Skip to main content
Original Issue

Leaps Of Faith Base jumper Marta Empinotti scales cliffs and towers and drops into thin air

In the cool semidarkness just before dawn, Marta Empinotti
stands at the base of a 900-foot radio tower deep in the woods
of central Florida, about 45 miles from her home in the tiny
town of DeLeon Springs. She has parked her car out of sight. She
listens for a moment to make sure she has not been followed. At
her feet is her jumping rig, a sturdy harness for her shoulders
and legs that is attached to a specially constructed backpack
containing two parachutes.

Empinotti, 33, is lean and athletic, with blonde hair and a warm
smile. She doesn't look like an outlaw and doesn't consider
herself one, but what she is about to do--climb halfway up this
tower and parachute off it--is illegal.

Empinotti is a base jumper, one of the best and most experienced
in the world. A former recreational sky diver, she now devotes
her life to the clandestine sport of parachuting from fixed
objects. BASE is an acronym for buildings, antennas (towers),
spans (bridges) and earth (cliffs). If Empinotti is caught
jumping off this tower, which she has done two or three times a
week for several years, she will probably get a warning for
trespassing, but at many of the locations frequented by base
jumpers--in particular those in national parks--the penalty can
be up to a $5,000 fine and a year in jail. One of Empinotti's
good friends spent three months in a federal prison for jumping
off a building in New Orleans after he had been put on probation
for jumping off the same building. It's a dangerous sport, and
while no official records are kept, it is estimated that,
internationally, in the last two decades more than 20 base
jumpers have died.

On the refrigerator in Empinotti's house is the canceled $200
check she wrote out to the National Park Service to pay a fine
for having jumped off a cliff in Utah's Zion National Park.
Because of this, base jumpers are reluctant to talk about where
they jump or when, sometimes even among themselves. If a site
becomes too popular, the authorities may be waiting when the
next group of jumpers hits the ground.

"I don't jump because I like to do something illegal or sneak
around," Empinotti explains. "I jump because this is my love.
This is what I always wanted to do. I jump because of the joy it
gives me."

Among serious base jumpers, to have jumped 100 times is
considered a formidable accomplishment. Empinotti has made more
than 650 jumps. She has gone off cliffs such as El Capitan and
Half Dome in Yosemite National Park. She has jumped from the top
of a 1,000-foot high-rise in Los Angeles. She leaped from a
600-foot bridge in Germany, and from 3,212-foot-high Angel Falls
in Venezuela. In Caracas she parachuted off a building while
making a potato chip commercial, and in Switzerland she
snowboarded off a 1,500-foot cliff for a soft-drink ad. Ask her
to name her favorite jump and she'll choose the last place she
jumped from, but the radio tower in Florida is a sentimental
favorite, because it is near her home and she jumps it
regularly. She regards it as a friend.

"Most people look at a tower as just a pile of steel," she says.
"To me it is a thing of beauty, a piece of art. When I'm high
above the ground, maybe six or eight hundred feet up, the
feeling is very spiritual. I look down, and if there is fog, all
I can see are the tips of the trees. On the horizon the sun is
rising, turning the clouds pink and yellow. It's so peaceful;
it's like paradise. I'm not impressing anyone, because nobody
knows I'm there. It's just me and nature. Then I jump and feel
the thrill. When I land, I see the sun rise again. How many
people watch the sun rise twice in one day?"

A light wind blows out of the west, and puffy clouds drift
across the sky as Empinotti stretches for a few moments, cinches
the harness of her rig around her thighs and shoulders and moves
quickly to the ladder inside the triangle of steel. She wears
camouflage pants, a long-sleeved T-shirt to protect her arms
from the ladder's rough edges and pink gardening gloves to
protect her hands. "I got the gloves to tease the macho guys I
jump with," she says. Ordinarily, one or more of her friends
would be with her, but on this morning the man who was to join
her overslept, and for the first time in the 12 years Empinotti
has been base jumping, she will jump alone. She wraps her arms
around the ladder, using only her legs to propel her, and seems
to glide upward. In no time she is several hundred feet above
the ground.

Empinotti was born and reared in Brazil. She is one of four
sisters who were taught by their parents to be independent, to
have careers and not to spend their lives in the shadows of
husbands. As a teenager, Marta took up skydiving and was
captivated by the feeling of freedom it gave her and the
camaraderie in the sport. At 19, while studying to become a
doctor, she got the urge to travel. She dropped out of school
and set out to see the world. She was living and working in
Florida in 1986 when some skydiving friends told her about
Bridge Day, the third Saturday in October, on which base jumpers
can legally jump from the bridge over the New River Gorge in
West Virginia. She drove north with her friends, made her first
base jump and was hooked.

"Skydiving, because of the plane, is noisy," Empinotti says.
"When you jump, you have to deal with the prop blast and the
wind. Base jumping is a totally different feeling. You have a
much more intimate relationship with the objects you're jumping
from. You develop respect for them. I always thank an object
after I jump it. There is no noise when you exit and no air
speed. You start going faster and begin to hear the whoosh. You
see the object--the tower or cliff or building--speeding by and
the ground rushing up toward you before your chute opens. It's
incredibly intense. It fills me with life."

When she isn't traveling the world to hurl herself from objects,
Empinotti runs a business called Vertigo that designs and
manufactures base-jumping rigs and the parachutes, or canopies,
that are packed inside. She also teaches base jumping, though
she is quick to point out that she accepts as students only
seasoned sky divers. Because of the lower altitude in base
jumping, there is far less room for error. An off-kilter exit, a
slightly twisted line or a momentary brush of the parachute
against cliff or building can spell disaster.

Empinotti knows the perils of base jumping firsthand. In 1987,
one year after her first jump in West Virginia, as she was
filming her boyfriend on the same bridge, his main parachute
failed to open. By the time he pulled the reserve chute, he had
free-fallen too far, and he plunged to his death in the river

"For six months after that I just wanted to die," she says. "I
would climb up an object, think of him, start to cry and climb
back down. Then one day I said, 'This is crazy. I lost him, and
it sucks, but I'm here and I love this.' I freed myself and began
jumping again."

She has reached a cross-brace of the tower, 600 feet above the
ground. She tests the wind, making sure it is still coming out
of the west, at her back, so that she will be blown away from
the tower when she jumps. Then she takes a deep breath, counts
down from three and springs into the air. Her head is back, and
her arms and legs are spread wide. For three seconds, before her
parachute opens and she gently falls to earth, she is flying.

Philip Singerman is a novelist and freelance writer in Longwood,

COLOR PHOTO: EZRA O. SHAW [Marta Empinotti]

COLOR PHOTO: BRENDAN MCHUGH Free fall Empinotti, a former sky diver, prefers the quiet rush of fixed-object jumping to a noisy leap from a droning airplane. [Marta Empinotti jumping from cliff]

"I don't jump" because I like to sneak around. I jump because
this is my love."