Everyone who knew Carl Boenish (pronounced BAY-nish) agreed he was unique. "An avocado and buttermilk guy," says Randy, referring to two of Boenish's favorite nutrients. "He was kind of goosey," says Mayfield, not unflatteringly, "and the most unselfcentered person I ever met." "A deep thinker, a philosopher," says Smitty.
Boenish had a promising engineering career with Hughes Aircraft in the mid-1960s when he became immersed in sky diving. Then it was sky-diving photography. Then it was bye-bye to Hughes and hello to a brave new world. For over a decade he was the unofficial chronicler of sky diving, the free-fall photographer for many Hollywood films (e.g., The Gypsy Moths; Iceman) and the creator of his own memorable sky-diving documentaries, which he called "film poems." In the late '70s he turned from sky diving to BASE jumping and became its first director and guiding force.
The accident that killed Boenish, one of 10 recorded BASE fatalities, happened on July 7, 1984 on a cliff near the town of Andalsnes in western Norway. Boenish was supposed to be jumping from a preresearched site but changed his mind and exited from a different cliff. No one will ever know why. "It was an uncharacteristic decision," says his widow, Jean, also a BASE jumper, who with him jumped off, among other objects, a cliff in Yosemite National Park, the 54-story Crocker Center in Los Angeles and the New River Gorge Bridge in West Virginia. Boenish's chute opened but soon after that, he crashed into the cliff wall. A helicopter recovered his body from the foot of the cliff three hours later. He was 43.
Two days later Jean made a BASE jump from a nearby site that had been carefully researched. An obvious question is why.
"You can't stereotype grief," Jean says quietly. "It's not like you see it on TV. Only I know how strongly I felt about Carl's death." Jean, 25, pauses and smiles to herself. She is lugging around a cast on her right leg, the legacy of a sky-diving accident in Venezuela eight months ago. By chance, she has been asked to recall the events of her husband's death on the first anniversary of the accident, yet she speaks carefully, precisely and without visible emotion.
"Carl's life was very full," she says. "He accomplished much, much more than most people do in a lifetime. Carl always said, 'If something happens to me, I don't want people to miss a beat in their lives.' " A lot of people say things like that, but Carl Boenish, by all accounts, really meant it.
Jean, who took over as director of the USBA when her husband died, says BASE fatalities occur roughly once in 600 jumps. That compares to one death in 71,000 jumps for sky diving. In BASE jumping, there is the same inherent risk of chute failure but, in most cases, much less time to pull the reserve chute. Sometimes, on jumps of 500 feet or less, there is little time for a reserve if the main chute fails. And there is always the added danger of careening back into the fixed object itself, as Boenish did.
"BASE jumping is two or three times more dangerous than sky diving," says Mayfield, "maybe 10 times."
"It's not for everyone," says Smitty. "I don't go around trying to sign up BASE jumpers." Neither does Jean, who, through the USBA, spends as much time trying to discourage risky jumps as she does trying to enlist recruits.
Because of the danger, BASE jumpers have been accused of having a death wish. But Rick says, "We prove every time we jump that we don't, simply because there are so many ways we could die and we do things to avoid them." "Finding a way to cheat that reaper," says Randy. "That's what this is all about."