How Do You Stay In The World’s Most Dangerous Sport With A Kid On The Way?
This post was originally published last year in Blue Skies Magazine. I wanted to write a post about risk. I kept coming back to this article and just had to share it here. It’s one of my favorite pieces I’ve written in a long time and it will shortly appear in the Huffington Post.
These are my reflections before the birth of my son, Finn (who is now almost 6 months old). My thoughts haven’t changed. Here goes…
Earlier this year my wife became pregnant with our first child. The adrenaline-fueled, carefree, happy-go-lucky mischief of perfect madness that I lived my life with will now have to change.
Or will it?
It was one thing being married to an amazing lady and having two fantastic dogs. There’s no way I could leave any of them behind. But facing the responsibilities of fatherhood is a huge step. Well, that’s not strictly true. If pulling a gainer from an antenna, performing a low freefall delay from a bridge, leaping from a building or flying a wingsuit in close proximity to a mountain ledge is a huge step then this is an ultra-immense, ginormously gargantuan step. But, at the same time, it’s an absolutely incredible step that I can’t wait for.
Having a child is a life-changing decision; that’s what they tell me. One that, once committed, you can’t change (I Googled it: It’s true). Sure, this is a choice my wife I made and there’s a nine-month adjustment period. But, believe me, that time flies super fast. As this goes to print my wife may actually be in labor.
A number of friends and family—both jumpers and non-jumpers—have asked me when I’m going to stop BASE jumping. Others didn’t even ask; they naturally assumed that I would quit. Somehow I’ve gotten close to these people—but I’ve failed. I’ve kept myself insular, failing to fully express to them my desires. More importantly though, I’ve failed to express my risk-management strategies so that they understand how I mitigate risks and reduce them to an acceptable level. If I can’t mitigate and manage the risks to an acceptable level then I don’t jump. Period.
So, for the record: I’m not giving up BASE jumping and I’m not giving up wingsuit BASE jumping.
With a kid on the way, how will I stay safe—or even just alive—in what is arguably the world’s most dangerous sport?
Whether we like it not, wingsuit BASE jumping is dangerous. Add in wingsuit proximity flying and you go off the scale. One tiny mistake can be fatal. But the same is true with driving a car, flying a plane, racing a motorbike and cycling along city streets. There are hundreds more examples.
Reckless attitude. Lack of experience. Incompetence. Whatever you’re doing, if you do it with these, you are likely to make a fatal mistake.
But, done correctly, all of these activities can be performed safely. Competence. Aptitude. Training. Experience.
It’s not just about the jump or the rush. It’s not just about survival. It’s not just about repeatability. It’s now about my family.
My danger tolerance has never really been that high. Many people who know me would disagree; they think I undertake crazy stunts and that my madness is imperfect. In some ways I’ve reveled in this. I’ve smiled inwardly, knowing the truth. I’ve enjoyed appearing to be the rebellious risk taker who overcame tremendous odds, defeating the Grim Reaper at his own game.
The truth is quite different. Instead of being the avid risk taker they think I am, I’ve been an avid risk mitigator.
The mad, crazy, insane stunts that I seemingly undertake aren’t always what they seem. They’re calculated, with risks mitigated and minimized. On the sidelines, most people don’t get to see this. They miss the detailed planning and in-depth cognitive processing as all considerations are analyzed. They see only the execution, the Facebook post or YouTube video. They see these final productions and often don’t realize what it took to actually achieve them. Yet, to me, this combination of seeming insanity and risk minimization is absolutely and completely perfect madness.
Of course, I’ve made my fair share of mistakes along the way. Some of them have been incredibly stupid. I’ve overlooked risks. I’ve miscalculated. I’ve looked back up as I’ve gasped for air and wondered how I got away with that last jump. We all get it wrong at times.
But when it goes wrong I like to think I’m prepared. I know what to do when I have a 90 left, twists, a 180 or a missed pull. I’ve trained and practiced every single one of those scenarios. My actions are instinctual. While I will have reduced the risk of these things happening, I know that a risk still exists and, if and when it happens, I can react accordingly and fix the problem.
This is not about danger tolerance, it’s about risk management.
How Will I Change?
It’s no longer about the jump. It’s about being around, standing strong next to my son when he graduates high school, marries the girl (or boy, you never know!) of his dreams and makes his first million (or billion, you never know!). Critical thinking is required.
Almost three years ago I had a heavy landing. I still haven’t fully recovered and continue to spend my time bouncing between neurologists, urologists, psychologists and every other sort of ‘ologist you can imagine. I also have nerve pain. Pain has a funny way of focusing the mind. It hasn’t stopped me jumping but it has made me think.
During this I’ve spent time further understanding the risks that I take. I’ve already done the critical thinking that a BASE-jumping father-to-be would ordinarily be doing now. I’ve learned over time that the object will still be there tomorrow. If I’m not feeling it or the conditions aren’t within my personal limits then I climb down, to return another time.
Of course, we all know this. But, when you’ve hiked two hours to an exit point and the adrenaline is flowing, it’s a tough call to decide not to jump. I now have less of an urge, less of a desire to jump in unsuitable conditions. In relaxing my outlook in this way, I’ve become more cautious, more diligent in my approach to a jump.
Fatherhood will undoubtedly place more demands on my time and my ability to sneak out for a jump will probably diminish. Instead we plan to take family holidays to various jumping locations. My son will grow up watching me fly in the mountains.
I have a dream. One day human flight will be normal. Anyone who wants to fly will be able to. My son will grow up seeing me fly, watching from the exit point, greeting me in the landing area and acting as ground crew. To him, human flight will be what normal people do. We’ll be able to share this experience as a family and perhaps, one day, we’ll fly together.
How will I stay in the world’s most dangerous sport with a kid on the way? I’ll continue to manage risk appropriately. It doesn’t matter whether you have children or not, every single one of us should be doing this anyway. Sometimes it takes the shake-up of an injury, a kid or other major life change for us to realize this and focus correctly. It’s necessary for survival. And for me, that’s survival of my family.
Main photo shows me flying the left line at Monte Brento in Italy in my Tonysuit Jedei Wingsuit.