"This is not the type of feeling that we like or go after," says Ellen Brennan.
Ellen, 27, is one of the world's top wingsuit flyers. Moments earlier, we had been climbing up to a cliff in the mountains surrounding Chamonix, France, looking for a jump site, when we saw an avalanche barreling down at us from above. Luckily, the avalanche stopped 150 feet above us, and we were able to make it down off the mountain. But a moment later, another avalanche came tumbling down, harder and faster, and totally consumed our former position.
"Jumping from cliffs gives you a dopamine rush, it's like the best sex you've ever had times a hundred," says Brennan. "It's not this adrenaline rush. This sucks."
This is an important distinction. Because at first, wingsuit flying sounds completely insane. Flyers jump off cliffs wearing wingsuits that allow them to fly down mountainsides at more than 100 miles per hour. Some fly barely six feet off the ground, so low that they buzz the heads of unsuspecting hikers.
But actually, the sport is extremely calculated, and its practitioners are highly intelligent, and highly attuned to the risks. There are no death wishes and there is no voluntary recklessness. Flights are undertaken with extreme care and technical awareness. The suits are meticulously designed. If it's too windy, they don't fly, if it's cloudy, they don't fly, if they don't feel right mentally, they don't fly.
Flyers can climb for hours to reach a jump off point only to decide that something doesn't look or feel right, then without a second thought, hike right back down. Obviously they risk their lives each time they fly, but as a Swiss doctor once said about the dangers of the sport, sitting on the couch eating Doritos and watching TV will eventually kill you too.
Still, flyers have no choice but to get used to death. Brennan tells me this as we hike the mountains of Chamonix, still oblivious to the coming avalanche. Last year, for example, a wingsuiting accident in Switzerland claimed three of the sport's most prominent members.
"It usually takes me three days to recover after it happens," she says. "After those three days, I'm ready to jump again but after that one, I couldn't fly for a month"
Brennan, who competed in the first ever Red Bull Air Races championship, and has been called "the fastest woman in the world," describes herself as a valley girl, a former high school cheerleader who worked as a nurse in Salt Lake City before moving to France to dedicate herself to flying.
She says the experience of flight takes all of her focus and energy. It can be exhausting but is always thrilling. It's cathartic and brings out another side of her personality. A more confident, and outgoing Ellen that contrasts rather sharply with the generally shy and introverted Ellen. She tells me that she can't go too long without flying because she misses the exuberance.
Some days she'll even go to an easy to reach cliff near Chamonix to jump during her lunch break. It can be as casual as that, or as arduous as a 7 hour full gear alpine climb. To her the experience of flying is about being totally locked into everything you are doing at that moment. Your mind can't stray to other thoughts, because if you lose focus at high speeds and low elevations, you're gone. She's able to dive down couloirs, weave between trees at speeds that most cars aren't even built to reach. She can change her elevation to build speed, and even climb vertically, although just a bit. She loves it all because when she's flying, she doesn't have to think about anything else.
As we climb the gentle 30 degree slope, Brennan openly discusses the many deaths she's witnessed in her young life. She tells me that she lost count after ten of her friends had passed on.
The wingsuit flying community, which consists of about a thousand people, is small and tight-knit. Flyers around the world invite fellow flyers they've never met to stay with them when they travel for jumps. They take these strangers around their towns, hike for hours together and jump together. The bond between them is the type that only exists between people who have shared death defying experiences.
Two days before the avalanche, Ellen had taken me to a cliff near Chamonix at St Gervais Fayet. At the base of the mountain, there's a cafe called Bar Des Amis, which is known as the wingsuiters bar. It's right next to a tiny landing spot on the side of the two lane highway that winds down the mountain. On any Saturday, weather permitting, you can sit at the cafe and watch human beings hurl themselves from a 10,000 foot mountain. After landing, they spend twenty minutes packing their chutes and hike back up to do it again.
One of the men landed that morning was a 47-year-old former engineer from Paris who sold his belongings, bought an RV, and dedicated his life to jumping the mountains of Europe. Such is the draw of the sport. Wingsuiters pour their earnings into the sport but most have virtually zero hope of recovering their investment through sponsorships, endorsements or competitions.
Only about 5-10 people in the world earn enough from sponsorships, videos and competitions to fully support themselves as wingsuiters. One of them, Jokke Sommer, gained international attention through the GoPro videos he posted on YouTube. Jokke's relationship with RedBull has helped that brand become synonymous with the sport and helped propel him into the stratosphere of professional wingsuiting.
Some of his colleagues in that group have been hired by Dubai's royal family to be their personal jump team. They reportedly earn six figures, live in Dubai and have access to helicopters and camera crews everyday, all to make videos to entertain the Royal family. Apart from that though, most wingsuit flyers hold down regular jobs and fly when they can. Some work on oil rigs, others work tourism gigs, and one is even a news producer in Geneva. They flock from around the world to live in Chamonix so that the worlds best wingsuit lines are in their backyard.
At St. Gervais Fayet, I accompany Brennan, the Parisian engineer, and a Norwegian on a hike up to a cliff so they can fly a line called "tree line." The two-hour hike to a steep and narrow line on the edge of the mountain terrifies me, but is just a regular walk for them. When I ask them how they are so calm, they tell me that their chutes make them feel invincible.
The wind is noticeably strong at the top, and the debate begins as to whether or not they will jump. The Parisian, who already has a jump under his belt today, stands at the very edge of the cliff on a tiny platform of rock, analyzing the conditions. He decides it is safe enough to fly. But Brennan and the Norwegian disagree. They are both a little rusty and don't want to take an unnecessary risk.
The sight of someone voluntarily leaping from a cliff is simply surreal. One second a middle aged man is standing relatively safely on the edge of a 1km tall rock and the next second, he has disappeared. I stand there wondering what in the hell could compel someone to do that. How do you even muster up the courage to jump? Later on, when I asked the flyers this question, each responds with some variation of, 'I don't really you, you just kind of do it'.
But as we embark on the long trek back down, I can't help but think that the real secret to survival in the sport is knowing when not to jump.