In September, a little over a year ago, Felix Lorentzen (31) and I sat down together at a restaurant in Oslo, Norway. It was a nice, sunny day; we sat outside, ate pizza, and talked about death. I had asked him what I thought was a simple question, but he mulled it over for a long time and couldn’t come up with an answer.
Felix is two years older than me, and I’ve known him since just after I graduated from high school in Sandefjord, a small coastal city in south east Norway. In our early twenties, we hung out together a fair amount. Eventually we both moved to Oslo, where we went out drinking, skiing, and rode our longboards down a steep hill just outside the city. For Felix, longboarding ended in a broken shoulder and bad road rash all over his body.
Even so, I don’t recall considering Felix particularly «extreme». I thought some of the other people we hung out with were more likely to end up hurting themselves. One of them planned to become a stuntman. I remember him «practicing» one time as we drove up to a cabin in the mountains. He clung to the outside of the car, holding onto the roof rack, as we drove 80 km/h along the winding, wooded road.
Most of the people who knew Felix back then, myself included, haven’t had much contact with him for the last few years. Felix has new friends who spend the majority of their time doing the same thing he does: Traveling around the world, flinging themselves off mountains.
The question I’d asked Felix as we sat there eating our pizza, which he was now trying to answer by adding the number up on his fingers, was: «How many funerals have you been to since you started BASE jumping?»
«You know, that’s hard to say,» Felix said. «I mean, you lose count.»
It’s occurred to me more and more often the last few years that I could end up attending Felix’s funeral any time. And that he could die without my ever making a real effort to understand why he’s decided to devote his life to «the most dangerous sport in the world.»
The sport Felix invests all his money and energy in is called «wingsuit BASE.» Participants call themselves «wingsuit pilots.» It’s not an organized activity, and only a handful of pilots are able to collect enough sponsors and income from advertising and events to pursue it full-time. Felix, who has become a respected part of the scene and was one of 16 jumpers invited to the «World Wingsuit League» competition this September in China, isn’t able to live off the sport yet.
«But that’s the goal,» he says.
He estimates that he’s spent about 80,000 dollars on travel, equipment, and skydiving training since he decided to become a wingsuit pilot six years ago. In order to afford it, he works as much as he can for brief periods at a respite center for young people with autism, and saves money by living with his mother in Sandefjord. Felix doesn’t have his own apartment or girlfriend, has never had a steady job, owns almost no possessions apart from his BASE jumping equipment, and for the moment he’s content with that. He’s organized his life to spend as much time as possible jumping off mountains in a wingsuit.
Unlike skydiving, which is done from planes and helicopters, BASE jumping involves jumping from a fixed point. B.A.S.E. is an acronym, where B stands for «building,» A for «antenna,» S for «span» (as in a bridge span) and E for «Earth» (usually a mountain). «Regular» BASE jumping is done wearing street clothes, and the jumpers fall straight down before releasing their chutes.
Wingsuit BASE is radically different: It’s by no means a vertical fall. Modern wingsuits, nylon outfits that give the pilot a sort of flying squirrel shape, have channels inside the «wings» that stiffen up due to air pressure after free falling for about two seconds. The jumpers can reach speeds of more than 250 kilometers per hour, and a good pilot can have what’s called a «glide ratio» of more than 3:1, meaning that for every meter they fall they travel three meters forward.
Skilled wingsuit pilots, like Felix, can aim at openings between trees several kilometers away and maneuver with almost down-to-the-centimeter precision through ravines that aren’t much wider than the jumper’s own outstretched arms. It both looks like, and according to those who do it, feels like flying.
When I asked Felix to describe it, he asked, «Did you see the last Superman movie? That’s what it feels like.»
Other wingsuit pilots describe it like «being a small F16 fighter plane,» or «like being in a video game, only it’s real.» They describe intense concentration, while at the same time being completely calm and feeling like they’re in complete control of everything that’s happening. One of them said that what he found most appealing was the sense of mastering something people obviously weren’t designed to do.
«It’s like a big fuck you to evolution,» he said.
Beyond the experience of flight, there’s one thing that separates wingsuit BASE from regular BASE jumping and skydiving: The risk of dying is much, much greater in a wingsuit.
Since I decided to write about Felix a little over a year ago, 24 BASE jumpers have lost their lives according to the unofficial «BASE Fatality List.» Eighteen of them were wearing wingsuits. Felix knew several of them. One was one of Felix’s very best friends, and died on a trip they had gone on together.
The dream of human flight has dwelled deep within us for thousands of years. History is full of myths of winged people: Biblical angels, Icarus who flew too close to the sun, and the mythological Persian king Kay Kāvus who had a flying throne propelled by eagle wings. Throughout the centuries, many attempts have been made to construct human-powered wings that resembled birds’, like Leonardo da Vinci’s ornithopter from the end of the 15th century.
For Felix, the dream of flight began with a video clip shown in 2011 on a TV show called «Mission Sognefjord» on NRK, the Norwegian public broadcasting channel. The clip shows two wingsuit pilots, Jokke Sommer and Tom Erik Heimen, flying over the heads of a group of shocked onlookers on the side of the mountain which included alpine ski racer Lasse Kjus who tried to explain to the TV camera what he’d just seen: «That was so extreme that, uh… That was just totally… Weird,» Kjus said.
Felix had a different reaction.
«Something in my brain just clicked,» he said. «The second I saw that, I was, like, I have to do that. It wasn’t a choice. I didn’t even know that was possible.»
Over the next three years, Felix spent months at a time at a skydiving center in San Diego, California, learned to BASE jump wearing street clothes, first from a bridge and then from mountains. He practices BASE jumping in a tracksuit (a sort of cross between street clothes and a wingsuit), and gradually learned to control a wingsuit by jumping from planes and helicopters. Felix did his first wingsuit BASE jump in 2015, at Mount Kjerag in Rogaland, Norway. When he landed, his whole body was trembling, and he collapsed to the ground and started crying.
«It was a euphoria I’ve never experienced before,» he said. «It felt like I could fly forever.»
Because BASE jumping isn’t an organized sport, no one knows exactly how many people do either BASE jumping in «regular» clothes or in a wingsuit.
Felix estimates there are between 400 and 500 people in the world actively jumping in wingsuits, but says he’s noticed that the number grows every year. If you include folks who only do a few jumps a year, there might be a thousand, but he says not much more than a couple hundred really devote a lot of time to the sport. Other people I spoke to had about the same estimate.
Even so, the death statistics are brutal. If Felix’s estimate is right, one in about every ten to thirty jumpers has lost his or her life the last two years. Several of them, like Italian Uli Emanuele and Norwegian Alexander Polli, were among the best and most experienced jumpers in the world. Having a lot of experience does not appear to improve a wingsuit pilot’s odds of survival.
Ironically, one obvious reason the sport is so dangerous is that the wingsuits have gotten so good that they can be steered quite precisely along rock walls, between trees, through narrow ravines, and close to the ground over flat terrain. The closer you are, the greater the sense of speed and the experience of being a flying superhuman you get.
Pretty much everyone who pilots a wingsuit wears a Go-Pro camera on their helmet. Many of the videos on YouTube and social media show people almost glued to the terrain. «Proximity flying» is definitely spectacular, but what you can’t see in the videos is just how much control you need to avoid crashing into the ground or into a tree going 250 kilometers per hour. One small misjudgment of speed or elevation, or a second of arrogance or inattention is all it takes.
Many within the sport are concerned that inexperienced jumpers are doing jumps that just a few years ago would have been considered pioneering.
«I see it a lot,» Felix said. «People who’ve barely done 200 skydives and tried a few wingsuit jumps from a plane want to do things they’ve seen on YouTube.»
Another who shakes his head resignedly is Jokke Sommer, Felix’s mentor and best friend. Jokke is from Son, Norway, a legend in the wingsuit world, and one of the jumpers who «invented» proximity flying.
«I tell people that if they want to do this, they should just quit their jobs, eat cheap noodles for dinner, and spend more time BASE jumping. But it stresses people out,» he says. «But to come into this sport and push the envelope so far you end up dying before you even get to hand in your notice of resignation… No, no, that doesn’t get them stressed at all! To me, that’s completely nuts.»
Jokke actually doesn’t like mentoring BASE jumpers. He knows he’ll feel guilty if anything happens to one of the people he trained. He’s lost 42 friends since he started jumping ten years ago. He doesn’t want to lose any more. Felix is one of the few he’s taken under his wing, «because he’s a bright kid» and was willing to take things one small step at a time.
«I lost one of my best friends, so I’m not doing very well. I feel drained and empty» Text message from Felix, June 29. 2017
One of the things he told Felix early on is that if you choose to fly right up close to things, you’ll eventually end up having a close call or you’ll crash and die. Jokke has had two near-fatal accidents himself. In the most recent one he was flying right up against a mountainside and his wingsuit swerved in against the rock. He still remembers the shape of the grassy patch on the side of the mountain where he thought he was going hit. He believes it was a «miracle» that he managed to pull away.
«If I weighed two kilos more, I’d be dead,» he said.
Since then, he has a «mental block» against flying so close to the mountain. He’s grown «conservative,» which means that instead of flying a meter above the ground, he now flies two to three meters above it. If there’s anything about the wind conditions that he doesn’t like, he walks back down rather than jumping and wagering on things going well.
«I believe that in theory it should be possible to keep doing this for a hundred years,» he said. «As long as you pick days with good conditions, choose your jump locations based on your skills and experience, and make good choices, you’ll be fine.»
On the evening of June 28th of this year I received a news alert from NRK on my phone: «BASE jumper fatally injured in Gudvangen.» I knew Felix was in Gudvangen that day to jump.
My Facebook messenger app said that Felix had last logged in two hours ago. I texted him: «Are you OK?» He didn’t respond.
By midnight I still hadn’t received a response, but the Internet was reporting that the fatality was a foreigner. Felix sent me a message the next morning. «I lost one of my best friends, so I’m not doing very well. I feel drained and empty,» he wrote.
The BASE jumper who died was named Micah Couch. He was 33 years old, one of the best wingsuit pilots in the world and an enormously popular figure on the wingsuit scene. I called Felix two weeks later.
«It’s fucking hard,» he said. «I’ve lost a lot of friends in this sport before, but Micah sort of shone brighter.» For the first and only time, I heard Felix say, «I’m asking myself some questions about what I’m doing.»
During the eleven months from when I told Felix I wanted to write about him until I saw him fly for the first time, he tried to explain to me «what the big deal» is several times. How he’s able to tolerate the risk involved, how he can keep going after having lost close friends.
«All the media ever talks about is the deaths. They say we’re nuts,» Felix said. «No one outside the sport understands how much we think about safety, how strong the friendships become between us, and how much joy and love there is in the sport. The jumps are just a small part of it for me.»
There hasn’t been much research done on BASE jumpers, but one American study from 2010 based on interviews with 54 BASE jumpers challenges the stereotype that they’re «daredevils with a death wish.»
The researchers found that the jumpers sought out risk as a means of becoming «positively transformed». Felix often talks about the same thing, how he no longer takes things for granted, and doesn’t waste time getting bogged down in things that don’t matter.
«We see that life is fragile,» he said.
Felix also told me that «most people have a personal reason,» a «background story,» but it would take me a long time before I understood what that had to do with Felix.
This August I went to Lauterbrunnen, Switzerland, to meet him. Every summer BASE jumpers from all over the world descend on the small alpine town. BASE jumping is pretty much legal everywhere in Switzerland, and gondola lifts make Lauterbrunnen’s several-thousand-meter high mountain peaks accessible without having to hike and climb for hours.
Plus, the modest Horner Pub and Hotel, were Ibi from the Maldives serves up simple food, beer and a pleasant atmosphere holds an almost mythical status among BASE jumpers. From behind the bar Ibi says that BASE jumpers are the finest people he knows.
«No matter how drunk they get, they never make a fuss. They all love each other and they’re way more respectful and polite than other tourists… They’re my friends.»
They like to spend weeks at a time at the hotel, and Ibi sees them every morning when they get up, every afternoon when they return from their jumps, and every night when they gather to drink beer.
«I just want them to come back safely,» he said.
Thursday, August 24th, was a beautiful day in the Alps. It was 30°C, sunny and calm, and we’d driven from Lauterbrunnen to Walenstadt on the far eastern edge of Switzerland. Felix, Jokke, and the Italian Niccolo Porcella jumped from a mountainside and flew a «line» they call «The Crack», because the last stretch before they release their parachutes runs through a deep, narrow ravine.
As they came flying past, photographer Jørn and I stood atop the ravine watching. Felix, Jokke, and Niccolo passed us just a few meters over the ground. The sound was like a fighter jet, and the sight of three people flying at 200 kilometers per hour was so inconceivable it was like my brain didn’t believe what my eyes were telling it.
Felix, Jokke, and Niccolo flew safely and precisely and landed in ecstasy in a field farther down in the valley. It was one of the world’s riskiest activities at its best. If we’d climbed twenty or thirty meters down into the ravine below where we stood, we would probably have seen what the sport looks like at its worst.
Neither Jørn nor I, standing up at the top, nor those flying past knew it, but just below us lay the battered body of a 37-year-old Polish woman. A rescue helicopter found her a few days later. She’d been lying there dead in her wingsuit for two weeks by then.
Because she jumped alone, no one knows what happened. Felix thinks she probably lost too much altitude and crashed into the ground at top of the ravine before tumbling down farther.
From outside the sport, taking up wingsuit BASE jumping can seem like signing up for some kind of death lottery, where the names will be drawn at random. It doesn’t seem to matter if you’re a complete newbie or the best in the world. But, Felix says, that’s not what it looks like from inside the sport.
«Pretty much every time someone dies, we see that it was due to human error and poor judgment,» he says.
Felix and other wingsuit pilots all told me the same thing: Many of the deaths have not come as any surprise.
They’ve seen inexperienced jumpers who, despite warnings, make jumps with minimal margins, and experienced jumpers who, despite near misses, kept on pushing it until something went wrong. Felix thinks it’s often about ego, about being the one who does the absolutely most intense jumps. Plus a kind of group-think mentality can quickly emerge, where people get each other all worked up and forget to think through the risk factors of the jump they’re going to do. Felix has a list of people he won’t go with, because he thinks they accept too much risk.
«I always try to tell myself that if I do things right, I’ll be fine,» he says. «I do know that many of those who have died have been better than me, though, and surely thought about it the same way. And yet they weren’t able to stick to it. They screwed up.»
He knows we’re humans, not robots, and that everyone can make mistakes. But he tries his best to stick to his guns.
When I visited her in Sandefjord a few weeks ago, Felix’s mother, Rita Olaussen, baked bread and served wild salmon and scrambled eggs. She’d just come home from hunting ptarmigan in Finnmark. Rita is 55, works in a psychiatric emergency department, and is also mother to Felix’s two younger sisters, who are 29 and 22.
Rita and Felix have always been very close. Felix told me they can «talk about anything,» and that if she had asked him to give up jumping, he would probably have listened to her. She has no plans to do that.
«Things are so much better now,» she said, «but it was terrifying in the beginning.»
One of the most common reactions people who participate in extreme sports encounter is this view that they’re doing something egotistical. That they don’t appreciate what they’re putting their family and friends through. Rita doesn’t see it that way. «And I don’t think anyone in the family does,» she added.
Even so, she’s thought many times that it would be better if Felix did something with a lower statistical risk of death, if he were a doctor, a teacher or a pilot, for example. At the same time, she sees that the jumping «makes him incredibly happy, and makes him who he is today.» She supports him one hundred percent.
When Felix explained what he was going to start doing, all Rita knew about BASE jumping was that she’d heard about dangerous rescue missions on the Norwegian Troll Wall massif to pluck down jumpers who’d gotten stuck. In the last few years she’s gone along to watch Felix jump several times. She’s gotten to know a lot of people involved with the sport, «a totally wonderful crowd,» she said, and they’ve shown her how they constantly think about safety.
«I feel much more secure as a result, and I’m much better able to enjoy him doing it,» she said.
The only time she was really scared was this summer when Micah Couch died. She hadn’t heard about the accident, but noticed that she had several unanswered calls from one of Felix’s buddies who was also in Gudvangen.
She was scared when her phone rang, but it was Felix on the other end. «I completely lost it,» she said. «Tears were pouring down my cheeks and I couldn’t speak. Partly because Felix was alive, but also because Micah was dead. He was one of the best and it hit me that if he could die, anyone could die.»
Lately she’s started talking with Jokke Sommer’s mother on Facebook. «We’re finding a little solidarity from knowing others out there who are in the same situation,» she said. They talk about how much they love their sons and want them to come home home safely.
«There’s some value just in knowing that our sons aren’t idiots», she said. «That they really care about quality of life and plan to grow old.»
It’s easier to accept Felix BASE jumping, Rita said, because she can see how happy it makes him. She can see that Felix is in a good place and wants to live. It hasn’t always been that way.
As I mentioned, Felix believes that the vast majority of people who take up BASE jumping have a «personal reason.» Up until the moment when we were both lying in a hotel room in Unterwasser, Switzerland—we were sharing a single room because Felix was starting to run low on funds—I had assumed that the main reason he jumps off mountains in a wingsuit is that it’s one of the most intense things a person can experience. And maybe that’s part of the explanation, but that’s not all of it. Felix also has a «personal reason.»
For two hours before we went to sleep that night he filled me in on how wingsuit flying has given him three things he’s lacked for the majority of his life: health, quality of life, and good friends.
It’s almost impossible to tell by looking at him, but Felix has chronic arthritis. On bad days, he takes strong painkillers. When he received the diagnosis late in his teen years, he had known something was wrong but he’d never understood why he wasn’t able to raise his arms over his head, why his joints hurt so much he’d had to give up playing tennis, and why he could wake up after a day of skiing and be unable to get out of bed. He said he’d had a number of tests done, but never received any answers.
«It was like being trapped in my own body,» he said.
After a vacation with some friends to southern Europe when he was in so much pain from pressing the buttons in an elevator that he started to cry, he went to the doctor again and was told that he has chronic arthritis. «I didn’t know what that meant,» he said. «I mean, you’re 18 years old and you think arthritis is something old people get.»
The next few years he underwent chemo to combat the disease. He was nauseated and sick a lot, spent most of his time in bed, and felt like life was meaningless. His mother said that they had conversations where Felix was very open about feeling like «he might as well be dead.»
«That was before I started my work in psychiatry, but if I’d known then what I know now, I’d have had him checked for depression,» she said.
The way Felix tells the story, everything turned around during a family vacation at their cabin in Finnmark. He knew he was too sick to join in on the bird hunting, but he thought he’d go along to see his grandfather, see the northern lights, and take a few short walks. The first day he walked a couple of kilometers before it hurt too much, but the next day he felt better and noticed that he was able to walk a little farther. It kept going like that for more than a week until he ultimately walked well over 20 kilometers in the wilderness.
When he returned home he went to a rheumatologist and said that his body had started working better. The rheumatologist told him, «When you do something so pleasurable and your stress level drops, your body can start producing substances that reduce the inflammation in your body.»
Felix doesn’t remember which of the many specialists he saw said that. I called one of them, rheumatologist Ole Gard Knudsrød in Tønsberg, Norway. He said, «I wouldn’t have phrased it quite like that. But it’s true that we recommend physical activity and exercise to patients with arthritis, and we know that endorphins can have an analgesic effect.»
At any rate, Felix’s body began to work better, and he was able to gradually reduce the amount of medicine he was taking. «From then on, it was just a matter of doing the things that made me happiest,» he said. The following year he stared wide-eyed at the TV as Jokke Somme and Tom Erik Heimen flew toward Sognefjord in their wingsuits.
«It’s really hard to imagine that I would go back to an everyday life where this wouldn’t be normal for me anymore.» Felix Lorentzen, BASE-jumper
Since then Felix has discovered that one of the things that makes him happiest is other BASE jumpers, or, quite simply, friends. His whole childhood, Felix can’t remember having had a single close friend.
He describes his childhood in Asker, west of Oslo, as pleasant enough. He had serval buddies, was a promising tennis player, and enjoyed school. But after a difficult divorce when Felix was 13, he moved to Sandefjord with his mother. Felix was on the small side, had what was considered a «posh» accent, and showed up for his first day at his new middle school wearing brown corduroy pants, a polo shirt, and a V-neck sweater. The kids promptly hung him up from a coat hook, where he remained until a teacher found him and lifted him down.
He shut himself in his room for long periods of time playing on his computer. His illness, which left him bedridden at times, made it hard for him to make new friends and maintain his relationships with the friends he did make.
When I met Felix, he was 22. He’d made two really good friends by that point, which, as I’ve come to understand, was the first time Felix had experienced what real friendship is like.
Several BASE jumpers I talked to told me that the friendships that form between them are «special.» They stand on the edges of huge cliffs, feeling terrified together, and afterward they share the enormous euphoria and relief of being safely back down on the ground again.
«We form really strong bonds with each other,» Felix said, «because we know that… well, not that we think we’re going to die or anything, but we never know when we’ll see each other again.»
In Felix’s own words, getting involved in the BASE jumping world has been «one of the few times I’ve really felt like I’m part of something, that I’m doing something that gives my life meaning.»
«I mean, I’m not a psychologist,» he said, «but obviously I didn’t have the easiest time growing up, and haven’t had very many good friends, plus I have a chronic, debilitating condition. So, in a way BASE jumping to me was like getting life is a gift. You become part of a world that accepts you, and suddenly you have everything: friends, adventures, stories, everything you can dream of. Plus, you get to fly… It’s really hard to imagine that I would go back to an everyday life where this wouldn’t be normal for me anymore.»
This, I finally realized, was Felix’s «personal reason.»
We sat in the grass right at the edge of a huge cliff in the Swiss Alps and waited for the few little gusts of wind to subside. Jokke and a young Swede, Anton Andersson, were putting on their wingsuits.
Felix was sitting next to me. He was chewing on a blade of grass and looking out at the valley 1500 meters below us, where the sunlight fell in stripes through the cloud cover and turned the river into a silver ribbon far down below. The sun lit the snow atop the 3970-meter-high Mt. Eiger on the horizon. An eagle circled above us in big swoops riding the warm air currents.
«Check it out,» Jokke said. «He can just fly around and chill.»
Eventually the wind gusts came less frequently, and after half an hour they faded away altogether. Anton and Jokke jumped first. Felix, who’s afraid of heights, remained standing alone on the edge.
Sometimes his legs turn to jelly, and he needs to take a few minutes to regain control of his breathing before he jumps.
«I’m nervous as all hell,» he said, walking five meters back to where I stood.
«Have fun,» I said.
«I will,» he replied.
As Felix made his way back to the edge in cautious mouse-steps, one last little gust of wind came as a reminder of how unpredictable everything actually is. Then it was still. Felix zipped up his suit, checked again that everything was OK, and nervously shook out his arms like a bird stretching its wings.
«Holy shit!» I heard him mutter to himself.
And then: «Three, two, one.» •