Catching up with Ben Verde

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Ben Verde is one of the new generation of WS BASE jumpers who’ve embraced a calculated approach, using laser-inclinometers and GPS tracklog history analysis to make informed decisions in the mountains. With more than 800 BASE jumps since 2011, his experience ranges from urban to alpine and everything in-between. Ben’s BASE courses embrace a spirit of good judgment and humble self-awareness.

Ben Verde – On Top of the World!

Interview by Matt Gerdes

So, the other day when I saw your Mt Si video [below] I was impressed to say the least. That is a mountain that countless jumpers have looked at and no one ever saw an exit point on it or even thought there would be one. That’s kind of the way things are going now huh?

Yeah, it’s pretty interesting to see how the Paradigm is shifting a bit. I’ve personally been looking at how to find a jump on that mountain since I started BASE jumping, simply based on how close it is. I love the idea that mountains that were appealing but not possible are now becoming extra-rad playgrounds. That type of thing seemed to be the theme of 2019 around here.

When did you realize that lasers and GPS were going to be such a big part of WS BASE?

My second wingsuit season in Europe, James Yaru sparked my interest. I was doing a lot of jumping outside the valley and all of a sudden I realized that the lines which weren’t just vertical cliffs were a lot more complex. I wanted to understand what I was looking at so that if I came across something I couldn’t do I would know it before I was in the air.

Right and now years later, even with experience, some lines which look impossible, actually are.

Well it seems as though possible or impossible is a temporary state of mind. I don’t feel that improvements in suits are done with yet, and collectively wingsuit pilots keep discovering new capabilities hidden in the suits and in ourselves. So the future is unknown I suppose.

It’s funny to imagine… you look over the edge and say “no”. But then you shoot it with the laser and compare past exits, and realize… hey this actually has a decent buffer on it even if my start isn’t perfect.

Yeah, that can be pretty conflicting to the senses. It takes me a few minutes to let my brain calibrate to the idea of something that looks like a bad idea actually being exactly what I’m looking for. 

It takes me a few minutes to let my brain calibrate to the idea of something that looks like a bad idea actually being exactly what I’m looking for”

BEN VERDE

What thoughts are in your head when you’re looking at one that has less buffer, like red hot? How do you rationalize the fact that you might f*ck it up?

Oh man. Well that one [Mt. Si] actually gave me a wave of anxiety when I realized I could do it and it had enough margin but only exactly enough. I knew I could make a mistake but not more than one, and not a bad one. I think the anxiety comes from the fact that once I know I can do it I feel obligated to, so I will have a hard time walking away and letting it sit here until next time. I know that a mistake could be catastrophic but I choose to override that fact and focus 100% on being present and performing. That override feels like overcoming fear and believing in myself which are both very satisfying.

I knew I could make a mistake, but not more than one, and not a bad one”

Ben verde

Do you see yourself doing a lot of those? Or do you see your career being on a parabola of sorts… where risk is reduced over time?

Honestly I would like to prove to myself that these types of jumps can be the new normal although I don’t know that I actually believe that yet. I would like to think that if we start conservatively and put all of our effort into performing consistently that we can make technical jumps become incredibly repeatable. Sort of like the way Brevent was considered a short start and an expert only jump. Then a few years later it gets jumped in tracksuits. Insanity but I love it. With that said it’s difficult to say how many more of those I might do. If I climb or hike somewhere and that’s all I get then I’ll take it if the conditions are favorable. If the weather is crap I might not come back to it if the approach sucked.

Do you feel like you’re in your prime, or like whatever, now?

I don’t know if I would say in my prime but I would definitely say hitting my stride. Maybe that’s the same thing but I think I’m just entering the pace and skill and mental space that I could and would like to maintain for quite some time. I feel like there’s a good chance I have a decade of this in front of me, maybe more.

Tell us about Skydive Kapowsin. You don’t seem to skydive much these days since I guess all the skydiving and BASE jumping have to happen in the same small season. But it has obviously had an effect on your flying and over the years it’s become known as a wingsuit mecca.

I’m super-fortunate to have Kapowsin to call my home DZ. That’s where I started and where I fell in love with wingsuiting and flying of all sorts. I don’t skydive much in the summer anymore unfortunately but I’ll suffer through the cold days in the winter to get my reps in and I usually like to hammer down from February through May to get tuned up. I feel like all BASE jumping and no skydiving has a degrading effect on my stamina and skill so it’s super important to knock out at least a hundred skydives a year. I’m hugely grateful for people like Andy [Farrington] and Brandon [Mikesell] who were always there to fly with me when I started wingsuiting seriously. There’s no way I would have a fraction of my capabilities without those guys. QR too. Big ups to QR [QR prefers to remain unnamed, but big ups to him for sure].

Ben and Brandon – Brothers from another mother

Yeah those guys are awesome. We all owe a lot to Andy, definitely. Are you and Brandon actually brothers? Or just brothers from another mother?

No I didn’t get to know Brandon until we met at the DZ. After that we had the paperwork drawn up to be brothers from another mother. If you need that kind of thing done, I have a guy.

I’ll keep that in mind, thanks. You and Brandon are actually biz partners these days… the BASE school… Why teach BASE? Why with Brandon? I assume it’s to get rich, what sick cars are you guys are you gonna buy?

I love sharing this activity with people and the only effect I can have on BASE that has more influence than establishing and opening new exits, is sharing my knowledge and experience. I also like the idea of having a platform to be a positive influence on for the ethics of BASE without having to be preaching at anyone. But if I do get rich I’m buying an airplane or a helicopter. Used though, not new. Let’s not get carried away with fantasies.

“if I do get rich I’m buying an airplane”

Nothing wrong with used. I’ve never even been in an unused plane. Some people think their first BASE jumps are scary. Do you strike the fear of a gruesome death into your students, or tell everyone it’s just high-fives and yahoos?

We actually like to take people right to their rev limiter and hold them there until the course is over. I want you to be scared but not too scared – so you can be confident in the knowledge you’re ready. The course is designed not to let you feel too complacent. We try to find each student’s point where they acknowledge their fear, but we don’t want them to live there. We acknowledge it, think through it, then make a plan and perform. Then we have high-five time with snacks.

Sounds about right. So how do you think attitude and judgement play into BASE safety?

Attitude and judgment are the tools every jumper needs to stay alive in the long term. It’s equally important as technique and execution on every jump, but I would say more important in certain scenarios. You can’t really teach those things that I’m aware of but you can definitely help be a guide.

Attitude and judgment are the tools every jumper needs to stay alive”

BEN VERDE

Not to keep hammering on this, but how do you guide them? Do you guys believe that an instructor teaches just by example… like, teach people humility just by being humble?

We try to guide with a loose grip. Base jumpers seem to naturally hate rules being imposed on them so we try to nurture healthy ways to approach jumps. We want our students to make decisions on their own and defend them with reason. If their idea is a bit too loose or foolish then we try to point out the danger factors that they may be missing and we again ask them to continue defending their plan or adjust it to something more suitable. During the course we back up our words by setting a good example. 

If you want your students to leave with one piece of info, or one thought, what would it be? Ok, that’s one of those stupid impossible questions. What I mean is, when they walk away, what do you want them to be thinking as they are leaving your course and heading out to probably do something random and unsupervised?

We want people asking themselves how do I prepare for the next goal and who’s my best local resource that will encourage me through a conservative progression. Most people want to go home with their new capability so their first step is to ask themselves who will take me and what’s the safest way it can be done.

Makes sense. Hopefully they’re thinking about that even before their course. I guess a lot of your students are local to you and now you must be doing a fair bit of mentoring outside of courses eh?

I’m definitely more involved with the new jumper scene than I ever have been but there’s quite a few local jumpers now so we have kind of a “it takes a village” thing going on. That helps keep things a little more balanced so I don’t have to be the ‘Fun Police’. 

We’ve made it this far without the basics like your full real name. Also, what’s your mother’s maiden name and your social security number? The Evil Empire needs it just for our records.

Ah, yes. My government name, even my friends rarely have that info.

Ok then… well I already know you started in 2011 and you have 800 BASE jumps. What’s the lowest object you’ve jumped?

My lowest object was 137 feet to flat ground. Not sure if I’d be interested in anything much lower to flat ground. Although I have been eyeing a grain silo that sits about 115′ but I need to confirm that with a laser. It’s a 3-minute walk from my in-law’s house.

What’s the closest BASE object to your own house?

Twelve-minute drive, coincidentally it’s that 137′ object. It’s a bridge.

Do you wanna give a shout-out to anything like sensory deprivation tanks, microdosing, great danes, or the joys of life in the PNW?

For sure, legal cannabis, wild psychedelic mushrooms growing everywhere, dog-friendly businesses, the local jumpers getting after it and being super supportive of both Brandon and I. Should be obvious but absolutely Squirrel big time and the Farrington family including the Kapowsin machine.

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Meet: Matt Gerdes

Matt has completed over 1200 safe BASE jumps to date (mostly wingsuit flights in the Alps, where he opened a few new lines). He is the author of the BASE Book. Matt podiumed at Red Bull Aces 2015, finished top five in 2016, was 2016 WOWS Distance champion, and 3rd in Speed. He is the co-founder of SQRL equipment (www.squirrel.ws) and has worked in the free-flight world for over 15 years with Ozone Paragliders (www.flyozone.com).

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Hey what's up. My mission here at SkydiveMag.com is to try and publish as much quality information on BASE jumping and Wingsuit flying technique as possible. I am enthusiastic about collaborating with other people in the Wingsuit flying and BASE worlds to bring modern, vetted, and reliable information to the jumping public. If you feel that you have something good to contribute, I strongly urge you to contact the editors here at SkydiveMag, or me, directly. Contributing quality articles, videos, and tips on safety technique to the community is the best way to give back to the sport that has made our lives so damn awesome. Together, we can help save the world from useless facebook comments! Thanks in advance for being rad, and making an effort. -Matt