In researching 2016’s dramatic rise in BASE jumping deaths, I was almost unable to keep up with the pace with which people were dying.
I even watched one of these deaths in real time, live-streamed on Facebook.
A guy with the handle of “Sat Dex” popped up in my feed on the morning of August 26, broadcasting himself via Facebook Live.
The video opens with him stepping into a wingsuit. He has dark hair, a sleeve tattoo, and a Hollywood-style beard. He speaks in German. He gives the finger to the camera and grins. He zips up his suit, flashing more smiles with a sort of nervous or excited energy, the kind you might associate with a child opening a birthday gift.
“Today you fly with me,” he says in German.
He waves into his outstretched phone. The video goes dark as the phone is now inside his wingsuit, ostensibly in his hand, and still live-streaming to Facebook.
Now I hear a whoosh of air. The sound of airflow grows, reaching a ferocious decibel. The turbulent din lasts no more than a few seconds.
Suddenly I hear the man emit an acute bellow. Then, pandemonium. He’s tumbling and tumbling. I hear cowbells. The tumbling stops. It’s silent. Cows continue milling around in what I’ve imagined to be idyllic mountain scenery somewhere in Europe, with giant blue limestone cliffs towering over rolling green pastures.
Then long, low, soft moans.
Then all that is left is cowbells.
I later learned this man’s real name was Armin Schmieder. He was Italian, but lived in Freiburg, Germany. He was a father to a young child. He was 28.
Facebook did not immediately take down the video, despite outrage from many commenters, including his family. The social media site slapped on a disclaimer: “Warning - Graphic Video.” Yet the views continued to pile up.
Meanwhile, a rather grim irony remained, as per Facebook’s design protocol for these types of posts. It said: “Sat Dex was live.”
After 36 hours, the video was finally removed.
The Killing Season
The end of summer can’t come fast enough for many in the speed-fueled world of wingsuit BASE jumping (BASE is an acronym standing for the types of objects participants may leap from: Buildings, Antennas, bridges—aka, “Spans”—and the Earth itself, in the form of cliffs or promontories). This has already become the deadliest year on record for BASE jumping, with at least 31 deaths thus far. Twenty-three of those fatalities occurred this summer—six deaths in June, two in July, and 15 in August. The fatal spree has spurred practitioners to dub summer as “Wingsuit BASE Killing Season.”
“It’s been a horrific last couple of months,” says Richard Webb, a former fighter pilot for the U.S. Navy, current private pilot, and active wingsuit BASE jumper from Moab, Utah.
“This is easily the worst season I can remember,” he says. “And, honestly, I haven’t even been keeping up with who’s been going in. I’m tired of the carnage.”
In Montana, a wingsuit pilot exits from a ledge [Image Chad Copeland]
Summer is a time when the European Alps—with its myriad locations that feature highly accessible, legal, and very large cliffs from which to jump—are devoid of snow and are considered to be in good condition for flying. Like moths to a flame, wingsuit BASE jumpers from around the world descend on the Alps each summer to get their fix.
Aside from the record fatality count, the BASE world hit another morbid milestone in August. The BASE Fatality List (BFL), an unofficial and non-comprehensive wiki that records BASE fatalities dating back to 1981 for educational purposes within the community, surpassed 300 names. The greater cause for concern, though, is that the BFL appears to be trending at an accelerated rate—more than 260 of those names have been recorded since 2000.
So, why are so many BASE jumpers dying?
“The simplest answer is wingsuits,” says Webb. “Right now, wingsuit BASE jumping is, globally, the hottest thing going for the impressionable, 18- to 35-year-old single-male demographic.”
BASE jumping has no organizing bodies that keep track of participation numbers. Anecdotally, the sport is growing, perhaps as evidenced by the increasing numbers of people who are dying.
This year’s constant, gruesome news has spurred some BASE jumpers to rebuke their wingsuiting counterparts. “Sketchy Andy” Lewis, one of the world’s most accomplished BASE jumpers (and hardly a model of prudence himself, as evinced by his nickname), wrote a scathing post on Facebook that, among other things, called for the BFL to be split into two separate lists: one for wingsuiting and one for regular BASE jumping.
“I called out wingsuiting as not being BASE jumping anymore,” he says. “I wanted the death list split. I also just asked everyone who wingsuits to just go die, so we can get it over with. Obviously, it was a horrible thing to say.”
Some context: Lewis wrote the post in the wake of a friend’s death. John Van Horne, an extremely experienced wingsuiter, had just crashed in the Alps at the end of June. “JVH,” as he was called, was “one of my best friends and last idols,” says Lewis. “He died with his family there.”
Lewis was upset, angry, and just sick and tired of waking up to learn about yet another friend’s death. Most dismissed Lewis as a pot calling the kettle black. Yet in some way, what he wrote in July was prescient. Summer’s big death wave was just about to begin.
“The post got deleted by Facebook, and I pissed off the entire community,” says Lewis. “My message was followed up by the most fatal month in BASE. I just painfully sat back and watched my friends die one after the other.”
Matt Gerdes is the chief test pilot and co-designer at Squirrel, a U.S.-based wingsuit manufacturer. He’s logged about 1,200 safe BASE jumps to date, many of them being wingsuit flights from alpine walls. On August 14, he wrote a Facebook post that stated:
“There are a lot of people saying a lot of things about wingsuit BASE deaths. There is no single factor, and there is truth in every statement about ego, video, complacency, access, summer vacations, etc. But if we were to work on just one thing, it would be education … The simple truth is that wingsuit BASE jumpers don’t know what they are getting into, don’t know how to practice the sport safely, and don’t even know enough to know how little they know. “