Why Are So Many BASE Jumpers Dying?
A wingsuit BASE jumper just live-streamed his own death—marking the latest fatality in the sport’s deadliest year. We explore why fliers at all levels are dying in this extreme activity.
In researching 2016’s dramatic rise in BASE jumping deaths, I was almost unable to keep up with the pace with which people were dying.
I even watched one of these deaths in real time, live-streamed on Facebook.
A guy with the handle of “Sat Dex” popped up in my feed on the morning of August 26, broadcasting himself via Facebook Live.
The video opens with him stepping into a wingsuit. He has dark hair, a sleeve tattoo, and a Hollywood-style beard. He speaks in German. He gives the finger to the camera and grins. He zips up his suit, flashing more smiles with a sort of nervous or excited energy, the kind you might associate with a child opening a birthday gift.
“Today you fly with me,” he says in German.
He waves into his outstretched phone. The video goes dark as the phone is now inside his wingsuit, ostensibly in his hand, and still live-streaming to Facebook.
Now I hear a whoosh of air. The sound of airflow grows, reaching a ferocious decibel. The turbulent din lasts no more than a few seconds.
Suddenly I hear the man emit an acute bellow. Then, pandemonium. He’s tumbling and tumbling. I hear cowbells. The tumbling stops. It’s silent. Cows continue milling around in what I’ve imagined to be idyllic mountain scenery somewhere in Europe, with giant blue limestone cliffs towering over rolling green pastures.
Then long, low, soft moans.
Then all that is left is cowbells.
I later learned this man’s real name was Armin Schmieder. He was Italian, but lived in Freiburg, Germany. He was a father to a young child. He was 28.
Facebook did not immediately take down the video, despite outrage from many commenters, including his family. The social media site slapped on a disclaimer: “Warning - Graphic Video.” Yet the views continued to pile up.
Meanwhile, a rather grim irony remained, as per Facebook’s design protocol for these types of posts. It said: “Sat Dex was live.”
After 36 hours, the video was finally removed.
The Killing Season
The end of summer can’t come fast enough for many in the speed-fueled world of wingsuit BASE jumping (BASE is an acronym standing for the types of objects participants may leap from: Buildings, Antennas, bridges—aka, “Spans”—and the Earth itself, in the form of cliffs or promontories). This has already become the deadliest year on record for BASE jumping, with at least 31 deaths thus far. Twenty-three of those fatalities occurred this summer—six deaths in June, two in July, and 15 in August. The fatal spree has spurred practitioners to dub summer as “Wingsuit BASE Killing Season.”
“It’s been a horrific last couple of months,” says Richard Webb, a former fighter pilot for the U.S. Navy, current private pilot, and active wingsuit BASE jumper from Moab, Utah. (I profiled Webb last year for his unique, scientific approach to opening new wingsuit jumps around Moab.)
“This is easily the worst season I can remember,” he says. “And, honestly, I haven’t even been keeping up with who’s been going in. I’m tired of the carnage.”
Summer is a time when the European Alps—with its myriad locations that feature highly accessible, legal, and very large cliffs from which to jump—are devoid of snow and are considered to be in good condition for flying. Like moths to a flame, wingsuit BASE jumpers from around the world descend on the Alps each summer to get their fix.
Aside from the record fatality count, the BASE world hit another morbid milestone in August. The BASE Fatality List (BFL), an unofficial and non-comprehensive wiki that records BASE fatalities dating back to 1981 for educational purposes within the community, surpassed 300 names. The greater cause for concern, though, is that the BFL appears to be trending at an accelerated rate—more than 260 of those names have been recorded since 2000.
So, why are so many BASE jumpers dying?
“The simplest answer is wingsuits,” says Webb. “Right now, wingsuit BASE jumping is, globally, the hottest thing going for the impressionable, 18- to 35-year-old single-male demographic.”
BASE jumping has no organizing bodies that keep track of participation numbers. Anecdotally, the sport is growing, perhaps as evidenced by the increasing numbers of people who are dying.
This year’s constant, gruesome news has spurred some BASE jumpers to rebuke their wingsuiting counterparts. “Sketchy Andy” Lewis, one of the world’s most accomplished BASE jumpers (and hardly a model of prudence himself, as evinced by his nickname), wrote a scathing post on Facebook that, among other things, called for the BFL to be split into two separate lists: one for wingsuiting and one for regular BASE jumping.
“I called out wingsuiting as not being BASE jumping anymore,” he says. “I wanted the death list split. I also just asked everyone who wingsuits to just go die, so we can get it over with. Obviously, it was a horrible thing to say.”
Some context: Lewis wrote the post in the wake of a friend’s death. John Van Horne, an extremely experienced wingsuiter, had just crashed in the Alps at the end of June. “JVH,” as he was called, was “one of my best friends and last idols,” says Lewis. “He died with his family there.”
Lewis was upset, angry, and just sick and tired of waking up to learn about yet another friend’s death. Most dismissed Lewis as a pot calling the kettle black. Yet in some way, what he wrote in July was prescient. Summer’s big death wave was just about to begin.
“The post got deleted by Facebook, and I pissed off the entire community,” says Lewis. “My message was followed up by the most fatal month in BASE. I just painfully sat back and watched my friends die one after the other.”
Matt Gerdes is the chief test pilot and co-designer at Squirrel, a U.S.-based wingsuit manufacturer. He’s logged about 1,200 safe BASE jumps to date, many of them being wingsuit flights from alpine walls. On August 14, he wrote a Facebook post that stated:
“There are a lot of people saying a lot of things about wingsuit BASE deaths. There is no single factor, and there is truth in every statement about ego, video, complacency, access, summer vacations, etc. But if we were to work on just one thing, it would be education … The simple truth is that wingsuit BASE jumpers don’t know what they are getting into, don’t know how to practice the sport safely, and don’t even know enough to know how little they know. “
Of Wings and Men
BASE jumping, without the wingsuit qualifier, is simply the act of parachuting from fixed objects, as opposed to planes. Wingsuit BASE jumping takes the act of BASE jumping to an entirely different level, one in which the stakes are as high, and the margins are as thin, as the rewards are unforgettable.
And beautiful. And primal. And extremely addictive.
We’re talking about real, human-powered flight—or, at least as close as humanity has ever come to it. It’s the stuff of ancient myths and archetypal dreams. It’s also the focus of the many viral YouTube videos, which feature costume-wearing superhumans carving through the air, through trees, over rivers and glaciers and picturesque farmlands.
Skydiving and BASE jumping are, essentially, just free-falling. Wingsuit flying—especially when it’s performed close to terrain such as cliffs and trees, in a style known as “proximity flying”—simulates what it might feel like to be a bird carving through the air in a long, fast swoop.
A wingsuit is a baffled full-body nylon costume that resembles the stretched membrane of a flying squirrel. The “pilot” of the wingsuit leaps off a cliff and within a split second, an intake fills the suit’s baffled chambers with air, turning them rigid. By holding a proper body position, the wingsuit pilot is able to glide forward at a ratio of 3:1, meaning that he is hurtling forward three feet for every foot of descent.
Subtle shifts in the shoulder and arm positions allow the wingsuit pilot to steer; his speeds, meanwhile, are peaking at over a hundred miles an hour. Compared to the initial, crude wingsuit designs circa 2000, today’s suits, when worn by skilled and experienced pilots, yield mind-blowing accuracy. Wingsuiters are striking apple-size targets from a mile away. And they’re flying mere inches above, around, and sometimes even through terrain that’s barely wider than their own outstretched arms.
If wingsuits are to blame for the growing death toll, as Webb speculates, the numbers certainly support this thesis. In 2016, 20 of the 31 BASE deaths involved a wingsuit. If you add in deaths that involved a tracking suit, which you may think of as an entry-level training wingsuit, that number jumps to 27 out of 31.
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s—prior to the advent of wingsuit BASE jumping in 1999—the number of BASE jumping fatalities remained fairly consistent and never got higher than five per year.
In September 2002, the Russian jumper Krill Kiselev became the first recorded wingsuit BASE death.
The next one took place two weeks later.
What’s more worrying about wingsuit BASE fatalities, though, is that there appears to be no consistent bias toward experience. For every beginner who rushes out to buy a wingsuit before he—and wingsuit-BASE deaths are overwhelmingly male, perhaps a reflection of the sport’s demographics—has acquired the skill and experience, there also seems to be an alarming number of highly experienced, veteran wingsuiters crashing.
For example, August saw the deaths of Alexander Polli and Uli Emanuele, two of the more experienced and current wingsuit pilots on Earth. (“Currency,” a term borrowed from the aeronautical world, reflects a pilot’s log of recent airtime.)
Polli and Emanuele’s deaths join a disturbing tradition in which the sport loses, every year, at least a few of its biggest, best, and most current stars —perhaps no longer even to the shock of the community. Other big names that come to mind are Shane McConkey (2009), Mario Richard (2013), Sean Leary (2014), Dean Potter and Graham Hunt (2015), Jhonathan Florez (2015), Chris Labounty (2016), and John Van Horne (2016).
Polli, 31, died when he crashed into a tree near Chamonix, France, on August 22. He was widely beloved in the wingsuit community for his charismatic personality, and deeply revered for his skill. In 2012, he became the first wingsuit BASE jumper to strike a wingsuit target—the target was made of foam and around 10 feet tall. He was also known for his extreme proximity flights. One of his most memorable stunts included flying through the “Batman Cave” in Montserrat, Spain.
Five days earlier, the GoPro star Uli Emanuele, 29, died when he crashed in the Dolomites of his native country, Italy.
In June, Emanuele released a video of himself flying through a burning ring of fire. The stunt was broadcast on GoPro’s YouTube channel, and demonstrated Emanuele’s precision and mastery. In 2015, he demonstrated his aerial accuracy in arguably even more spectacular fashion, when he bulls-eyed a six-and-a-half-foot opening in a freestanding rock formation. Flying inches to the left or right would have easily resulted in his death. That video, titled “Wingsuit Flight Through 2 Meter Cave,” now has 7.5 million views.
What’s little known about this particular stunt was that Emanuele actually flew through the hole not just once, but at least four times simply to amass enough footage for the video edit.
“I did it because I was able to do it,” he stated then. “I don't use luck in jumping. We need enough luck in our normal life.”
The question facing the BASE community now is whether luck could’ve helped guys like Polli and Emanuele, and hundreds of others before them. And if not luck, then what, exactly?
Smarter training? More experience? More education? Increased regulation?
Or, perhaps, is the lure of death just the inevitable outcome of this addictive, dangerous, and still nascent sport? If so, why are so many people flocking to it?
Perhaps the most confounding question, though, is why so many people seem to believe that the unthinkable won’t happen to them.
History is stacked with tales of humankind’s myriad experiments with attaching ersatz wings made of feathers or cloth to our arms in an attempt to fly.
From as early as I can remember, I had flying dreams. Once, at age 10, I cut up a cardboard box and fashioned wings, which I then strapped to my arms with pipe cleaners. I took my creation to a porch on the second story of my house in Dobbs Ferry, New York. As I stood atop the railing, cardboard wings lashed to my arms, I recall my seven-year-old sister standing in the grass beneath, pleading and crying at the sight of what I was about to do. I vividly recall a sense of confidence that my design was foolproof; I was certain that when I jumped, flight would ensue, just as in my dreams.
I jumped. I landed so hard that my knee went through my jaw and knocked me out. I haven’t forgotten that vivid (painful) memory, nor have I forgotten those early flying dreams, nor have I ever stopped longing for them to one day return.
This stuff is deep within us all.
In February 1912, a tailor named Franz Reichelt stitched himself a burlap wingsuit/parachute hybrid costume and jumped from the top of the 984-foot Eiffel tower. He crashed so hard that he put a hole into the frozen turf below.
From the 1930s to the 1960s, crowds gathered at local air shows around the world to watch stuntmen called “batmen,” who performed skydiving maneuvers in their crude wingsuits. During this era, 72 of the 75 batmen died.
The dream of raw human flight—not the kind that’s confined to a vessel—has been thousands of years in the making. And until 1999, virtually all of humankind’s attempts to achieve that dream have failed.
In 1999, Croatian skydiver and BASE jumper Robert Pecnik and Finnish BASE jumper Jari Kuosma essentially invented today’s iteration of wingsuit BASE jumping.
Taking inspiration from a jumpsuit worn by the late Patrick de Gayardon, a famous French skydiver who perished in 1998 when the rigging of his prototype “ram-air” wingsuit failed during a skydive, Pecnik designed a new suit that he dubbed, simply, The Original. Pecnik and Kuosma tested their creation on May 10, 1999, an experience Pecnik describes as “very exciting.”
The two launched a company called BirdMan, and The Original became the first commercial wingsuit available to the skydiving public.
Kuosma created an instructor program that offered wingsuit education to experienced skydivers with more than 200 jumps. At first, most skydivers thought wingsuits were really just death suits, but The Original soon proved otherwise.
In comparison to wingsuit BASE jumping, flying a wingsuit in a skydiving scenario has virtually zero fatalities.
Flying a wingsuit out of a plane at 20,000 feet offers little perspective. The sensation of speed and flight are only mildly augmented at that altitude. If the dream was the true and raw perception of flight, then somehow wingsuits needed to be flown closer to objects.
By 2003, wingsuit technology had advanced enough to encourage early practitioners to dare flying closer and closer to the cliffs from which they leapt. Perhaps the first man to achieve a true proximity flight was a 23-year-old French jumper named Loïc Jean-Albert, who jumped out of a helicopter hovering over a snow-covered mountain in Verbier, Switzerland, and took a flight path that saw him paralleling the mountain’s slope, never more than 20 feet above the surface. The stunt instantly rocketed him to fame in the skydiving and BASE jumping worlds.
“When wingsuit BASE was introduced in early 1999, this was a new discipline,” explains Pecnik. “People had a lot of respect for those of us who tried first and started to explore the possibility of such flying.”
Today, Pecnik is manufacturing wingsuits for his new company, Phoenix-Fly. He describes how BASE jumping was, at one point, much more under the radar. Finding mentors was more challenging, and most BASE jumpers who got into the sport had a vast skydiving background.
“In the last five to six years, that’s all changed,” he says.
A Shortcut to Death
“When I started BASE jumping wingsuits about nine years ago, there weren’t as many deaths,” wrote Steph Davis, a professional rock climber who lives in Moab, Utah, and is one of the top female wingsuit BASE jumpers in the world. “There has been an explosion of popularity of BASE jumping and wingsuit flying in the last few years. So there are more people doing it, and there are more people getting into it very quickly without a lot of experience. That accounts for a lot of the accidents.”
Pecnik agrees. “Wingsuiting actually looks very easy in videos,” he says. “People are now getting into skydiving only as a way to reach their ultimate goal: wingsuit BASE. Now we have a population who barely knows how to fall or how to fly a canopy [parachute], but they are already skimming rocks in wingsuits.”
Perhaps one example of this approach, according to Pecnik, is Armin Schmieder—the guy who inadvertently broadcast his death on Facebook.
“This guy had barely over 200 skydives, and just a hundred jumps in BASE,” says Pecnik. “He knew so little, and was pushing so hard for his level that it’s no surprise that he’s dead.”
“Gear is stupidly easy to get,” adds Rich Webb. “People are educated enough to know how to say the right things to get someone to sell them the gear. After that, it’s a ticket to go wild. It’s like stealing the keys to your dad’s Corvette. They think getting the keys was the hard part. Dude, the hard part has only just begun.”
Webb says that he sees a growing community of wingsuit BASE novices who are shortcutting every step of the process, which begins by becoming an expert skydiver, then becoming an expert BASE jumper, then going back to a skydiving scenario and training to become an expert wingsuit flyer within that relatively safer environment. It’s a process that might involve tens of thousands of dollars in airplane time, hundreds of jumps at each stage, and ultimately many years of consistent, full-time practice.
“There's a lack of education, a lack of awareness of what they're getting into, a lack of how real the consequences are,” says Webb. “I’m really getting tired and disgusted and annoyed at people dying the same way over and over again.”
Most beginners who die appear to be making variations of the exact same error, according to Webb. “They jump off a cliff, get flying, and for some reason there's just this human reaction to try to hug the air like a big, gigantic beach ball,” he explains. “By hugging air you feel as if you're creating or catching more lift than you actually are. What ends up happening is your suit can only grab so much air, and it starts to stall. When it starts to stall, it loses lift, starts to drag, and then, splat.
“It would be like a skier showing up on a big mountain and trying to snow plow down a big line. Beginners tend to fly slow, and slow speed and flying is just a bad combination.”
But if this newbie error is obvious to Webb and to many other experts, what isn’t as obvious is why so many of the very best are going down, too.
“Some people do not really get the fact that they might die,” says Pecnik. “They’re doing really stupid stuff. Then people are screaming, But he was experienced! Well, he was, but not in all aspects of wingsuit BASE. And that even goes for the two most recent guys: Polli and Emanuele.”
Davis observes one trend among beginners and pros. “Seeing accidents with very inexperienced jumpers and very experienced jumpers, one thing we have in common is that the person is pushing it.”
Media and Progression
If it seems like extreme sports are growing in popularity, it’s probably because we see them everywhere—in movies, in online media, and in advertising. It’s not just wingsuit BASE jumping, but extreme big-mountain skiing and snowboarding, free-solo rock climbing, big-wave surfing, and a host of other death-defying sports involving bikes, boards, and planes.
To varying degrees, many adventure sports today teeter at the margin between what’s possible and what’s crazy; between life and death.
The skiing world has been hit hard in recent years, as several of the best free skiers and snowboarders have been lost to avalanches and injury while pushing the limits of their sport. Sebastien Haag, Andrea Zambaldi, JP Auclair, Andreas Fransson, Dave Rosenbarger, and Liz Daley were all considered world-class, conscientious, experienced athletes. To further complicate the issue, many died while working to create “content” in the form of films and Instagram photos for their sponsors.
There is no Super Bowl of wingsuit flying, skiing, or climbing. Athletes are free to define—and push the limits in—their pursuits however they want. This freedom is a double-edged sword. On one hand, it fosters a creative, artistic approach to these amazing objectives. On the other hand, it has resulted in a culture that constantly needs to take bigger risks, make bolder decisions, and ride narrower margins of safety.
For some athletes, the fame, attention, and corporate sponsorships that come from pushing the boundaries help eke out a living—often a modest one. Reaching a certain level of notoriety or significance in most of adventure/extreme sports, however, has gotten exponentially harder, if also more dangerous.
“I think that as soon as you make being an ‘action-sports athlete’ your profession, there’s a huge risk factor,” says Robb Gaffney, a psychiatrist based in Squaw Valley, California, arguably the definitive action-sports capital of the U.S. The Lake Tahoe region, including Squaw, has been hit hard in recent years as many of its local athletes have died pushing the limits.
“I think that the biggest factor for action-sports athletes is the fantasy of their identity as an action-sports athlete. Most of these athletes aren’t making any money. In fact they might not even have health insurance,” Gaffney adds. “And yet they’re still doing something that could potentially kill them.”
“Progression” is a loaded buzz word that you’ll hear every top action-sports star use. Often, progression means gaining recognition by completing an objective that’s so dangerous that no one else would ever be willing to attempt it.
Until someone else does—or dies trying.
What role, if any, sponsors play in encouraging their athletes to take outsize risks, while heavily promoting and benefiting from those risks, became an issue in 2014 when the energy bar company Clif Bar declined to renew the contracts of five climbers, including free-soloist Alex Honnold and climber/BASE jumper/highliner Dean Potter.
Clif Bar’s official statement read that it was no longer comfortable “benefitting from the amount of risk certain athletes are taking in areas of the sport where there is no margin for error; where there is no safety net.”
At the opposite end of the spectrum are companies like Red Bull, GoPro, and, most recently, Stride Gum—which backed a skydiving stunt this summer in which Luke Aikens jumped out of a plane without a parachute and landed in a large net.
What message is being sent when GoPro’s “Be a Hero” slogan flashes at the start of an Uli Emanuele wingsuit BASE video? Emanuele’s fearless wingsuit flight through a hole in a rock or a burning ring of fire is an incredibly cool, if not heroic, achievement. But the activity that we celebrate with millions of YouTube views is the same pursuit that cut his life short.
- Nat Geo Expeditions
“I don’t believe that GoPro telling you to ‘Be a Hero’ as they show a wingsuit video is any different than Mountain Dew’s ‘Doing the Dew’ campaign back in the 1990s," says Robert Rose, a chief strategy officer at the Content Marketing Institute. “But I do think it’s important to question. Ultimately, it will be the groundswell that will make that judgement. And we currently live in a world where double standards are plentiful. It’s managing both sides of that risk that every brand lives in today.”
Pecnik, for one, agrees. “To blame GoPro, or any company, is a shallow excuse for what is happening,” he says. “Every person must be responsible for his own actions.”
The public honors athletes when they die in accidents, and even calls them heroes, Gaffney says, “but at the same time, what that’s doing is sending a message to all of us that that’s a great path to follow.
“Glamorization of athletes who have passed creates a positive reinforcement for all of us as spectators in the audience to continue to follow in their path,” Gaffney adds. “Whether it’s conscious or not doesn’t even matter. It’s a positive reinforcement mechanism that has dramatic impacts on how we think about things and all the decisions that we make.”
The underlying question, though, is whether these sports, and especially wingsuit BASE jumping, can “progress” without also becoming deadlier. Davis says folks in the wingsuit BASE jumping communities are thinking about this question from entirely the wrong paradigm.
“There is a limit with how close you can fly, especially with having terrain under you,” she says. “At a certain point, the next step is impacting the terrain—this is why I don’t see this type of flying as progression. We’ve had a constant discussion about progression in wingsuit BASE. I think we may be using the wrong definition. Perhaps progression means something very different. Perhaps it means refining the experience, becoming safer, more elegant, and more aware. Perhaps it means sustainability.”
When Heroes Die
Figuring out why the best are dying confounds, saddens, and even irritates just about everyone I’ve spoken to in the wingsuit BASE world.
“It’s really puzzling to me,” says Rich Webb. “I wish I knew, but I think it has to do with complacency.”
Webb points out that many of the best are dying on flight lines that might be considered either “easy” for them, or they’re lines that they’ve done before.
“It comes down to the fact that they're so comfortable in a stupidly high-risk environment,” says Webb. “We just don't have the luxury of margins in our sport, so at some point it catches up to you if you're not on it all the time.”
Pecnik agrees. “They’re not dying because they’re pushing the limit. They’re dying because of ignorance and complacency. It’s always easier to screw up on an easy cliff and an easy flight than on the hard one that you’ve trained for. It’s a typical trap in many outdoor sports.”
Andy Lewis speculates, “I would say so many experienced wingsuiters are dying because they are trying to execute jumps with very low margin for error. Eventually when you make a mistake you hope you have room. And now low margins are so standard in the sport. It just kills people.”
Chris McNamara, a big-wall rock climber from California, took up wingsuit BASE jumping in the early 2000s when it was still a new sport. After a few years, he gave it up when he realized he was probably going to die if he continued, a feeling that hit home when Dean Potter died in a 2015 wingsuit accident. “Dean Potter was part of a small group of active wingsuit jumpers who had been jumping more for than a decade. I really thought he had cracked the code on being able to survive wingsuit BASE,” McNamara said.
After years of narrow misses and seeing friends die who were better and more experienced than he, McNamara concluded, “BASE jumping does not get safer with experience.”
The reason so many wingsuit BASE jumpers believe that accidents won’t happen to them is easy to see: that mentality is a prerequisite to taking up the sport. It’s like marriage. No one gets married thinking that it’s going to end, even though the statistics show it might.
To reduce fatalities, the BASE community has volleyed around a number of ideas, from increased regulation to better education. It’s easy to draw parallels from other worlds that might also benefit from these ideas.
Motorcycles, like the standards of wingsuit BASE jumping, have become bigger, faster, and more daring since 2000. In that time, the number of crash fatalities has increased from 2,829 to 4,295 in 2014, the last year for which data is available. The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration estimates that motorcycle helmets reduce the likelihood of a crash fatality by 37 percent, but only 19 states require their use. It’s likely that more states requiring helmets, and more safety education, might help reduce motorcycle deaths. But equally as important is the need for culture to change—and the same principle can be applied to action sports.
“There’s evolution within sports,” says Chris McNamara. “It starts out a little more risky until, collectively, everyone decides that it just won’t be that risky. There was a point in time when you were an idiot if you wore a helmet on the ski slopes. Fast-forward five years, and you’re now an idiot if you don’t wear a helmet. That’s a collective thing that people decide together. It doesn’t happen overnight.”
Matt Gerdes, the owner of Squirrel wingsuits, argued for more education on Facebook. “Right now, in 2016, all of the information and knowledge that we need to fly safely exists. Unfortunately, what the sport also lacks is a desire by its participants to learn. People have to understand that education is a huge factor, and paying for information that may save your life is worth it.”
Recently, in the skiing world, there has been a huge educational outreach to improve backcountry safety and reduce the number of avalanche deaths. Ian McCammon, a researcher at University of Utah, identified six “heuristic traps” that identify common errors made in backcountry situations. Interestingly, a lot of these traps could easily be applied to the wingsuit BASE jumping world.
There’s even evidence that this education has worked. The 2015-2016 ski season in Colorado saw a record low in avalanche fatalities. Only one person died last year.
“That's an amazingly safe winter considering the number of backcountry skiers has doubled at least twice in the last 15 years or so,” says Lou Dawson, a Colorado-based backcountry skiing legend.
Says Matt Hansen, an editor at large for Powder magazine, “One of the things that I think doesn't get enough attention is the fact that many people are making better decisions in the backcountry. Yes, we have a long way to go—there were several people who nearly got smoked week after week here in the Tetons last winter, including a few fatalities—but you'd hope that backcountry users are starting to get better at avoiding avalanches. I do think that awareness is growing, thanks to many different organizations like the Colorado Avalanche Information Center.”
Earlier this year Rich Webb launched a new side project called “Top Gun Base,” a website that aims to bridge a gap in knowledge with regards to how aeronautical concepts might apply to the wingsuit BASE world. “What I’m writing about is baseline stuff that people need to figure out before they even put on their gear,” he says. “I hope it’s going to gather momentum and people are going to start recognizing that there’s something to this idea of education and learning from mistakes.”
Still, Webb remains skeptical much will change—at least in the short term. “I think we're going to see the fatality numbers continuing in the same trend. There’s going to be a lot more wingsuit fatalities every year. Even if the gear gets better, and we regulate the hell out of the sport, there’s still going to be a niche demographic of people who find an even riskier way to push harder.”
Fly or Die—Or, Perhaps, Don’t Fly at All
“I’m not sure why our culture at large seems to think that people will live forever or that people should live forever, and that it might somehow be possible to erase anything that might inadvertently cause death to happen,” wrote Davis. “Death is part of life.”
Death has especially been a part of Davis’s life. Not only has she lost many friends to BASE jumping, but she lost both her husband, Mario Richard, and ex-husband, Dean Potter, to wingsuit BASE jumping.
“Flying has given me the best things in my life, and it has also taken them away,” she wrote. “Flying has brought me more pain than anything else. It has also saved my life and brought me more happiness than anything else. Everything has to balance. This degree of trade-off is not worth it for everyone, but we are not all the same person.”
McNamara is one of the few wingsuit jumpers who left the sport. It wasn’t easy, though. He says giving up wingsuit BASE jumping was one of the hardest and scariest decisions he’s ever made.
“I don’t want to tell people to stop BASE jumping,” he says. “But if people are on the fence of whether to quit or not, I think they should know there’s another 60 years of adventures out there.”
“I’m now seven years into quitting, and I could not be more happy,” McNamara says. “Nothing releases quite as much adrenaline as a wingsuit BASE jump, but at the same time, there’s so many more activities that are more enduring and filled with a more lasting kind of happiness.”