With thoughts of the enormous, stomach-churning drop pressed tightly to the back of the mind, the first thing one notices while standing near the top Shanghai’s Jin Mao Tower are the strong winds, which seem to want to carry visitors over the edge. Looking down, with most of the skyscraper’s 88 stories falling away beneath your feet, even the hardiest height fanatic would be forgiven for suffering from sweaty palms. Yet, there are some who not only stand and stare but who have actually leapt from this great height – a platform on the tower a dizzying 1,174 feet (358 m) up in the air. The rest of us shudder to even think about such a feat.
On October 5, 2004, an international group of BASE jumpers, invited by the Shanghai Sports Bureau to commemorate the Chinese National Day holiday, performed this amazing, if hazardous, stunt. All 37 members of the team – which brought together six Chinese BASE jumpers and people from 15 other countries – jumped from the Jin Mao Tower. As these images show, spectacular views and a sense of flying reward those gutsy and experienced enough to undertake such acts of daring. But it’s still one heck of a way down – and the leap of faith is not without its risks.
Here, we see three BASE jumpers beginning their aerial acrobatics after jumping from the platform on the Jin Mao Tower and out into the void. Among the team were BASE jumping legends Gary Cunningham, Johnny Saavedra, Jason Fitz-Herbert and Ronald Simpson. With more than 1,450 leaps off buildings to his name, Cunningham is a world-leading expert in fixed object jumps from buildings. He’s also the president of the Australian BASE Association and organizes BASE jumping displays off buildings around the world.
For those of the BASE jumpers who were able to take in the panoramic scene opening up beneath them – despite the adrenaline rush they must have experienced and rapid downward trajectory they were soon following! – the city of Shanghai was awakening at sunrise.
The pictures of BASE jumpers diving from the Jin Mao Tower we’re enjoying are the work of Christophe Michot, a.k.a. Xof711, a Frenchman and now a resident of San Francisco. Michot is a dedicated extreme sports photographer who has also shot snowboarding and surfing and has been the official photographer at events such as the KPWT (kiteboarding) World Cup.
For those not in the know, BASE jumping is an extreme sport that involves a parachute jump from any one of four types of objects: buildings, antennae, spans (or bridges) and earth (basically, cliffs) – hence the acronym BASE. It’s related to skydiving, the major difference being that while skydivers jump from aircraft, BASE jumpers leap from fixed objects at much lower altitudes. Because of this, BASE jumpers fall through the air at lower speeds – though this actually means they have less aerodynamic control and may tumble, greatly increasing the risk of parachute entanglement or malfunction. Far shorter parachute rides and very small areas in which to land only compound the risks BASE jumpers face.
If one takes into account the early parachute trials – at least one of which ended in disaster – BASE jumping might be argued to have existed since the early 1900s. However, it wasn’t until the second half of the 20th century that it became the activity we know it as today. The umbrella term for these kinds of daredevil stunts was not coined until 1978, when filmmaker and BASE jumper Carl Boenish gave the name to the newly born activity he was spearheading, supported by his wife Jean Boenish and friends Phil Smith and Phil Mayfield.
Perhaps the first mainstream depiction of BASE jumping arrived in one of the James Bond movies – well-known for their spectacular opening scenes – specifically 1977’s The Spy Who Loved Me. In the film, stuntman Rick Sylvester (who, four years earlier, had completed the first skiBASE jump from Yosemite’s famous El Capitan cliff) skied off Canada’s Mount Asgard and into the abyss in a spectacular chase sequence, freefalling and eventually opening his parachute, which was emblazoned with the British flag.
Fast-forward to October 2004… The BASE jumping display in Shanghai went well at first but, in a unfortunate turn of events, experienced BASE jumper Roland “Slim” Simpson met with an accident, and this after more than 1,200 successful BASE jumps (as well as a previous accident in which he was badly injured). Though Simpson apparently had a good wingsuit flight in what would be his final BASE jump, his parachute opened with various line twists. It was very difficult for him to steer, and instead of landing on the designated lawn, he crashed into the rooftop of an adjacent building. Simpson slipped into a coma and, tragically, died in a hospital in Canberra, Australia a couple of weeks later, on October 22.
Roland Simpson is recorded as number 85 on a growing list of BASE jumping fatalities. What’s more, only a week later after Simpson died, one of his BASE jumping colleagues in Shanghai, Jason Fitz-Herbert (mentioned earlier), tragically became victim number 86 after jumping off Australia’s Bungonia Gorge on October 29, 2004.
And barely twenty years before that, the legendary Carl Boenish brought the number of listed BASE jumping deaths to 7 when, on June 7, 1984, he crashed into a ledge during a cliff jump from the Troll Wall in Norway. The unofficial BASE Fatality list has reached number 180 already, with the last such fatal incident to date having occurred on November 15, 2011, involving American BASE jumper Holly Brittsan.
Despite better equipment, state-of-the-art parachutes, closer checks on customers by stores selling BASE gear and the skill of the jumpers themselves, BASE jumping remains a dangerous sport. A strong gust of wind, malfunctioning equipment or simple bad luck can bring the lives of even experienced jumpers to a sudden and tragic end. The views from structures such as the Jin Mao Tower may be spectacular beyond belief, and the descent the adrenalin rush of a lifetime, but this giant structure from which humans have leapt also stands as a reminder of the risks associated with BASE jumping. We were, after all, not born with wings.