Doctor Joseph Weber is hardcore. He screws teeth into skulls and parachutes off buildings and bridges and cliffs. He’s also methodical, exacting. A dental-implant specialist with a bustling Bath Street practice and two surgical patents, the 44-year-old Santa Barbaran is part of an endangered species of BASE jumpers who innovated the fringe sport 20 years ago and survived hundreds of death-dealing vaults to watch it gain popularity and acceptance across the globe.
On September 16, Weber and 42 other experienced jumpers he hand-picked at the request of the Chinese government will throw themselves from the Aizhai Bridge in the Hunan Province, part of a media blitz to showcase the world’s longest and tallest tunnel-to-tunnel bridge. Weber said the leap from the 1,150-foot-tall span, with an open valley below and no competing structures, will be a cakewalk compared to some of his other feats.
The former Green Beret jumped naked off the Eiffel Tower, wore an electrician’s uniform to sneak past security guards at the Bank One Tower in Indianapolis, and broke his leg snowboarding off a 2,000-foot cliff in the Swiss Alps. He also set a world record jumping off Malaysia’s Petronas Towers at the turn of the millennium, but might be best known in California for organizing the 1999 jump off El Capitan in Yosemite National Park, where 60-year-old Santa Barbara skydiver Jan Davis died during a publicity stunt. And though the China jump is a fairly routine challenge for a member of Team Body Bag — a name Weber and fellow limit-pushers adopted years ago when one of them was dying every time they jumped — this week’s event marks a milestone for himself and his sport.
“To be here 20 years later with half my friends dead, and be invited by a government — the Chinese government, no less — to legally jump for such a major event, is huge,” Weber said last month during an interview at his home above the Westside. “It’s a culmination of a lot of things, remembering how the sport started and seeing how far it’s come.”
It’s easy to fault Weber and his free-falling friends for being reckless, selfish, or simply bananas, but his response comes without hesitation. “I really believe mankind wouldn’t be where it is today if people didn’t push the limits of human capability,” said the married father of a one-year-old. “If we didn’t take risks, we would’ve never reached the top of Everest or walked on the moon. We need to step beyond our comfort zone to get somewhere.”
Unfortunately, American authorities don’t see it that way, so BASE jumpers are usually forced to push those limits everywhere else, allowing countries like China to reap the rewards of Weber’s risks. He explained, “It’s sad that the laws in this country often prevent people from exploring such things.”
Berets to BASE
When Weber was 5, he saw his father shot and killed in a Chicago bar. From there, he and his brother were on their own. “We were fed, and someone would take us to the hospital if we broke our arm, but there was never anyone, any support, around us,” he said, remembering how the two built BMX ramps and once spent Christmas barefoot waterskiing on a near-frozen lake. He still doesn’t subscribe to typical holiday traditions, instead using the weeks between Christmas and New Year to travel, recently exploring the Great Barrier Reef.
After high school — where he was a competitive diver and learned aerials like the back-layout double-tuck that is his signature BASE-jumping move — Weber joined the Army, drawn by the guarantee he’d go to airborne school. The brass spotted his grit during basic training and recruited him into Special Forces, making him the medic of an A-Team. During the ceremony where Weber got his Blood Wings — the pin ceremoniously pushed straight into his chest — he also learned that the hunger for high altitude was in his veins: His estranged grandfather delivered a surprise commencement speech, revealing that he’d been a paratrooper during D-Day. During 10 years as a Green Beret, Weber served on strike missions in Desert Storm, deployed to Somalia and Cambodia, and was often sent to fight drug dealing in Central America, amid Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” campaign and the Iran-Contra scandal of the 1980s.
After the military, Weber graduated early from medical school in Indianapolis and got into recreational skydiving, logging thousands of jumps. But he got bored. “It became so routine,” said Weber, so for his next barrier-busting pursuit, he searched out the few Americans who’d started jumping off buildings and cliffs. “BASE jumping is all about where’s the object, how do you get in, how do you get to the roof, how do you get off, how do you get away — all covert ops. It brought back the edginess of what I was doing in the military into civilian life.”
He started hop-scotching at night across the Indianapolis skyline, impressing many, worrying others, and pissing off police. Since the jumping itself wasn’t illegal, they’d arrest Weber for breaking and entering, trespassing, or reckless endangerment, but some cops would simply ask how he did it before letting him go. Meanwhile, during the daylight hours, Weber was fixing teeth, an occupation that still “gives me a lot of satisfaction.”
BASE-specific parachutes had not been invented yet, so Weber and his cohorts were both pioneers and crash-test dummies, modifying skydiving equipment and perfecting maneuvers to slow their descents from high-rises, antennas, cranes — really, any fixed object at least a couple hundred feet off the ground. Today, BASE gear is a booming business. Not only can packs be purchased straight from retailers or eBay; there’s even a school on federal land in Moab, Utah, where skydivers with at least 200 jumps learn how to handle closer-to-earth drops.
In 1998, Weber met former Santa Barbara resident and skydiving/BASE-jumping filmmaker Tom Sanders when they worked on a Discovery Channel feature about Venezuela’s Angel Falls. Their partnership continued through stunt work for movies and commercials. In 2004, Weber moved to Santa Barbara, which, at the time, was home for a group of old-school jumpers like Mick Knutson, Henry Boger, Brian Choppin, Jan Davis, and Lisa Vander.
Weber is the only one left in town who still jumps, but will reunite with many of them in China. “We were the ones that started the rage and the swell of the sport,” said Weber, “and we’re all getting together for the first time in 10 years.”
Claiming to be through with the renegade shenanigans of his younger years — like hurling into gorges from moving trains and getting caught by deputies on the ledge of Cold Spring Bridge — Weber now focuses on sanctioned events like Bridge Day in West Virginia, an annual gathering he helps organize of around 500 BASE-ers who take turns in front of 300,000 spectators. With China on the horizon, however, Weber didn’t rule out the possibility of casing a few of the skyscrapers under construction in the communist country. “It’s going to be fun,” he said.
Evolution and Mortality
Though Leonardo da Vinci invented BASE jumping more than 400 years ago by sketching a pyramidal canopy to save people from burning buildings, one of the first modern-day moments for the sport came on July 24, 1966, when 26-year-old skydivers Michael Pelkey and Brian Schubert jumped off Yosemite’s El Capitan. They both got hurt and didn’t try it again until 40 years later at the 2006 Bridge Day festival, where Schubert, a retired police lieutenant, then 66 years old, died when his chute opened just a few feet above the river.
El Cap came into play again in 1978, when filmmaker Carl Boenish organized a group jump that caught worldwide attention and sparked continuing debates over the legality of BASE jumping in the United States. Boenish would go on to create the BASE number system, doled out in sequential order to jumpers who conquer the fixed objects abbreviated in the acronym: Buildings, Antennas, Spans, and Earth. He ranked #4 and died in a 1984 jump when he hit a rock outcrop in Norway.
Since 1981, there have been 194 BASE jumping fatalities recorded worldwide, the latest on September 10 in New Zealand. It’s hard to compute that figure into a percentage to compare with other extreme sports, as often, law-breaking BASE jumpers are loath to report each jump. Due to the legal concerns, there are no official BASE organizations in the U.S., though there are in Australia, Italy, Germany, and France, among other countries, where members educate governments and the public while lobbying for greater access. There are approximately 3,000 BASE jumpers worldwide. About half that many have their official numbers. Weber’s is #449.
Advocates insist that, when prepared for and performed correctly, BASE jumping isn’t overwhelmingly dangerous. Death is almost always due to user error, as equipment rarely fails. Proper parachute packing and control — as well as slight tweaks at the moment of exit and during the typical three- to five-second free fall — make all the difference. That said, Weber has personally pulled 20 bodies off cliff bottoms and parking lots, including five in one week alone. “People were watching other people do things that they wanted to try, and they weren’t ready for it, and the result was death,” explained Weber, whose combat experience has helped him manage the paralyzing panic and shock often felt by jumpers when they see the ground swallow one of their friends.
Though he talks of being careful, Weber remains known as riskiest among the planet’s top risk-takers. His nickname is “Gowaylow” because he likes to wait until the last moment to open his chute, such as what happened when jumping off a 175-foot structure in Daytona. “I know a parachute opens in 45 feet, but I asked myself, ‘Will it?’” he recalled. “I chose to find out, and opened at 50 feet.”
When a human body strikes a surface after falling at speeds of 120-130 miles per hour, Weber explained that it “doesn’t explode like Jello-O like people think.” Instead, it flattens and deforms, taking on a pancaked appearance with skin and clothes usually containing organs and bones. “I’ve seen bodies blown apart, so none of that bothers me,” he said. “I’m not afraid of death. I’m not afraid of anything, which might not be a good thing, but that’s the way it is.”
Yes to Yosemite
Despite thousands of skyscrapers and countless cliffs across the United States, there are only a handful of places where BASE jumping is legal, specifically Idaho’s Perrine Bridge and a few precipices on Bureau of Land Management property. Yosemite is just one of many naturally perfect places run by the National Park Service where the sport could work, yet the service has banned the activity under an obscure law that prohibits “delivering or retrieving a person or object by parachute, helicopter, or other airborne means.”
Park superintendents can grant permission, but that hasn’t happened since 1980, when Yosemite allowed licensed jumpers for about three months until unauthorized jumping triggered a shutdown. Soon thereafter, an El Capitan jumper drowned in the Merced River while running away from park rangers, and there are still a few hundred illegal jumps per year from the 3,200-foot cliff; nearby Half Dome and Glacier Point are also popular sites.
To protest the ban, Weber and others planned a demonstration in Yosemite in 1999. They contacted park officials and alerted the media, explaining five people would fall from El Capitan, accept the misdemeanor air-delivery charge, then fight it in court. They hoped to set a new legal precedent for jumping in open federal-property spaces. Said Weber that day after landing, “If I could free up this cliff for other jumpers to make the same jump I just did, to go through what I went through and see what I saw, I would do it again.”
BASE jumping’s red-letter day turned into tragedy when 60-year-old Jan Davis — filmmaker Tom Sander’s partner and the widow of a Santa Barbara police chief — died when she didn’t deploy her chute. Authorities threatened Weber and others with felony manslaughter, arguing they were training Davis to BASE jump (she only had about 50 jumps at the time), if they didn’t plead guilty to the air-delivery allegation. The group complied, but Weber maintains Yosemite should be opened to BASE jumpers. “El Capitan is the safest BASE jump in the United States,” said Weber, explaining that Davis had trouble finding the chute’s handle on the donated gear. “Jan had a bad day. On the safest road in the world, someone can have a bad day.”
The incident was a significant setback for those trying to prove BASE jumping isn’t suicidal recreation. Thirteen years later, the sport is again in the limelight, most notably with the emergence of flying-squirrel-like wing-suits that let jumpers soar for remarkable distances. Weber prefers the traditional way. “I’m not a flyer; I’m a faller,” he explained. “There’s a big difference. I like being next to the object. I don’t want to get away from it.”
Meanwhile, on the stratospheric end of the spectrum, the energy-drink maker Red Bull is planning to drop Austria’s Felix Baumgartner out of a helium balloon 22.7 miles above Earth. Baumgartner would break the sound barrier and upend the previous free-fall record set in 1960 by U.S Air Force Colonel Joseph Kittinger, who’s on the Red Bull Stratos team.
While the rest of the world embraces BASE jumping, Weber said that the United States is still woefully behind the times. What bothers him most is the idea that jumpers endanger the public, even though no one on the ground has ever been killed by a BASE jumper.
“The public doesn’t understand what it takes to plan and execute a jump,” said Weber. “You put yourself in a life-or-death situation, so you have to consider all the options, including people on the ground. You need to make sure you don’t hit someone and kill them or yourself.” During city jumps, Weber likes to land between parked cars.
Be in ‘The Now’
Skimming skyscrapers and careening down cliffs is infectious, but for Weber, the real rush is during the fractioned seconds before and during a jump’s first moments. “It’s all about being in ‘the now,’ and there’s nothing like it,” he explained. “You smell everything, you feel the wind, time slows down, way down. For me, it’s about being in complete control of everything that’s happening to my life in one moment, and I have to make the decision to save it. It’s suicide without the commitment.” For the seconds you’re falling, he explained, you’re dying, and it’s up to you to stop the demise.
After more than 650 jumps, Weber still takes comfort in hearing his chute go “poof,” listening to the cords unravel and its Velcro unzip as he’s yanked upright. “It jars you, but I’ve been doing it so long that it’s a good feeling,” said Weber, and the landing is when adrenaline kicks in. “It’s the greatest sense of accomplishment — you pulled it off; you did it.”
Though free-falling is a world removed from drilling teeth, Weber also gets that gratification from his 9-5 job. “When it comes to surgery, I know what I need to do,” he explained. “I don’t balk at it. It’s the same way with BASE jumping — all business.”
With a one-year-old daughter and wife, Weber continues to get flack for his upcoming China jump, as friends and family aren’t exactly encouraging yet another high-profile jump. Weber appreciates the concern, but his outlook hasn’t wavered in decades. “I feel the same way I did back when I was jumping every week,” he said. “If I’m not living my life like I know how, how can I live for my daughter? No matter what happens, I want her to live. A lot of people miss out on a lot of things, and that’s a shame, because there’s so much out there.”
With a handshake and a laugh, he summed up, “I’ll let you know how China goes. But if it goes bad, which it might, you had a great exit interview.”