Where: New River Gorge, near Fayetteville, West Virginia, USA
When: Third Sunday in October
What’s it about: The usually illegal and insane practice of 50 people BASE jumping off a 878 feet bridge – without a parachute
Watch out for: A death defying drop into the river below
Where It’s At
The Bridge Day Festival takes place over the New River Gorge near Fayetteville, West Virginia. It started in 1980, with just five participants, to celebrate the completion of New River Gorge Bridge, the world’s second longest single arch steel span bridge and the second highest bridge in American at 878 feet. On the third Sunday of every October, 200,000 people come here every year to watch over 300 BASE jumpers dive from the bridge down into the churning so-called ‘River of Death’ below – all in the name of adrenaline.
What Is Base-Jumping?
BASE is an acronym for Building, Antennae, Span, Earth – the fixed-objects from which BASE jumps are made. BASE jumping is the unusual practice of jumping from a fixed point, for example a cliff, freefalling for a short time before releasing a parachute and (hopefully) landing safely at the bottom. The difference between sky diving and BASE jumping is that skydivers deploy their parachute at around 2,000 feet, but BASE jumper only start their jump from 1,000 feet, so the quick deployment – within six seconds – of their parachute is necessary to avoid an unpleasant run in with the ground. Jumps involve a liberating sense of weightlessness followed by a rapid and exhilarating fall. Extreme sports fans say that skydiving can change your life but BASE jumping will make you appreciate your life. High adrenaline sports don’t get much higher than this!
There are a few examples of BASE jumps dating from the early 1900s: Frederick Law jumped from the Statue of Liberty in New York in 1912; Michael Pelkey and Brian Schubert jumped the cliff “El Capitan” in Yosemite Valley in 1966; and in 1976 Rick Sylvester jumped Canada’sMount Asgard for the opening sequence of the James Bond movie “The Spy Who Loved Me“, giving the wider world its first look at BASE jumping.
When a jumper completes a jump from each of the four categories of objects they may choose to apply for an individual BASE number which are awarded sequentially. In 1981 Phil Smith of Houston, Texas, was awarded BASE-1; in March 2005 the 1000th application was filed.
First-time jumpers are advised to take jumping and packing classes before they go for their first dive. In jump class, the teacher takes you through essentials like packing, malfunctions, and landings and you can go up and watch jumper prepare for their plummet into the vast unknown.
What Happens at Bridge Day Festival?
Bridge Day Festival is not only risky because of the crazy nature of the sport, the festival itself is illegal as no one is allowed to close down the state highway which runs over New Gorge Bridge. But every year so far officials have agreed to turn a blind eye during a small window of just six hours a year. There are few places in the world where base jumping is legal and it is only on the festival day that the dangerous sport is tolerated in West Virginia. But Bridge Day is not an easy festival to participate in: jumpers must register months in advance and make 50 prior skydives. Jumpers must show up several days before the festival for gear checks and mandatory meetings.
Despite the hard work, danger, and costs involved, over 450 jumpers took part in the 2005 festival. There have been two fatalities at the festival, although thankfully none since 1987, but safety comes first a strong ambulance presence and river rescue is mandatory. BASE jumpers are danger seekers and eccentrics – in 1990 Tom King and Vivian Taylor held their wedding on the bridge during the festival. They kissed passionately before beginning their married life by jumping into the river!
The New River Gorge offers jumpers the tricky decision of where to land – the river itself is the ‘softest’ land, the shoreline offers a small 150 by 20-feet runway to land on, which is reduced if the water level is high. On top of this, jumpers have to negotiate several trees, small boulders, and a few hundred spectators near the landing area.
For spectators, the festival includes a trampoline launch, packing exhibitions, and a diving board launch where up to 50 jumpers utilize the board to do impressive twisting front flips and roll-over jumps into the gorge. Since its inception the festival has expanded to includeparachutists leaping into the river and rapelling (rock climbing) from ropes dangling down from the high bridge. There are 200 vendors selling food and crafts, plenty of entertainment, and the festival date is chosen to offer the optimum views of the beautiful fall landscape around New River Gorge – perfect for hiking.
Guide to the festival, activities, accommodation, and other less risky activities to try nearby.
Official Bridge Day
Full guide the day’s festival with jumping and entertainment information and photographs.
main image: A BASE jumper leaving the Perrine Bridge in Idaho