Close your eyes and imagine. From now on it is only you and a 3,500m chasm. In a matter of seconds you will become like one of those birds, the feeling of freedom is indescribable. Expand your wings, feel the wind and enjoy navigating for five minutes passing by cliffs and rocks, over rivers and pine trees. At some point you make the decision – you open your parachute.
It opens. Everything is fine; now you only have to land.
Scenario number two: The parachute fails. There is no pause button. The game is over and you realise you will die in the next few moments.
When I originally posted an inquiry about interviewing a wingsuiter, one of the comments below my post was: “I knew one. He’s dead”.
He’s not the only one – there are many examples of accidents: January 2016, Rami Kipa Kajala, cause of death, drowning; April 2016, Roy Kenneth Roland, cause of death, under investigation; June 2016, Alexander Polli, cause of death, crashed into trees; August 2016, Michael Leming, cause of death, parachute malfunction; August 2016, Dave Reader, cause of death: parachute failure.
These are just some of the fatalities reported in the press, all of whom are also on Blinc Magazine’s list of more than 300 casualties that have been recorded in their unofficial listing since 1981 – there are many more that go unrecorded, and the accuracy of this figure is disputed.
Richard Webb, a former fighter pilot for the US Navy and an active wingsuit BASE jumper from Moab, Utah, in an interview for National Geographic stated that: “Right now, wingsuit BASE jumping is, globally, the hottest thing going for the impressionable, 18 to 35-year-old single-male demographic.”
Blinc Magazine define BASE jumping: “As an activity that employs an initially packed parachute to jump from fixed objects. “B.A.S.E.” is an acronym that stands for four categories of fixed objects from which one can jump: buildings, antennas, spans (bridges), and earth (cliffs)”.
Jumping from cliffs with a special suit is called BASE wingsuiting.
Uli Emanuele, considered as a “hero” in the wingsuit community, recorded his own death while jumping. He failed to open his parachute before crashing into a rock in the Swiss Alps.
The movie below shows one of his most extreme performance, a flight through a two meter cave.
It has been three years since Marc Sutton, the base jumper who doubled for Daniel Craig during the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Olympic Games, lost his life during a wingsuit flight in the Swiss Alps. His accident did not only shocked the world but also opened a new debate on the subject.
In fact, each jumping season – usually most of the summer – the debate becomes increasingly powered by grief, which in consequence pressures local authorities to impose restrictions.
This happened in October 2016 in the French Alps, where a record statistic of five casualties in Chamonix valley alone, led to a total ban on jumping.
Chamonix’s mayor, Eric Fournier, published a decree banning BASE wingsuit flying until further notice, after a recent accident where a Russian pilot crashed into a village building.
“He crashed into a wall, but he could have hit people or a car,” Fournier said. “We still don’t understand exactly what happened, which worries us greatly. We are thinking about how to avoid this kind of accident going forward. What worries us is putting others’ lives in danger,” he told local TV channel, France 3.
“Wingsuiting is still a new sport that is growing in popularity, those who do it still haven’t mastered it,” said deputy mayor Jean-Louis Verdier.The authorities of Chamonix started to worry, since five of the eight casualties in France died in Chamonix. The decree triggered a new debate between the local community, authorities and athletes, including those from different disciplines.
The French Alps are known for their most liberal regulations on sport practises in Europe except for a couple of lobbied restrictions such as heliskiing (helicopter skiing) or bivouacking (mountain camping) above a certain height, implemented in the 1980s when high mountain activities became increasingly popular.
It seems that the popularity of that particular sport is triggering a new debate on whether this fairly young activity should be banned.
The same happened with another discipline: off-piste skiing, a type of wild skiing – in January, after a severe snow fall a number of deadly avalanches occurred in Chamonix, either naturally or by the freestyle skiers.
It re-opened the old discussion about banning the off-piste activities during winter, and it is said that more than a hundred skiers die every winter in the Alps because of such activities.
The debate was strongest on Facebook: La Chamoniarde, an information fun page for mountain worshipers, who posted the decree that day and the post was heavily commented: “If it continues we’re going to ban mountain biking too in August and July. The sport had been well before, everybody was happy. Why should we change it?”
According to the decree: “This decision is motivated by the excesses of the practice found recently creating situations of endangerment of others. A redefinition of the conditions of exercise of the practice is necessary.”
Colonel Stephane Bozon from the rescue services in Chamonix told The Guardian, that this sport take all of their attention and that they are horrified by it: “We must return to people behaving a little more rationally.”
Now, close your eyes again and imagine: You are walking your dog on a bright sunny day, or you are having lunch in a restaurant garden and suddenly, out of nowhere, a man flies into you or your relatives.
The case of the Russian jumper shows that it is no more a question of an individual jumper’s risk but it can also put innocent and unprepared civilians at risk.
Restrictions and regulations have already been imposed before in Chamonix. One of them was scheduling a timetable for jumpers imposing hours of wingsuiting so that their activity does not interfere with other sky users such as helicopters, gliders or paragliders.
However, there is one activity in the mountains, which cannot be planned by any means. Rescue.
It is trickier to schedule anything for rescuers as their activity is unpredictable. However, the restriction made them aware of that particular time period during which real bodies flew over the valley at speeds of up to of 180-200 km/h (112-125 mph).
A collision, could end tragically for both the helicopter, its occupants and the jumper.This rises fundamental questions about the essence of the sport: to what extent is wingsuiting an extreme sport and to what extent is it suicidal? In order to answer that question, we could compare it to other ‘sky’ related sports. In terms of risk, is parachuting as dangerous as jumping from a 3,000m cliff?
A parachute jump from a plane lasts for about 90 seconds. It is a popular birthday gift or stag or hen party activity for the average person.
In fact, anyone without a serious medical issue, can jump in a tandem. If you compare a 90 second mid-air jump to the longest wingsuit jump of four to nine minutes, it becomes evident that the time and nature of risk is far more extensive.
A BASE wingsuit jump lasts on average six to nine minutes, during this time you are exposed to a series of dangers, from steep hills, buildings, tall trees, mountain tops and other obstacles along your way. Compare this against a parachute jump which does not expose you to anything but thin air.
Both activities are extremely dangerous, but still, for many people challenging your friends or family to jump from a plane remains a popular birthday voucher. This, despite the intensity of danger during that minute-and-a-half. It could be said that any sport closely related to risk is extreme and perhaps always partially suicidal.
[pullquote align=”right”]“Right now, wingsuit BASE jumping is, globally, the hottest thing going for the impressionable, 18 to 35-year-old single-male demographic.” [/pullquote]It is one of those sports, where the responsibility lies within the athlete’s decision and the main goal of such activities is to escape from its own comfort zone.
Many would say, that as long as the comfort zone does not go beyond theirs, then there is nothing wrong in practising any life threatening sports.
Chamonix’s local guide argues: “I know guys with families, who fly every weekend. You must know, that risk is everywhere. You could also die by being hit by a car tomorrow. It’s only a question of lowering the risk as much as possible.”
Monika Rutkowska, a 40-year-old e-commerce analyst from Poland, is a base jumper aspiring to become a BASE wingsuiter: “The age is not important in jumping. You can start if you are 16, if your parents let you, you could come up with the idea even when retired. As long as you are in a good physical shape, it is not to late.”
“I started not long ago, only three years. Today the only thing I regret is that I didn’t start earlier. So much time lost!” she told us.
“When it comes to wingsuiting, I am doing my first steps. Before, it was undoable since only in this season I acquired the necessary amount of jumps, to start the course,” Rutkowska said.
“Everywhere in the world, the course is based on the theory part, land training and flight manoeuvring. Learning sums up with an exam, after which you can start your life adventure. Namely, jump, jump, polish your skills and acquire new ones.
“Briefly, in an ideal world, your are firstly a very good athlete with more then 200 jumps, then you do your BASE course, afterwards you jumps couple of hundred times from different buildings, in the meantime you improve your wingsuit steering skills and finally you travel to the most scenic places in the world, such as Alps, Norway or China.
“In practise you do what you want, you jump five times from a bridge, you do your wingsuit course and nobody will ban you from jumping off a mountain. The only question is, if it’s not going to be your last activity before you get plugged to a respirator.”
“You can’t do it without passion! And you know it from the very moment you spread your wings and instead of falling you fly. Often annually before the season we meet with my club to recall the rules of security, therefore we discuss and analyse accidents from all over the world. And we train, train and train to minimise the risk.
“My relatives deal with my jumping, they know the risk. My boyfriend is a wingsuiter, my mom with my sister have already experienced the tandem, the rest of the family is queuing. But let’s be honest, I still have a bigger probability to die in a car accident then jumping.”
When asked about the extent to which wingsuiting is suicidal she answered: “It’s a bit too expensive for dying, don’t you think?”
“The risk depends on many factors, weather conditions, your skills, your margin of error, the equipment you’re using, the activity of air during weather conditions and people you’re jumping with,” she explained.
“The main cause for accidents is recklessness. Some people want to do stuff to quickly. Pushing their limits, lowering the margin of safety. A big part of people wants to go as fast as possible from a plane jump to Flying Terrain. Some, buy the suits not matched to their skills. Generally speaking it’s the human factor biggest cause.”
When asked about ethics, she added: “There isn’t any ethics as such. Once I wanted to sell my wingsuit and a fresher came to me to buy his first suit. Obviously, I haven’t sold it to him, I didn’t want to have a guilty conscience. I hope that wingsuit education will improve with it’s popularity.”
Only time will tell whether authorities and athletes will reach any sound solutions. One thing is certain, in order to alter the faith of future Wingsuiters, both sides have to agree on a policy with mutual respect.
With recent events and statistics in hand, we are all aware that something must be done before new land and air casualties appear. However, any regulation would have to be a carefully balanced act — neither totally restricted nor totally legalised.
Even if the solution is the introduction of some system of flying permits, impositions of fines, new educational projects, netting systems over the cities, flying schedules or special jumping trails, wingsuit activity will always have to include a vital margin of error.
One can only hope that the jumpers will respect the ban and be patient until a reasonable decision is made.
Actively avoiding the discourse is not an option: the 2015 national avalanche debate, which died away after two weeks of media fuss, had no effect – freestyle skiing in avalanche environments continued to flourish, just as rapidly and with the same intensity as in the inexperienced 1980s.
Editorial note: This article was amended on November 1, 2016 after feedback from readers around the original casualty figure quoted (1,800), which appeared the BASE-jumping.eu website (accessed on November 1, 2016).
Featured image by By Damien Deschamps.