What An Extreme Athlete Learned From A Near Death Experience
I had a Near Death Experience.
It’s scary. You face death. The Grim Reaper stands up, his scythe held high preparing to sweep down and take you to the after life. Then, somehow, in some way you don’t quite understand, in an instance you’re clutched from his grasp and returned to humanity.
My Near Death Experience was different to most. All Near Death Experiences are different – I understand that. They’re all extremely unique to the individual. But mine was still different.
Near Death Experiences normally involve the heart stopping, a catastrophic accident, a cardiac arrest. Mine was none of those.
I prefer to refer to it as a Certain Death Experience. I didn’t have a close call. I didn’t have a near miss. I knew, without any doubt whatsoever, that I was about to die. This was it. In a few seconds life would be over. It was too late to do anything about it. I was dead. And yet, somehow, I survived.
Many of the Near Death Experience enthusiasts (they refer to it as NDE) will say that I didn’t have a NDE. Maybe they’re right. Maybe this doesn’t fall into the technical NDE category (although I do have a decent score on the Greyson NDE scale). To me, that’s not important. It’s not important how we choose to categorize this occurrence. Maybe it’s a Near Death Experience, maybe it’s a Certain Death Experience, maybe it’s none of these. More importantly it’s about what happened and what can be learned from it.
I was wingsuit BASE jumping in Switzerland (if you’re more interested in the risks and just thinking I’m crazy and had it coming – you might be right – then read this article about it; this post isn’t discuss any of those details). I was fairly current flying a line that went hard left from the exit allowing me to almost immediately connect (that means fly tightly) with the cliff face. This video shows a jump flying the left line.
In this instance I had decided to fly to the right, changing things up a bit.
Heading right is a safe line to take but just not as exciting. I exited, flew for a bit and then decided to carve back left and over towards the landing area. So far the flight was uneventful. My jumps had been going well, without even the most minor of incidents and, while still flying, I decided to open up a little lower than normal – why not keep things exciting when everything had been going so well anyway?
I confidently passed through my regular opening altitude, cruised on a bit further and then initiated my deployment sequence. This is where it all went wrong.
I had a missed pull. I was low. I needed to react fast. My heart rate increased. If I didn’t react immediately this would be certain death.
I had trained for this. I reacted instinctively. My arm came back out before retrying. I could feel the toggle of my pilot chute. It was there. My hand was in the right place. But I was feeling it through the fabric of the arm wing of my wingsuit. There was no possible way I could deploy my parachute in that configuration.
I felt panic start to creep in. I had passed through my regular opening altitude. My pull sequence had failed – twice. I was seconds from impact.
Everything slowed down. Actually, that’s not true. My mind accelerated. I was processing everything incredibly fast. The panic was seeping through yet I felt, somehow, at peace. I was being consumed by the moment.
At this point, I knew I was dead. It was too late. Nothing I could do would change that. I started to understand, as a feeling of peace, calmness and serenity washed over me. Interestingly, there was still an element of panic somewhere there despite this new found tranquility. I felt happy. I felt whole. I felt that I knew what life was about. I understood.
All of this happened in the space of about one second. Yet, I feel like I experienced this phase for minutes, or more. And then it happened.
It was then that I made my decision. I could accept my fate. I could succumb to this paradisiacal utopia, this bliss. Or I could choose to live.
That’s not quite true. I knew I was dead. But I could choose to try. I could choose to fight. I could choose to give everything I had despite knowing that it was hopeless.
It was hopeless but I had nothing to lose. I chose to fight.
It was tough. These was a huge part of me that wanted to remain in this blissful peace. The tranquility was almost overwhelming. It took everything I had to fight, to withdraw from this trance. But I chose to fight and I was going to make it happen.
I kept trying. That sounds like a I fought for a long time. It felt like it. In truth it was probably less than a second. But I had made this conscious decision to fight and I was doing it.
I reached again. The toggle of my pilot chute was there. I pitched. The deployment sequence started. I knew it was too late. But I kept fighting. I kept flying hard – I knew the speed would give me lift, slowing my vertical descent rate and provide additional airspeed to increase the deployment speed.
I was fighting. Doing everything I could. I knew it was too late but I was going to fight for my life. I might get to line stretch but there was no way there was time for anything more. No time for the canopy fabric to actually inflate. I would impact at high speed. Maybe the deployment would slow me to a state where my body wouldn’t be totally obliterated. A skilled embalmer could piece me back together enough for my family to pay their last wishes without being permanently scarred by the sight of my severely mutilated corpse.
Smack. It happened. The canopy inflated. I felt it – bottom skin inflation quickly followed by top skin inflation.
Smack. I hit. I landed. I hadn’t had time to unzip the arms of my wingsuit. My canopy ride was short – seriously short.
My heart raced. This wasn’t a close call. This wasn’t one of those times when you almost got run over by a car or flew too tight to a ledge – one of those times when you had a near miss and the realization happens after the event. This was a certain death experience. I was dead. It was too late. Yet somehow I survived. Because I fought for it.
I’ve spent time reflecting on this certain death experience – it forces you to. Here are the 10 lessons I learned, most of which can be applied to everyday life:
1. Stick To The Plan
I had a plan but I didn’t stick to it. I changed the plan after exit, while flying, and went through my hard deck. This was a clearly thought out decision. There have been a number of good pilots that have died having changed their plan after exit. Flexibility is good but there are times to change a plan and times to stick to it. Know when they are and stick to them – no matter what. Decisions made in the moment don’t give you the opportunity for full consideration.
I had a personal hard deck – a height above the ground that I would be open by. This provides me with a margin for error. By flying through my hard deck I compromised this. I removed my safety margin yet had failed to eliminate the possibility of an error occurring – the margin was still required. I was negligent. The previous jumps had all gone well – 19 out of 20 were great. But that means that 1 in 20 might not be so great. That’s not good odds, particularly when the consequences can be catastrophic. I’m normally pretty good at mitigating risk. In this case, by not sticking to the plan, I hadn’t evaluated or understood the risks fully. If you’re going to do something that involves risk, make sure you understand it, mitigate it and accept it.
I had rehearsed a missed pull scenario many times. I had rehearsed a lot of scenarios. I had practiced with gear on, with it off. I had visualized – a lot. I knew the range of scenarios that I could face and had prepared for them. Not only did I understand what could go wrong and the actions I would need to take but I had rehearsed them enough to make them instinctive. When things go wrong, they often go wrong quickly and time is of the essence. Drilling these scenarios again and again and again and again had made them instinctive. In this instance, fractions of a second made the difference between life and death. If I hadn’t rehearsed so much I would certainly be dead. It doesn’t matter if you’re planning a business deal, driving to pick your kids up from school or about to leap off a mountain, work out what can go wrong, what actions you will need to take and then rehearse them, a lot.
I had a fair bit of experience when this happened with over 6,000 skydives and more than 500 BASE jumps. I was current. Yet I got complacent. I made a mistake. Experience really helps but it can also be an enemy. Know when it’s an asset and when it isn’t. Experience lets complacency slowly, gradually, seep into your mentality. You won’t realize it at first. Slowly, it will creep in further and further until it’s sitting comfortably within your routine. Then, without warning, it will jump up and bite. If you’re lucky it will be a gentle bite – maybe just dragging your ego down a few notches. If you’re unlucky it will be catastrophic. Develop self-awareness to know when you’re in this zone and take a step back. Understand your experience levels and hold complacency back.
5. It Can Happen To You
I was pretty good. I thought I was. Some friends had told me that too. I wasn’t one of those people that made serious mistakes. I was a good judge of my ability. Mistakes, errors, incidents all happen to other people. Or do they?
It happened to me. This incident, the incident that happens to other people less skilled, less current, less experienced, just happened to me. It doesn’t matter who you are or what it is, it can happen to you.
I chose to fight. I knew it was hopeless. It took everything I had to click out of the blissful utopian mental state of acceptance that was engulfing me. Somehow, I managed it – I don’t really know what I did to break out, but I did. I’d love to say it was mental toughness, agility, strength. The reality is, I don’t know. Probably none of those. But I broke out and I chose. I chose to fight. To continue to try. To try to succeed. To try to live. No matter how hard something is, no matter how much the odds are stacked against you, there’s still a chance. You can’t succeed if you don’t fight. Try. No matter what. Try. And fight like your life depends on it – one day it might.
When your life flashes before your eyes (this didn’t actually happen to me but I think you get my point) you start to question. Are the risks worth it? Am I living the life I want to live? Am I setting the life priorities that I, not someone else, have chosen? These reflections on our past and future considerations shouldn’t need a Near Death Experience or other potentially life changing event. We should periodically be asking these questions, other questions, all sorts of questions. Question what you do, why you do it, who you are. Keep questioning.
When you know that life could have just come to an abrupt end, you start to appreciate, you start to treasure. You treasure things you might not have before, that perhaps you overlooked, glossed over, in your every day busy life. Your senses increase, they heighten. You become aware. You become aware of the beauty of the grass swaying in the breeze, of the sweet rustling of the leaves rolling down the gutter, of the taste of the rain pattering outside (yes, you really can taste it). Embrace these moments in your life. Embrace all moments in your life. You might never experience them again. You might experience them many times over. It doesn’t matter. There’s beauty in everything. Embrace it now. Treasure it.
Life, particularly in the western world, is busy. Often hectic. My certain death experience was busy. It was hectic. It happened fast. Yet, amongst it, I found peace and serenity. No matter how busy you are, how hectic your life is, how upside down it might seem, you can always find peace and serenity if you try hard enough. Breathe. Find yours.
10. Live Like It’s Your Last Day On Earth
You never know. It could be your last. It might not be. But it might be. Treat everyone with the respect you would if it were your last day – I write more about this in my latest book. Kiss your spouse, hold the door open for someone, call your parents and tell them you love them, donate to charity, take out the trash. Do the good deeds you wish you could do for people when you’re no longer here.
I’m lucky. I got a second chance. Maybe you’ll get a second chance – I hope so. Learn from my mistakes and avoid making such a catastrophic one yourself.