On this day in 1966, Michael Pelkey and Brian Schubert, a couple of 26-year-old skydivers from Barstow, California, completed what is considered to be the very first BASE jump.
BASE jumping is a very extreme activity in which daredevils jump from a fixed object–”BASE” is an acronym for the four most popular fixed objects of Buildings, Antennae, Spans, Earth–and break their fall by releasing a parachute. It is very different from skydiving from a plane, as the distance you fall is far less, and so you have far less time and space to open your parachute in time. Unsurprisingly, it’s one of the most dangerous extreme sports in the world.
On 24 July 1966, Michael Pelkey and Brian Schubert both leapt off the cliff of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park, a 975-metre (3,200 feet) tall granite monolith and the second highest unbroken cliff anywhere in the world (the tallest is Mount Thor on Baffin Island, Canada). “It was more of a lark than a compulsion,” Pelkey has explained. “El Capitan was obviously jumpable, straight down 3,200 feet off the valley floor. If we hadn’t got to it first, someone else inevitably would have.”
Both of their girlfriends waited at the bottom of the Yosemite Valley to take photographs of the jumps, while Pelkey and Schubert hiked to the top of El Capitan. It took them a lot longer than they anticipated, over eight hours, and by the time they reached the top both girls had already abandoned their posts. The stunt was only captured in one blurry snapshot, and both of them were injured upon landing; especially Schubert, who broke both his legs. Nevertheless, they had no regrets.
Their antics inspired other thrill-seekers, and although the sport of BASE jumping only officially began 12 years afterwards, there was already a long history of similar attempts at flight. Famously in 1912 the tailor Franz Reichelt jumped from the first deck of the Eiffel Tower to test his new invention, the parachute coat; he plummeted to the ground and died. In 1972, Rick Sylvester skied off the top of El Capitan, and parachuted safely to Earth. And in 1975, Owen J. Quinn parachuted off the South Tower of the World Trade Centre to draw attention to the plight of the unemployed.
In a sad post-script, on 15 October 2006 Michael Pelkey and Brian Schubert were scheduled to jump off the 275-metre (900 feet) tall New River Gorge Bridge in Fayetteville, West Virginia, where BASE jumping is legal for six hours every year. It was only to be their third and second ever base jumps respectively, a full 40 years after their descent down El Capitan. Tragically, Schubert took too long to open his parachute, and fell to his death at the age of 66.
Caption: A BASE jumper leaps off Cheddar Gorge.