By Deanna Campbell – Thompson Rivers University JD Student
The recent deaths of BASE jumper and pioneer rock climber Dean Potter along with his friend Graham Hunt this past spring in Yosemite National Park, have renewed the call to legalize BASE jumping particularly in U.S national parks which provide access to some of the best and arguably safest spots.
Base JUMPING is parachuting or wing suit flying from a fixed structure or in most cases, a cliff.
The sport of base jumping in North America operates in a legal grey zone. Base jumping is actually not illegal but some of the actions required to execute it are. Rather than the act or sport itself being outlawed, other laws and by-laws are relied on instead. Possible charges include breaking and entering, reckless endangerment, vandalism and trespassing.
Base jumping is however illegal in US national parks under “aerial delivery” laws that prohibit some forms of aerial activity in particular areas. If you are caught, you can be fined up to $2,000, have your gear confiscated and incur the costs of any required rescue.
Base jumping has not seen the same popularity in Canada; however, there are versions of it such as the new sport of speed-flying. It is also not without risk and death. A speed flyer died this past July jumping off the Stawamus Chief in Squamish, BC. Speed flying or any other aerial activity for that matter is not illegal in BC Parks. It is also not regulated or supported given the high risk associated with it. Rather, governmental officials have taken the “we do not condone or promote it” approach.
BASE jumpers argue that the enforcement of policies which outlaw BASE jumping increase the danger of it. For example, it forces flyers to jump in non-optimal conditions to avoid detection by park rangers, i.e., in low light. The threat of arrest adds an unnecessary distraction in a situation that demands full concentration and calculation. Many jumpers choose to not use their best equipment, knowing that if they are caught their gear will be confiscated.
The logic is simple: If you remove the criminal sanction, you decrease the risks and make the conditions within which the sport operates safer.
But is it really that simple? BASE jumping is an inherently dangerous sport with or without safeguards. It is estimated that between 5 and 15 people die each year from it. For a sport that sees a significant number of deaths even in a legalized environment (an average of six jumpers die a year in Switzerland where it is legal), and participants who openly acknowledge that despite the skill required, “you have to accept you might die doing it,” it is not entirely unreasonable that officials are hesitant to legalize or condone it, especially in an environment like a National Park that sees a number of tourists who are not there to take in the sight of someone potentially falling to their death.
Then again, all extreme sports see injuries and deaths. If there is a way to minimize those deaths then it is not really any different from other regulated high risk activities. But this would also open up the potential for liability on the part of park and government officials. One way to deal with that however is to require jumpers to have liability and rescue insurance similar to what Switzerland does.
BASE jumping is legal in many other areas and countries like Switzerland and Norway. The small Swiss town of Lauterbrunnen allows BASE jumpers free reign, letting them jump off the Alps and land in fields below. The Swiss BASE Association also has a jumper’s code of ethics and landing cards authorizing landing only in those designated areas.
A similar system could possibly work in the U.S. and Canada. Flyers/jumpers would be required to prove they have sufficient experience including safety training, and then remote cliffs and areas could be opened up to the sport.
Despite these potential regulatory schemes, BASE jumpers still have a great deal more work to do to find legal legitimacy in their sport, as the tragic death of Potter and many others may only serve as further rationale to keep the sport where it is, operating in the shadows and on the fringes.