In the cool semidarkness just before dawn, Marta Empinotti stands at the base of a 900-foot radio tower deep in the woods of central Florida, about 45 miles from her home in the tiny town of DeLeon Springs. She has parked her car out of sight. She listens for a moment to make sure she has not been followed. At her feet is her jumping rig, a sturdy harness for her shoulders and legs that is attached to a specially constructed backpack containing two parachutes.
Empinotti, 33, is lean and athletic, with blonde hair and a warm smile. She doesn't look like an outlaw and doesn't consider herself one, but what she is about to do—climb halfway up this tower and parachute off it—is illegal.
Empinotti is a base jumper, one of the best and most experienced in the world. A former recreational sky diver, she now devotes her life to the clandestine sport of parachuting from fixed objects. BASE is an acronym for buildings, antennas (towers), spans (bridges) and earth (cliffs). If Empinotti is caught jumping off this tower, which she has done two or three times a week for several years, she will probably get a warning for trespassing, but at many of the locations frequented by base jumpers—in particular those in national parks—the penalty can be up to a $5,000 fine and a year in jail. One of Empinotti's good friends spent three months in a federal prison for jumping off a building in New Orleans after he had been put on probation for jumping off the same building. It's a dangerous sport, and while no official records are kept, it is estimated that, internationally, in the last two decades more than 20 base jumpers have died.
On the refrigerator in Empinotti's house is the canceled $200 check she wrote out to the National Park Service to pay a fine for having jumped off a cliff in Utah's Zion National Park. Because of this, base jumpers are reluctant to talk about where they jump or when, sometimes even among themselves. If a site becomes too popular, the authorities may be waiting when the next group of jumpers hits the ground.
"I don't jump because I like to do something illegal or sneak around," Empinotti explains. "I jump because this is my love. This is what I always wanted to do. I jump because of the joy it gives me."
Among serious base jumpers, to have jumped 100 times is considered a formidable accomplishment. Empinotti has made more than 650 jumps. She has gone off cliffs such as El Capitan and Half Dome in Yosemite National Park. She has jumped from the top of a 1,000-foot high-rise in Los Angeles. She leaped from a 600-foot bridge in Germany, and from 3,212-foot-high Angel Falls in Venezuela. In Caracas she parachuted off a building while making a potato chip commercial, and in Switzerland she snowboarded off a 1,500-foot cliff for a soft-drink ad. Ask her to name her favorite jump and she'll choose the last place she jumped from, but the radio tower in Florida is a sentimental favorite, because it is near her home and she jumps it regularly. She regards it as a friend.
"Most people look at a tower as just a pile of steel," she says. "To me it is a thing of beauty, a piece of art. When I'm high above the ground, maybe six or eight hundred feet up, the feeling is very spiritual. I look down, and if there is fog, all I can see are the tips of the trees. On the horizon the sun is rising, turning the clouds pink and yellow. It's so peaceful; it's like paradise. I'm not impressing anyone, because nobody knows I'm there. It's just me and nature. Then I jump and feel the thrill. When I land, I see the sun rise again. How many people watch the sun rise twice in one day?"
A light wind blows out of the west, and puffy clouds drift across the sky as Empinotti stretches for a few moments, cinches the harness of her rig around her thighs and shoulders and moves quickly to the ladder inside the triangle of steel. She wears camouflage pants, a long-sleeved T-shirt to protect her arms from the ladder's rough edges and pink gardening gloves to protect her hands. "I got the gloves to tease the macho guys I jump with," she says. Ordinarily, one or more of her friends would be with her, but on this morning the man who was to join her overslept, and for the first time in the 12 years Empinotti has been base jumping, she will jump alone. She wraps her arms around the ladder, using only her legs to propel her, and seems to glide upward. In no time she is several hundred feet above the ground.
Empinotti was born and reared in Brazil. She is one of four sisters who were taught by their parents to be independent, to have careers and not to spend their lives in the shadows of husbands. As a teenager, Marta took up skydiving and was captivated by the feeling of freedom it gave her and the camaraderie in the sport. At 19, while studying to become a doctor, she got the urge to travel. She dropped out of school and set out to see the world. She was living and working in Florida in 1986 when some skydiving friends told her about Bridge Day, the third Saturday in October, on which base jumpers can legally jump from the bridge over the New River Gorge in West Virginia. She drove north with her friends, made her first base jump and was hooked.
"Skydiving, because of the plane, is noisy," Empinotti says. "When you jump, you have to deal with the prop blast and the wind. Base jumping is a totally different feeling. You have a much more intimate relationship with the objects you're jumping from. You develop respect for them. I always thank an object after I jump it. There is no noise when you exit and no air speed. You start going faster and begin to hear the whoosh. You see the object—the tower or cliff or building—speeding by and the ground rushing up toward you before your chute opens. It's incredibly intense. It fills me with life."