By Nick Di Giovanni, BASE 194
Delving fully into the history of BASE jumping is outside the scope of this web site. However, in brief, here’s how the sport evolved.
A note to Para-historians, I learned early two people can see the same thing yet disagree on what they saw, so be careful.
A Word About Carl Boenish
Carl Boenish is known as the “Father of Modern BASE jumping.” This is because he is the first to apply modern gear (ram air parachutes) and modern freefall techniques (tracking) to fixed object jumps. He is also the first to show the world through his films that fixed object jumps are not one-off stunts but jumps that are actually repeatable. Known to his family as Ronnie, Carl is 21 years of age in 1960 when he begins jumping at the DZ in Lake Elsinore, California. He becomes an Electrical Engineer working for the Hughes Corporation and in 1966 he’s heavily involved in photographing the early days of RW on the West Coast.
One day in the summer of 1966 Carl hears a weird story. A story that would change the course of his life. Two skydivers from Barstow, California, Michael Pelky, an accountant, age 25 and Brian Schubert, a truck driver, age 26, decided to parachute off Yosemite’s El Capitan. They jumped side by side on a Sunday afternoon at around 5:00 PM and both did decent delays but did not track away from the wall. Their round Paracommander canopies opened fine but the updrafts and swirling winds pushed them back into the face and both repeatedly banged into the wall on the way down. By the time they landed in the rocky talus below both are pretty beaten up. Pelky has numerous abrasions and a broken ankle. Schubert also had many abrasions plus a broken leg and broken foot. Both were ambulanced to a local hospital.
Carl who is already known to be drawn to wacky ideas involving parachutes is intrigued by the story and files it away in his mind.
The first mention of parachutes in written texts comes from the 12th century. Chinese acrobats of the time used small parachute like devices to retard short falls during gymnastic exhibitions. Later in Europe, between the 14th and 16th century, two groups of jumpers appeared, collectively called “The Tower Jumpers.” One group experimented with crude parachutes in order to escape fires that sometimes engulfed the 300 to 700 foot high medieval towers of the day. The other group simply wanted to fly like birds and used a winged approach. Both groups generally wound up in the same heap at the base of such towers. Most experts agree there is no proof jumps like these were ever really made. However, tower jumpers are mentioned too many times in too many texts to be completely discounted.
During the early 19th century many stunt jumps are recorded, like Frederick Rodman Law’s static line jump from the torch of the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor in 1912. Law also jumped from the Brooklyn Bridge and the Bankers Trust Building on Wall Street. In 1942 a Milwaukee aircraft mechanic made a static line jump from the inside of a blimp hangar. These jumps continued with a dentist (Photo Right) who did a rather respectable cliff jump in the Italian Dolomites in the mid 1950s.
After the two Californian jumpers did El Capitan in 1966, Rick Sylvester skis off it for a movie stunt and parachutes into the valley below in 1973. In 1975 Owen Quinn leaps from the World Trade Center Building in New York City and Ron Boyles jumps from the Royal Gorge Bridge in Colorado.
That same year, 1975, Carl Boenish goes to Yosemite National Park to film some hang gliding footage. It is a pivotal event in the history of BASE jumping.
The hang gliding session concludes with Rich Picarilli and Brian Johnson being piloted by Jim Handbury. All three men on a single wing fly down the middle of the valley where Rich and Brian release themselves into freefall and parachute into the valley. The jumps caused a major fuss with the Park Rangers. (The rule banning parachutes in National Parks is originally written to exclude hunters in the back country from re-supplying themselves by parachute). This is the first angry confrontation between sport jumpers and Park Rangers. It is also during this trip that Carl Boenish begins to really see the sheerness of the granite surrounding him. He thinks of those two policeman back in 1966 and more importantly, it’s a time when he truly begins to believe.
This is the beginning of the “modern era” in fixed object jumping. Modern being marked by the difference between lone stunt leaps made over the last hundred years and a point in time when a new sport is actually born. Carl didn’t set out to invent anything and it’s said of him at the ceremony where he posthumously received the USPA Achievement Award, “Carl would turn any absurdly silly idea, into a scientific quest for truth.” He sees the possibilities however, and more importantly he lives in a time when the gear and the jumpers are actually capable of doing it.
Carl makes the first serious suggestion to Rich Picarilli in early 1978 saying, “Let’s go jump El Capitan.”
Carl makes his first recon mission to the top of El Capitan in the winter of ‘78. “I got halfway up the trail,” Carl said later, “but there’s so much snow I wound up spending the night [on the trail] and coming back down the next morning.” The next trip he makes it to the top and when lowered over the rounded brow of El Capitan on a rope he yells back up, “Eureka, we can jump here!”
Now he needs to assemble a team. Rich Picarilli likes the idea but already has too many prior commitments. Carl next approaches Jim Handbury, captain of a local skydiving team at Lake Elsinore that includes Kent Lane, Mike Sherrin and Tom Start. He agrees, and this team would become the core group, the first to truly fly from a fixed object. The group’s first hike up the Tamarack trail is just for a look see.
“You never want to go anywhere with Carl Boenish,” says Tom Start, “he makes you walk up and down the same sections of the trail over and over as he films from this angle, that angle, then another angle.”
They all take a turn peering over the edge. Jim Handbury says he needed more time to consider it. Later turns it down. He and his wife Dana have just started a new business and he doesn’t want any more trouble with Park Rangers. (Jim goes on to build the first Velcro closed BASE rigs after Carl suggests the design. And is later killed while testing a parachute designed to lower small aircraft to the ground). Mike Sherrin also asks for more time to think about it. Kent Lane and Tom Start don’t think much about it at all, the only problem is holding them back.
The next trip is the “hot load” on Tuesday, August 8, 1978 and this is the day modern BASE jumping is born. Carl has several camera locations going and does not jump on this trip.
The first person off is Kent Lane. After Kent trots over the edge those remaining on top just looked at each other for a few seconds they all knew something significant had just occurred. Kent says later the jump dosed him with such a feeling of speed and incredible visuals that it made the leap the most memorable in his entire jumping career.
Kent is followed five minutes later, in order, by Tom Start, Mike Sherrin and Ken Gosselin. It all goes perfectly.
Carl films the whole thing and they all leave. “We are pretty anxious that no one saw us, we didn’t want to cause any problems.“ Carl said later.
In 1984 Carl Boenish is killed jumping a cliff in Norway. As the jump is not seen by anyone the consensus is Carl hit a small rock outcropping in freefall. However, Carl did live long enough to see the sport of fixed object jumping take root. In 1981 he began to see a pattern in the types of jumps people were making and with dictionary in hand set out to find a name for what everyone was begining to realize is an entirely new sport.
“I liked BEST jumping,” says Carl’s wife Jean Boenish. “it stood for Building, Earth, Span and Tower,” but Carl keeps searching the dictionary until he comes upon the word BASE. At first nobody liked the fact that when using the word BASE a tower would need to be called an antenna, nor does Jean like the second definition of BASE which is, “Evil and vile.” However the first definition is, “A platform on which something stands,” but it really becomes a done deal the first time Carl looked up at the group and uttered the phase, “BASE jumping,” for the very first time. Later, one of the jumpers present said, “It was a moment that sent chills down everyone’s spine.”
In 1981 Carl begins issuing sequential BASE numbers for anyone who makes at least one jump in each of the four object categories. The first number issued went to Texas jumper Phil Smith who will forever be BASE Number 1. Carl himself later receives BASE #4 and his wife Jean Boenish BASE #3. BASE numbers nowadays are approaching 800. Carl is also the first to publish a magazine, call BASE Magazine, to spread the word on safety.
And so it began . . .