G r a h a m D i c k i n s o n

the maddest bird in the sky

“When people get worried about the things I do, I usually tell them don’t worry, don’t worry about me, you just worry about yourself and what worries me I’ll be concerned with that and you be concerned with what worries you”

What started out as the opening act of a series of articles into the life of Graham Dickinson, a light introduction to his motivations, techniques, personality, background etc, proved ultimately to be the final chapter as well. A few short weeks after interviewing him for the first time and having made his way back to Tianmenshan in Hunan to explore the mountain on his own with the aim of opening new exit points, his body was discovered at the base of Yuhu Peak.

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Graham Dickinson during his first practice jump at the 2016 WWL Grand Prix.

That following day during the very late evening of the 27th January, New Year’s eve, I watched as a litany of fireworks and firecrackers set the streets and sky of Beijing ablaze with  a myriad of colour and explosion. In stark contrast to this epic outpouring of joy there was one particularly iridescent soul that was laying wrapped in darkness, in the refrigerated confines of a hospital morgue in Hunan. One that would never spark again, whose smile would no more illuminate whose company it was invited to grace. Graham died alone, in a place thousands of kilometres from his friends and family. Nobody saw him jump and his body was untouched for hours until the search and rescue crew found him, having been alerted by friends who tried in vain to contact him upon his non-appearance at where he was staying in the nearby town of Zhangjiajie. As a winter chill enveloped the body of this enigmatic young man from Toronto, the flame of another passionate and beautiful soul was extinguished from this world by way of one of its deadliest sports. Conversely, the celebrations ongoing within the country can also be viewed as a marker for the way that Graham lived his life. It’s not only a sadness at the tragedy of his passing that is marked but also very much a resonating sense of the extraordinary in what he experienced and accomplished. While millions in this city and hundreds of millions across China celebrated the transition from one year to another with prayers and wishes for more prosperous times ahead, my thoughts were very much with this young man and also of an ideal that pervades the sport at its core.

Jokke Sommer, arguably the world’s pre-eminent wingsuit pilot and just a couple of years Graham’s senior, upon being interviewed for “Dukascopy” eloquently stated;

“when you are born, you are born with an empty glass, and you’re gonna fill this glass up with love, with experiences, with travels, whatever you want to fill it up with and now, I’m soon 30, and I’ve filled up hundreds of glasses that are just pouring over. I’ve done so much and so many adventures that I don’t even remember half of them since these last nine years. This is the difference when a lot of people say “Oh, he died so young”, but it’s not the truth because age is only a number but what have you filled that lifetime with? that’s what it all comes down to. All the different adventures, all the different people you meet, all that actually changes you as a human.”

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Graham Dickinson with Vincent Descols, Tom Erik Heimen and James Boole

Having absorbed all that which brings you those vividly heightened experiences and that which carries you so far from the normal, is it even possible to pull back from such and change and say that’s enough, I’m satisfied, thank you and find a place for yourself back where you once were? When that voice is nagging to push you in taking one more chance, one more risk, in spite of all that you’ve seen, experienced and the knowledge that you have banked over years of witnessing history repeat itself again and again, what is there in the other world that could possibly sate that hunger? Or, is it because of all that you’ve seen, that you know, that you felt, that you loved and lost that you cannot turn back and the responsibility for your safeguarding almost in its entirety is passed to nature and her whims as the parameters of normality have shifted beyond all recognition. Uncertainty in and of itself is an extraordinarily attractive and compelling way of life, footsteps on a path that travels to unknowable reaches of the outer and inner world. Experiences, environments, people and philosophies that challenge at the very heart of your beliefs and understanding and force you to evolve in ways that were not even remotely visible when you first set out. Just as those who steer a safe course of longevity through life, slowly building homes, families, memories of happiness and regret, should never be critiqued detrimentally for their caution so it is equally for nobody to judge from any pedestal the choices of the men and women who actively seek this alternative journey of tremendous risk and rewards. It’s not a voyage that everyone is comfortable with or even capable of or even one that everyone should attempt, after all we are absolutely not born equally either in physical or emotive terms. It’s also, specifically to this sport, not a way of life for those that cannot judge rationally for themselves the potential danger of an intoxicating reverence afforded those individuals who venture so very far from what is assured. In this sport, where self-regulation functions as the primary source of governance and guidance there is breathing room for individuals who are singularly focused and committed and possessed of the talent, hunger and personality necessary to achieve a genius that perches on the very edge of rationality.

In the end though, is 29 years enough? Is 39 or 49? What is definitively true is that Graham, like Jokke and many others, filled up a great number of those metaphorical glasses and lived his lifetime, short on years, but very deeply drowning in experience.

In the words of Billie Joe Armstrong;

‘It’s something unpredictable, but in the end it’s right. I hope you had the time of your life’

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Tianmenshan

Graham became extremely well-known and even idolised to some degree within and outside of the BASE community on the back of a series of videos of his flights in the Alps which appeared to push the limits of what was possible in a wingsuit. The skill he possessed in flying at such close proximity to the terrain of these mountains and the increasingly aesthetic nature of the portrayal of those flights enabled him to engage with a growing and hungry audience. His abilities and instincts and the drive he had to utilize and improve those skills set him apart technically within the sport in terms of what he already had achieved and what he potentially could accomplish. His personality; endearingly gentle and polite but more than sharp and humorous enough to hold his own within a community renowned for its extraordinarily strong characters. This, coupled with his love of adventure and of pursuing new experiences, wherever they took him, enabled him to accrue a great deal of genuine respect, love and admiration. The very fact that he was alone, so far from familiar surroundings, voices, language and anything truly comfortable and pursuing a course that he knew, with the slightest lapse of focus or unavoidable misfortune, could cost him his life, more than anything perhaps illustrates the strength of character of the 29 year-old and the belief in and love for the purity of the voyage that he was undertaking.

His short films are akin to video games, his stage the stunning, evocative landscapes of desert rock, snow, ice and lush alpine forests, Graham himself lead actor for those living vicariously through his accomplishments . Swooping through canyons, over glaciers and brushing tree lines with a finesse that belied the speed and accuracy, confidence and courage which he possessed and the training, preparation and planning that preceded all. He was not though a virtual reality star, he was a flesh and blood human being, a brother and a son, as susceptible to the laws of physics, to doubt and mistakes as the rest of us. However, through learning from his mistakes, applying new-found knowledge, listening to and then pushing away those doubts, he forged his own experiences and applied them where they were most needed. He was able to bend those laws of physics just enough to create a world in which people could garner inspiration, awe, fear, anxiety and stupendous beauty and appreciation for what he was attempting to illustrate. Only in exceptionally rare cases though would it have been truly understood and only then by a handful of others who have trodden a similar path. Those very few who have experienced, not solely proximity terrain flying, but the very outer edges of that most unforgiving of genres. Those prepared to suspend the assurance of life in search of something sensorially far greater and more rewarding than anything previously known.

I spent time with him firstly in Zhangjajie during the 5th annual WWL world championships and then in China again, this time in Sanya for an abortive attempt at a flyover of a seven star hotel opening. Sitting down with Graham at the end of the two week trip I asked him a series of exploratory questions with the intention of finding a specific point of access for the writing, somewhere that lay within his greater story. He was extremely open and accessible and talked freely about subjects that I hadn’t brought up myself, often pursuing avenues of thought in an abstract but fluid manner . Having followed his BASE career from afar for a couple of years I was intrigued as to the personality of the athlete and how it related, if at all, to the way that he flew, also how he viewed his sport and his place within it. I was also curious as to whether he would be someone who could shed some in-depth light on various, perhaps uncomfortable, subjects within the BASE world. In the end though it was him, his story, about where he’d come from and everything that it had taken to get him to the point of where he was sitting in front of me on a hotel balcony in southern China as one of the most talented wingsuit pilots of his generation that proved to be the most compelling of all. We talked about what influenced him to engage in this sport, his first BASE experiences, the effects of social media on the actions of those who push themselves close to the edge, of lost friends, pine needles and alcohol. The intention was to move on with the next interview and explore his relationship with his late great friend Dario and what it takes to continue chasing lines that grow in absurdity as much as in grandeur. Some of his stories and thoughts though will die with him while others will remain in the hearts of all those that he shared them with, those he touched during those 29 years. What follows is not even the smallest, tiniest snowflake settling on the tip of the monstrous iceberg that is his story, it’s just a few thoughts from Graham in his own words…..

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Graham with Vincent Descols and Carson Klein after the awards ceremony for the 2016 WWL China Grand Prix
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In preparation for his first practice flight in Tianmenshan

beginnings and influences…….

“ I guess, from the very beginning that would be from seeing video from Jeb Corliss when I was 15. He wasn’t even wingsuiting then, that was just him going around the world, the video is called ‘a year in the life’. Going round the world jumping off objects that had never been jumped before like the San Fransisco Golden Gate Bridge. In Venezuela, the Angel Falls, the Eiffel Tower in Paris, there’s a building in Japan….. just travelling around the world and jumping off these beautiful, beautiful objects with a parachute and it’s something….. not really artistic, not even spiritual, it’s hard to explain, just something that catches your eye and attention and you think that’s one of the greatest life experiences that you can dream of as a 15-year-old kid.

My brother saw it as well and I’m pretty sure he showed me the video, it was before YouTube. I guess my brother watched some more videos, same with me, and then he got into skydiving. I hung around the drop zone when I was 15. What he was doing I saw as being so cool and attractive, I rode dirt bikes a lot, just knew I’d like skydiving so I didn’t even do a tandem, I instantly did my course. It was a little expensive, especially when you are 18. My parents wouldn’t sign for me when I was 16 to go skydiving ’cause you can go skydiving if you get permission when you are 16. The minimum age in Canada is 16 with parent’s permission but they wouldn’t sign for it, I should have just forged the documents, that was more of my style back then, I wouldn’t have had a problem with it or my brother. I had to wait until I was 18 and then I started skydiving in Toronto.

Fred and Vince, these two French guys, the Soul Flyers. Jokke Sommer, Scotty Bob, while I was skydiving these were the wingsuit videos to watch, they were top of the line. So, I guess probably watching a lot of videos gave you the sense of how foreign and how alluring it was, it just hypnotized me. Jokke…… a lot of the times I see what he’s doing, like big waves with Niccolo, the lines he’s done. Oh, Dream Lines IV, I must have watched that thousands of times. There’s one video he did with Dream Lines IV and for so long in my life I wish…… that looks like the most amazing thing I’ve….. That’s what I dreamed about. I actually think I did dream about it a few times, that is what I want to be doing, where I want to be in my life. And that video, Dream Lines IV, was the same area near the Eiger….. he was doing some other lines, but I did the Eiger because I took a helicopter for 4 hours for a commercial for Mastercard, so for 4 hours I got to see this, the Eiger. I was just memorizing and filming the lines so I could study them so I could come back later on and safely fly them without having things that I don’t know about. It was great being able to study with a helicopter which is so expensive, never be able to afford that. But, that was definitely one video, or a lot of videos…… or a lot of somebody that I’ve seen that I’m like wow, I would use a word like inspiring, so a lot of the Jokke stuff has been very inspiring.

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With the assorted media who were in Hunan to cover the WWL China Grand Prix

When I was 18 I did about 6 jumps and then stopped as it was getting really expensive. I didn’t have any more money so I had to go back to work and I worked for about a year and then I quit my job and moved out west to go snowboarding every day. I didn’t skydive again until I was about 20 down in Lodi, California. It’s one of the cheapest places in the world to skydive. They have a deal, like $10 Sundays and then if you buy a block of tickets it’s $13 a jump so people would come from all over the world just to come to this one place and skydive as much as they can and I was definitely one of them. I just saved up a bunch of money and bought a used parachute that was pretty much as old as I was and went down there and started jumping every day.

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Graham’s first flight from the WWL exit point on Tianmenshan where he had to wait days until the weather had cleared sufficiently for the jump to be attempted

My first BASE jump was with my older brother, I think I was about 20 and he said if you get 200 skydives I’ll take you for base jumping so my goal was just to get 200 skydives, and then obviously to wingsuit. I had over 200 jumps when he took me out, I think I had over 280, 300 because once I put on a wingsuit I just started wingsuiting every single day. He took me out in Toronto, there is a 666ft antenna, they call it lucifer and it’s just an antenna that they opened up that they started jumping and he took me out there. There are guide wires on antennas so if the winds are pushing in between them then it’s safe. Good winds, he gave me a PCA, a pilot chute assist, so the parachute’s going to open. It doesn’t really matter what you do, if you have really bad body position you will still be ok because you’ve got a PCA. He took me there and he showed me how to pack and he taught me the basics of BASE jumping and took me for about 5 jumps and when I went back out to California my buddy had just finished his BASE jumping course. It’s mainly a fight with financials, you either have the time or the money and usually don’t have both. I didn’t have the money. So, to take a $1000 course, I could have saved up some more….. my buddy just got done with this course and I said ‘ok, just regurgitate me everything you just learned’. He’s a very smart guy, Australian, and he’s very much like me; very physically aware of his surroundings and he’ll learn quick in the environment. So we went to the bridge, Twin Falls, after he’d done his course and we just jumped as much as humanly possible. We were being silly there. I come from a gymnastics background, I did gymnastics for 8 years after school, I was very hyper as a kid, ADHD, very hyper as a child so putting me into anything where I could just burn off my energy was my parents main focus. I was doing a bunch of aerials and every jump was a different aerial or a weird pack job jump, it wasn’t just like normal jumps. I survived that, which was great, looking back it was ok but there was one time when I was just doing a new aerial every time and it ended up catching up with me when I almost messed up.

My first BASE jump I thought I was going to die. Am I going to survive? it’s windy up here, is this parachute going to work? It’s the middle of the night I’m with my brother. My first skydive and my first BASE jump, it was definitely a spiritual experience, the amount of adrenalin that was packed in me. Compared to something else I’ve ever done? I’m sure I’ve felt like that at other times, snowboarding off big mountains, pretty much not knowing what is going to happen next, almost like being unprepared. It’s like not snowboarding that much and then you just go to a really advanced spot, fly off a really big cliff and go down some steep lines through trees, it feels like not being prepared.

My first skydive was ok, that was very safe, unless you just have bad luck but first BASE jump…..the first 5 base jumps off an object that you could strike….. you would want to stick to a bridge for a while.

Then, after you do it you are like, ‘Actually I’ve got this’ but as you realize as time goes on that actually back then, my ‘ninja’ skills as they call it, they are not sharp so if something went wrong you wouldn’t have it.

Onwards towards wingsuit BASE…..

I guess for me it was a more slower, gradual pace. I started skydiving when I was 18, by the time I did my first BASE jump that would be 21/22, I was just turning 22. I had about 650 wingsuit skydives so I was generally way more prepared than the average person. The average person would sometimes only do around 50 wingsuit skydives or 100….. I did a lot of training, I was very active and current and it was due to my brothers’ good advice since my brother already went through this whole learning process and learning curve. He told me that you can go out wingsuit BASE jump whenever you want after 50 or 100 but the more experience you have the better you’re gonna be, the safer you’re gonna be. That really helped me mentally and I think that’s how I excelled much faster than a lot of others compared to my peers was that I was wingsuit skydiving all the time and wingsuit BASE jumping all the time and that’s how I excelled past my brother ’cause I was doing it every day all the time rather than he can only do it a few months of the year.

Once I started doing it I turned it into, I wouldn’t say addiction, but a passion, a love. Once I started I couldn’t stop thinking about it and couldn’t stop doing it, it literally consumed my life and became everything I thought about. Every time I looked at a building I thought can I jump it? Can I sneak in there? Thought about a mountain, how much money I have. I need to save up some more money so I can go back out there. It definitely just consumed my life. I didn’t want to do anything else.

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Target flying on Tianmenshan

But what happened with my first wingsuit BASE jump, I just actually showed up to….. it’s kind of an embarrassing story. I guess I’ll be telling this story later on in life to people who have the opportunity to go take a wingsuit course. Right now there is no wingsuit course offered so when someone wants to go wingsuit BASE jump they usually just learn from a friend. They could hire a coach but they never usually do that, it’s generally learned by asking a friend or somebody who already does it. I did the same thing, someone was in Brento, he was a very nice guy, he was tracking and I asked him about….. ’cause he’d just started wingsuiting there as well and he had maybe like one hundred wingsuit BASE jumps and I asked him how hard it was to do it.

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I had both my wingsuits there, a small one and a large one, and I just asked him the basics of the questions and he reassured me ‘yes it’s not as hard as you make it out to be, it’s actually pretty basic but you just gotta keep it simple’. Which I’m pretty sure is what he told me because that’s what I have distilled upon everybody. Just keeping it very basic because that’s all it is, if you overcomplicate it then you can be running into problems. So, it is very basic but people can generally overcomplicate the task at hand to make it more dangerous and more difficult than it actually is. But, the feelings I was getting; definitely very nervous, very scared because I didn’t train for a deader exit. To go back on it, I really wish I had jumped out of a balloon about twenty five times, fifty times, just to be that much more safe, that much more comfortable, that much more confident instead of just going to a cliff which a lot of people do. It’s not like I’m the only one who’s gone to a cliff, there’s quite a lot of people now who go to balloons but back in my time, it was known there were balloons, but a very very very small percentage of people went to it.

When I was going off the cliff it was very nervous, very scary but it was just overcoming that, knowing that my experience will help me but just being respectful of what you are doing and what is the task at hand. I would say I would be pretty intimidated at the time, scared, intimidated, that’s how I felt at the time but after the first few seconds on exiting, that was my uncomfortable position, because I’ve never done that, the first two seconds of going to terminal velocity. So, after the first few seconds it started to feel like a skydive, more time went on, after 6 seconds 8 seconds so this is exactly like a skydive.

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Composing himself before his first jump from Tianmenshan

A little bit more embarrassing to that story would be after my sixth or seventh wingsuit BASE jump. I was flying proximity along the wall just because I knew I could and I knew I could because I just felt that this is exactly like a skydive and I was a very active skydiver. I kept that story pretty much quiet until now.

I remember after my sixth or seventh jump, some guys who I met when I first came to Brento were kind of like….. I wouldn’t say a chip on their shoulder, maybe it’s just the morning time and they are super tired, I don’t know. I don’t know what it was, whether it was just the morning time or whether they are just having a little bit of ego. When I first started talking to them and they brushed me off and I’m like; it’s ok whatever. But, after I ran into them later on, they were filming people doing a jump, they were jumping themselves, and they had a nice Sony cx150 so you can zoom in and film people and they filmed me doing a jump. I was flying beside the wall and they caught my shadow and I guess that’s flying fairly close. I got down to the ground and they came up and congratulated me and praising me and at the same time there’s a news reporter trying to do a story in the area about BASE jumping. So, she then does an interview with me and….. I hope everyone from that jump I just did doesn’t come over right now and realize what I just did because I feel very comfortable flying along that wall but it’s not the right thing to be doing.

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Graham Dickinson and Shupeng Zhang

So, as these guys praised me, these 3 guys, for flying close proximity to the wall and as I’m getting interviewed after by a news reporter I was very worried that anyone could overhear it. I was looking over my shoulder just to make sure nobody was around to hear what I was saying, just to make sure. I was keeping it quiet because I knew what I was doing. It wasn’t wrong for me but it was very wrong for others so it would make them feel very uncomfortable knowing that I did that. But they didn’t understand how comfortable I was, so I didn’t actually see any danger in it. The main danger, now I look back on it, would be jumping in certain wind conditions, like thermal wind conditions and where would I be going wrong?….. no, the only thing would be just thermal winds which could happen to anybody still to this day.

It’s happened to me, it could happen to anyone else. That’s a very humbling part of BASE jumping is winds that you can’t see that you are going to try to cut through that hopefully aren’t going to affect you. Thermal winds or really strong gusts coming out of nowhere affecting your flight which the faster you fly the better you will cut through it, to a certain point. I’m not going extremely fast, I’m going fast but not to the point where you are twitchy.

So that was my very beginning career, I always felt very comfortable, it was very rare for me to feel uncomfortable in a wingsuit BASE jump and that’s because of all the wingsuit skydives I did and I did a lot of them very actively. I didn’t just go there on the weekends and do a few, it was every day, skydiving as much as I possibly could.

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Graham gaining the composure and focus required before jumping

Ad hoc mentoring at exit points and ego……

A lot of ego involved, and especially if you don’t know the person and where they are coming from. Maybe if they show up wearing a red bull helmet they will get a little more respect but if you don’t know the person and they come up to you and start giving you advice some people might not take it the best way. For the most part if you are a good jumper or if you have any intelligence with you about the sport, about skydiving about BASE jumping….. Because it’s insanely humbling and someone who has trained to go fast, let’s say that is his passion, just to go fast, and he comes up to you and says ‘hey you are flying very slow , this is how you go faster’ and gives you advice. You have two ears and one mouth for a reason and you always listen to people, it doesn’t matter who they are or what the advice they are giving even if it’s wrong advice you’ll still listen to hear what they have to say. Then if you think it’s wrong well then that’s your assessment because you have your experiences of flying this way that is actually better than flying that way.

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Graham was one of four athletes to compete in the target flying competition at the 2016 WWL China Grand Prix

So, how receptive people are? BASE jumping is such a big community of people from all over the world, so many different cultures and backgrounds from all over the world coming to do this sport and that’s what’s very beautiful about it. It brings together these certain types of people from all over the world to go do this sport. You get these really strong characters, because to do it to begin with is kind of crazy in its own way and to continually do it is also crazy…….

I almost see it as being rude, not rude but, it would be a very egotistical thing to be like; ‘hey bro you need to fly like this and do it like that’. Even with this person with 50 wingsuit BASE jumps that’s just started he could easily fly much better than me just because of his physical background, his body spatial awareness. He might be a tunnel flyer and has been flying in a tunnel for 9 years or maybe with his skydiving background he’s just been doing this every day. The more time and money you have to train, the better jumper you’re gonna be so I would never really approach someone to say ‘hey you should be doing it this way’ because I saw something they did that was wrong. They could be a better jumper than me, they can be completely new to the scene, completely new to the sport, they can be even a student and be a better pilot than I can be. It’s very humbling because I don’t know people’s backgrounds, if I know their backgrounds then I’ll help them out but you generally have to ask for help and it’s hard for you to see somebody’s jump unless they show you the video or outside footage. The main thing is you need outside footage of yourself to get advice. So, to be a mentor towards someone, if someone writes me online then I’ll always give them the time of day because a fear of mine would be if I didn’t give them the time of day and something ever happened to them I would feel guilty because you could’ve helped them but you didn’t, so I would always give them the time of day. I don’t even care if they’ve been an asshole to me in the past, to help people in the sport. There’s a lot of people passing on information that is not necessarily right, especially in skydiving.

Were you receptive to others giving you advice in your early days?

Definitely, definitely, and I think that’s what’s helped me a lot because I would always listen to anybody and what they have to say but if I don’t respect the person, like if someone comes up to you and they’re being an asshole or if they are really bad teachers is what I would call them, not necessarily being an asshole….. But if they are a really bad teacher which would be like; ‘Hey you’re fucking up, you’re being stupid, you’re not doing this right’. If they are very negative towards you and are not being nice, not being respectful then nobody I know will ever listen to a teacher that’s saying they are stupid or they are wrong. Pretty much making them feel bad or that they are less equal than other people, if you tell them they are a criminal or that they are stupid then they are probably going to grow up thinking that they are either a criminal or stupid.

Does social media affect the way you approach the sport and could it push you or anyone else to attempt something that you wouldn’t want to do purely for the sake of sating the appetite of fans?

I wonder, deep down psychologically I would be very curious how much it actually does. I like to tell myself not in the slightest that it affects me but I’m sure it affects me on some level, I’m not in touch with myself that emotionally to know if it does. The honest answer….. I don’t know if it affects me that much, I say to myself it doesn’t at all but I really don’t know that if deep down it does.

With fame and the ego getting involved I’m sure it’s that way because it seems like history repeating itself, any competitive person or any pro athlete can easily go down that road and that’s why I’m not really a fan of competing because it’s kind of like that. It’s more you’re doing it for the wrong reasons instead of just doing it for the love, the passion, just jumping with your friends so I strongly agree with what you just said, especially with Facebook and how it can be an addiction that way. For me, I could see psychologically how it could turn into that at the time. For me it’s an outlet. Number one thing that sponsors are looking for would be; what’s the return of investment that you could do for them? So by advertising their product or how well you are doing online. If you are known as being the best in your sport or you are very popular in your sport then you’ll get more sponsorship which makes it more affordable to do and means that you can do it more so for me it’s been more of a….. if I’m sponsored I can just do this all of the time as much as I want. That’s what I’ve always been telling myself, but at times I really actually dislike social media because it sucks up so much time in my life, editing photos and videos, if I had the money I would love to pay someone to edit my photos and videos. I would much rather push that onto somebody else because they have a passion for it. My passion would be just to jump all the time so I really never had to be on social media ’cause I’d have more time. I could be doing whatever I wanted, I could be working out more, doing yoga more, reading more, I would just have more time for myself.

I guess it’s pretty bad from me that I haven’t explained myself from day one. Very simply I only fly for myself and for what I want to do and all I do is put on a go pro when I do my own thing. From day one I’ve always been taught that and try to act like the go pro is never even there. Now you are becoming more aware of it because you need to get more filming angles or outside video if you are working with somebody. Some jumps are a project where we’re getting out of the helicopter here and going to fly down this line, you’ll be over here, I’ll slow down at this point in time, I might do a trick or two here. So, those kind of jumps where it’s more work like that but the actual moment of doing it ,it’s not work at all it’s the most exhilarating experience. When I get to jump out of a helicopter and fly down a line that I’m creating on my own and doing a trick, while I’m doing it and after I’m doing it, after when I land on the ground with my friends……….

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The first jump from Tianmenshan

Before my friend Dario passed away, two weeks before that, we were in Switzerland for a project. We got to jump out of the helicopter about 8 times above the Eiger and he called it the best skydives that he’s ever done in his life because it technically wasn’t a BASE jump. It was great hearing him say that, especially after what happened, but with me it was the best BASE jump/skydive experience of my entire life and it was for a paid project. We were getting paid to do it and we were focusing on where he was going to be and where I’m going to be but the jump in itself and the beauty and what we were flying around, it was just…… I don’t know if I would ever get sick of that, it was just everything I’ve ever dreamed of doing, the actual experience of it, it was religious. The problem with doing something like that is once you start I can’t imagine stopping, it’s not necessarily an addiction, it’s all-consuming. You are a changed person and to go back to who you were before or to go back to other sports you’ve done or other activities or anything else, it’s just all vanilla ice cream when you can go eat gelato in Italy.

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Proximity, gear failure, second guessing and pine needles……

For my own reasons, I love flying proximity. Also, because of a lot of videos I watched early on that got me so pumped up to go wingsuit skydiving was watching people like Jokke and the Soul Flyers and some other French guys fly really close to objects. It was just like a bird. You see birds fly very close to the wall and I guess when you fly out in the open space it’s beautiful as well but it’s, I don’t know what it is….. As I fly very close to something it’s more of seeing your skill of progression and precision. Some people would say that it’s not skilful at all but I would say the complete opposite; if you can continually do it and do it very well and come very close and be very manoeuvrable it is very skilful. Other people that would call it unskilful I feel that it’s more of a thing of jealousy or envy or they felt uncomfortable at one point in time and that’s why they slowed down and stopped.

I would guess I would say that I haven’t felt uncomfortable to the way that I would want to stop, I’ve felt comfortable way more times than I felt uncomfortable, it’s been very rare that I’ve been….. The times I feel uncomfortable when I BASE jump I’ve been on the exit because you are very susceptible to….. you could trip, you could go a little head low, you could just make a simple mistake that might just have your life. It could be freak gusts of wind that come by, thermals, and then when you open your parachute. Our gear nowadays, our history of gear, we don’t know why a lot of people have died and gear failure happens. There’s a lot of people that in order for them to keep jumping they won’t even accept the fact that other people’s gear have failed, hasn’t opened and they don’t know why it hasn’t opened. So, the times I always get intimidated are always on exit and on opening because it’s the uncontrollables rather than in my flight. When I’m flying very close or doing manoeuvres I don’t feel uncomfortable I don’t feel scared, I feel very comfortable. The times that scare me are the times that I’m not in control, just like being on the back of a motorcycle when somebody else is driving it. I can drive a motorcycle very well but when I’m on the back and somebody else is driving it I don’t know if they are…..how much throttle they are putting into it, how much they are leaning, you can’t control them so it’s very scary.

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Target flying practice flight

Again, psychologically, back of my mind I don’t know, I’m not in touch with that side of…. I feel like more training through meditation and maybe there is a way to train my mind to be even sharper than it is now. I would use the word sharper or a joking way to say your ninja skills or your precision. But to be a sharper flyer or a sharper individual? what I’m thinking about for me, it’s just pure. What I like to call it is meditation, my mind is very clear, no thoughts, so also that’s why I enjoy it because you are so encompassed and so focused on the here and now that nothing else in the world matters. Also, why I enjoy it is that you feel as if nothing else in this world…. it’s like the one time you really feel alive and then after that short moment’s gone then you are back to normal life. But, during that brief period of flight, especially when it gets intense that you’re meditating and you’re so focused on the here and now that it’s more than I’ve reached than personally meditating on my own…..ever……

I’m very focused but then there has been a few times when you start thinking about ‘oh, can I do this or can I make it there?’, and it is amazing when you second guess yourself, it’s amazing when you start thinking in your flight, how bad your flying will get. You’ll just go from being so sharp, so quick, so skilled to being like this timid boy in this large suit. It’s very humbling, it’s like you’re a child again. From fears and worries and doubts and second guessing yourself and wondering about ‘Damn, do I have enough speed? do I have enough power? am I going to make it that certain point?’. Usually it’s trying to make it somewhere or make it over something or if you don’t have the speed, but usually when you have the speed and you are flying very close, like in a gully, the only times I start to think is when I know I’m going to touch a tree. I’ve touched trees, I think about 12 trees I’ve touched and you always know it’s coming, it sounds very very bad, it sounds like you are out of control, it sounds like you are doing something wrong but no.

Because I’m flying that close I want to fly that close and I can either make a movement, a large movement, I could leave the situation, the area, I could either flare up or I could turn away from it or I could just brush past it and I choose. I know I’m going to touch just the little bristles of the tree or a little touch on my foot or on my hand just a little bit and every time it’s coming it’s almost like a cat with its whiskers. I don’t know how I can know like I’m just gonna brush that, just a little bit. It’s almost like you could hit a deck of cards out of somebody’s hands, like if somebody was holding up an ace in their hands, it’s almost like you can….. you might hit their hands sometimes but if they were holding up something just a little bit higher you could hit it every single time and you know that I’m just gonna touch it. The same thing with us doing accuracy going through a target, it’s not that difficult and you know it’s coming, well with a target it’s actually a little bit different with objects from the mountain. Every time it’s happening, I can see it coming from far enough away that I could move out of the way if I wanted to and yet most of the times I don’t unless it’s a dead tree branch or something that’s gonna harm me but usually a live pine it’s usually very soft, it’s not that bad. It sounds really weird and I don’t usually talk about that with people ever, ever.

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Waiting for the weather to clear at the 2016 WWL Grand Prix

But it’s not what worries me, it’s not the most important thing. When people get worried about the things I do, I usually tell them don’t worry, don’t worry about me, you just worry about yourself and what worries me I’ll be concerned with that and you be concerned with what worries you.But what worries me, again, for the most part, every jump, is exit and opening. I have Squirrel equipment, my gear is very very good, the company I got sponsored with has an almost perfect track record. There’s only one time a harness has almost feathered out and every other manufacturer has had failures that have killed people but people will not admit it a lot of the time, which is sad, or severely injured them.

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Graham attempting what would have been his first flight from the mountain. He pulled back from it as the clouds and mist swirled around and then waited for better conditions in the following days

Is there a flight or line that you get most satisfaction from?

Yes, probably that jump with my friend Dario when we were doing that project just above the Eiger. The Eiger’s one of the most…. well, Lauterbrunnen alone is one of the most beautiful places I’ve seen and then this 14000 ft mountain that’s just so iconic. And the view that you get from up there, it’s one of the most beautiful sights I’ve seen ever in my life and then being able to wingsuit with a good friend of yours. So, fly around this mountain for a few minutes because that’s how long this flight is. It’s very difficult to explain the experience you get from it and after when you land how you feel, just screaming at each other with excitement and joy. I never actually put that video out yet, I really wanted to make a great edit of it because its Darios’ work. I prefer somebody else to do it because I respect how difficult it is or how much of an art form it is to edit photos and videos and to have that eye to capture that artistic….. It’s just like drawing to me, I see that it can be very very very difficult.

I guess death happens so much in our sport that it’s almost like you are becoming numb to it, comparing it to people in war, almost, where people at the very beginning of it ….. You are so in shock and mortified at losing someone so close and then you just become numb and I hate to say it but a cheap therapy for me is alcohol. I guess it’s not necessarily such a bad thing, I’m lucky that I don’t see myself has having a very addictive….. it’s like an alcoholic, well I’m not an alcoholic but I’m drinking all the time, it’s not necessarily that I drink all the time or that I enjoy to but I enjoy what goes with drinking in that it’s a celebration in general. It’s a celebration of, in my eyes, of life so when I’m partying it’s a celebration, you’re having a good time, you’re not working, you’re not doing something you don’t want to do, you’re meeting people you’re meeting pretty girls, just having good conversation with people; you’re partying. I don’t want to say that I’m this crazy partier, drug taker person or that I’m an alcoholic and I drink all the time but if I’m not jumping, alcohol also is numbing and it celebrates life. So, the way I always saw it is that my best friend passed away, my best friend growing up, we were friends for our whole life and he passed away on a bike. He was an amazing dirt bike rider but a very simple mistake on a little moped…… But he could tear up a 250 2 stroke doing catwalks down the street…… a really unfortunate accident happened at night and actually alcohol was involved but…… We used to love riding and that was our passion when we were kids, motorcycle riding and I guess after he passed away that was very very very hard for me and it took me a few years to get over that. I’d think about him every day, writing down with poetry in my journal, trying to find answers to life and you know just being very confused. It’s not really talked about in school which it should be, life and death, but it touches on so many people’s religions and cultures that I guess you can’t go down that road and speak about it so I guess you’ve got to come to your own sense of reality. I guess that’s your parents role which I should have asked my parents or I should have been more open with other people who are wiser and older than me about the topic. Like my brother, he’s a philosophy major so I should’ve opened up with more people instead of being sad and hiding my emotions and feelings but yes, it was very hard for me. But, after that happened a lot of good came from it in my life because I realized I never want to work a single day for the rest of my life, if I could die at 20 years old then I could die anytime doing anything just walking down the street, like he was on a moped scooter. After he passed away I pretty much dedicated my life to…… I would say for him at the beginning and then it became for myself towards later on in life. I started doing it for myself, just living every day, not that it’s my last, but doing what I want every day. And I wanted to help people like on humanitarian issues, I always wanted to work at the UN or Red Cross a lot, I always wanted to do Doctors Without Borders but becoming a doctor for 10 year is….. What I’m trying to get into here was it changed my life for the better in that I wanted to help people and then I got very frustrated with not being able to help other people. Not knowing what avenue to get into to actually help other people to actually feel like I’m doing any change environmentally, socially, humanitarian. Any of the massive issues that go on in the world like the fishing industry, corporate agriculture, all these issues that happen that I’m disgusted about or disagree with. Not knowing how to help at all or just knowing that you’re not really going to make any change, just very frustrated so I went towards more of the life of well if I can’t do that….. so, I was reading a lot about those issues and it was making me more….. It wasn’t making me happier that’s for sure in life and no-one really having an answer, which was really frustrating, every time you read about all these problems nobody having an answer.

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I dedicated my life to just snowboarding every day, riding dirt bikes, surfing, skydiving or BASE jumping as much as I can ’cause that’s what I wanna do. So, that was my background. What I’m trying to say is I just try to celebrate life as much as I can through my activities, during the daytime doing what I want, being very active and at night-time I’m definitely celebrating but not in a bad way like a lot of people look at partying or drinking as in a bad sense or a lot of bad stigma around it. But in my eyes I’m not violent, I’ll break up a fight if anything or…… I don’t see it as a problem right now. I definitely realize alcohol can be a problem with a lot of people and even in my own family but for me it’s a…… let’s celebrate life because we don’t know when it’s going to be our last time to celebrate.

I sung for a bit but I’m a very shy singer for people I know, I used to busk on the street in Whistler and Vancouver for a little bit but none of my friends ever knew. I guess classical, I find it hits my heart strings the most, as it’s the most beautiful and can really send me to somewhere else, it can almost….. like it drugs me. Classical would be the most powerful music that I’ve come across but also soul, blues and soul music has been the most……. it almost feels like that is what real, true music or people who have experienced…… like they’re really speaking out of passion or experience or out of love…… Billie Holiday, there’s something about Billie Holliday or Aretha Franklin, Marvin gay, Sly and the Family Stone or Al Green or Otis Redding or someone that just really knows how to hit you and play your heart strings. I guess music like that, back in the day. And I grew up on good music, both my brothers are into good music and my family but none of us played instruments. I learned how to sing later on, I know you have to practice your vocal warm ups and your training but I’m very shy. My parents don’t even know I sing, my friends don’t know I sing, and I would never sing for them but I would sing for a thousand strangers on the street for some reason, just because you’re never gonna see them again you know.”

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Tianmenshan

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The Birth of Double Happiness

Signed into FB today and I saw something at the top of the screen that made me pause for a while;

It said simply; “Happy birthday Ludovic Woerth”.

 

Ludovic Woerth, 2013

 

Having been around wingsuit flying for a few years and known a fairly unhealthy number of people who won’t experience the pleasure of any further birthday wishes and also not being an avid FB user, these somewhat ironic greetings to the dear departed tend to pass me by quite often.Today though was one of those times when it stopped me in my tracks and I started to remember.

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2013 WWL Grand Prix

I didn’t really know Ludo very well at all, I first met him in 2012 at the WWL grand prix in China and again in 2013 at the same place where I was working for red bull in photographing the event. I wasn’t a great friend of his and neither do I have any great stories about him, I’m not a BASE jumper and have never even skydived but still I have this connection to him that even though I have met and photographed many truly great pilots over the years since, for me he is still someone quite special and unique.

He was the first person I ever saw fly, quite simply that.

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practice flight during 2013 WWL Grand Prix

It was an especially miserable and freezing day at the top of a cloud wrapped Tianmen mountain. This was a day with merciless and bone-chilling drizzle dripping continuously down your face, soaking through the skin and freezing even the hearts of the most ardent of optimists. With nowhere to hide and with a seemingly implausible chance of any jumps taking place whatsoever it all felt more than a little desperate and thoughts turned vividly towards a warm hotel and hot food. With my mind and spirits shutting themselves down and isolating myself against the cold it was then especially enlivening and surprising  to witness the illuminating presence of a French guy shuffling forward to take his position at the exit point and prepare to jump in spite of the rain/cold/fog/cloud and most of all hugely skeptical looks.

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The inaugural WWL China Grand Prix in 2012 on Tianmenshan

Jump he did though, after the smoke flare on his shoe was set alight, off he went as he was quickly swallowed up in the mist/cloud/fog. But, for a few truly glorious seconds before he vanished I watched spellbound, stunned by this man wearing something that looked like it had been bought from a fancy dress shop take a leap from solid ground out and down into a white abyss. It was just a fleeting moment but so serene, elegant and courageous that it was enough to capture my imagination and pull me into a sport of which a week previously I had never even heard of.


The sport of wingsuit flying has it’s fair share of detractors, people who are against it for all manner of reasons, some of those reasons are understandable while others are based on ignorance. In it’s essence though, it is fundamentally a free-spirited sport of pure belief, courage and trust although one that is as equally intoxicatingly beautiful as horrifyingly brutal. Witnessing that first leap from Ludo was for me something that remains a truly special and enlightening memory.

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Somehow it seems a little perverse to celebrate the birthday of someone who is no longer with us ( especially in FB land where it’s always startlingly today and never posthumous) perhaps it’s better instead to celebrate a particular moment in that person’s life when something they did effected inspiration in another human being. At least that’s what he provided for me and that’s what I celebrate.


He was the first person, back in 2013, who ever said to me; “Ian, take more photographs , take a lot more”, I’m not sure whether he thought the ones I had been taking were awful and I needed an increase in quantity to compensate or whether there was perhaps some other more darkly cryptic meaning. I took it to mean a little of both.

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Ludovic Worth and Jeff Nebelkopf after practice flights 2013

And one last memory, also from that first year; whilst suffering acutely the effects of wind/cloud/fog/rain/cold induced depression he came up to me in the hotel lobby proclaiming jovially to have discovered a real and tangible ‘double happiness’. Alas, the promised cure for this shroud of gloom turned out to be not an elixir of effervescent and eternal good humour but rather a nicotine induced state of sedation from Shanghai Tobacco inc. 


It did though produce enough of a smile to make it through the next few days of gloom and despair and even now when I see a pack of DH in the shop I think of it solely as Ludo’s brand.

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So, perhaps in the end no happy birthday wishes but for sure a huge and heartfelt thank you Ludovic Woerth.