“Dario’s ready,” says Dario Zanon. “Three, two, one,” says Graham Dickinson. “Vive la France!” they both shout as they leap from the summit of Le Brévent in the French Alps and spread their wings to begin the Rock Star Line, one of the most dangerous routes in one of the world’s most dangerous sports.
Zanon and Dickinson are two of the best, however. Using the flaps of cloth that join their arms and legs, they skim expertly past cliff edges and between trees at more than 110mph. After less than a minute they release their parachutes and drift down, whooping, over Chamonix. A day after Zanon’s footage of the flight was posted last September, it had been watched a million times. Since then, it has been watched at least 10 million more.
On Wednesday 8 June this year, Zanon returned to Chamonix and climbed the Aiguille du Midi on the other side of the valley for a solo flight. On the Sunday his body was found on the glaciers 5,000ft below. Most likely no one will ever know exactly which small thing went wrong. Small things become big quickly at 110mph. He was 33.
It does happen to the best. Mark Sutton, the man who parachuted into the London Olympics stadium dressed as James Bond, was killed wingsuit flying in the Swiss Alps in 2013, while filming for EpicTV. In May 2015, Dean Potter, a famous US climber and wingsuit flyer, died with his friend Graham Hunt. They had jumped from Taft Point in Yosemite Park, California. In July last year, the record-holding Colombian wingsuit flyer Jhonathan “the Birdman” Florez died during practice in Switzerland. The Briton David Reader died two weekends ago. Last weekend five people died in separate incidents in the French Alps: two climbers, a paraglider, a hang-glider and a wingsuit flyer. Wednesday brought two more, in separate accidents: an as yet unidentified British man and Uli Emanuele, Zanon’s former flying partner. “Be a Hero,” says the video they made for the action camera company GoPro in March.
It is hard to find exact figures on the popularity of extreme sports, but it is even harder to find anyone who thinks that they aren’t booming. In 2006, the British Parachute Association recorded 39,100 first jumps. Last year there were 59,679. Numbers of “full members” – regular skydivers – have been rising at a similar rate. The British Mountaineering Council had about 25,000 individual members in 2000. Last September there were “almost 55,000”. The number of people climbing Everest has rocketed since the 1990s. The proportion of women climbers is increasing too, up from about 16% in 2002 (BMC figures) to 36% now (Sport England figures). Hang-gliding numbers have suffered since the 1990s, according to Michelle Lanman at the British Hang Gliding and Paragliding Association (“The kit is so much heavier”). But paragliding and paramotoring (paragliding with a giant fan) are doing very nicely. SurfingGB also reports that “British surfing continues to grow rapidly”.
“You just get into it and then progressively build up, build up” says Jess Cox, 27, an instructor at her father’s business, Fly Sussex Paragliding, near Lewes. “Better flights involve going higher, further, doing debagging or acrobatic stuff.” Sorry, debagging? She shows me a video on her phone. It was recorded by a friend shortly after they had both jumped off a 7,000ft mountain in Turkey. Cox is gliding high above a gleaming body of water when suddenly she falls from her harness, surely to her death, until a new paraglider unfurls out of her backpack and she swoops away. “Woo-hoo!” she squeals, watching. “I love it! That was one of the best days of my life. It’s just the most exciting thing I’ve ever done. The high lasts for days. You’re walking around on a cloud when you have a great flight. You really enjoy what you do. You really love it”
Of course, the drawback of discovering something you love this much is having to do without it sometimes. “You can’t let the gap be too long or you get itchy feet,” Cox says. “Some people become completely obsessed, quit their jobs, live in a van and just travel round the world with fabric in the back, leaping off stuff. It does kind of consume you. It’s completely addictive.” When possible, Cox actually flies to work in the morning with her paramotor. She’s never scared, she says, unless you count nerves before competitions. Nor should she be. Like most extreme sports these days, paragliding is much safer than it looks, as long as it’s done properly.
For others, there’s no denying that danger is part of the attraction. On his website, Dickinson says that “when unexpected events happen (birds, dead tree branches, etc) … I feel like I am operating in pure survival mode. I can feel my heart rate speed up, my senses heighten, and my focus narrow so that everything seems to almost slow down. During these moments I try to only focus on the present, the immediate here and now. I think this purity of thought and mind is one of the many reasons I continue to do what I do. Being able to escape the noise, clutter and business of daily life is a rare treat in this world.”
It’s the bright beginning of a hot day and Tim Cox gathers the amateur paragliders and explains what they are going to do. I count 16 men and four women. Mark, 28, and Andrew, 39, are both performers at Glyndebourne. “We had this day off and I thought, ‘Let’s go and do something stupid,’” Andrew says. He’s done a skydive once before and it terrified him. “I just remember thinking, ‘Hold it together, hold it together, hold it together’. I was desperate to be on the ground.” He’s hoping this will be a bit calmer. Mark, on the other hand, is a fight director and well up for it. He’s done a bit of kite-surfing, diving and caving, but not yet anything up high. I think it’s just for people who don’t do very well at a barbecue,” he says. “So many of our colleagues are happy to sit with a bottle of prosecco in the sun for four hours,” he says. “I get fucking bored. Let’s go and jump off a hill!” He’s brought his GoPro, mostly to take clips with which to taunt his partner, who wishes she were here.
Martin, 25, works in advertising in London. He did a tandem paraglide with an instructor a few years ago, and the experience lingered, so he’s back to have a go on his own. He admits to being “a little bit nervous”. Among all the joshing of the others, he seems quiet and attentive. Paul, 59, has been paragliding four times before, twisting his ankle on the last. He works in insurance and has always enjoyed running, swimming and climbing. He once had a pilot’s licence. When he was diagnosed with cancer six years ago, he got more serious about his fitness and finally lost enough weight to try paragliding. He calls his cancer Nigel and takes pleasure in ignoring its demands. “This is one in the eye for Nigel,” he says, as we climb the hill up to the launch site. He postponed some chemotherapy to be here.
Paragliding looks easy, at least to start with. The equipment is not a parachute but an inflatable wing, which is laid flat on the hilltop, then fills with air, takes shape and lifts fliers off the ground. Once the basics of landing and equipment-checking are explained, the tandem fliers are strapped into a big black seat, hooked up to an instructor, dragged back by the glider pulling as it rises, then a few quick steps launch them forwards into the air. The first flier, Andrew, is up 10 minutes after we arrive. “Bloody hell,” says Martin.
The rest take off, and it’s clear they’re having a good time. Smoothly, gracefully, they glide back and forth over the hillside until it looks almost dull, this “boating around”, as the initiated called it. Drifting down from the tandems come snatches of conversation that you might well exchange over prosecco. When required, the instructors liven things up with big swings and spirals, which look very exciting. Their control is so good that they can come over and hover within touching distance while we talk.
Science teacher Becky, 35, sits next to me, watching her banker boyfriend, John, enjoy his 39th birthday present. “It’s like wearing a nappy,” he says when first strapped in. “That was awesome,” he says on landing. Becky did a skydive once (“crazy at the beginning”) and a bungee jump (“much worse, because you have to step off”). They didn’t trigger in her the addiction that it did in Jess. She talks about the skydive like it was a first taste of marzipan – good, yes, not over-rated, no particular need to do it again. “It’s trying new things, isn’t it?” she says. “Life would be a bit boring if you don’t try new things.”
Was life boring before extreme sports? It was certainly less safe than it is now. (Look up the violent crime and road accident statistics.) Some say Evel Knievel started the fad by showing kids that nearly dying could be cool. Some say nonsense, it was Sondre Norheim. Or Otto Lilienthal. Or Franz Reichelt. Or Leslie Irvin. Or George Freeth. If you have no idea who those people were, then we haven’t reached the point yet where the pioneers of downhill skiing, gliding, parachuting, skydiving and surfing are household names, but it is clear that what they started is no fad. You probably know somebody who has done all the things these men were considered lunatics for trying. You may have tried a few yourself.
The Dangerous Sports Club needs a special mention, in part for embodying the crazed inventiveness and nonconformist ethos of extreme sport. Formed by a group of well-to-do friends at Oxford University, the DSC liked to think up perilous capers to perform drunk and in black tie, such as a descent down the ski slopes of St Moritz on a Louis XIV dining set or a grand piano, or sailing through storms to the remote islet of Rockall, then holding a tea party. A younger member of the DSC later built the giant trebuchet, which fired people 100ft into a net, eventually killing a 19-year-old student called Dino Yankov. The great legacy of the DSC, however, is bungee jumping, which they performed for the first time on Clifton Suspension Bridge in Bristol on April Fool’s Day 1979, after a night of drinking, without any preliminary tests.
Safety gets more thought these days, but the spirit of experimentation has never weakened in extreme sport. A decade ago, plain base jumping was the new frontier. (Instead of skydiving from a plane, you use a “building, antenna, span or Earth” – “span” not “bridge” because the founders decided that “babe jumping might not be taken as seriously,” according to Phil Mayfield, who was one of them.) Today base jumping is tame without a wingsuit, and wingsuits are tame unless you use them to get close to things, at times so close – like Emanuele flying through a 2.6m hole in the rock – that it is obviously dangerous. But the danger made him famous.
Perhaps next it will be jet-powered surfboards. (They exist.) Or kids everywhere will imitate the Russian roofers who get themselves photographed hanging precariously from tall buildings, and often fall. Last month Luke Aikins became the first person to skydive without a parachute. After a fall of 25,000ft, he landed in a giant net. “It is awesome,” he discovered.
At times the inventiveness is almost comical. Base jumping blindfolded, or with your dog (that was Potter), or with a parachute attached to piercings in your back: you’ll find all of these online. But then, thanks to rugged cameras, video hosting and social media, these brief but spectacular moments of extreme sport are as well-suited to 2016 as could be. No broadcasters pay billions for skydiving or skateboarding rights just yet, but GoPro, Red Bull and others sponsor some of the best athletes to travel the world making very marketable clips. If we want a reason why extreme sports have flourished so much this century, this neat fit between the makers and the money looks like a good guess.
And these may still be early days. According to a report from the US entertainment company Delaware North, 100 hours of GoPro video are uploaded on to YouTube every minute, and sales of action cameras are growing at 50% a year. “By 2020, extreme sports will challenge professional and collegiate team sports for the title of most-watched category of sports content,” the report says. “Today they’re a blip on the screen compared to the big business of professional sports, but participation in action and adventure sports has surpassed conventional sports at the recreational level.”
And where their commercial limits lie, it is hard to say. BMX and snowboarding are Olympic events now, and climbing, skateboarding and surfing will be in 2020. But I wonder whether sports such as wingsuit flying have already passed the limit of safety. Perhaps the same goes for freediving, in which people compete to swim as deep as possible while holding their breath, and where leading proponents, such as Natalia Molchanova and Nicholas Mevoli have recently died.
Pushing is part of sport, of course, but what’s being pushed here is safety. A good footballer or tennis player always wants to be tested against better opponents, but their opponents are human, so that can only go so far. In extreme sports, the opponent is danger. As one of the world’s best known climbers and wingsuit flyers, Steph Davis, wrote in January, “the limit comes when you hit the terrain”. Instead, she suggested, “Perhaps progression means something very different. Perhaps it means refining the experience, becoming safer, more elegant and more aware.” Davis has been married twice, to Dean Potter and Mario Richard. Both men died in wingsuit accidents (Potter after their divorce). Maybe the future of extreme sports is learning to be less extreme.