For one day every October, the National Park Service grants BASE jumpers permission to huck themselves off the New River Gorge Bridge near Fayetteville, West Virginia. For the uninitiated, BASE is an acronym referring to parachute jumps from Buildings, Antennas, Spans (bridges), and Earth (cliffs). And Bridge Day, as the event is known, has been a BASE jumping tradition since 1980, when five pioneers of the sport took the state-sanctioned plunge.
These days, extreme sports are a staple of popular culture. Any moment now skateboarders will be in a TV ad for an investment portfolio. And yet BASE has remained on the fringes—the hobby that won’t get you into the Olympics, but might get you arrested or killed. The sport has no governing body regulating safety or making nice with the public. Athletes face fines and jail time for their jumps, whether on private property or within National Parks.
But on Bridge Day, jumpers reach a truce with The Man for a family-friendly event complete with a 5K race and a chili cook-off. This year, 304 jumpers and an estimated 100,000 spectators attended, making Bridge Day one of the largest events in mainstream culture’s twisted love affair with the edge.
Would I witness something horrible? If I did, was it partly my fault just for attending the carnival? Speaking of guilt, would I eat funnel cake for lunch?
I arrive early at the Wal-Mart parking lot in Fayetteville, one of the designated points for spectators to catch a shuttle to the bridge. Judging by all the West Virginia University and Ohio State sweatshirts, most of those joining me on the shuttle are from the region—and most likely spend other Saturdays watching the extreme sport known as college football. They’re middle-aged or older, here with children and grandchildren. It’s a State Fair kind of crowd.
I feel a mix of fear and excitement leading up to my first time witnessing a sport I’ve been fascinated by since childhood. Professional skier Shane McConkey, a hero among my mountain kid friend set, died BASE jumping in 2009. Dean Potter, best known as a rock climber, died flying a wingsuit in 2015. Three jumpers have died at Bridge Day over the years, most recently in 2006, when an experienced 66-year-old jumper’s pilot chute became trapped against his chest. Would I witness something horrible? If I did, was it partly my fault just for attending the carnival? Speaking of guilt, would I eat funnel cake for lunch?
As we turn out of the parking lot, ominously specific signs announce our progress towards the bridge. Between mile marker 2.14 and 1.34, I see a few scattered families walking. And then it happens. I see my first jumpers. They’re wearing helmets mounted with GoPros and have a walk that suggests their minds are 1.16 miles ahead of where their legs are right this moment. When we arrive, the West Virginia State Police are massed at the entrance, scowling like something has already pissed them off today. An endless line of booths offer free blood sugar checks, sell fudge and recruit for the Army. The crowd blows past them, heading straight for the center of the bridge.
I catch my first glimpse of a jump just after passing the children’s bouncy castle. Still on the far end of the span, I peer over the edge and see a figure with a black parachute floating gracefully toward the river below. I walk another hundred yards forward and can see the center platform where the jumpers take flight. A jumper steps to the edge and launches into a gainer—a forward jump into a backflip, for those who have lost their X Games vocabulary. Even knowing that he must be wearing a parachute, I’m still shocked by the sight of him in free fall. Four seconds tick by. When he finally pulls the chute, it’s like watching a near-miss accident on the interstate.
At 9:38 a jumper walks to the edge of the platform, turns his back to the river below, and does a little hop backwards into free fall, the underside of the bridge whipping past his face. From the beginning he’s fighting to flatten out, pulling his shoulder towards the water. His whole body flails as he tries to jerk himself around again and again. I can’t be sure but it seems like he’s only a couple hundred feet above the water when he finally pulls his chute and disappears out of sight underneath the bridge. Immediately all but one of the rescue boats stationed in the water race toward him.
Before I can process what happened I see two more people jump simultaneously off the platform. A few minutes later a jumper coming in for a landing on the riverbank tumbles side over side like he just bailed off a motorcycle. An ambulance pulls up minutes later but I can’t tell whom it’s for.