Cleared for Takeoff

Struck by an urge to leap off a tall building? Pack your chute and head for Malaysia.

Jan 8, 2001
Outside Magazine
Event Coverage

For a report on the 2001 BASE-jumping championships, click here

Might as well jump: Californian BASE jumpers Brian Chopin and Henry Boger step off the Menara Kuala Lumpur tower, February 2001.

ONE MORNING in late August, about 70 gravity addicts will take elevators to the 73rd floors of the Petronas Towers—identical skyscrapers soaring 1,483 feet above downtown Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. There, they will step out a window onto a five-foot-wide platform and take in the view from the tallest office buildings on earth. Then, one after another, they'll chuck themselves off.

The Malaysia International Championship of Skydiving, scheduled for August 27 through September 2, is only the latest high-profile event in a string of state-sanctioned group BASE jumps from the Malaysian capital's landmarks (which also include 1,381-foot Menara Kuala Lumpur, the world's fourth-tallest communications tower). Last January during the Malaysia SkyVenture World Record Xtreme Skydive, 15 parachutists celebrated New Year's by simultaneously jumping from the Petronas Towers and landing gently in a downtown park, where they were presented with medals for "bravery" by Mahathir bin Mohamad, Malaysia's prime minister. His message: Malaysia, a nation best known for its Buddhist temples, is setting up shop as the global mecca of BASE jumping, a deadly offshoot of skydiving that is vilified in the United States and many other countries because its 2,000-odd practitioners commonly trespass on, and then leap off—frequently with tragic results—rooftops, bridges, radio towers, and cliffs. Devotees insist that with proper equipment and training, the risks of BASE can be made manageable, but since the late seventies it has killed at least 50 people—including Carl Boenish, who in 1978 first popularized the sport when he pitched himself off Yosemite's 3,604-foot El Capitan (he perished six years later during a leap off a 5,400-foot cliff in Norway).
So how did an activity that first caught headlines in California's High Sierra find its way across the Pacific to become a Southeast Asian monarchy's extreme sport du jour? Credit Canadian mechanical engineer and skydiving instructor Martin Dumas, 32, who relocated to Kuala Lumpur in November 1998 to help build a rapid-transit system, but soon found himself planning the country's first organized BASE jump with two Malaysians, sales and marketing exec Aziz Ahmad, 44, and Rahmat Omar Tunhanif, 34, who owns a furniture factory. Since then, more than 70 of the sport's disciples—hailing from as far afield as Iceland and Saudi Arabia—have merrily, and legally, flung themselves off Kuala Lumpur buildings.

Of course, it's a different story in the States, where BASE is infamous for clandestine rooftop sorties and sensational screwups. In the past year, more than a dozen jumpers have been arrested, including Harry Caylor, who last fall leaped off the top of downtown Denver's Embassy Suites Hotel, only to catch a gust and crash through a window into an unoccupied room. (Bleeding profusely, he walked out of the lobby and called an ambulance, but the cops arrived first and arrested him.) In October 1999, professional stuntwoman Jan Davis perished before 150 spectators when her borrowed chute failed to deploy in an illegal leap off El Cap (BASE jumping is still against the law in America's national parks). Ironically, Davis's jump had been intended to memorialize Frank Gambalie III, who only four months before had drowned in the Merced River while fleeing park rangers after his own illicit leap from El Cap (see "Jump Down Turnaround," October 1999).

While short on 3,000-foot cliffs, Kuala Lumpur does not lack for lofty launchpads—the city has 14 buildings over 500 feet high. Further, Malaysia aggressively courts extreme sporting events, and has hosted the Asian X-Games and the World Hang Gliding Championships. "If we didn't take risks, we'd still be in caves," says Ahmad, who, with 14 launches under his belt, is the nation's most experienced BASE jumper.

To a country like Malaysia, where tourism is the third-largest source of domestic revenue, the specter of deaths like those in the U.S. is apparently outshoneby the dazzle of dollar signs. As of early summer, the management of the Menara Kuala Lumpur tower was jockeying with SkyVenture Productions—the promoters of the events at the Petronas Towers. Both want to ink lucrative broadcast contracts with America's cable networks. But to one veteran jumper, this is a sport that will never, by its very nature, neatly lend itself to prime time. "The accident rate is a natural deterrent," says Oklahoma geologist Mark Herndon, 40, who logged 100 leaps in the 1980s but packed away his parachute after his son was born. Plus, he says, "Illegal is nice because it keeps the riffraff away."

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