Wednesday, 7 May 2014 | MYT 5:35 PM

Urban BASE jumping: World's most dangerous sport just got more dangerous

An escalating trend in urban BASE jumping - illegal in most cities - is worrying some who say such risky stunts are tarnishing the image of the extreme sport.

Just before midnight, a man climbs onto a ledge on the 21st floor of a building in southwest Paris and leaps off. Mere seconds later, he opens his parachute – all part of the thrill of BASE jumping.

Unlike sky divers who leap from an aircraft, BASE jumpers take off from a fixed point, usually a cliff or a bridge. A BASE jump is defined as a leap off a fixed high point – the name being an acronym for Building, Antenna, Span (such as bridges) and Earth (natural settings).

Swiss national and former world record holder Ueli Gegenshatz successfully BASE jumped from the Eiffel Tower in 2008. He would later succumb to his injuries after a failed BASE jump in his home country about one and a half years later. 

But daredevils in Paris, like their counterparts in other cities, have taken the sport to high urban spots including the Eiffel Tower, Montparnasse Tower and skyscrapers in the business district La Defense – even though such stunts are strictly illegal in urban settings.

”The city at night is splendid. To be perched on a building without anyone’s knowledge, while knowing that one is going to throw oneself off, and see a series of windows, that’s even better!” said David Laffargue, who has a jump off a 47-floor La Defense building to his name. ”Just watch Batman to get an idea of the visuals when one is falling,” he said.

Any site above 60m is a potential jumping-off point, said a base jumper who gave his name only as Rodolphe and who has logged 1,200 urban and natural jumps for a total of about 15 hours spent in the air. He noted, however, that “it should not be windy and the road below should be clear of objects like lamp posts and so on.”

Meanwhile, Laffargue said such obstacles make urban jumps all the more special. ”From a technical point of view, such jumps are very demanding -- they are low jumps, the landing zones are small and dotted with obstacles like streetlamps, power lines and cars, and buildings make air currents unstable,” he said.

From a psychological point of view, there is also more stress than in non-urban jumps, not least because urban BASE jumping is illegal. Such stunts are banned in most cities for public safety reasons, and regulators have clamped down even at some natural sites – such as at nature reserves in the United States.

”Because it is illegal you have to do it quickly,” Laffargue said, adding: “A BASE jump of any kind requires thorough preparations, but an urban jump requires preparations down to the millimetre.”

Videos on YouTube document these city feats, which usually happen after nightfall, with the jumpers fleeing upon touching down to avoid being caught by police.

A woman who witnessed the jump in southwest Paris said: “There were three of them. Once they reached the ground, they folded their parachutes very quickly, climbed into a car and drove off rapidly.”

Get arrested or become famous

Three men were arrested following a BASE jump last September from the top of the nearly completed One World Trade Centre and charged with reckless endangerment. 

On the other hand, authorities in Dubai condoned a record-breaking jump just last month off a special platform atop the 2,717-metre Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building – by Frenchmen Fred Fugen and Vince Reffet.

Yet it is not only law enforcers who are exasperated by such stunts in the city; others in the BASE jumping community are also opposed, complaining that they give a bad name to the sport and fuel the stereotype of irresponsible thrill seekers.

Even in a natural setting, BASE jumping carries high risks. Some plunge to their deaths as parachutes fail to open, others slam against the rock walls or land awkwardly on trees. According to a private list maintained by Blinc magazine, there have been 150 BASE jumping fatalities since 1981.

In Switzerland’s Lauterbrunnen village, which is a magnet for BASE jumpers because of its enormous rock walls, five people were killed last year alone practising the sport, bringing the total number of BASE jumpers who died in the alpine village to 22. 

A Norwegian study published in 2007 concluded that BASE jumping is between five and eight times more likely that skydiving to result in injury or death.

But nothing attracts the spotlight like a fatal jump off a tourist attraction in a major city. In 2005, a 31-year-old Norwegian fell to his death in a BASE jump from the Eiffel Tower. 

The incident echoed an infamous incident in 1912, when Franz Reichelt – who some have referred to as the world's first BASE jumper – donned a homemade parachute bodysuit, jumped from the same tower and plummeted to his death after his invention failed to work. 

Warning: The video below may be too graphic for some viewers.  

”It’s not the image that we want to give to our sport,” said Roch Malnuit, who heads the French BASE Jump Association. ”Those who jump in town do it mostly because they live there. But I can assure you that 90% of the jumpers prefer cliffs.”

Some are so exasperated they have coined the word “paralpinism” to refer to base jumping that is practised only in natural settings.

Jean-Philippe Gady, who heads the Paralpinism Association, complained: “Some people just jump so they can get it on a video on YouTube.” Others like alpinist Erich Beaud – one of France’s pioneering BASE jumpers – say new technology like hands-free GoPro cameras that athletes can use to film their exploits encourage greater risk-taking.

”Today, many people who know nothing want to buy equipment. But when some make a mess of things, it penalises the entire community,” Malnuit said.

Others simply feel it is more enjoyable to jump without the stress of having to evade arrest.

Swiss athlete Geraldine Fasnacht said, “I have jumped illegally from a building. But frankly, I hated the stress of doing that. I prefer to glide in the mountains from beautiful cliffs, without any fear of ridiculous reprisals from police for enjoying myself.” – AFP/RelaxNews

Tags / Keywords: Lifestyle , Lifestyle , Features , France , BASE jumping , deadly , sport , extreme , urban , risky , controversial , reckless


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