BASE jumping in Kansas City seemed like an urban myth.
In the past year, a group of local jumpers invited the Pitch to half a dozen attempted parachute leaps from buildings and other high structures, but they never happened.
Once, a reporter was summoned when a local jumper concealed himself in a building, ready to go, but a maintenance crew kept the daredevil off the roof. Another time, winds were blowing in exactly the wrong direction.
It was getting to be a bad joke, like we were the new guy invited on the snipe hunt.
But there are photographs to prove that jumps have been made — shots of dudes jumping from buildings that are clearly in downtown Kansas City. A Web site contains accounts of various jumps. We watched video evidence in a beige living room in Overland Park.
Over the past few years, Kansas City jumpers have leaped from cliffs in Switzerland and Norway and down a giant cave in Mexico. And there was proof that others had jumped locally (and illegally) as well. First radio antennae and then a building. They’d even jumped a roller coaster.
But we hadn’t witnessed any of it in person, which is why it wasn’t hard to remain skeptical when a phone call came late on a Friday last month with news that jumpers would be leaping off a downtown landmark in less than thirty minutes.
Sure, we thought — we’d been this far before.
But when we arrived, there they were: four tiny silhouettes, dark against the light brick of a downtown building. On the street, a young couple, dressed in their dance-club finest, parked their car, bound for the Chemical Club. Thirty floors up, four people paused on a ledge like dolls on a shelf.
And then, one of them jumped.
More than a year earlier, the skyline of Kansas City is slowly spinning past the windows of Skies, the revolving restaurant atop the Hyatt.
Three men — we’ll call the leader of the posse “Tyler” — sit at a low dining table, watching a menu of Kansas City’s highest points revolve into view: the Boling Federal Building, Town Pavilion, One Kansas City Place, the Kansas City Power & Light Building, the spires of Bartle Hall. To the east blink radio towers in Raytown. To the south glow the red, white and blue lights of the KCTV Channel 5 signal tower.
To the other Skies diners, it’s a romantic backdrop to be enjoyed over oysters and foie gras.
But to Tyler and his partners, it’s a visual to-do list.
The three men are BASE jumpers, parachutists grown bored with tossing themselves out of moving airplanes. They’ve been seduced by the next level of danger, leaping off stationary objects of four different types: Buildings, Antennae, Spans (bridges) and Earth (cliffs) — hence the acronym.
Over spinach dip and beer, they try to explain the allure of jumping from tall buildings. Besides the adrenaline rush, there’s the camaraderie of sharing risks. And maybe there’s a little lost youth thrown in. But these are not skate punks gone airborne. The three thirtysomething engineers, dressed in khakis and golf shirts, don’t look out of place in the upscale eatery.
One is tall, with a boyish smirk and a mop of dishwater blond hair hanging down over his forehead. Tyler is stocky, with close-cut brown hair and a thin goatee. His accent betrays his East Coast upbringing. The third is thin, with short, blondish hair and an angular face.
In the early ’90s, a couple of Kansas City parachute enthusiasts began BASE jumping by taking long road trips. They drove through the cornfields of Iowa to jump from a radio antenna. And they made a trip to West Virginia to take part in an annual event called Bridge Day, during which hundreds of people parachuted legally from an 876-foot-high bridge. A West Virginia trip in 2000 was Tyler’s introduction to the sport. He says he returned a changed man. And his enthusiasm charged up the group. Infrequent and faraway jumps would no longer slake their thirst.
They wanted to jump every weekend. They wanted to jump Kansas City.
For the next year, they hit the local scene hard, scouting and jumping new radio towers closer to home and continually looking for targets in Kansas City itself. They set up a Web page to document their exploits.
The cabal didn’t remain intact. One jumper moved to Wisconsin, and another went to California. But others were initiated and took their places. As a group, the Kansas City BASE crew traveled to Bridge Day and the Turkey Day Boogie at Moab, Utah — another well-known and legal annual jumping event — and began to make a name for themselves on the international jumping scene.
But balancing career, family and BASE jumping was difficult for some in the group. As the lone single guy, Tyler had become something of a scapegoat to the wives of the other jumpers. Tyler’s own girlfriend of ten years has shown amazing patience, maybe in part because she is afraid to ask whether he loves her or the sport more. “I think he’d pick me, but I would never tell him to make that decision,” she says.
The tension caused Tyler to swear off his posse more than once. But they always reconciled. There were more things to jump. Over the summer, Tyler and another local jumper pioneered a new kind of BASE jump by leaping off a roller coaster. They videotaped the act.
It’s a quick clip. No sooner does Tyler holler, “Three, two, one, see ya!” than his parachute booms open and he hits the ground with a crunching sound.
“Your canopy doesn’t really fly,” he says. “It pressurizes, and five seconds later you land.” But a jump that takes five seconds with a parachute would end in less than a second without one. In other words, it is very important that the chute deploy quickly. Tyler says he used to consider 500 feet a minimum height for giving his chute enough time to deploy. But with the roller-coaster leap, he’d lowered that to 170 feet — which gave him just barely enough time to slow down for a safe landing.
Hanging on Tyler’s dining room wall is a framed poster, signed with a dedication to Tyler, that shows the skyline of Los Angeles marked with handwritten notes indicating which structures the poster’s sender has jumped.
Tyler wants a poster of his own, featuring the skyline of downtown Kansas City and the buildings local jumpers have conquered. If he made one today, however, it would have only one notation.
More than two years ago, Tyler and three others leaped from the top of the Kansas City Power & Light Building.
According to an account of the jump posted on a local BASE-jumping Web site, the jump was five weeks in the making. Power & Light isn’t the tallest building in Kansas City, but the jumpers found that security wasn’t as tight as that at some of the city’s newer buildings. And its west side had a sheer 370-foot drop to a parking lot.
The jumpers’ first strategy was to invade the building during business hours, make their way to the roof and hide out there for a jump at dawn, when the streets would be empty and the weather calm. But heavy winds canceled that tactic.
They decided it would be better to go in after 5 p.m., when there was less chance of being spotted.
That required obtaining a security code to get into the building. The employees they approached one day at quitting time didn’t seem interested in helping them out, but they finally hit pay dirt when they found someone who would reveal his code for $100.
Getting through the doors didn’t entirely solve their problem, though. The elevators appeared lifeless, and the jumpers were stuck on the ground floor until they spotted someone successfully take a lift to the fourteenth floor. After hours, it turned out, the elevators were programmed only to respond to a request to go to that level.
Two hours later, at 7 p.m. on August 11, 2001, three men leaped from the Kansas City Power & Light Building and floated to the street to the sounds of car horns and applause from people on a nearby hotel rooftop.
Two weeks later, another daredevil jumped the building by himself, walking in during business hours and camping on the roof until dark. The four leaps became the first recorded BASE building jumps in Kansas City.
Tyler and his friends have contemplated jumping from many other places in town. There are hundreds of jumpable objects within 50 miles of downtown — radio towers, smokestacks and buildings. Part of the lure of the sport is the planning and scheming, the Mission: Impossible thrill of studying possible jump sites.
The three jumpers who sit down with a reporter at Skies restaurant admit that the structure they’d most like to leap from is the one they’re sitting in.
Tyler calls the Hyatt “the crown jewel of building jumps in Kansas City.” And the way Skies hangs over the edge of the building would make it the safest jump in town. “The amount of laps I’ve done in and out of that building is insane,” Tyler says, referring to months of reconnaissance.
Each time, he and his friends stop to have a drink or four. Tyler believes buying drinks could be important if he actually jumps someday and is arrested. “That makes you a patron of that facility,” he says. “There is no way they could get us on any kind of trespassing.”
The three finish their beers and eye the glowing exit sign they suspect leads to a fire escape and, they hope, to the roof.
They walk purposefully through the door, and it bangs shut, leaving them in a brightly lit concrete hallway. But the only stairs lead down, not up. The three men return to the restaurant, ready with an excuse in case they are questioned: They were just looking for the stairs, an honest mistake.
But no one asks.
Kansas City BASE jumpers are always on the lookout for the next conquest, and few objects taller than 200 feet have escaped their attention.
Using a laser, they’ve measured the height of an Overland Park hotel they hope to jump, calling it “marginal” at about 185 feet. They’ve scouted landing zones for what is commonly called the Beirut Building, a gutted concrete edifice on the north side of downtown. And one of them has climbed a radio tower on Kansas City’s Signal Hill.
Bandit BASE jumpers play a risky game. Their sport is illegal in all but a few places in the United States.
State laws don’t mention BASE jumping by name. But they prohibit risk to life and property. And they forbid breaking and entering and trespassing, which are the required routes to most building roofs.
So BASE jumpers generally don’t publicize their exploits. But after the Pitch assured him that his real name would not be used, Tyler began phoning a reporter when he and his companions were supposedly just minutes from a leap — with the understanding that the reporter would not name the buildings he was called to.
The first call came in the fall of 2002. Tyler and about six of his friends were planning to take down one of Kansas City’s downtown office buildings. Tyler went in around 4 p.m. on a weekday wearing a Motorola golf shirt and carrying a notebook and a brown envelope to give the impression he was on a sales call. He planned to wait until the building emptied and then open the door for his fellow jumpers.
He spent the first four hours on the can on the 29th floor.
“Every time someone walked in, I rustled the paper and zipped my fly,” he tells the Pitch. “That was the longest dump I’ve ever taken in my life.”
He spent another couple of hours in the stairwell, running up and down between three floors to avoid the cleaning crew. He finally decided to hide under a desk in a cubicle on the eighteenth floor. “I was exhausted,” he says. It became obvious that his wait for the building to empty was in vain.
Giving up at 10 p.m., he walked out past the front desk, where a blue security jacket was draped over a chair and a two-way radio spit out static.
“I’ve been in the building 100 times, and there’s never security after 7,” he says. “It was intense. It was far more intense than what the jump would have been.”
Nine people met him in the parking lot, jumpers and friends who had spent the last couple of hours of Tyler’s ordeal drinking at Tanner’s Bar & Grill and waiting for his signal.
After a group hug, they pondered their next move.
Someone suggested a crane that stood near an office building just south of Crown Center, and they piled into cars to drive over and check it out.
They saw a couple of mobile homes planted at the base. “Are there people living in those trailers?” Tyler asked.
“It’s where the superintendent has sex with the secretary,” cracked one of the jumpers.
They estimated the crane’s height at a little less than 300 feet. The way it jutted out over the street, it was certainly jumpable.
For several more minutes, they stared at the crane and began daring each other like fourth-graders.
“We go. You go. That kind of deal?” one jumper asked.
“I told my wife I wouldn’t get arrested,” another said. “I’m sure she’d rather I take up golf.”
“We’ve got to make a decision,” someone else said.
“There’s a lot of wires in that parking lot,” pointed out one of the observers, eyeing the electrical lines powering the streetlights.
“Quit talking. Do it or don’t do it,” Tyler goaded his friends. “I don’t have the energy to climb that fucking thing. It will be here tomorrow.”
Finally, three jumpers made their way to the crane. They walked through an unlocked gate.
Tyler watched through the windshield of his car as three small, dark figures ascended the stairs built into the crane. “There could be some carnage on this load,” he said. One of the jumpers had packed his rig drunk. Another had gotten seldom-granted permission from his wife and was more motivated than usual to air out his chute.
“They are a lot of fun to hang out with but not the most safety-conscious,” Tyler said.
The static of the two-way radio was interrupted by a voice. “We’re going to throw a wind drift. It’s really windy.”
The radio belched again with the announcement that they would not be jumping. After they climbed down and returned to the cars, one of the would-be jumpers explained the decision. “He threw the rag, and it went right into the building.”
“I’m impressed,” Tyler said. “They made a fairly safe decision.”
Tyler had spent six hours in the downtown building and another hour at the crane, and not a single parachute had opened.
“Welcome to the world of BASE,” Tyler said.
A California engineer named Carl Boenish pioneered modern BASE jumping in the 1970s, planning and then filming what is widely considered to have been the first organized BASE jump at El Capitan, the majestic granite formation in the Yosemite Valley, on August 8, 1978. He coined the sport’s name and began awarding numbers to people who had successfully jumped all four types of objects. Boenish himself was the fourth person to do all four types of jumps, and so became BASE No. 4. In 1984, Boenish died in a jump from a cliff in Norway. There are about 1,000 jumpers with BASE numbers now.
There remain scant places and days to legally BASE jump in the United States. And those places and days have evolved into massive parties.
Jumpers dive from the boulders of Moab at Thanksgiving and fling themselves from a bridge outside Twin Falls, Idaho, year-round.
But the largest gathering by far is Bridge Day in West Virginia each October. The event, 24 years after its inception, draws hundreds of jumpers and thousands of spectators.
Men and women leap 876 feet from the barricaded New River Gorge span to the canyon floor below. One at a time and in groups, the jumpers show off gainers and flips and free falls past the point of safety in an effort to outdo each other.
That shared flirtation with death leads to an insular group that shuns publicity. But some new jumpers are attempting to change the secretive nature of BASE.
“Old-school BASE is very dark and covert,” Tyler says. “They kind of keep to themselves. They don’t want public attention. And the thrill of the chase, the sneaking around, is part of the glory.”
Old-schoolers didn’t celebrate MTV darling John Vincent’s televised jumps off the St. Louis Arch and the World Trade Center in the early 1990s. They saw them as sacrilege.
But Tyler is part of a newer group that is trying to make BASE legitimate and legal, sharing videos, setting up Web sites and returning reporters’ phone calls.
BASE jumpers shouldn’t have to lurk around at night, weighing the risks of arrest along with the risks of the sport itself, he argues. He suggests that Kansas City should host the building equivalent of Bridge Day.
Sanction a building jump and BASE jumpers would flock to KC for the event, he says. Their exploits would lure 100,000 to 250,000 spectators here instead of to Oak Hill, West Virginia. The event would pump millions of dollars into the local economy. And a city known more for its barbecue would take on an edgier gloss.
The last big push to bring respectability to the sport happened five years ago in California.
To protest a ban on BASE jumping in national parks, five parachutists announced that they would jump from El Capitan on October 22, 1999. They expected to be arrested at the bottom, and park rangers were on hand to do the honors. But instead of a triumphant public-relations coup, the event became a disaster when the third jumper, Jan Davis, fell to her death. Expecting her parachute to be confiscated, Davis had borrowed a BASE rig. Unfamiliar with its operation, she reportedly grasped for her pilot chute at her back rather than her leg as she fell.
“Now the stigma of BASE is, ‘Oh, my God. No wonder this is illegal,'” Tyler says.
Tyler has personal knowledge of the sport’s danger. In October, he was at Royal Gorge in Colorado and saw Dwain Weston sliced nearly in half when the parachutist hit the bridge.
As part of a jumping demonstration during the inaugural Go Fast Games for extreme sports, Weston was wearing a BirdMan suit, which made the jumper look like a flying squirrel. Weston could extend his free falls many seconds more than regular jumpers. The Australian had leaped from a plane and was attempting to fly over the bridge before deploying his parachute. He fell just a few inches short, slamming into the bridge rail.
Tyler won’t talk about what he saw at Royal Gorge. He remains friends with people who were close to Weston. “Dwain was probably the best in the world, maybe ever,” Tyler says. “The loss of Dwain is the equivalent to the loss of Dale Earnhardt in the NASCAR circuit. It had that kind of impact.”
Tyler and other Kansas City jumpers also were at Moab last November when another Kansas Citian, 71-year-old Jim Guyer, bounced down the side of a cliff. Guyer fractured his face and pelvis and had to undergo surgery to repair the damage.
“BASE requires jumpers to be highly skilled both mentally and physically,” Tyler says. “Certain BASE jumpers aren’t meant for every BASE jump. Jumping at Moab may have been at the limit of a 71-year-old BASE jumper. At the same time, I’d like to be 71 and still jumping and not have some jackass 30-year-old tell me I shouldn’t jump.”
Like NASCAR drivers, BASE jumpers deal with the “accepted risks” of their sport, Tyler says. “Every time you step off an object, there is a chance that is going to happen to you,” he says. “BASE as a sport is as safe as anybody wants it to be … if you prepare properly. If you jump in optimum conditions with maximum preparation, you minimize the risk.”
Toward that end, Tyler has become obsessive about his equipment. An engineer, he knows the physics of air and cloth and bodies. He watches pack videos over and over again. The United States Parachute Association mandates repacking reserve parachutes every four months. Tyler will leave his BASE-jumping rig packed for no longer than three weeks.
“The longer it’s packed, the slower it opens,” he says. “The longer it’s folded, the less air that’s in there.”
BASE-jumping parachutes are tubes of nylon sewn together. The tubes have to be lined up and folded in their pouch so that they come out straight and inflate quickly and evenly. Among the worst things that can happen to a BASE jumper is for his chute to come out facing backward, carrying him back into the object from which he’s just jumped. Once the tubes are closed, the chutes themselves collapse. The jumper then falls.
“There is always the shit-happens factor,” Tyler says. “You can do all the preparation in the world. Occasionally, shit just happens.”
Tyler is the kind of guy who makes shit happen.
Having been thwarted at Skies, Tyler and one of his friends, “Corey,” drive north through a spitting rain. They park next to one of downtown’s taller buildings, and Tyler gets out and rattles a revolving door. It’s dusty from the construction going on in the building’s lobby, and it’s locked at the bottom. A deadbolt has been slid into the floor. With the right crowbar, the door looks like it would swing open.
“I could get it open if you want me to,” Tyler tells Corey. “You want me to?”
Instead, they walk behind the building, where puddles collect in the low spots in the pavement crushed by delivery trucks. The alley is soaked, but well lit.
“This is our alley,” Corey says. They spot a fire escape that could give them access. But then they spot something else.
“Hey, dude, security camera,” Corey says.
“Good eye,” Tyler replies. “Let’s keep moving.”
The men walk a block or two. At another intersection, they stop to eye an office building. There’s a wide window-washing rig perched on top of a skywalk that connects the building to a parking garage. It would be easy to climb out of the parking garage to the roof of the skywalk and use it to get to the window-washing rig, parked there like an idling car.
“It’s been there all summer long,” says Corey, who works downtown.
“Look at that landing area you’ve got,” Tyler says, gesturing toward the intersection.
But the two men reason that the building, which holds a bank, would likely have heavy security, perhaps even motion sensors on the roof. They shuffle back to the original building, where Tyler rattles the door some more. “You’re going to have to break it,” he says.
“Cop!” Corey whispers as a police cruiser drives past to the north. The men try to look inconspicuous.
The building is going to be part of the downtown renaissance. It’s being converted to high-dollar apartments, part of a citywide effort to make downtown a 24-hour destination. But for now, downtown is still mostly dead at night, and the building is a target for BASE jumpers.
It could be done. The men have their rigs in the car. The trunk is packed with a survival kit of sorts: BASE-jumping parachutes, duct tape, helmets, an aircraft map with tower heights, mini-digital camera, two-way radios, a blue light to toss from the top, a utility knife and a pry bar.
But it’s raining just a little. They aren’t sure about the wind. And there is no ground crew, no one to drive the getaway car. No one except the Pitch.
More than a year later, Tyler, two men and a woman are standing on top of the same building.
They’d called late. By the time a reporter can arrive, the jumpers have already made their way to a high ledge.
Later, they won’t say how they got past the barriers that had worried them earlier, but a videotape they play shows them moving past yellow construction tape and climbing stairs.
Although there’s little traffic on the streets, an “open” sign still glows in the window of a nearby bar just after midnight on a mild December morning.
From the street, there is only silence as one of the silhouettes drops from the edge down the side of the building. The black form takes on human shape with arms and legs as it passes window after window, falling too far, it seems. Three seconds pass. It takes only five seconds to hit the ground.
But then the chute explodes open. The sound is a crinkling of Christmas wrapping paper before a sonic boom that reverberates from the glass and stone and steel of downtown.
It is a sound of safety. The chute’s forty lines come out straight. Its seven chambers fill with air. It slows the jumper’s fall.
But the chute is pointed too far left. The jumper is flying straight into another building. He pulls down on his right control line, and the chute turns, but not quickly enough. The jumper is still 50 feet off the ground. The left edge of his chute scrapes the corner of the building with the sound of a Frisbee bouncing off the sidewalk. But the chute doesn’t collapse.
Another second later, the jumper lands in the middle of an empty intersection, his heel slamming hard into the asphalt, his knees buckling, his chute floating to the street. Dressed in all black, he bundles up his parachute in his arms and limps to the curb behind a Pitch newspaper box, an orange construction sign and a streetlight pole.
Three more jumpers follow, one after another. They pull their chutes earlier and soar to the north. The chute of one falls over the back of a moving car. Another jumper is spooked by a woman who happens to drive by as he lands. “Nice jump,” she says.
The first jumper looks like a homeless ninja wearing a big, black backpack as he walks down the sidewalk to join the others. They’ve parked their car in a nearby garage. Then they are gone.
Ten minutes later, a police cruiser pulls up across the street from the building. Two officers get out, and one points a tiny flashlight into the sky.
By then, the BASE jumpers are into their first pitcher of beer at the Peanut. They replay digital video taken from a helmet camera and gasp again at the first jumper’s near miss. He can’t explain why he waited so long to throw his pilot chute. He had expected to soar over the building that almost knocked him down. “I saw the building in front of me and reacted to it and thought I’d be OK until I felt my canopy hit the building,” he says later. “From then on it’s whatever happens, happens.
“That was probably one of the scariest things I’ve ever done in my life,” he continues. “Standing up on that building, you are so nervous and scared that you could puke.”
The female jumper, a veteran of bridge and tower jumps, is vibrating with excitement. “It’s probably the most insane jump I’ve ever been on,” she says. “It was an amazing, fulfilling experience. It’s just one that kind of makes you crave more.”
The night has been a success, and three of the four are stoked. With their first successful “B” jumps, they’ve earned their BASE numbers.