Parachuting: Why Is This Man Smiling?

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, August 1995

Parachuting: Why Is This Man Smiling?

A near-fatal leap by BASE jumping's biggest star rekindles an old debate about the right to risk your own life
By Eric Perlman

Last May, Will Oxx stood at the lip of a 280-foot sandstone cliff overlooking Lake Powell and put a finger to the wind. Closing his eyes like an Acapulco cliff diver, the lanky, 35-year-old navy pilot from Westlake Village, California, rehearsed the most crucial move in the sport of BASE jumping--reaching to the small of the back, grabbing for the pilot chute, and hurling it toward the sky. Oxx repeated the motion, substituting thin air for the pilot chute and visualizing the reassuring tug upward when the parachute fills with air. Finally, he jumped.

Oxx, whose hundreds of leaps from more than 50 cliffs throughout the world have earned him international fame among BASE jumpers, had been jumping illegally like this in national parklands for 15 years. Of course, he'd had plenty of run-ins with the law, but the important thing, as Oxx will tell you, was that he'd never experienced parachute trouble. But now, two seconds into free fall, something was wrong: still no tug. As his 168 pounds accelerated toward the lake, Oxx watched in horror as his chute flapped wildly above him, barely one-quarter open. Moments later, he slammed into the chilly water at a velocity somewhere between 60 and 80 miles per hour.

Barely conscious, Oxx was bundled onto a water-ski boat and sped by his partners back to Hall's Crossing, Utah, where park rangers and paramedics worked to stabilize him before airlifting him to a hospital. His injuries included a cracked tailbone, a broken pelvis, and a deep bruise that ran from the backs of his knees to the nape of his neck. An investigation into the incident ensued, but at press time no charges had been filed against Oxx or his partners.

For the uninitiated, the BASE in BASE jumping stands for "buildings, antennae, spans, and earth"--the four main categories of launch sites used in this subspecies of skydiving. The sport, which claims some 4,000 participants in this country, has something of an outlaw reputation, largely because most jump sites are illegal, whether you jump from a privately owned radio tower or a cliff on national parkland. The misdemeanor is punishable by up to a year in jail and a $5,000 fine.

The Oxx incident seems a blip in BASE jumping's history of accidents and arrests, but the discussion that surrounds the near-death of one of the sport's biggest stars cuts to the core of two incendiary issues in this country: personal rights and use of federal lands. May a person risk his own life in a dangerous sport on public land managed by the federal government? The answer has clearly been yes in the cases of sports such as climbing and whitewater kayaking. But so far, BASE jumping has been permitted in a national park only once--for a five-week period in 1980 in Yosemite. According to rangers, that experiment resulted in one death, several injuries, and one rescue.

"On a jump as high as El Capitan," explains Hunter Sharp, a district ranger in Yosemite, the longtime hotbed of BASE jumping in the United States, "you have a human body moving at terminal velocity. If a chute fouls up, he's dead. If body position is slightly off, he'll track into the wall and die. A brief gust of wind--he's dead. And since we have to pick up body parts, we're not inclined to issue permits."

Indeed, the statistics about BASE jumping are eyebrow-raising. Though the sport has few participants, 20 Americans in the last two decades have died while BASE jumping, and Bob Andrew, chief ranger at Yosemite National Park, says his crew makes two or three rescues a year and spends hours chasing jumpers and helping to treat minor injuries.

Ironically, the crash landing at Glen Canyon occurred just months before the U.S. BASE Association planned to submit a 40-page proposal to Yosemite propounding the sport's safety and requesting that it be legalized in the park. If successful, the group plans to submit similar proposals to Glen Canyon National Recreation Area and other parks where BASE jumping occurs. "Criminalizing our sport has only made it more dangerous," argues BASE association director Jean Boenish, "forcing jumpers to leap at night, in less favorable weather conditions, and from inferior sites."

According to the proposal, BASE jumpers would essentially regulate themselves, with USBA-certified guides leading qualified jumpers a couple of times a week. To participate, jumpers would be required to sign waivers absolving the Park Service of any liability. A rescue fund would also be set up to help pay for the most costly rescues. Any jumps made outside the guided trips would be illegal. "Certainly there will be those who would not participate in such a program," says Boenish, whose husband, Carl, was a pioneer in the sport and died 11 years ago while jumping in Norway. "But we have to assume that most would."

For now, Oxx is undergoing physical therapy, trying to regain his strength, and talking on the phone to Interior Department bureaucrats in hopes of building support for his cause. He intends to make his comeback jump this fall, though he's not sure just where. "This cat-and-mouse game is getting old," he says.

Boenish, meanwhile, is tweaking the language in the permit proposal before sending it off to Yosemite. She's hopeful, but to her, the timing of Oxx's jump is oddly reminiscent of two years ago, when she sent a similar document to Michael Finley, then superintendent of the park. A few weeks later, a 40-year-old BASE jumper stepped off El Capitan's summit and was killed. "Of course," says Boenish, explaining that the woman probably became catatonic and forgot to activate her chute, "you really can't use her example to argue against the safety of BASE jumping. You simply can't stiffen up like she did."

More at Outside

Elsewhere on the Web