AOTG or the Fayette County Chamber of Commerce before making plans.
If you prefer to see the big picture, or possess some good binoculars and a telephoto lens, head to Long Point. This rocky promontory is positioned perpendicular and west of the bridge at the widest point of the Gorge, offering sweeping views of everything Bridge Day. The early bird gets the view—Long Point can only hold so many people safely, so be prepared to rise before the sun and make the 1.2-mile hike from the trailhead before everyone else.
Ellison hopes to see more jumpers experience all the glory of a jump from the bridge. “I encourage people to navigate these waters through the proper channels,” he says. “Start skydiving, learn the parachute systems first, and make up your mind if BASE is for you. Skydiving and BASE jumping are two different animals. Don’t be in a hurry, take your time, and navigate the proper channels. Get the proper training because your life depends on it. I didn’t get to my tenth year in the sport by taking too many risks and cutting corners.”
Whether you aim to strap on a chute or are content with just strapping on a camera, Bridge Day’s BASE jumping bonanza is a once-a-year spectacle that should be on your West Virginia bucket list.
So, what’s it really like?
A first-hand account from Marcus Ellison
“For me, the whole BASE jump process starts with packing the parachute. It’s a very intimate relationship you have with your gear. That’s one of the things that can alleviate some of the anxiety—you’ve got your gear ready. Getting onto the platform is very exciting because you’re down at everyone else’s level, and then you step up on this stage. You look out, you can see the crowd, how far the bridge goes, and the gorge. It’s very beautiful. There’s no rail out on the edge of the stage—it just goes out into the gorge, and it’s quite exhilarating. And then you’re there, and you have this mental picture of what you’re going to execute before you go. I always take a few steps and run toward the edge, and there’s that moment where your foot is on the edge on the platform and you pop off.
That moment of disconnect is the most freeing, quiet, clear moment that you can ever find. It’s very calming and relaxing the moment you disconnect; it’s still, and the noise seems to go away.
Then you start to fall and accelerate, and you can start hearing the wind pick up. You fall anywhere from one to six seconds, and you deploy your chute and look up and make sure the chute is nice and good. Then you’re suddenly floating down into the middle of the New River Gorge, and you’re flying toward the landing point near the river. Life kind of comes back at a normal pace once you’re under the parachute. You fly your pattern toward the landing area, eye it up, and try to hit the bullseye. There’s always a bunch of people cheering you on at the landing area, and it’s pretty special.”
“For Fayetteville, Bridge Day means pride and economics,” says Benjy Simpson, Bridge Day Rappel Coordinator and managing member of Bridge Walk. “The whole state has pride for the bridge; it’s an economic driver for the area.”
Visitors can experience Bridge Day from any numbers of angles. Whether you plan to watch the BASE jumpers soar from the 867-foot tall deck, gorge on culinary creations at Taste of Bridge Day, raft the New’s frothing rapids, or rock out at the Bridge Jam music festival in Fayetteville, there are some basics you need to know.
Route 19 will be closed to vehicular traffic from around 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. If you must cross, expect a 40+ minute detour down the sides of the gorge and across the old bridge at the bottom. If you park in Fayetteville or along Route 19 south of town, plan on a considerable amount of walking—bring plenty of food and water, and wear comfortable shoes. If you plan to explore the north rim of the gorge or have access to amenities at Adventures on the Gorge, park on the north side of the bridge.