The idea of combining existing sporting activities to make a new one has served the sporting world well. But no one had tried to blend skiing, base jumping and wingsuit flying and for very good reasons. For a start, it’s a logistical nightmare, necessitating three different kinds of kit as well as the need for snow, a perfect cliff from which to jump and the promise of a safe landing zone. Base jumping off a cliff and then opening a wingsuit had certainly been done, but from a 40mph start on a pair of skis no one would want to do that – would they?
Well until now no, but two Americans – Shane McConkey and J.T.Holmes have teamed up with flying Frenchman Loïc Jean-Albert to attempt to combine the three elements into a single sport.
“We knew it would be tons of fun and the main question really was, well, why not?” says Californian Shane McConkey, one of just two men alive believed to have tackled a ski-base-wingsuit jump.
“We knew we could ski, we knew we could fly a wingsuit and we knew we could base jump. We’re not just crazy daredevils with a death wish.”
Personally I think he’s possibly selling himself short there!
In the extreme skiing community, McConkey and fellow ski-base-wingsuit originator J T Holmes are little short of legends. They have almost single-handedly made skiing cool again.
The only known ski-base-wingsuit attempt on record took place in Norway, in a beautifully rugged region called Rauma
“Shane and J T were more skiers than fliers,” explains Jean-Albert. “And they wanted me to show them how to fly a little closer to the cliff.”
Jean-Albert’s definition of “a little closer” may differ from that of the rest of us, but if you want someone to show you what it’s like to be Superman, virtually scraping your fingertips as you buzz across a vertical cliff face, then he is your man.
One of the first hurdles faced by Holmes and McConkey was how to kick off their skis after launch. They eventually picked up some old-fashioned ski bindings with a pull release – as opposed to today’s traditional push release – and with the help of some parachute cord up their pant legs, concocted a way to jettison them. But not before doing a triple backflip.
Next, after thrusting out their arms and legs, the “skin” of their wingsuits came into play. Incredibly, wingsuits – which make the wearer look a bit like a flying squirrel – can give you a glide ratio of 2.5:1. This means that for every metre you fall, you go forward 2.5 metres. Fall a thousand metres and you can cover 2.5 kilometres horizontally.
Finally, comes the parachute. “It was even more dangerous because there was no reserve ‘chute,” says Jean-Albert. “At that altitude, there’s no time to deploy a backup ‘chute if things go wrong.” All of which makes ski-base-wingsuit flying one of the most foolhardy things an amateur could try.
“Oh, it’s expert stuff – beyond expert, really,” says Holmes, who hopes to do it again this year. “My advice for anyone who wanted to do it would be to go skiing every day from sunrise until sunset and ski every day like it’s your last day on earth. Then get into base jumping, then wingsuit flying and maybe one day, years down the line, you’ll know if you’re ready.”
My advice would be to go and see a psychiatrist if ever the slightest desire to do this enters your mind.
The next big adventure for McConkey and Holmes is what they call a “double stager ski-base jump”. As McConkey explains, “We’ll ski off a big cliff, deploy a parachute, fly the parachute down to the slope below, land and without skipping a beat, pull the cutaway handle to release the parachute. We’d then continue skiing down the second slope and off a second cliff, deploy the second parachute, fly down and land.”
Not surprisingly, neither skier is keen on being the first to try out what is being hailed as the ultimate in wingsuit flying and nor is Jean-Albert. “It’s technically possible,” shrugs the Frenchman. “But it is very high risk. You would need to land on a slope on the same trajectory as your descent, maybe a 40 degree angle and you’d slide down onto it, head first, on your belly, at about 80mph.