Last weekend was the annual New River Gorge Bridge Day Festival in Fayetteville, West Virginia. Thousands converged around 876-foot bridge for fall camping, river adventures, live music, and viewing the pilgrimage of BASE jumpers. This year, Christopher Ryan Brewer, a 27-year-old Florida resident, was among hundreds of BASE jumpers who jumped from the bridge. A You Tube video shows Brewer in a wingsuit making what looks to be a 800-plus-foot belly flop into the river. His parachute did not ease his entry into the water. He's currently being treated for serious injuries. The National Park Service is investigating the incident.
We asked rock climber-BASE jumper Steph Davis to give us some insight into what went wrong.
Adventure: What did you think when you heard about the accident during Bridge Day?
Steph Davis: It's obviously really sad—hopefully the guy will fully recover. Mario [Richard, Davis's fiance] did the tandem jumps there. I have never been to Bridge Day. I tend to not like huge, staged events with giant crowds of BASE jumpers. It's just really chaotic. It feels like an accident waiting to happen.
It's being reported that the man's parachute did not work?
SD: It seems like every time there is a BASE jumping accident that gets reported to the non-BASE jumping community, they always say the parachute failed. But that doesn't really happen. There's always some sort of incident of pilot error. Or weather conditions. Or a judgment call. Then what will happen, as a result, will be that the parachute does not function as it's supposed to.
It would be kind of like in climbing, ropes don't just break. A climbing article would say something like, the climbing rope failed. Then climbers would say, well, ropes don't fail; climbers put the rope over an edge and then the rope gets cut. So I feel like there is a real verbiage problem in the media.
Did he just not know that his parachute was not set up correctly?
SD: Basically, as far as I understand it in this situation, the bridge that they jumped off is 876 feet high. That's not really high enough for a wingsuit to start flying efficiently. It's just not an appropriate altitude for a wingsuit jump.
Even though he's wearing a wingsuit, he looks like he's BASE jumping.
SD: That's pretty much what's going to happen if you jump off at that altitude in a wingsuit. You can't use the 876 feet because the impact comes right then. There needs to be a certain amount of time for the parachute to be extracted. Basically, the amount of usable altitude he'd have in the wingsuit was more like 500 feet or 400 feet, and that's just not enough time to get into flight.
It's also a known thing that when you jump over water, it's different. There have been studies that show that you don't have the same depth perception visually over water as you do over earth. So that's already something to really take into consideration when jumping over water.
At these events, there are a lot of people, and everyone is all hyped up. You've only got six hours to do these jumps because it's not available the rest of the year, so that's when judgment and decision making get really crucial.
Has the mainstreaming of the BASE jumping and wingsuit flying caused more accidents?
SD: There is a lot more interest in wingsuit flying than in the past, it's definitely brewing right now. But jumpers have always done all kinds of crazy things. It's not the first time someone has taken wingsuit off a low object like that where you won't actually fly … because I guess they are hopeful?
I just think that everyone makes his or her own decisions, but there are certain things that are known, like physics. And you can do the math. Figure out what the wingsuit does. Then think, well, what altitude do I need in order to get my parachute open in time? You can either be conservative on that or you can go for that number. People make mistakes sometimes.
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Overall, an amateur should not try out a wingsuit or BASE jumping, right?
SD: Yeah, but you know, with BASE jumping, the recommended progression is that people do a lot of skydiving first. And then they can learn how to BASE jump, but that is not regulated. So it's hard to know.
Like everything in life, you have choices. People who have been doing the sport for a long enough time become more calculated about how they do things. I don't know how long the guy who got hurt had been jumping. But just like everything, people make mistakes. A lot of times it's from learning, a lot of times it's personality. It's a shame for him, but it's also a shame for the event when that kind of thing happens.
This is a good opportunity for us to remind everyone to be careful!
SD: Exactly. It's good for people to realize that. It does look really easy, and it's the kind of thing that when everything goes right, in many ways, it is really easy. But what's not really easy is having the experience and judgment to make sure that you don't get into a situation where things go wrong, or if they do go wrong, you know how to deal with it, because when things go wrong, they go really wrong fast.
Are there a growing number of injuries in BASE jumping and wingsuit flying?
SD: There are a lot of injuries. This particular Bridge Day was unfortunate because it was very windy, so apparently a lot of experienced jumpers chose to try to make the landing area instead of the water landing. So there were a lot of small injuries, like broken wrists. But again that's a decision, if you're coming in and the winds are rough and there's a body of water…you should land in the water because you won't get hurt in the water. It's always decision making. People do get unlucky. But I feel like a lot of injuries are inexperience or pushing your own personal limits.