As published in The Huffington Post
The French town of Chamonix, deep in the shadow of Mont Blanc, has always embraced danger. Climbers scale Europe's highest peak in dire conditions. Backcountry skiers risk avalanches or falling off cliffs.
But the arrival this summer of the wingsuit flyers offered peril on an entirely new scale. For nearly two months, daredevils in skin-tight suits with batwing sleeves and a flap between their legs hurled themselves off the Brevent cliff, soaring through the Alpine skies. Last week, tragedy struck: A Norwegian wingsuit flyer was killed when his parachute failed to open.
The next day, the mayor of Chamonix-Mont Blanc banned wingsuits. The decision has triggered a debate about how to weigh the dangers of extreme sport against the passion of the thrill-seekers the Alpine town has famously encouraged. The ban isn't meant to be permanent – local officials hope to come up with a set of rules on wingsuits that will satisfy everyone. But Chamonix remains shaken. "For us, adventure doesn't mean extreme risk", said Chamonix mayor Eric Fournier. "We have to ask questions of responsibility and respect for other sports".
In Chamonix, near the Swiss and Italian borders, paragliders and hikers share space with mountain gondolas, climbers and BASE jumpers, adventurers who leap from high places and float down by parachute Last month, nine experienced climbers died in an avalanche on the French side of the mountain. And there have been increasing concerns that the area is becoming just too crowded.
Wingsuits are a relatively new offshoot of BASE jumping, coming into their own only in the late 1990s. Flyers start high and hope for a breeze strong enough to make the flight last, before opening their chutes to land. Mont Blanc winters are long and harsh, and the wingsuit season there is short, dependent upon warm air and favorable conditions for landing. That's where the cliffs above Chamonix come in. Popular in winter among skiiers, in summer among paragliders and hikers, the cliffs are easily accessible by trail. That's just high enough to allow for a wingsuit jump and close enough for multiple jumps in a day – a rarity in the wingsuit world.
As a wingsuit site, Brevent was relatively unknown until late this spring, when YouTube videos caught the attention of flyers everywhere. They came by the dozens, according to Fournier and Roche Malnuit, who lives in Chamonix and is president of the French BASE Association. It's an exhilarating, dangerous sport with a small number of passionate adherents, numbering a couple hundred in France and perhaps a thousand or two in the world. The suits can cost over (EURO)1,000 ($1,200) and are made from the same synthetics used for hot-air balloons or parachutes. Flyers commonly jump from planes or helicopters – less commonly from cliffs – and can soar long distances before opening their parachutes to land. The world record, set from an airplane jump, stands at 16 miles. For BASE jumping wingsuit flyers, the distance is considerably shorter, Malnnuit said. At Brevent, where the cliff's stands at an altitude of 2,500 meters (7,500 feet), Malnuit said flyers can expect to travel about 4.5 kilometers (nearly 3 miles). Malnuit learned to fly in a wingsuit from his father, who was a BASE jumping pioneer in the 1980s. Malnuit said his father gave it up at age 50 "because the risks became too great. He said he was happy to have lived it." "I love nature, I love sports, I love the mountains", Malnuit said, explaining his own path to wingsuit flight. "I had my father who was there to teach me. He taught me that it's a sport of risk".
Tore Hovda is the brother of 38-year-old Jon Inge Hovda, who was killed after jumping from the Brevent cliff on July 23. Hovda said his brother got into the sport 15 years ago after starting out with parachuting. "That (BASE jumping) was his whole life. He just couldn't stop with it". Despite his brother's death, Hovda said he did not think the sport should be forbidden. "People should be able to jump if they want to", Hovda said from his home in Stavanger, in southeastern Norway. "It would be wrong to put a ban on it".
Many public places have done just that, including national parks in the United States. Even in California's Yosemite, where solo rock climbing without safety gear is permitted and considered a mark of the highest skill, wingsuits are banned along with other BASE jumping, for many of the same reasons Chamonix is struggling with the sport. "Yes, we allow free soloing and rock climbing, which are also high risk activities. However, the ban on BASE Jumping is not based on the high risk nature of the activity, rather it is based on its overall impacts to other park activities: the `circus-like' atmosphere it creates, its impacts on climbers, potential impacts to park resources, etc". Scott Gediman, a spokesman for Yosemite, told The Associated Press in an email. Yosemite has dozens of climbers a day at the high season and thousands of visitors on the trails. Gediman said he himself watched a BASE jumper leap to her death in 1999 when her borrowed chute failed to open.
Fournier, whose sports include skiing, paragliding and mountain climbing, doesn't envision a permanent wingsuit ban in Chamonix. He doesn't want to try wingsuits, but he understands the appeal and he expects to work with flyers to figure out how to proceed. "It's a practice that taxes the mind and the body", said Fournier. "In these last few weeks, it was opened too quickly to too many people". Malnuit supported time to reflect on the dangers, but said he hoped the cliffs will reopen soon to wingsuits. "With wings, you truly arrive at flying", he said. "You can steer, you can accelerate. You're truly in flight".