PROFILE

GOING OVER THE EDGE

A Calgary BASE jumper survives a 486-foot drop with a failed parachute

MICHAEL FRISCOLANTI June 12 2006
PROFILE

GOING OVER THE EDGE

A Calgary BASE jumper survives a 486-foot drop with a failed parachute

MICHAEL FRISCOLANTI June 12 2006

GOING OVER THE EDGE

PROFILE

A Calgary BASE jumper survives a 486-foot drop with a failed parachute

MICHAEL FRISCOLANTI

Jason Cooper is a smart guy. Everyone says so. At 29, his resumé is loaded with degrees and scholarships and academic awards. This summer, the University of Calgary grad student plans to add another title to his curriculum vitae: doctor. His Ph.D. thesis in physics explores the determination of molecular properties for ethane and the application of ab initio techniques. Translation: Jason Cooper was blessed with a few extra brain cells.

Not that you would think so after hearing about his mishap in small-town Idaho, where the soon-to-be professor zipped on an armoured jacket, climbed over a guardrail, and hurled himself off a very high bridge. Six seconds and 486 feet later, Cooper smashed into a shallow river, his body soaked in mud and pain and entangled in a parachute. “He hit at a very high speed,” recalls Tom Aiello, who witnessed the thud. “People at the top were pretty much certain that he died on impact.” He didn’t. In fact, apart from a few broken bones and a collapsed lung, doctors expect the Alberta native to make a full recovery. His favourite hobby didn’t fare too badly, either. Despite his injuries, fellow thrill-seekers flocked back to the bridge the very next morning, hopping over the side until the sun went down. “In a sport like this, you understand there are risks you take,” Aiello says. “If that was a wake-up call, then you should have woken up before the wake-up call.”

This is the world of BASE jumping, skydiving’s lesser-known cousin. Short for Building, Antenna, Span and Earth, loyal adherents hurl themselves off almost anything with a view, from cliffs to skyscrapers. Quality of life, they often brag, is better than quantity.

And no place attracts a larger quantity of jumpers than Twin Falls, a southern Idaho city that quietly promotes itself as home to the Perrine Bridge—the only bridge in America from which you can leap year-round without a permit. A free-for-all free fall.

Like dozens of other jumpers, Jason Cooper and his twin brother Michael (Jason is older by three minutes) spent Memorial Day weekend in Twin Falls. Both have been skydiving for more than a decade, BASE jumping almost as long. “That bridge is something we’re pretty familiar with,” says Michael, who works as a computer programmer in Calgary.

On May 26, a Friday, the brothers

‘IF THAT WAS A WAKE-UP CALL, THEN YOU SHOULD HAVE WOKEN UP BEFORE THE WAKE-UP CALL’

planned an especially complex drop.

BASE jumpers typically leap alone, plummeting toward earth for a few short seconds before tossing a “pilot chute” into the sky, which yanks on a bridle cord and unleashes the full chute from the pack. For this jump, however, the Cooper twins stood on either side of another man, Nick Rugai, who held their bridles in his hands. “What was supposed to happen,” Michael explains, halflaughing, “is that the three of us would jump off, and the centre guy, when his canopy caught him, would still be holding our pilot

chutes and he’d continue to hold onto them until it pulled our parachute.” The result is supposed to resemble a waterfall, with each chute opening in split-second succession.

Things didn’t go quite according to plan. All three leapt at the same time, but while the middle man fell straight down, the twins jumped outward from the ledge. In a blink, Rugai was well below the Coopers and falling fast. And because he was still gripping their bridle cords, the force sent both twins into a roll. Michael managed to recover, but Jason kept spinning, snagging his chute with each revolution. “I looked down and I saw Jason with his back down, face up,” Michael recalls. “It looked like a flag he was hanging on to. It was just this piece of fabric flapping over his head.” At the last possible moment, the physics major lifted his legs and slammed— back first—into the Snake River, no more than a foot deep.

Cooper remains in the intensive care unit of a Boise hospital, but his brother says he is alert and walking around—and well aware that he probably shouldn’t be. “It certainly gives you food for thought,” Michael says. “But we’ve spent a lot of time talking about these kinds of things. He’s been very insistent that if something happened BASE jumping and he died, it is very, very important to him that the responsibility for his last decision was his.” He now has another decision to make: whether to quit while he’s ahead. “He’s 50-50,” Michael says. Expect those odds to improve. For dedicated jumpers, there is always something that beckons them back to the bridge. Fear. Adrenalin. A thirst to find the edge, then cross it. “When somebody gets hurt, it’s not like we’re walking around shaking our heads going: ‘Oh, how did this happen?’ ” Aiello says. “We know exactly how it happened. You’re pushing the limits of human possibility.” Albert Einstein, the most famous physicist of all, worded it another way. “Two things are infinite,” he once said. “The universe and human stupidity. And I’m not sure about the universe.” M