SB Nation

Jeremy Markovich | November 6, 2013

Over the edge

Once a year, hundreds of people voluntarily jump off one of America's largest bridges and into West Virginia's New River Gorge. But for many of these BASE jumpers, it's not enough.

Cody Adams takes a drag off his cigarette, and looks over at Andy Smith.

"You scared yet?" he asks.

"Definitely scared," Smith tells him. "I'm trying to convince myself that I'm not."

"It's good to be scared," Adams says.

Adams and Smith stand in the fog in the middle of the 3,030 foot-long New River Gorge Bridge, in the dark blue of an October dawn in West Virginia, 876 feet above the water below. Adams is skinny, with a gray hoodie, a shaved head and camouflage pants. Smith wears his long brown hair pulled back into a ponytail. He flashes a nervous smile through his beard. Both of them rode down from Pennsylvania with a group of 10 people. They drove six and a half hours to be here.

"This is definitely a BASE jump," Smith states, with a tense laugh.

"Yes. It is," Adams says, dryly.

Around them, the other BASE jumpers are setting up metal barricades, staircases and everything else they'll need to make Bridge Day work smoothly. Next to them is the flatbed truck that holds up the platform they'll jump from later. A photographer looks at the bucket he'll be standing in all day -- it'll swing out over the edge so he can get shots of jumpers coming right at him. His will be one of four cameras that capture every jump, generating about 25,000 images in six hours.

Smith has already looked over the side of the bridge 10 times. Adams puffs on his cigarette. This will be Adams's second BASE jump. It will be Smith's first.

Adams was here the year before he went to basic training at Ft. Sill. The first time he jumped from the bridge, in 2011, he threw his pilot chute before his feet flew over the edge. This year, he wants to do a backward somersault. A gainer.

"Kinda cold out here," Adams says, and lights another cigarette.

"I'm probably gonna be shitting my pants when I walk on to the platform."

"I'm probably gonna be shitting my pants when I walk on to the platform," Smith says. He doesn't know what to expect. His life will change. At least, he thinks it will. He's talked to Adams about it. Adams mentions how nothing else in the world matters after your feet leave the platform, about how now he can't look at anything tall without thinking about what it would like to jump off it. Adams was afraid of heights before his first jump. "I was freaking the fuck out right now," he says.

Adams says it's hard to explain what happens. You have to do it to know, he says. Smith hasn't. Yet.

Two hours later, the cattle gates at either end of the bridge open, and the spectators stream through, heading toward the platform at the center. The ones that get a good spot, right on the railing, can see it all. They can look down and see the New River below, the frothy rapids so far away that they barely seem real. Train whistles echo through the gorge -- the engine and coal cars are so tiny that they seems like they belong under a Christmas tree. The people at the bottom are mere specks. There is a bull's-eye on the small beach made of chalk and a piece of carpeting. The people who lean out far enough can make out some of the arch of the bridge, or at least see some of the brown steel that's holding the whole thing up.

They're all here to see people jump.

Bridgegeneral_mediumThe New River Gorge Bridge the day before 934 people jumped off it.

it is one of the only places in America where you can easily watch a BASE jump happen live.

This happens every third Saturday in October high up on the New River Gorge Bridge in Fayetteville, W.Va. Tens of thousands of people take advantage of the one day of the year where it's not only legal to walk across the bridge, the highest and longest arch span in the Western Hemisphere, but also to jump off it. Not everyone who wants to can; registration stops when the number of jumpers hits 450 or so, and you need to complete 100 skydives and pass a background check first. But it is, in effect, one of the only places in America where you can easily watch a BASE jump happen live, in person, and on schedule, every 20 seconds.

Every jumper has already weaved through a long line, a shorter version of what you'd wait in to ride a roller coaster. Everyone has had their gear checked then double-checked before each walks up a set of stairs on to the back of the flatbed. Once there, a guy scans the barcode on their ID badge, which includes a name, picture ... and emergency phone numbers and blood type. Then there's one more set of stairs. They walk to the end of a yellow platform about 10 feet above the roadway, surrounded on three sides by a throng of onlookers with camera phones. Some volunteers stand near the edge, looking over the side and letting jumpers know when the air below them is clear.

Some jump cautiously, holding their pilot chute firmly in their hand, then look over and leap, throwing their chute almost immediately. The small chute pulls the canopy open, unfurling with a snap, slowing their fall until all you can see is a colorful rectangle, drifting toward the bottom. Those are usually the first-timers. Or the second-timers.

Some run and jump. Some plant on the edge and push off. Others do backflips. Some curl into balls and spin, two, three, maybe even four times before leveling off. They wait to throw their chute. Some wait until they no longer hear the whoosh whoosh of the girders as they fall, pitching their pilot chute once the clear the bridge's massive arch. They know that if they do nothing, they'll hit the bottom in 8.8 seconds. Some people count to three before they pitch. Some count to four. A few count to five.

At the bottom, some swoop in and land in stride. Some hit the ankle-breaking rocks closer to shore and fall. Others choose to splash down in the water, where the New River is a couple hundred feet across and the landing is almost guaranteed to be softer. Immediately, rescue boats are on them, pulling them and their canopies out. They re-pack their rigs and catch a ride to the top to leap again.

when you see it, in person, the speed, the person falling, their arms and legs extended, it is poetry, shocking and beautiful.

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Watching the first jump makes you gasp, because up until this point, you've only seen it in videos and movies and on TV. But when you see it, in person, the speed, the person falling, their arms and legs extended, it is poetry, shocking and beautiful.

And then the 10th person does it. Within two and a half minutes, if you've been watching every jumper, you've seen 10 people jump off a bridge. Within 20 minutes, you've seen 60 people leap over the side.

And so it is possible, in less than 45 minutes, to watch a hundred people jump off a bridge, effortlessly. It's desensitizing. You get picky. That guy didn't do as many backflips as he said he would. That guy pitched his pilot chute way too early. The other guy pitched it way too late. Bridge Day has a way of quickly making the amazing seem commonplace. Everybody is a critic. The spectators are experts.

Television news crews walk around, looking for stories. Everybody has one. Mark Seyfang of Cincinnati has to answer the most common question BASE jumpers get: Why are you jumping off a bridge? "Why? Because it's here," he says, sounding like George Mallory explaining why he wanted to climb Mt. Everest. Linda Hoehmann and Nick Giraldo are here from New Jersey. They're dating. They're jumping together. For the first time. "I'm very excited," she says. "My adrenaline's pumping." She's been squeezing her pilot chute in her hand for an hour. Mitch Harder, 50, of Mobile, Ala., drove up by himself. Once a chemical engineer, he's now a "professional career changer" making his 15th BASE jump. He looks up at the rain showers. "Could be worse," he says. Lonnie Bissonnette, a paraplegic from Canada, is jumping here today. In his wheelchair. For the second time. The Today show crew finds out and makes a beeline for him.

Bridge Day is the one day every year where BASE jumping does more than just show up, it puts on a show. It's a strange thing for a sport that's grown up cultivating a stealthy, run-through-the-bushes ethos where the best BASE jumpers not only have to land without being killed or maimed, but escape from police officers or rangers who are waiting on the ground, ready to file trespassing charges. Their gear used to be modified skydiving equipment, usually black, to make it harder to spot at night. Now, there are special canopies and rigs designed specifically for BASE jumping, available in any color you want. Clubs have sprouted up in places like Florida, Ohio, California and Canada. They're making videos and posting them to YouTube. At certain places, like the Perrine Bridge in Twin Falls, Idaho, and the cliffs of Moab, Utah, it's now possible to BASE jump, legally, all year long. BASE jumping has turned from an oddity to a commodity, a once-private affair that's increasingly becoming a public one, possible in part because of what happens every third Saturday in October in West Virginia. Bridge Day is the BASE jumpers' day.

But they don't want just one day. They want every day.

Bridgelandingzone_mediumThe white circle to the right marks the landing zone, although many will opt for a splashdown in the New River.

* * *

Moe Viletto stands on the platform. He's a skinny little guy with a high-pitched voice and a smile that pulls his whole face upward. His gray, receding hair is long. He's at Bridge Day with 13 students that he's personally taught about the finer points of how to jump off a bridge, standing on the platform, saying a few words here, putting a supporting hand on a shoulder there. Moe won't take just anybody on. You have to show potential. You have to be passionate about it. One of his students went out and made 11 skydives the week before Bridge Day to get to the 100 required to jump. She glides off the platform, floats perfectly and then splashes down in the water, emerging with a smile on her face as a boat races to pick her up.

"There's the mainstream end of it," Viletto says about BASE jumping, "and Bridge Day helped to bring that about."

Bridge Day is BASE jumping's de facto national convention.

Bridge Day is BASE jumping's de facto national convention, and the epicenter is the Holiday Lodge in Oak Hill, W.Va., a hotel seven miles from the bridge with a lounge hooked on the side where it's still possible to smoke at the bar. Those who can't find rooms set up tents on the grass out back. Others sleep in their cars. Inside, the entire place is crawling with jumpers. The staff has moved the couches and tables out of the lobby to make room for them to pack their rigs. There's a small expo set up in a ballroom, with tables full of video equipment and specialized jumping rigs. It is loud. Nearly everybody is holding a can of beer. Jumpers wear their BASE rigs like backpacks. They greet each other with a hand slap and a fist bump. There is a no smoking sign out front. The area around the main entrance reeks of cigarettes. A dog runs through a hallway with no owner in sight. Every so often, somebody will walk by and the faint stench of pot will trail a second behind.

The night before Bridge Day, Viletto wears a T-shirt, just like everybody else. In a hotel full of people amped up on Red Bull and anticipation, he barely stands out. But after a bit, the people in the know see Moe hanging out, and they crowd around. They want to hear what he says. During a story about crashing his mountain bike years ago, Viletto pulls down the collar of his shirt to reveal his collarbone, which is still broken. It sticks out, stretching the skin around the base of his neck. "It's a joint now," he says. In a place where stories are the currency upon which credibility is traded, Moe Viletto is a rich man.

He starts telling stories about the old days, when jumpers leapt in secret and then ran from park rangers at the bottom of El Capitan, the 3,000-foot high rock formation in Yosemite National Park. Now, every jump at Bridge Day is broadcast, live-streamed on the Internet. "The thing that's good about it being televised is it's bringing it into the mainstream, making it more acceptable," says one of the guys who's standing around him.

"It's already there," Viletto says.

Bridgemoe_mediumMoe Viletto

Viletto is 62 now, but he's made BASE jumping his whole life, living out of a Volkswagen at times because it was cheap and mobile, freeing up time and money for more jumps. He got his start while he was a parachute rigger at a drop zone in the early 1980s. He had just broken up with his girlfriend of 13 years. A friend decided they should go to Bridge Day. BASE jumping sounded risky. Viletto didn't care about the risks.

Bridge Day was a relatively new phenomenon then. It began because BASE jumping, the bridge's construction, and a bored coal miner all happened to converge during the late 1970s. The bridge itself opened in 1977, shortening the drive across the gorge, which used to wind down one side and up the other, from 45 minutes to 45 seconds. The railings were low, meant to protect out of control cars, not out of control people. The thought was that anybody who might want to jump probably didn't want to survive what the local sheriff would later call "a daggone tremendous fall."

A year later, in 1978, a photographer and skydiver named Carl Boenish filmed four men parachuting from El Capitan in California. The resulting footage, bought by ABC Sports but subpoenaed by the National Park Service over what they called "illegal hang gliding," lent credence to a sport Boenish would call BASE jumping, short for building, antenna, span and earth. More jumpers began to flock to El Cap, jumping and then running from Yosemite park rangers. Parachuting from something other from a plane started to morph from a one-off experience into an adventure sport. It was no longer a stunt. It was fun.

They're going to keep coming. Might as well try to make some money off of it.

Bridgewide5_medium

Back in West Virginia, in August 1979, a coal mine foreman from Cowen, W.Va., named Burton Ervin made the first BASE jump from the railing of the New River Gorge Bridge. Some 200 people waited at the bottom, a few shining lights skyward to show him where to land. Word of Ervin's stunt spread and more jumpers showed up. They're going to keep coming, Ervin told the Fayette County Chamber of Commerce. Might as well try to make some money off of it.

Ervin was put in charge of the first Bridge Day in 1980. There were only five jumpers. One, a North Carolinian named Ken Hamilton, had his pilot chute become twisted in his main canopy, which made it hard to control his fall. He hit the rocks, knocked out almost all of his teeth and broke his jaw, but insisted to a Charleston Daily Mail reporter that jumping was still "safer than marriage." One of the guys who jumped after him shrugged. "These things happen," he said.

The organizers expected 8,000 spectators. More than 40,000 came to watch.

Boenish visited the New River Gorge Bridge in 1980, just months before the first Bridge Day. In 1983, he wrote about it in Skydiving Magazine. Before then, only a handful of jumpers came to West Virginia for the event. Afterward, more than 200 showed up.

The year Viletto first came to Bridge Day, 1982 he thinks, he came with a friend and rigged some skydiving parachutes to open more quickly. His friend jumped once, and only once, and then went on to become an insurance salesman. It took one jump for Viletto to decide that BASE jumping should be the focus of his life.

He started off leaping from buildings in Los Angeles, attracting the attention of both police and fellow BASE jumpers. He didn't care. If he died, so what? But other BASE jumpers in L.A. got upset from the added attention Viletto was bringing by being too visible and brash, putting security guards and building managers on alert, making it more difficult to sneak onto the roofs. Once, a fellow jumper grabbed Moe by the throat. "If you fuck up my playground," he said, "I'll kill you myself."

After a while, Viletto turned his death wish into what he calls his life wish. He lived to jump. In comparison, skydiving was less exciting. He loved to see the ground rushing up toward him. In an era when tiny video cameras didn't exist, the only way to re-live a leap was to do it again. At a time when some of the most prolific BASE jumpers were making 20 jumps a year, Viletto was making 100.

The more he jumped, the less reckless and more responsible he became. He started carrying a signed letter from his attorney, which said he didn't hold the owner of whatever he was jumping from responsible for what might happen. He also wanted to change other people's minds about the sport. "Early on, if you told people you did BASE," Viletto says, "they thought you were freebasing cocaine."

"Early on, if you told people you did BASE, they thought you were freebasing cocaine."

In the late '80s, Viletto was jumping from trees, cranes, external elevators and anything else he could find. He and a friend started the Fixed Object Journal, which was meant to encompass more than just BASE jumps. They wanted to promote the sport in a good light. "We're not really doing anything bad," he says like a little kid.

He'll tell you about the stunt jump he did in Drop Zone, a 1994 Wesley Snipes movie. He'll tell you how he earned $100,000 for that jump. He'll tell you about how he gave away all but $4,000. He'll tell you how he built some of the first BASE jumping rigs, then sold some of his designs. "I didn't want to compete anymore," he says. He'll tell you how he invented something called a parapack, a BASE jumping rig with enough storage space to pack in everything you'd need to be self-sufficient in the mountains. He once used it to camp for four days on El Cap, waiting for the weather to clear up enough before leaping from the side. Four days of patience for a few seconds of exhilaration.

Viletto knows how many BASE jumps he's made, but he won't say. "I didn't even get my BASE number," he says of the special number jumpers can apply for once they complete a leap from each of the four BASE objects. "Some young fuckin' punk got it for me, and it pissed me off. I don't need a number to make me someone or something."

At Bridge Day, Moe Viletto is in his own category. The rest of the jumpers fit mostly into two camps: Those who live the BASE life, and those who dabble in it. Many are skydivers who want to get in their one BASE jump. They want the experience. They want the video. They want the story. It's safe here. It's controlled.

And then there are many other BASE jumpers who couldn't care less about the jump, really. It's a little too crowded for them. Too controlled. Too mainstream. They're really here to meet other jumpers. They're here to talk to guys like Moe Viletto. And they're here for the party.

Bridge3jumpers_medium

* * *

Barely anybody in the hotel lobby notices when Bertrand Cloutier pulls a cardboard box out of his backpack.

Cloutier is 59, and has the look of an aging rock star, with dirty blonde hair, an earring, gold necklaces and a black Bridge Day T-shirt with the sleeves removed. He's been skydiving for 40 years and BASE jumping for 24, and he's been jumping at Bridge Day for 22 of them. He speaks mostly in French, since he's here with a bunch of jumpers from Quebec, most wearing Canadian BASE Association T-shirts.

Cloutier pulls a smaller black plastic container from the box. He struggles to open it. There's a printed label on the front from the St. James' Cemetery and Crematorium in Toronto.

Cloutier pulls out a plastic bag of gray ashes. He opens his rig and unfolds part of his red and white canopy, then pours the ashes into the center. He keeps some in the bag, because he'd like to toss some from his hand when he jumps, too. He then folds the parachute back over.

Bridgeashes_mediumBertrand Cloutier packs ashes into his canopy.

The ashes are what remains of Mario Richard. Cloutier was there for Richard's first skydive in 1988, a 3,500-foot jump from a plane near Quebec City. He brought Richard to Bridge Day in 1991 for his first BASE jump. Richard was hooked.

Two months ago, while Richard and his wife were on vacation in Europe, it all ended. On August 19 in the Italian Dolomites, they both wore wingsuits, which allow jumpers to glide. His wife jumped first, then Richard. He didn't clear a cliff. He was 47. And now, Cloutier was bringing him back, back to West Virginia, at the place where it all began, at the place where he had made so many jumps, and now the place where Richard would spend eternity.

After he's re-packed his rig, Cloutier feels as if he needs to explain something. "The oldest fear, the most ancestral fear, is the fear to fall," he says through his thick French Canadian accent. "The oldest dream is the dream to fly. So in a short time, we trespass the fear and the dream. And for a short time, those two blend."

Across the lobby, Mitch Harder is on step 15 of the 26-step checklist he wrote to help him pack his own chute, to make sure it unfurls properly. A pro can pack one in 15 minutes. Harder has been at it for an hour, and probably has another hour to go. "Could be worse," he says.

As he packs, Jordan Zink lies on his stomach next to a stone fireplace with a flat-screen television above it. His friends are here to jump. He's not. Maybe next year. He came down from Ohio to see what it's all about. "You can die easily BASE jumping," Zink says. "If you're climbing a tower, you could fall off on the way up. You could hit a guy wire. You could have a bad opening. You could pull a 180, where the canopy opens and throws you back into the tower. But here? No. It's 876 feet. It's like the safest jump you can make."

Skydiving-3

Zink got here Thursday night for the videofest. It got wild. "Saw some boobs," he says, but then sighs. "More balls than boobs." Afterward, he drank until he got tired, wandered into somebody's room, found a space on the floor, and found an extra towel in the bathroom to use as a pillow. He needs a nap.

A few minutes later, a long-haired, red-bearded guy named James comes walking up and dumps a spent canopy on to the floor next to the fireplace.

"I landed in a bush," he says.

James just jumped off something.

"Dude, there's all kinds of fuckin' thorns in there," James says to Zink, unfurling the lines and canopy. He jumped from a bridge, although he's not sure exactly where it was.

"I have no idea," says James. "I'm a little inebriated."

It was a 230-foot drop, he thinks, which would make it the lowest jump he's ever made. He's used to jumping off 1,000 foot tall television towers. He and some other guys have already made two jumps today. They got up at 6 a.m. He keeps giving details until he realizes an outsider may be in his midst. The story gets more vague. He decides not to give his last name.

James and Zink go to work, picking out branches and leaves and thorns out of the lines that connect the pack to the chute. Within 15 minutes, James has it packed and ready to go again.

"I'm just here to hang out, party, have fun and learn. And I'm away from work," Zink says. "The real world sucks."

A little while later, James and a group of others grab their rigs and quietly walk out of the hotel. They're off to jump from a tower. Someplace.

Bridgebelow_medium

* * *

"you're never going to be able to drive across another bridge without looking over the side."

At 7 p.m. that night, nearly every BASE jumper is packed into a ballroom at the hotel. Jason Bell, the jump coordinator, asks the new base jumpers to raise their hands. "You're gonna be scared," he says, "but you're never going to be able to drive across another bridge without looking over the side."

Bell goes over everything a jumper needs to know for the next day. The New River is running a little low, so if you're going to land in the water, aim for the middle. Once you land, get away from the beach. Somebody is probably only a few seconds behind you.

He rattles off some statistics. There are more than 450 jumpers registered. Only 15 percent are first-timers. Only 12 percent are women.

If you get hurt, and have to ride in an ambulance, someone will cut off your badge. You're done jumping, Bell says. In the past, some people figured out that an ambulance ride was the fastest way to the top. Once they got there, they'd say they felt better, run out to the center of the bridge, and try to jump again.

Be nice to the park rangers and state police, he says. He's been working for eight years now to make BASE jumping legal not just once a year, but once a month. Bell is helping others prepare for a meeting with the West Virginia Division of Highways in a few weeks. They're going to ask them about jumping from the metal catwalk that runs underneath the bridge. It wouldn't interfere with traffic. And it'd attract jumpers year round. A lot of conversations that start with, "You know what they REALLY oughta do ..." end with talk about how cool it would be to jump legally here year-round. But it's a long shot. Still, as he talks about it, the meeting explodes in cheers and applause.

Then, to the list of no's. No cutting in line. No cussing. No nudity. No adult toys. "Yes, these have all happened," he says. And no "Rodriguez chants."

Bell doesn't elaborate, but he's referring to an incident in which Pepe Rodriguez of The Rodriguez Brothers' skydiving club stood on the platform about a decade ago and yelled out, "Who are the Rodriguez Brothers?" As he leaped, thousands of people who knew about the club and its exploits yelled out the correct answer: "Fuck the Rodriguez Brothers!" ESPN was there. Broadcasting live. By the time Pepe hit the beach, Bell had already ordered his badge be cut.

"there was tits, there was dildos, there was crazy fuckin' shit like you wouldn't believe. Now it's all 'family.'"

Bridgefamily_mediumOnlookers enjoy the family-friendly environment.

"Now, CNN's out there," Moe Viletto says later to a group of jumpers in a circle around him. Bridge Day used to be different. "Before, there was tits, there was dildos, there was crazy fuckin' shit like you wouldn't believe. Now it's all ‘family.'"

For Moe Viletto, BASE jumping is supposed to be fun, not a cheap rush. It is not about making a video that you can upload to Facebook or Twitter. "We are the Me Generation. Me me me me me me me. I can't fuckin' stand it," he says. "Those are the ones that are fuckin' up the illegal sites. Those are the ones that are going to jail. Those are the ones that are dying. Which I have no problem with. You're gonna be an asshole? You're taking up space on the planet."

Death, whether you're an asshole or not, is part of the sport. When Carl Boenish died during a jump in Norway in 1984, Viletto was the one who ended up with his chute, still soaked in blood and gore. He crawled inside each cell, trying to figure out what went wrong. He thinks one of Boenish's deployment brakes, which slow the canopy's opening, broke, shooting him back into the face of a cliff. Death has come over and over again. "I have a phone book from 1971," Viletto says. "Almost every single letter in the alphabet has a dead person, a friend of mine, next to it."

It's safer now, and that's good. Viletto believes in safe. Over 33 years, only three people have died at Bridge Day, from drowning and from parachutes that opened way too late. The gear checks at Bridge Day are thorough. Almost every year, volunteers catch mistakes that might have been deadly.

Still, parachuting accidents have the perverse effect of bringing more people into the sport, Viletto says. The edginess is an attraction. "All the young punks want to impress their girlfriends, and that's what teenagers do." At one time, they saw it in dirt biking. They saw it in skateboarding, snowboarding, rock climbing. And some people see it in BASE jumping.

* * *

Donald Cripps has a motto: Guns, women and skydiving. Any one of them can kill you.

Bridgeoldest_mediumDonald Cripps, Bridge Day's oldest jumper.

He's been jumping since his days with the 82nd Airborne's pathfinder team in Korea.

On Saturday morning, Cripps walks up a set of stairs, a blue helmet on his head, a black pilot chute in his hand. A volunteer on the bridge in a red pullover vest scans his badge and checks his gear one last time. Then Cripps turns around and faces the crowd that's assembled behind him. "Hope you all have a nice day," he says, calmly and genuinely. He walks up one more flight of stairs to a platform that leans out over the edge of the gorge. He stands at the brink, raises his arm, and leaps.

Donald Cripps is 84 years old.

Later, he'll say he could have had a better jump. The platform was slick from rain showers earlier in the day. There were interviews. There was pressure. He knew the water in the New River, 876 feet below, would be cold. All of that was running through his mind. He slipped. He came out a little head down. His feet twisted up behind him. But he waited a few seconds. Then he threw his pilot chute. His blue canopy opened above him. Perfectly.

This is Cripps's third year jumping at Bridge Day, and he says he had better jumps at the last two. He's been jumping since his days with the 82nd Airborne's pathfinder team in Korea. After he left the military two decades later, he started skydiving again. For fun. He now has 3,570 jumps under his belt.

A couple years ago, some guys at his drop zone started talking about BASE jumping at Bridge Day. Sounds like something I could do, Cripps thought. His glaucoma makes long-distance drives too tough, so he flew up by himself from Pensacola, Fla. His knees are sore. But here he is, 84. The oldest jumper on the bridge.

Earlier in the morning, around 9:30, Cody Adams made his jump. As the last of the fog burned off, he faced the crowd and pushed off. No gainer. A minute later, he landed on the wrong side of the river, on the railroad tracks.

Two hours later, it's his friend Andy Smith's turn. "This is going to be so fucking awesome," he tells himself. Over and over, he raises his arms and fakes the throwing of his pilot chute, just like he will when he jumps. His hand shakes. He walks up to the platform. Viletto puts his hand on Smith's back. He jumps.

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A few minutes later, a woman dressed in a blue sweatshirt and black helmet walks to the end of a yellow diving board, turns around, bends her knees and does a backflip. James, the guy who landed in the thorns the day before, walks to the end of the platform, pushes himself up into a handstand, then pushes himself out into the void. Every so often, a pneumatic catapult launches a jumper 20 feet into the air, over the side of the bridge.

The people who have jumped before go quickly. The first-timers hesitate. The volunteers on the platform tell them to walk to the edge and look down. They show them where to land. They tell them about the wind.

There are a few last instructions. Don't look down anymore. Keep your head up. Focus on the horizon. Have a nice jump.

Nobody walks down the stairs. They always go over the edge. They always jump.

Bertrand Cloutier goes to the edge. Next to him is Lonnie Bissonnette, the Canadian who was paralyzed in a skydiving accident. After an interview with the Today show, both go over the side, and a gray cloud of ashes bursts out when they release their canopies. Bissonnette makes a perfect landing in his wheelchair. His arms go up in victory. The cloud dissipates.

Once all of his students have jumped, Viletto makes the leap, quietly, indistinguishable from the others.

Bridgewheelchair_mediumBertrand Cloutier and Lonnie Bissonnette jump together with the ashes of their friend, Mario Richard.

* * *

Back at the hotel on a rainy Saturday night, the lobby is now full of soggy canopies, unfurled to dry out. Mitch Harder is in the line for free beer. "Could be worse," he says when asked about his jump.

The post-jump meeting begins. There were 934 jumps. Only three people had to be taken out of the gorge in an ambulance this year, says Jason Bell. That's good. He points out Donald Cripps, who's sitting in the front row. He gets a round of applause. It's worth it to be here, Cripps says. It doesn't make him feel younger. It makes him feel accepted. "I'm around a group of people I have something in common with," he says. "If I was here with a big group of golfers, I'd feel out of place."

"We've got doctors and lawyers and junkies, we've got it all. We all get together, none of that shit matters."

Viletto is walking through the meeting, looking for a seat, and sees Cripps in the front row. "That guy right there, the old man, makes me cry," he says. "Lonnie, coming in on his wheelchair. I watched him last year bounce on his wheels and do a face plant. This year, he stood it up."

Bell starts to give out prizes, and the meeting falls apart. The first person to pour a beer on someone else's head gets a pilot chute. It happens immediately. First person to get their eyebrow shaved gets a prize. Someone sprints from the back and leans over the table. Not to be outdone, a girl in the back stands on a chair and flashes the guys in the front. Not to be outdone, a guy in the back who had been dressed in a shockingly true-to-life Superman costume runs to the front, now completely naked. A blow-up doll is knocked around the room like a volleyball. Bell quickly whisks his kids away to another room.

The party has started. There's reason to celebrate. Everybody now has something in common.

"When there's three guys on a building, they're just as crazy as this mad group here," Viletto says. "We've got doctors and lawyers and junkies, we've got it all. We all get together, none of that shit matters. We're all on an even keel. Everybody's bag of water breaks the same."

They are all BASE jumpers now.

The room is full, and Moe walks across the front row. All the seats are taken.

Moe doesn't ask for a seat. Reflexively, people spring up. Sit here, Moe. No, sit here. He hesitates. He finally takes someone up on the offer, and before long, he's found a place between two jumpers, smiling and telling more stories. Moe Viletto, it seems, always finds a good place to land.

Producer: Chris Mottram | Editor: Glenn Stout | Copy Editor: Kevin Fixler
All photos by Jeremy Markovich

About the Author

Photo__27_

Jeremy Markovich is a columnist for Charlotte magazine, a contributor to Our State magazine, a producer at WCNC-TV and occasional raft guide at the U.S. National Whitewater Center. He lives in Charlotte with his wife Kelsey and their dog Lucy. Follow him on Twitter at @deftlyinane.

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