TandemBASE to offer easy access to thrill rides
BASE jumping is not a sport of amateurs.
As part of Saturday's annual Bridge Day celebrations, dozens of parachute-wearing daredevils will fling themselves off the New River Gorge Bridge for a seconds-long ride to the whitewater below.
Other BASE jumpers try their luck on skyscrapers, antennas and cliffs (BASE stands for "buildings, antennas, spans and earth"). And as crazy as that sounds, most are already accomplished skydivers before they make their first death-defying leap.
But Mark Kissner, a BASE-jumping gear manufacturer from Idaho, wanted to open the sport to more inexperienced jumpers.
Skydiving companies have done it for years. First-time skydivers can sign up for a "tandem" jump, where they are strapped to an experienced skydiver who handles all the important parts of a jump . . . like opening the parachute on time.
Skydivers, however, have a much larger window of time to get things right, spending minutes in the air before pulling the cord. BASE jumpers must deploy their chutes only moments after leaving their perch.
"Nobody ever thought it was possible," Kissner said. "The idea of taking an activity (where) the average jump lasts 10, 15 seconds, how do you incorporate a student into that environment?"
But Kissner figured it out and, with his help, 11 first-time BASE jumpers will get the chance to parachute from the New River Gorge Bridge alongside the experts.
Kissner started his company, TandemBASE, in Twin Falls, Idaho, about two years ago. He already manufactured BASE-jumping gear, so he built a tandem harness inspired by tandem skydiving harnesses.
He also hired a parachute manufacturer to produce a special tandem-jump chute, giving the company a list of specific features he needed. The resulting parachute is not much different from a regular BASE chute but is made to support more weight and allow for a soft landing while still maintaining maneuverability.
Still, Kissner has to be picky with jump sites. There are only a few places in the world where his company can perform tandem jumps. Buildings, antennas and cliffs aren't good launch sites because tandem parachutes aren't quite as maneuverable as single-jumper chutes. There's a chance jumpers will reverse direction once their chutes deploy, sending them flying back toward the object they launched from with too little time to react.
That limits launch sites to bridges, but only a few bridges are tall enough and also have good, soft landing areas. Though BASE jumpers pride themselves in landing on rough terrain, tandem jumps require a more forgiving environment.
The New River Gorge Bridge meets both criteria.
TandemBASE made its first appearance at Bridge Day last October.
Kevin Brown, 50, of Fayetteville, was their first client in the Mountain State.
Brown is a park ranger for Army Corps of Engineers at Summersville Lake. He grew up near the Summersville Dam and remembers his grandfather taking him to the gorge when crews were building the bridge. He's only missed one Bridge Day since 1994.
He had a minor health scare in 2007, when doctors were worried he might have colon cancer. Brown spent about six weeks waiting on test results. When the tests came back negative, he decided it was time to start checking some things off his bucket list.
He'd long wanted to jump from the New River Gorge Bridge but was worried he could not achieve the required 200 skydiving jumps needed before he could become a BASE jumper.
"I didn't think I would be able to get enough jumps in before I got too old," he said.
Thanks to Kissner, Brown got his chance. He and his guide, Mark Kruse, were the first jumpers off the platform at last year's Bridge Day.
He said he second-guessed his decision when he was standing on the jump platform watching the New River rush by, just 870 feet below. But Kruse said "Ready, set, Bridge Day," and off the platform they went.
Brown was wearing a helmet camera during the jump. When he watched the video later, he noticed only 1.1 seconds passed from the time he left the bridge to the time the parachute deployed.
"It feels like minutes," he said.
The entire jump lasted around one minute and ten seconds. Brown and Kruse landed in the New River about three feet from shore, safe and sound.
Though Brown said almost everyone he knew tried to talk him out of the jump, he'd love to do it again.
"It's a very intense sensation. You accept the consequences, and life's everyday problems don't seem so bad. For that brief moment, everything is right in the world," he said.
Kissner realizes there aren't many people like Brown, thrill-seekers who dream of jumping off bridges, so he has no allusions that tandem BASE-jumping will become "the next big thing." He said he will consider TandemBASE a success if the company does a few hundred jumps each year.
"Most people don't even know what BASE jumping is. This is not a business we started thinking we're going to make millions of dollars off of. It's not a big sport," he said.
So it's a good thing Kissner isn't just doing it for the money.
"We're spreading a lot of joy in the world," he said. "When people say, 'This is the best thing I've ever done, I'll never forget this,' there's a lot to be said for being a part of something that's that important for people."