August 22, 2005

Idaho town becomes mecca for bridge jumping

By Adam Tanner

TWIN FALLS, Idaho (Reuters) - Steve Anderton climbed over
the chest-high metal railing of the Perrine Bridge and planted
his feet onto a tiny wooden platform little bigger than his two
hiking boots.

He paused for a few seconds as he looked out at the Snake
River 480 feet below and jumped. While extending both arms, he
curled up his body to flip backward and release a parachute,
which allowed him to steer to the side of the riverbank in a
safe landing.

Dare trying a stunt like that at San Francisco's famed
Golden Gate Bridge and authorities will fine you $10,000. In
the rural Idaho town of Twin Falls (pop. 37,000), officials
welcome the jumpers and have made it a worldwide mecca of a
tiny but growing extreme sport known as BASE jumping.

"There are no rules basically to ban BASE jumping," said
Shawn Barigar, a city council member and chairman of the Twin
Falls Area Chamber of Commerce. "The general reaction is 'no
harm, no foul'."

"As long as it is not disruptive, and isn't causing any
problems, more power to them. They are the ones taking the risk
upon themselves."

Anderton, 26, traveled with a group of friends from his
native Australia, where he works as a carpenter four months a
year to fund travels to exotic jump sites around the world. He
has logged 420 jumps to date and makes about seven jumps a day
when in Twin Falls, each requiring a 15-minute hike back up
from the bottom of the river canyon.

"It's a relatively young sport, so a lot of people are
scared of it," he said, wearing a black helmet with a video
camera on top to record his adventures. "It's become a lot
safer. We're not that crazy; we're just normal people."

For many BASE jumpers the activity is not a sport. It
becomes a way of life that delivers a unique adrenaline rush.
So how strong is the urge to jump?

"I'd sacrifice some sex for some BASE jumps," said Mark
Spicer, 27, another Australian carpenter traveling with
Anderton. "Psycho is more fast food and sitting in front of a
TV and not getting outdoors and not having the slightest
interest in finding out what you can do."


BASE jumping refers to leaps from "Building, Antennae,
Span, Earth." Popular locations include cliffs in Europe,
especially Norway, as well as buildings from Moscow's Ostankino
television tower to the Petronas Towers in Malaysia.

Twin Falls is considered a great place for both newcomers
and seasoned jumpers trying new tricks because the canyon
spreads across 1,500 feet and offers a wide riverbank for
landing. An ample span underneath the bridge allows leeway in
case conditions steer the jumper backward.

Locals dispute who made the first BASE jump at a location
perhaps best known for stuntman Evel Knievel's failed 1974 jump
over the Snake River. But since that time in the late 1980s or
early 1990s word of the city's permissive attitude has spread
and some enthusiasts have even moved here.

Tom Aiello, 33, who grew up in California, relocated a year
and a half ago after logging more than a 1,000 jumps in
numerous locations, some of which he prefers not to discuss.
Many BASE jumpers are reluctant to speak publicly of some of
their favored sites, sometimes because local authorities may
not approve.

He now teaches the sport and says he rejects many would-be
students who do not have extensive skydiving experience --
typically 150-200 jumps -- considered requisite to begin BASE
jumping. Also needed is a parachute rig costing about $2,500.

Aiello says he also requires students to write letters
saying they know the sport is dangerous and could cause death.

No one pretends this is a sport free of danger. An Internet
list maintained by Nick De Giovanni chronicles 90 BASE jumping
deaths since 1981, the most recent of which came on July 19.
Two have died off the Perrine Bridge in Twin Falls.

Aiello says he has broken the same leg twice and suffered a
broken back that landed him in the hospital for two months. "It
pretty much hurts all the time," he said, adding his enthusiasm
for the sport is undiminished.

Overlooking the Snake River on a recent afternoon, Courtney
Allen, 26, a Utah engineer who works on jet engines for
missiles, wore a long bandage on his forearm and had minor
bruises across his legs from a bad landing the day before.

"Normal people think sky divers are crazy and sky divers
think BASE jumpers are crazy," he said.

Allen broke his wrist a few months ago, but even that
mishap did not sideline him. "I was base jumping with a cast
on," he said. "My doctor really didn't recommend it, but this
sport is so addictive you just do it."