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International, independent, e-magazine on skydiving, BASE & tunnel

Reflections on Wingsuit BASE

*“Everyone has their own style and for me it's about the magic of high places, quiet moments with a friend or two on top, and respect for gravity.”
Steph Davis

When I started base jumping wingsuits about 8 years ago, there weren’t as many deaths. And most people who were flying wingsuits were flying away from the cliffs, or next to them. In the last couple of years there have been a lot of people dying in wingsuits. And we are asking why.

I don’t have answers, I have a lot of questions. But there are three things I see, when I think about this question…

First of all, 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. This makes sense, so those of us who jump a lot aren’t as confused by those numbers, because it’s clear to see what happened in the tragedy. It does create an impression to the outside world (and to the media), that wingsuit base jumping is insanely dangerous. People who aren’t in the sport don’t see this distinction at all.

Steph exits Super G

The second thing I see is a similar situation, of pushing too much, but it has to do with more experienced jumpers rather than the new jumper. In the last three years, suits have been getting better and people have been shooting and posting up an endless stream of POV footage on the internet. Now people are not just flying close beside rocks and trees, but right over them and getting down as low as they can, often just a few feet above terrain. New jumpers see that footage and think it’s the norm. And then you have the competitive personality, wanting to always push one step further.

When you are flying a few feet away from the ground, there is very little margin for the unexpected. Wingsuits only go down, because we don’t have an engine. There is a limit with how close you can fly, especially with having terrain under you. At a certain point, the next step is impacting the terrain–this is why I don’t see this type of flying as progression. To me, progression means there’s no limit, but in this style of flying, the limit comes when you hit the terrain. So in the last few years, we’ve also had an epidemic of people flying in “no out” situations and often it works out fine, but when it doesn’t work out there’s nowhere to go. And we’ve also had an epidemic of media interest in wingsuit base, and constant discussion about “progression” in wingsuit base. I think we may be using the wrong definition. Wingsuit base perhaps does not fit in with the typical American desire to do more, be more and have more—to be the firstest, the fastest or the mostest. To have competitions and to have a winner. Perhaps progression means something very different. Perhaps it means refining the experience, becoming safer, more elegant and more aware. Perhaps it means sustainability.

In these first two situations: seeing accidents with very inexperienced jumpers and very experienced jumpers, one thing we have in common is that the person is pushing it. The inexperienced jumper is pushing it simply because he doesn’t yet have the experience, not really by choice. The experienced jumper is pushing it because he is looking for “progression”. I think it takes a lot of time in the sport to develop decision making skills, and that it’s important to reduce outside influence as much as possible–i.e., large groups on jumps together, looking at what others are doing or posting on the internet, creating situations of competitiveness or external pressure in any way.

Steph free climbing in Tombstone
Steph free climbing in Tombstone

I have always drawn many parallels between free solo climbing and wingsuit base jumping, and I treat them very much the same way. The way I climb with a rope is completely different than the way I climb without a rope. From climbing, I’ve learned many things. I don’t assume that because things have worked out in the past that they are guaranteed to work exactly the same next time. I’ve learned to always expect the unexpected.

To be more specific, and for those who are familiar with rock climbing: I’ve free climbed 5.13 (with a rope) fairly consistently for the last 15 years. I’ve been free soloing (without a rope) for 25 years. There are just a few people in the world who free solo at all, and there aren’t any other women who free solo big walls. But there are thousands of people who rock climb. So I feel like this is something I have some understanding about, and it has defined my approach to base jumping and wingsuit base, because I do see a lot of similarities with the commitment level and potential for consequences between free soloing and wingsuit base, if not the physicality. The hardest grade I have free soloed has been 5.11-. I rarely solo anything at that difficulty, and the times I have done it have occurred after extreme preparation, training and repetition of the same route, with complete focus on that route.

The overwhelming majority of the routes I’ve free soloed over the last 25 years have been in the grade range of 5.6 to 5.9. I would never consider free soloing something mid to hard 5.12, much less 5.13. This is exactly my approach to wingsuit base and “terrain” flying. But all around me, I see flyers flying lines that are essentially 5.13, and most of them have been base jumping or flying a wingsuit for only a few years. I watch newer jumpers choose to fly on countless jumps where I choose to walk down because I don’t like the conditions, the start, the line or the landing. This is hard for me to understand. When climbing without a rope, I give myself much bigger margins for error or unexpected occurrences. There has to be a margin, and it has to be big.

Mario Richard
Mario Richard

I said there are 3 things I see when I think of fatalities in wingsuit base. The third thing is the “x factor” or random factor, as my late husband Mario called it, and perhaps not surprisingly Mario’s accident falls into this category. The x factor is at play everywhere in life, when we do everything including eating, driving, working, using power tools, managing money, playing sports, traveling, or going into the mountains. Sometimes you can really make a big mistake in decision making or execution and you can get away with it. I’ve made 3 very small mistakes when climbing in the last 25 years that had the potential to kill me, but I got lucky. Other times you can do everything right and have a catastrophic accident that no one could have foreseen. I’ve lost many friends in the mountains this way, to avalanches or rock fall. Oddly, in base jumping, we actually see very few incidents that fall into this category, but this distinction is not understood or considered by people outside the sport. The numbers of fatalities look very different when you separate them amongst the three categories I have been talking about.

Recently Robert Pecnik, one of the most respected wingsuit base jumpers in the sport, posted a link to this article on Facebook, with the comment that it’s a good read for any base jumper as it has a lot of parallels with wingsuit base. The concepts of humility versus baseless confidence, normalization of deviance, destructive goal pursuit and groupthink resonated with me very much, and I think are all important things to examine carefully and honestly with any endeavor that has high consequences.

Steph Davis in contemplative mood

After this sort of conversation, often people say, “why?” Usually mountain people and jumpers don’t. The best analogy I have is fire. We have to treat fire with respect and with care. And fire can destroy, even when it is treated with respect. Sometimes fire destroys randomly, regardless of safety efforts or human agency – sometimes lightning ignites acres of forest. Most people consider fire a necessity to life. The other thing that is a necessity to life is death.

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. Death is part of life. To me, what matters most is living a good life and a curious life, one that is beautiful and true to one’s heart. For me, a human who walks on two legs, to stand at the edge of a cliff and launch off into flight is one of the most magical, indescribable experiences I have the privilege to live. Like everything precious, it can cost a lot — everything, in fact. We have to ask ourselves if it’s worth it, every time we jump. Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t, but it has to be a real decision. Right now, we should ask ourselves a lot of questions. We should reevaluate the words we use when we talk about wingsuit base, and think about what it means for humans to fly. We are not birds. We have to face the truth that every time we leave the edge, it could be the last time.

Flying has given me the best things in my life, and it has also taken them away. 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.

Steph Davis speaking about life, death and having the courage to live your dreams