During a 2010 trip through southern Idaho we watched in awe one sunny day as individuals parachuted off a bridge high above the Snake River.
At the time we were on a journey following the Oregon Trail and happened to be in the right place at the right time. Stumbling onto these types of unexpected discoveries is one of the great pleasures of independent travel.
This year we were on the same month-long journey following the Oregon Trail from Independence, Missouri to Oregon City, Oregon. We scheduled two nights in Twin Falls in order to have more time observing the jumpers. We also wanted to interview a veteran jumper who is knowledgeable about the sport. As it turned out we caught up with someone who not only takes passengers along on his jumps, but has trained over 400 individuals to jump on their own.
BASE jumpers leap off Buildings, Antennas, Spans and Earth, hence the name, BASE, with the latter two entries referring to bridges and cliffs. This is risky business, much more so than skydiving from airplanes, that in and of itself is generally considered risky.
Sean Chuma started skydiving at age 16 and became interested in BASE jumping in his early 20s after being asked to become a member of a BASE jumpers’ ground crew. Two years later the psychology major took a course in BASE jumping from an expert and fell in love with the sport. He soon moved to Twin Falls because of the Perrine Bridge that spans the 500-foot deep Snake River canyon. Twin Falls is one of the few locations where BASE jumpers are not regulated resulting in the bridge becoming a magnet for jumpers.
On the day of our interview Sean had a scheduled tandem BASE jump with Rayann Otto, a young graduate student from Iowa who had skydiving experience but was apparently interested in something a little more thrilling.
Rayann was in Twin Falls for one night and had booked the trip solely for the experience of the 30-second jump. In tandem BASE jumping a person is strapped in front of an experienced jumper who directs the course of the single parachute that supports the two individuals. Being in front offers the passenger an unobstructed view of the fast-approaching ground until the chute pops open with a loud “crack” and a more leisurely descent begins. Based on the video we saw later, Rayann never stopped smiling from the time the jump began. There was little doubt she will soon be BASE jumping solo.
Following the tandem jump, Sean took time sit and talk with the two of us about his experiences in BASE jumping, a sport that has become his occupation. Sean has BASE jumped over 7,400 times, 80% of which have been in Twin Falls. But he has jumped all over the world and says his favorite location is the Dolomite Mountains of northern Italy. One of his favorite jumps is off the 1,000-foot KL communications tower in Kuala Lumpur.
Of the four categories of BASE, his favorite is jumping from buildings. Before the jump he enjoys sitting on the edge and taking in his surroundings realizing he has a different purpose than the people he observes below. During the jumps he particularly enjoys the free fall prior to the parachute opening but says “The jump is one thing, but enjoying everything along the way is most important.”
While the degree of danger is greater, Sean sometimes does acrobatics such as somersaults during his jumps. It helps that at a younger age he was a competitive gymnast. He also does Wingsuiting, an especially dangerous form of BASE jumping in which he dons a special suit that adds surface area and allows him to glide like a flying squirrel. Unlike a flying squirrel, jumpers wearing wingsuits also carry parachutes.
The fact that Sean Chuma has BASE jumped over 7,400 times and was still able to sit for an interview indicates he takes safety very seriously. More serious injuries sometimes resulting in fatalities may occur because of poor decision making. This includes stunts the jumper may not be skilled enough to try. Asked about a knee brace he put on for the tandem jump, he replied his leg got caught on a suspension line while testing a new type of parachute.
His fee for experiencing a tandem jump is $399 with no AARP or AAA discount. He limits tandem BASE jumps to individuals over 16 years of age and once jumped with a 102 year-old female. Asked if he charged her, he sported a big grain and replied, “No.”
(David and Kay Scott are authors of “Complete Guide to the National Park Lodges” (Globe Pequot). They live in Valdosta, Georgia.)