A Conversation With a Man Who Can Fly
“About three BASE jumpers die in this valley each year.”
I was sitting in the only pub in Lauterbrunnen, Switzerland, the main town of the Lauterbrunnen Valley, drinking my gin and tonic and picking the brains of the tall, sun-tanned BASE-jumper of a stranger.
“We have about one death per 300 jumpers, a number that’s on par with climbing deaths. That’s how the pro BASE jumping organizations keep it from getting banned. If we’re on the same level as climbing and if climbing is accepted, we should be too. Of course, I think jumping in the valley won’t last. BASE jumping is getting more popular every year. And with the size of the egos…well, fatalities might start to rise and if that happens they’ll ban it.”
“Won’t that hurt the valley’s tourism?” I asked. “I mean…there are so many of you guys here.”
“No. Actually, we’re a danger to tourism. What would hurt the valley’s tourism is more BASE-jumping fatalities. We maybe make them a million a year. We’re a cheap group, cooking for ourselves, living on the cheap. So our money is just a drop in the bucket. It’s what their train system makes on a bad day. But we’re jumping all over the valley, and just imagine a family of tourists watching a BASE jumper die. The kids would need psychologists, years of counseling. They actually had a jumper die in front of 14 kids a few years ago — fell in front of a school. Those kids’ lives were changed. If things like that happen, Switzerland will stop putting up with us. They won’t even try to regulate; they’ll just ban it.”
“So,” I said, pausing to collect my thoughts, “are most fatalities a product of chance — the wind changes or the parachute doesn’t open? Or are most of them mistakes by the flyers?”
“Bad decisions,” he said. “There is so much alpha male ego here and so much competition and people push beyond their abilities and make bad decisions. That’s what gets them killed. Just this year, we had a guy with no experience turn up and jump off a cliff doing flips and all sorts of crazy stuff. One of the experienced guys took away his gear. Probably saved his life. Told him to get his skydiving experience [you should have 300 skydiving jumps under your belt before you BASE jump] and come back.”
He paused for a moment and then stretched out his arm, shiny and pink with scars from wrist to elbow.
“I crashed myself last year. I made a bad decision — to fly behind someone else and film him. I’m an experienced flyer, but not an experienced filmer. I shouldn’t have done it. The guy who flew before me there — in Chamonix — he died, but I didn’t know that. I saw this ridge coming up before me and I had to decide whether to turn or go over the ridge. I didn’t decide quick enough and I couldn’t deploy my parachute, because I was too low and would certainly die. So I aimed for the ridge and hit a tree going 60 miles per hour. I don’t know how I lived. I should have died.”
“Wow,” I said, feeling a bit speechless. “I’m glad you survived.”
“Yeah. I took a year off to think after that. I’m just now coming back.”
For more than two weeks, I’ve been spending my evenings laughing and toasting with the BASE jumpers at the local pub. In a short time, I’ve developed a deep affection for them — these wild, adventurous, rowdy boys (and a handful of wild, adventurous, rowdy ladies).
And today someone died…flew across the valley, exhilarated, only to snag a parachute on the electric lines, killing the town’s power and themselves.
We don’t even know who it is yet. There are only rumors: The person survived. No, someone saw a bodybag. Was it a man? Was it a woman?
Really, we have no idea.
All I know is I’ve been counting my friends as I see them walking through town. Tom, safe. Annette, safe. Justin in London. Stewart in Zurich.
I’m still watching for Guto. Still holding my breath for Scott.
It’s a strange thing — being friends with people who live so close to the edge.
I just feel strange and uncomfortable, knowing someone I spoke to just days ago is gone forever.
I’m also struck by how cyclical danger and adventure and an unconventional life can be: Yes, living an unconventional life can be more dangerous than staying at home. Particularly if your unconventional life involves jumping off cliffs.
But rather than warning us away from our dangerous adventures, these deaths seem to serve as a reminder of why we’re out there in the first place.