Austin Carey says he loves to leap from Yosemite National Park’s towering granite cliffs. Even a near-deadly plunge in 2015 hasn’t stopped him from being a BASE jumper.
What he doesn’t like is what he sees as a double standard: Yosemite allows high-risk sports such as hang gliding from Glacier Point Overlook and climbing of El Capitan and Half Dome without ropes or safety equipment. BASE jumpers, though, get prosecuted.
On Wednesday, Carey’s passion put him in a very different Yosemite setting – a small U.S. District courtroom in Yosemite Valley where he faced two misdemeanor charges of parachuting in a national park without a permit and disorderly conduct for knowingly or recklessly creating a risk that causes public alarm or nuisance.
After a two-hour trial, federal Magistrate Judge Michael Seng said he needed time to research the law. His ruling is pending.
Before his trial, Carey, 26, didn’t deny being a BASE jumper – someone who uses a parachute or wingsuit to fly off a fixed structure or cliff. (BASE stands for building, antenna, span, and Earth.) Carey said he has BASE jumped in Yosemite at least 20 times in the past five years.
“I’m not a daredevil,” he said. “I just like to have fun.”
Carey hopes his case will draw attention to what he says is an injustice, and leads to legislation that will allow BASE jumping in Yosemite and other national parks.
Yosemite park spokesman Scott Gediman said BASE jumping is illegal because it doesn’t fit in with “the park’s values” that puts a high priority of providing a wholesome, quiet, safe environment for families and visitors. He said typically two to three BASE jumpers are prosecuted each year for illegally pursuing their sport in the park.
“Some of these jumpers have landed in trees and in rivers,” Gediman said. “They also draw large crowds and a circus-like atmosphere.”
“We just don’t believe it’s appropriate for the park,” Gediman said, noting that sometimes it takes park staff to rescue jumpers.
Since the 1970, hang gliding has been permitted on Saturday mornings from Glacier Point Overlook as long as the pilot is certified and the aircraft lands in an area designated by park officials, Gediman said. They also need a park permit. There is no such permit for BASE jumping, he said.
Rock climbing also is permitted because if a climber falls, the plunge likely will occur in a remote area and won’t impact other visitors, Gediman said.
Because some regard BASE jumping as a fringe extreme sport or stunt, its prohibition has withstood legal challenges. In 2000, a federal appeals court ruled that the National Park Service can ban low-altitude, high-tech parachute jumps like the one that killed stuntwoman Jan Davis at Yosemite’s El Capitan the year before.
Four chutists leaped from the top of El Capitan in October 1999 in a protest intended to showcase the safety of BASE jumping. Davis, 60, of Santa Barbara, plunged 3,500 feet to her death when her chute failed to open.
Gediman said he saw Davis’ fatal plunge.
Another high-profile incident claimed the life of legendary rock climber and BASE jumper Dean Potter and another man who were killed after after attempting an aerial descent from Taft Point, a scenic overhang into Yosemite Valley. Potter, 43, and Graham Hunt, 29, jumped during the early evening hours of May 16, 2015.
Carey said the Park Service should share some blame in Davis’ and Potter’s deaths.
Gediman said rangers told Davis they were going arrest her after her jump and confiscate her gear. To protect her gear, Carey said, Davis had to borrow a parachute that ended up not deploying.
Because Potter and Graham knew it was illegal to jump, Carey said, they likely waited to nightfall to avoid rangers. The dynamics involved in jumping occur better in daytime hours, he said. “When the rocks are hot, you get better lift,” he said.
Carey said BASE jumping can be a safe sport like hang gliding if properly regulated. To help reach his goal, he has established Northern California Para-Alpinist, which will try to push legislation to legitimize the sport in Yosemite and other national parks.
Carey said BASE jumping is already permitted in such places as Perrine Bridge, in Twin Falls, Idaho, a place he knows all too well.
In March 2014, Carey and his friend, Jay Rawe, 25, did a risky tandem jump from the Perrine Bridge when their parachutes got tangled, according to The Huffington Post.
“Stunned spectators – who recorded the near-fatal fall – could only gasp in horror as they spiraled onto the rocks below,” The Huffington Post reported. Both suffered multiple injuries including fractures to the spine – and Austin was told he might not walk again. But after almost a year of intensive recovery, both men have returned to the sport they love, The Huffington Post reported.
For months, Carey said, he felt depressed about his injury. But his love of the outdoors gave him reason to live.
Eventually, he learned to walk again, he said. Then he learned to climb.
He said it used to take him 10 hours to climb Half Dome. Now, he said he can do it in three.
“There’s nothing like seeing Half Dome at sunrise,” he said. “It made me realized that the mountains is where I want to be and where I belong.”
He said jumping off the mountain makes him feel “100 percent.”
“It’s an absolute rush,” he said, adding there is a risk of death in everything, from driving a car to walking on a trail.
Carey said it’s unfair that park rangers allow climbers such as Alex Honnold to climb Half Dome and El Capitan without ropes or safety gear, yet frown on BASE jumpers doing their thing on the same monuments.
“We’re athletes just like them,” he said.
As a kid, Carey grew up in Fort Wayne, Indiana, where he wrestled in high school and skateboarded and snowboarded. As he grew older, he got involved in mixed martial arts. Then one day, he saw a television show about extreme sports in which people would jump off cliffs in wingsuits. “I thought it was so cool,” he recalled.
His interest led him in 2012 to take a train to Twin Falls, Idaho, to learn how to BASE jump. Since then, he said he has BASE jumped all over the United States and in Canada and Brazil.
He said getting arrested in Yosemite was the first time he has been in trouble for BASE jumping.
A criminal complaint says that on the morning of Sept 6, 2016, a park visitor saw a man and parachute in a tree about 150 feet from the ground near Housekeeping Camp, just below Glacier Point. On the ground was a helmet and goggles.
Carey was able to climb down part of the way. Park firefighters and climbing crews had to help him down the rest of the way.
Park employee Justin Buzzard, who maintains Yosemite’s trees, testified at Wednesday’s trial that he needed ropes and special equipment to rescue Carey. He recalled asking Carey: “Man, having a bad day?”
The complaint said Carey was wearing a harness and backpack, typical gear of a BASE jumper. Carey said park rangers confiscated his gear, including his pink wingsuit that had signatures of many friends from BASE jumping, including those who had died.
The two charges are misdemeanors. Each carry a penalty of six months in jail and/or a $5,000 fine. Carey said he didn’t have a defense to the charges.
The prosecutor wanted Carey to give up his wingsuit, but he initially refused, saying it had sentimental value. He then accepted his punishment.
“I BASE jump because, for me, BASE jumping has brought me the best things in life,” he said, adding that he lives in his van, has no savings account, and barely makes enough as a personal trainer to survive.
“But I have everything I want and need,” he said. “I have enough gear and knowledge to competently summit and descend a mountain with a wingsuit. I have outstanding friends that positively push me as we progress together. We are passionate about flying in the mountains and share moments in life through jumping and climbing that are so emotionally connecting that we thrive through our experiences together.
“Above all things in life, BASE jumping has brought me happiness. This is why I BASE jump,” he said.