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Even at the relatively familiar—and, because of its considerable height, safer—apex of the KTUL tower, cheating the reaper requires care. About halfway up the tower, the jumpers determine that they will leap due north. "Whatever wind there is, that's the way it's blowing," says Smitty over a two-way FM radio to his ground crew. On tower jumps, the leap is always made with the wind so that it helps propel the jumpers away from their base.
This Saturday-morning climb has been uneventful; not even Oral Roberts has disturbed the jumpers' ascent of the tower, which, to put things in perspective, is 600 feet higher than the Empire State Building. Once at the top, the foursome climb into jumpsuits. Then they "rigger-check" each other, taking particular care that the nylon webbing, or bridle, that connects the pilot chute to the main chute is routed correctly. Rip cords are pretty much passé in parachute jumping. Nowadays when a jumper is ready to release his canopy, he throws out a pilot chute—taking care not to throw it into the "burble" or vacuum of wind directly behind him—and the pilot in turn pulls out the main chute.
The A is probably the second-least-dangerous letter in the BASE formula. S's are almost always a piece of cake; there is no solid face for the jumpers to slam into, and the landing is usually into water. Most dangerous are B's, since urban planners do not provide parachute-landing areas. Second-most-dangerous are E's, which, like buildings, have solid faces that punish misplanned jumps and also are subject to wicked, confusing crosswind currents. The wind blows through the apertures of antenna towers. Also, the landing areas around the usually remote towers tend to be plentiful and soft, as in the case of KTUL, where a BASE jumper has a good chance of plunking down in a pile of fresh cow manure.
No BASE jump, no matter how familiar, is problem-free. On the KTUL tower, for example, guy wires run from ground to top in twos and threes, 24 wires altogether. Obviously, they are to be avoided. And on this muggy summer morning there is almost no wind, even 1,900 feet up, to push the jumpers away from the tower.
Nobody would suggest that sky diving is a sport for dullards, but most BASE jumpers, almost all of whom began by jumping out of airplanes, say that their jumps require infinitely more planning. In 1983, for example, it took Smith and Rick two months to plot an intricately timed Butch-and-Sundance-style jump off a moving Southern Pacific train into the Pecos River near Comstock, Texas.
The KTUL jumpers decide to exit from a beam above the highest platform on the tower. That way they can experience what Randy calls "the beam rush"—the exhilaration of standing at the brink—and avoid jumping near a microwave dish on the platform. Rick claims Randy's beard once was discolored by a prior microwave toasting on a tower. Reaching the beam, however, necessitates a risky 30-foot climb up a rickety ladder hung outside the tower.
"Hey, we didn't come this far for a damn quilting bee, right?" Randy tells the ground crew after the four reach the beam safely.
There had been isolated fixed-object parachute jumps for more than a decade, but the sport of BASE jumping got its real start on an August weekend in 1978 when four parachutists leaped off the breathtaking 3,000-foot El Capitan cliff in Yosemite. Carl Boenish, needless to say, was there to photograph it, and his pictures spread the word about cliff jumping. El Cap jumps were eventually banned by park authorities, but the sport of fixed-object jumping was off and winging. "Once I had done El Cap," says Smith, "all I wanted to do was jump off of things."
Carl and Jean felt the same way. They did this tower, that bridge, this cliff. It was at Mayfield's house in Texas that Carl, Jean and Smitty, dictionary and thesaurus in hand, came up with the BASE acronym. They felt it covered all possible categories of objects to be jumped from, and they were delighted that it also had a double meaning, in that jumpers leap from a stationary base.
On Jan. 18, 1981 Smith and Mayfield became the first jumpers to complete the BASE cycle. They had ASE and needed the B, which they added by parachuting from the 72nd floor of the then unfinished Texas Commerce Tower in Houston. Smitty jumped first, a split second before Mayfield, thereby earning the distinction of being BASE No. 1. On the ground, cameras poised, were Carl and Jean. Carl, who would go on to organize the USBA and publish six issues of BASE Magazine, probably could have pressed to become the first jumper to complete the cycle, but that wasn't his style. Besides, neither he nor Jean cared for the swirling winds at the top of the building. A week later Jean became BASE No. 3, Carl BASE No. 4.