Just before midnight, a man climbs onto a ledge on the 21st floor of a building in southwest Paris and leaps off. Seconds later he opens his parachute before landing safely — all part of the thrill of base jumping.
Unlike sky divers who leap from an aircraft, BASE jumpers take off from a fixed point, usually a cliff or a bridge.
However, daredevils in cities around the world are taking the sport to new high spots. In Paris, the Eiffel Tower, Montparnasse Tower and skyscrapers in the business district La Defense have become unlikely venues — even though such stunts are strictly illegal in urban settings.
“The city at night is splendid. To be perched on a building without anyone’s knowledge, while knowing that you’re going to throw yourself off and see a series of windows, that’s even better,” said David Laffargue, who has a jump off a 47-floor La Defense building to his name.
Any site above 60m is a potential jumping-off point, said a base jumper who gave his name only as Rodolphe, and who has logged 1,200 urban and natural jumps for a total of about 15 hours spent in the air.
However, he noted that “it should not be windy and the road below should be clear of objects like lamp posts.”
Laffargue said such obstacles make urban jumps all the more special.
“From a technical point of view, such jumps are very demanding — they are low jumps, the landing zones are small and dotted with obstacles like streetlamps, power lines and cars, and buildings make air currents unstable,” he said.
From a psychological point of view, urban jumps are more stressful, not least because urban base jumping is illegal.
“So you have to do it quickly,” Laffargue said, adding: “A base jump of any kind requires thorough preparations, but an urban jump requires preparations down to the millimeter.”
A base jump is defined as a leap off a fixed high point — the name being an acronym for Building, Antenna, Span (such as bridges) and Earth (natural settings).
However, such stunts are banned in most cities for public safety reasons, and regulators have clamped down even at some natural sites — such as at nature reserves in the US.
Videos on YouTube document these city feats, which usually happen after nightfall, with the jumpers fleeing upon touching down to avoid being caught by police.
A woman who witnessed the jump in southwest Paris said: “There were three of them. Once they reached the ground, they folded their parachutes very quickly, climbed into a car and drove off rapidly.”
Three men were arrested following a base jump in September last year from the top of the nearly completed One World Trade Center in New York and charged with reckless endangerment.
On the other hand, just last week authorities in Dubai condoned a record-breaking jump off a special platform atop the 829.8m Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building — by Frenchmen Fred Fugen and Vince Reffet.
Yet it is not only law enforcers who are exasperated by such stunts in the city; others in the base jumping community are also opposed, complaining that they give a bad name to the sport and fuel the stereotype of irresponsible thrill seekers.
Even in a natural setting, base jumping carries high risks.
In Switzerland’s Lauterbrunnen village, which is a magnet for base jumpers because of its enormous rock walls, five people were killed last year alone practicing the sport.