BASE Ethics

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The following is an excerpt from The Great Book of BASE, by Matt Gerdes, which can be purchased here:

Image: BASE at Monte Brento, by Oliver Godbold

What experienced BASE jumper can write about ethics without even a shred of guilt? I can’t think of anyone and my guess is that no-one can, depending on your definition of experienced.

So I’m offering this excerpt from the BASE book to anyone interested without any claim to having a perfect record myself. The only BASE jumper with a perfect record is the one who started right about yesterday. So, with that disclaimer out of the way, here are a few tips to help you keep your nose as clean as you can, or want to…

Ethics is based on the collective rather than the self

Site Preservation

Site preservation and respect for BASE itself make up the core of BASE ethics.

Site preservation is all about doing our best to keep existing BASE objects open. Countless objects exist in the world, but the high quality and easily accessible exits are few and none are guaranteed to remain accessible forever. Even sites with a long history of legality are not free of the risk of closure and even the most popular cliff site in the world is constantly threatened by a precarious relationship between jumpers and locals. And sites which are not officially legal need to be used discretely in order to help ensure long term access for future jumpers.

Carl and Jean Boenish were two pioneers of BASE. They and their peers faced some of the first ethics issues in our sport and experienced the closure of Yosemite National Park to BASE jumping (pictured) first-hand.
Image from Sunshine Superman

Good objects with good accessibility are rare which means their value is great. The jumpers who use them most (the locals) care about protecting their sites. If you care about your standing in the sport, then you should care about the locals, thus: ethics is based on the collective rather than the self.

Ask not what BASE can do for you, but what you can do for BASE

Maurizio di Palma exercising stealthy precision, as usual, with an early morning “A”… somewhere.

Don’t be “that person”

Because the ethics conundrum is often applied to less than legal objects, we’ll use an FM radio antenna as an example. This antenna is more than 1800 feet (550m) high, so it attracts eager BASE jumpers from lands near and far away. It also happens to be an active TV and radio broadcast antenna located near farmland, a small residential area, and a river. Entering the antenna grounds and climbing the antenna or using its elevator are all illegal trespassing.

There is a local dropzone nearby which has long been a popular training ground for BASE jumpers in the region and the DZ locals have been frequenting the antenna since the 80s — we’re talking nearly 40 years of BASE history at one object — but until the turn of the century the locals weren’t bothered and the law enforcement officials had been rarely called. Better still, a little-known sequence of controls would allow the elevator to be started and used for a free trip to the top of the antenna, saving more than an hour of climb time and a lot of energy. Once on top, you could use a long stick to poke the “down” button through the elevator gate so the car would be waiting for your next jump, or the maintenance personnel in the morning. It was an amazing object due to its height and the elevator, and it became a legendary object.

Because visiting jumpers in the 80s and 90s generally respected the code of contacting the locals before jumping an object, this antenna had two decades of almost continual, mostly trouble-free, use. That is, until “that person” (who was a guy, so we’ll shame him with the “that guy” moniker) showed up.

One night, “that guy” decided to jump the antenna. He didn’t call the locals — he knew they didn’t want to jump with him, because he sucked. So he headed out on a solo mission with only his phone in his pocket. The wind was a little off, blowing almost parallel with one of the three sets of guy-lines, but that didn’t faze him because he knew that the chance of him having an accident was lower than average, because he was a very special boy. After a mildly stable exit, he pulled not too low but had a slight off-heading. Before he could unstow his brakes his canopy slammed into a guy-wire and he was instantly hanging 300’ above the farm field, alone, in the middle of the night. Terrified, he dug out his phone and called 911.

With that 911 call, in which he cried to the operator, blubbering his wishes to not die, and which is now public record, he “burned” the object. He jumped alone, failed to contact the locals, jumped in less-than-ideal conditions and then had an object strike, and although he was uninjured and stable in his admittedly precarious position, he then called 911 which resulted in the police, fire, and medical services to come out with sirens blazing through the night. What’s more is that his 911 call was so ridiculous and long that it made the nightly news, resulting in a total clampdown on the object which rendered it inaccessible to the local crew that had been enjoying it since nearly the beginning of the sport.

The moral of this story is not to avoid calling 911; in an emergency many times the best practice is to get medical help as fast as possible no matter the consequences. The moral here is that you should make every effort to not burn shit down — choose conditions and objects that are below your skill level, not above. Your skill level increases the fastest when you’re not in the hospital.

Image: Miguel Dominquez

Know the Law!

BASE jumping is not explicitly prohibited in many places. It was only recently that BASE jumping, specifically, was actually deemed a crime and only in certain municipalities such as Las Vegas and New York City. In some cities, high profile “busts” and a large volume of jumping have led the local government to write legislation which specifically names and prohibits BASE. In other places, such as in US National Parks, authorities have charged BASE jumpers with violations of seemingly unrelated or archaic laws such as “aerial delivery”.

BASE jumping is recreation, or aviation, depending on who is interpreting the activity. What forms of recreation or aviation are allowed in your local National Forest? What forms of recreation are allowed in your local State Parks, or in your local Wilderness Areas? Or on reservation land?

Before heading out to that new cliff or building it is useful to know what is technically allowed or not allowed. There are countless stories of BASE jumpers encountering State Park or Wilderness Area rangers, local police officers, and county sheriffs, who instinctively claim “that’s illegal” when in fact it may not be. There are many State Parks without regulations which prohibit BASE jumping that are full of State Park Rangers who think they work in Yosemite and sport stiff little boners to arrest anyone flying a kite or landing a parachute. If you encounter a Law Enforcement Officer who doesn’t know the law as well as you do, then my advice is, do not flaunt it. But, do kindly explain why you believe you are not breaking any laws and what research you have done to ensure that your activities are compliant.

My friends and I frequently engage in “backcountry skydiving” where we land parachutes on private property (with permission) and public property (where allowed). In areas where we expect “pushback” from LEOs, we sometimes prepare ourselves with screen shots or links to the applicable legislation which permits the type of aviation we are engaging in. Evidence and a polite and compliant attitude go a long way in dealing with the Cartman’esque mustachioed authorities we have met along the way.

Your skill level increases the fastest when you’re not in the hospital

Our good friend, Jack Lane, finished this gorgeous three hour hike in the Pacific Northwest by discovering a large human shit just steps from the exit point. Believe it or not, “Leave no trace” includes giant turds. Don’t be one, or leave one.

Leave No Trace

In an ideal world, no matter what the object, jumpers leave no trace of having been there.

Leave no trash, litter, or markings on or around any object. If it’s the roof of a building then the owners should never imagine that someone else was there. If it’s an alpine cliff then hikers and other outdoor enthusiasts should never guess that another human, let alone a BASE jumper, set foot on the exit point or in the landing areas. It’s simple—respect the earth, respect the object. Overcome by nerves on one of your very first cliff jumps, and experiencing an acute bout of “para-butt”? Please take the extra 20 seconds of time to walk into the woods and dig a hole to shit in, instead of dropping your deuce within sight of the exit point.

On a less environmental note, the leave no trace theme is just as important at objects where local jumpers will not benefit from the general public being made aware of their actions. If you’re going to access the roof of your friend’s apartment building downtown and jump from it, then the fewer people who find out about it the better the chances are that you’ll get to do it again. We all know that kids these days are too soft to enjoy a nice Marlboro Red on the exit point, but a few cigarette butts and some BASE-brand stickers used to be a sure sign of the most popular corner to launch from on the roof of DT “B”s.

He’s got it… no worries
Image by wh2ophoto.com

Don’t Get Injured (or Die)

Accidents suck. They suck for you most of all, they suck for your friends who have to care for you or scrape your body off the ground, and they suck for everyone else in the sport. It would be great if BASE jumping made the news for more positive reasons, but at this point in time the vast majority of media coverage revolves around accidents and illegal acts. A nice side effect of not getting hurt is helping to protect BASE.

Once you’ve been infected with the BASE mindset, you will never look at high objects the same

It’s probably been jumped before — don’t assume it hasn’t, and check with the locals.
Image: Besay Roberts BASE gets a lighthouse “A”, by Ale Mp

Opening Objects

The whole world is jumpable, almost. Once you have been infected with the BASE mindset, you will never look at high objects the same. Buildings, bridges, cliffs… everywhere you look, possibilities exist.

Quality un-jumped objects that require less than a few days walk or a long helicopter flight are very rare. This means that if you are looking at what you think is a fantastic object then the chances are it has already been jumped before or is being jumped regularly. Find the locals who will have the necessary information to help you jump the object safely.

If you have somehow stumbled upon a quality potential BASE object and, after extensive research, no one seems to know anything about it, then it may be your turn to “open” an object. The basic rule is, again, to leave no trace. Try to make your BASE career a zero-impact endeavor.

After opening your object, you are faced with the decision of whether to tell everyone, no one, or just the right people. Consider that the people you tell will certainly tell others, and depending on the quality of the object its popularity will grow accordingly. How much traffic can this object withstand before it becomes a liability to the sport, and to you? Is it legal or not, and are you sure? Have you researched the applicable local, state, or federal regulations governing this building or cliff? Is it private property? Think carefully before spreading the word. And if you do spread the word, do it with facts; what is the distance to impact (lasers only, no rock drop BS!), how big is that ledge and how far down is it exactly (again, lasers only), and how far is it to the nearest LZ (exactly, if it’s not an easy glide)?

If you’re lucky enough to open a new exit point, think carefully before spreading the word. You might be blamed for something you didn’t even do, as Max found out on a recent expedition. Photo by Drew Serafin


Have a plan and be prepared. Don’t assume that things will go according to your plan. While thinking positively is good thing, it alone won’t save your life. Everyone who you are jumping with should know what to do and who to call in the event of an emergency.

Know first aid. Think about two things: First, would you want to die or be permanently disabled from an injury that would have been treatable if your friends had only known how? And second, would you want to be part of the reason that your friend bled to death or spent the rest of his or her life in a wheelchair? First aid knowledge saves lives.

Know where the nearest medical care facility is and how to contact medical help. Does your phone work? Is it with you, charged and ready to use? If not, how will you contact help if needed?

Jump with people you trust, and give them the necessary contact information that they might need in the event that you have an accident. Also, if you have any special medical needs, the people that you are jumping with need to know about it.

Stay with your injured friend, even if you’re at an illegal site. Choosing your jumping partners carefully will improve the quality of your experience, and may save your life.

Solo mission? Let someone you trust know where you’re at and when you’ll be back. Check in with them periodically.

Solo mission? Let someone know and check in with them periodically
Image by Andy Farrington

Ask not what BASE can do for you, but what you can do for BASE

BASE is an amazing activity that has changed many of our lives for the better. It can encourage personal growth, create lasting friendships, and help us to sort out the things in life that truly matter from the things that are truly meaningless, partly as a result of being shown how short and fragile life really is. There is, simply put, a lot to be gained from becoming involved with BASE.

The easiest thing in the world is to criticize others and pump up your own image without giving anything back or being constructive. Ask yourself what you’re really contributing when you interact with the community online. Ask yourself if you’re about to make a contribution, or if being a dick makes you feel cool and that’s what you’re about to do. If being a dick gratifies you, ask yourself why.

Imagine if people put as much effort into helping each other and trying to coordinate the spread of educational information as they did talking shit. What would BASE be like?

Should you be spending energy only on your own image and at someone else’s expense, or can you do something for yourself and for the sport at the same time? It is not as though we have to make a choice to profit or to assist; we can often do both. If you don’t see a way that your personal gain can also be positive for the sport, maybe rethink your plan.

By setting operational guidelines for ourselves, and sticking to them, we can help ourselves to stay safe. Savage Sac and Jesse Hall like to operate at 82% of their capabilities, to leave just the right amount of margin. Photo by Marshall Miller

The Media

Getting an interview and then stating that BASE jumping is extra-super-deadly and you’re only alive because you’re awesome is a bit tacky. The media rarely portrays BASE in a positive light, but we can all do our part by speaking about the training and the efforts we make to be safe instead of speaking about the death-defying risks. When the media calls, focus on the positive. If they ask about deaths, talk about the hundreds of thousands of safe jumps that have been completed. If they ask about danger, tell them about how much training goes into it – all the skydives and the years of commitment. Let’s all collaborate to keep it positive.

 If you don’t see a way that your personal gain can also be positive for the sport, maybe rethink your plan

The Great Book of BASE

Mara Lucien reading The Great book of BASE

The above article is an excerpt from The Great Book of BASE, by Matt Gerdes, which can be purchased here and here

Read a review of the Great Book of BASE here

Meet: Matt Gerdes

Matt logged over 1200 safe BASE jumps (mostly wingsuit flights in the Alps, where he opened a few new lines). He is the author of the BASE Book. Matt podiumed at Red Bull Aces 2015, finished top five in 2016, was 2016 WOWS Distance champion and 3rd in Speed. He is the co-founder of SQRL equipment (www.squirrel.ws), Next Level Flight (www.nextlevel.ws), and is a FAA rated pilot.

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