Wingsuiting: A 1 in 500 Chance of Death

But a recent flight over the Weisshorn shows the siren appeal of this deadly game.

”The first time I flew, it was being alive,” wrote William Wharton in his acclaimed debut novel Birdy in 1978. “Nothing was pressing under me. I was living in the fullness of air; air all around me, no holding place to break the air spaces. It’s worth everything to be alone in the air, alive.”

 

Recently, the group Soul Flyers published a video, in which two of the best wingsuit flyers in the world, Fred Fugen and Vincent Cotte, flew over the 4,506m Weisshorn in the Alps.

The video caused a stir, thanks to the beauty of the flight over this peak. The incredible footage calls to mind William Wharton’s quote above. The Weisshorn is one of the highest 4,000’ers in the Pennine Alps, north of Matterhorn and northwest of Zermatt. In particular, you can see how close the flyer was gliding to the sides of the canyon at the bottom of the mountain.

It is not the first time that the Soul Flyers have shared their love of this type of flying. On other occasions, they whizzed past the tops of the Egyptian pyramids and glided down the Eiger.

 

The most dangerous sport in the world

Wingsuiters typically jump either from an aircraft or from a cliff. They resemble a bat or flying squirrel, with membranes between the arms, body, and legs. They also, of course, have a parachute. During the descent under the canopy, the pilot unzips the arm wings to be able to pull the toggles that control the parachute’s direction.

Sebastian Alvarez flies over a volcano in Chile. Photo: frame from a video about Alvarez

 

Wingsuiting is an advanced skill that takes many hours of experience to do it relatively safely. But even for the experts, anything unforeseen or a minor miscalculation is frequently fatal.

Steph Davis is one of the best rock climbers and wingsuit pilots in the world. She famously combines free solo climbing and wingsuit flying. Photo: Steph Davis

 

How this crazy, exhilarating sport began

Austrian-French tailor Franz Reichelt was an inventor and parachuting pioneer. He was the first to carry out a wingsuit jump, wearing a combination of a parachute and wings. Reichelt had asked for a special permit to jump from the Eiffel Tower in Paris. On a cold February 4, 1912, at 7 am, the 33-year-old Reichelt launched himself from the first platform of the tower. His parachute failed to deploy, and Reichelt died immediately when he crashed to the ground.

The flamboyant, doomed Franz Reichelt in his creation. Photo: Wikimedia

 

The dangers

One of the most frequent accidents occurs when the wingsuit flyer hits the tail of the aircraft during launch. This happens very frequently. Also, when several flyers are in the air in close proximity, it is important not to interfere with the airflow of the others. This can cause turbulence and a high-speed crash.

Colorful human bats flying in formation. Photo: Dan Dupuis/Squirrel

 

When the wingsuit flyer jumps from a cliff, the first seconds are critical to gain stability and pick up speed for greater control. At any time, the wind can abruptly change direction, or the jumpers may miscalculate how close they have swooped to the side of a mountain. This all happens in a thousandth of a second.

The last moments of the Chinese student and wingsuit pilot Liu An. She crashed into Tianmen Mountain in central China in May 2020. She was the first wingsuit casualty in her country. She probably could not deploy her parachute in time to avoid striking the top of the mountain. Photo: Asia Wire

 

Even BASE jumping is unavoidably dangerous. The list of deaths grows every month. There are many accidents every year, and practically all of them are fatal.

Since 1981, more than 400 people have died, many of them during wingsuit flights. The death rate for wingsuiting is an astonishing 1 death per 500 jumps. The most recent tragedy occurred just days ago in the Julian Alps. Bad weather has grounded rescuers for the time being, though it is not a rescue but a body retrieval.

The famous free solo climber and BASE jumper Dean Potter and his partner Graham Hunt died in 2015 during an illegal wingsuit jump in Yosemite. The pair crashed after launching from Taft Point at an altitude of 2,300m. In 2011, Potter achieved what was then the longest flight for wingsuit BASE jumping (7.5 km). He was also the first to BASE jump with a dog, his Australian cattle dog named Whisper.

Dean Potter. Photo: Kelly Slater/Instagram

 

The unforgettable Valery Rozov combined BASE jumping and wingsuiting with mountaineering. He had more than 10,000 jumps in his career, many of them spectacular. He flew from an active volcano in Kamchatka, from Mount Ulvetanna in Antarctica, from 6,275m Huarascan, from Cho Oyu from 7,700m, and from the North Face of Everest at 7,220m.

Valery Rozov jumps off Everest. Photo: Valery Rozov

 

In 2004, Rozov and his climbing partners opened a new route on the west face of 5,800m Amin Brakk in the Karakorum. Rozov then BASE jumped from the top.

He died in November 2017 jumping in a wingsuit from Ama Dablam. After a bad launch, he fatally hit a ledge.

Norwegian BASE jumper, wingsuit flyer, and skier Tom Erik Heimen flies over trail runner and alpinist Kilian Jornet, who is skiing in shorts. Photo: Tom Erik Heimen

Kris Annapurna is the writer of Explorersweb.

Kris has been writing about history and tales in alpinism, news, mountaineering, updates of news during the climbing seasons in Himalaya, Karakorum, etc., for the last 9 month for Explorersweb. Prior to that, Kris spent time at/worked at Real State agent, interpreter and sworn translator in criminal law.

Based in Madrid, Spain, and trips to Hungary (homeland).

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