BASE Jump in a National Park in New River Gorge in West Virginia

When West Virginia’s New River Gorge Bridge was completed in 1977, it was a remarkable feat: a 22,000-ton stretch of steel spanning the gaping 3,030-foot-wide gorge, 876 feet above the seething, freezing New River. It cost $37 million, created four lanes of traffic and cut the local 45-minute commute to just one, bypassing winding Appalachian roads. When completed, it became the longest single-arch bridge in the Western Hemisphere, and in 2013, after just 34 years, it was added to the National Register of Historic Places for its engineering significance. It even has its own stamp.

During construction, people watched the span and marveled. Maybe he even wondered what the views were like from up there, a few hundred meters from the Eiffel Tower, or if the construction workers were bothered by the wind. But a fearless guy named Burton Ervin looked at him and thought, “A man could jump out of that.”

Ervin was a coal mining foreman, a Korean War army veterinarian, and a self-proclaimed hillbilly. He was also a skydiver looking for a new challenge. He saw it in the New River Gorge Bridge, later telling local news, “I wanted to try something that you might or might not pull off.”

But it was not a dummy. He did his research, flying overhead at different times of the day to test the wind, swimming in the New River below to test the undercurrents. Then, two years after the bridge opened, in the dead of night on Friday, August 17, 1979, he strapped a parachute over his white Elvis-style jumpsuit and jumped off in the dark. Around 200 spectators gathered for the event, which ended when he dove into the water.

Rappellers and BASE jumpers in harmony. | Jeff Swensen/Getty Images Sport/Getty Images

The stunt was not only illegal, but misguided in many ways – there’s technically no path on the bridge to keep it away from vehicles, to begin with – but every daredevil in the area saw that it ended…pretty well. They started jumping off the bridge themselves at all hours of the day. Ervin noticed the trend and urged local Fayetteville officials to create a day when it would be legal to jump off the bridge during the day, giving jumpers a safe grip while generating revenue for the town at the same time. (According to his account, he told the Chamber of Commerce, “You’re not going to stop these people from jumping off the bridge. You could make some money off that!”)

Ervin helped establish the first New River Gorge Bridge Day in 1980. Two people were parachuted from an airplane to the bridge, five were parachuted into the gorge and certificates were given to 5,500 people who were the first to cross the span of the bridge. And though it was Burton’s first and last time hosting the event — “I’m just trying to live a good hillbilly life and have some freedom,” he said — a tradition was born.

Bridge Day is now the oldest and largest organized BASE jumping event in the world, with 100,000 spectators per year (BASE is an acronym referring to the fixed objects from which they jump: Buildings, Antennas, bridges or “Spans”, and cliffs or “Earth”). ”). It takes place every year on the third Saturday of October, and after a two-year hiatus fueled by the pandemic, the festivities are back.

A lot has happened in the past two years, including New River Gorge becoming the country’s 63rd national park in 2020. Which means that on October 15 it will be the only national park that legally allows BASE jumping. . Burton Ervin would be so proud.

Glue landing. | NPS Photo/John Chapman

Fortunately, the national park designation— or, more specifically, the 1965 law that prohibits the “air delivery” of people or goods into national parks — won’t spoil the fun of Bridge Day. This year’s event will still evoke aspects of that first celebration, imbued with the daredevil spirit of Burton. For 10 hours the bridge is closed to vehicular traffic, and for six of those hours it becomes a toy for adventurers, their spectators, and anyone who likes a good vantage point from which to observe the fall foliage.

For its part, the NPS will provide a special use permit that will allow BASE jumpers to land in the park and will offer support in the form of rescue boats for water landings. Interpreters will also walk around the bridge. Behind the scenes, the NPS sits as a non-voting member on the Bridge Day committee.

The white water rafting below offers a unique vantage point for Bridge Day. | Bridge Day West Virginia

The day’s program includes a 5K, abseiling on the bridge (with experienced teams chosen in advance by lottery), guided walks on the bridge on the footbridge 25 feet below the roadway and driving High Line for the general public in search of adrenaline. White-water rafting tours offer a different perspective from the BASE riders below, as do shuttle tours to the bottom of the gorge (you can also do the nine-mile round-trip hike).

If you feel the call of BASE jumping, congratulations! For you there is the option of going solo, strapped in tandem to a professional or being thrown with a human catapult. And you wouldn’t be alone: ​​participation has grown a lot since that first jump in 1980. In 2019, Bridge Day saw 300 jumpers from around the world take part in 790 jumps; the youngest BASE jumper for the event to date is 19, the oldest, 81. And it’s a creative group. There have been clown riders and flying pigs. There was a Bridge Day wedding in 1990 where they got married and then skipped (and, thankfully, didn’t…tie the knot). A few riders even donned presidential masks and full suits. It is the commitment.

Onlookers on the bridge. | NPS

October 7 is the deadline to sign up for jumping, and this one is especially great if you’re a beginner. With the bridge’s low height, in-water rescue personnel, accessible training day, and experienced personnel on hand, the Bridge Day jump is one of the safest first BASE jumps you’ll ever have. can do and attracts around 100 newbies every year. (To jump solo, you must already have 50 skydives under your belt, but if not, there’s always the tandem option.)

For the rest of us who like to watch, the festivities start at 9 a.m. and end at 3 p.m. If you want to start early, October 14 marks Taste of Bridge Day at the Adventures on the Gorge resort, with 16 vendors serving up everything from crabmeat to pizza. So go ahead… throat yourself.

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Vanita Salisbury is Thrillist’s Senior Travel Writer. If she jumped, she would probably dress like a bird or something.

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