The Report

The Man Who Flies Through Mountains

How Base jumper Mr Uli Emanuele cheats death as he glides through crevices with the precision skill of a superhero

It is up in the air whether Mr Uli Emanuele will jump today. The wind is high – maybe too high – and tension hangs like Damocles’ sword. It would be a shame to come all the way to Mr Emanuele’s hometown of Bolzano in South Tyrol, Italy, and not document an actual jump; it would also be a shame to unduly influence a man to leap to his death.

Wingsuit Base jumping (or “wingsuiting”) is regarded by many as the world’s most dangerous sport. You could see it as a step up from Base jumping – parachuting from buildings, antennae, spans (bridges) or earth (mountaintops) – which itself is not without its occupational hazards. A study of one site in Norway, published in the aptly named Journal Of Trauma, concluded that practitioners of this most extreme of sports are almost 50 times more likely to die than skydivers, with a fatality every 2,317 Base jumps. That’s chiefly on account of the tighter freefall times – you’re much closer to the ground than when jumping from a plane – and environmental perils like neighbouring buildings and craggy peaks. A split-second delay in pulling the cord can be the difference between life and death.

Wingsuiting is more extreme still. Instead of pulling the cord as the ground accelerates towards you, you sublimate your plummet into a head-first glide with the aid of what looks like a well-tailored sleeping bag, advancing three feet forward for every one foot descended, covering vast distances at speeds as fast as 200km per hour before eventually opening your chute. The fatality rate is high. Only last year, two prominent, highly experienced wingsuiters, Messrs Dean Potter and Graham Hunt, died in Yosemite National Park while attempting to fly through a notch in the rock called Lost Brother, which they had successfully done five times previously.

If this sets Mr Emanuele on edge, he doesn’t show it. “I don’t say ‘dangerous’; I say ‘technical’,” he says. He tries to jump every day, conditions allowing. His risk assessment is alarmingly unscientific – he checks out a flag in a field and the surface of the water on Lake Kaltern in the Adige valley below. After much deliberation, he decides: he will jump today.

Perched on the cliff, the material between his arms and legs that will provide the all-important lift flapping in the breeze, Mr Emanuele looks like a superhero; he also looks as if a sudden gust might send him pirouetting to earth like a sycamore seed. To date, he has amassed 1,400 wingsuit flights, and has been fully professional for a year. The occupation is not one that you simply fall into: Mr Emanuele’s atypical career trajectory partly follows that of his father, Mr Antonino Emanuele, a skydiver. “I was practically born in the airport,” says Mr Emanuele Junior. “I think then it’s automatic.” It doesn’t take much of a leap to imagine that he might have been the kind of child who got into trouble for, say, climbing trees. “A little bit, yes,” he grins mischievously.

The 30-year-old started skydiving when he was just 16; his ambition was to follow in his father’s dropzone by becoming professional. But after 700 jumps, the soaring costs of constantly going up in a plane proved prohibitive: “I wanted a sport where I could jump as much I want.’” It took a further 800 Base jumps before Mr Emanuele graduated to wingsuiting, which presumably has a steep learning curve. “You start from a plane, with a small wingsuit,” he says. “When your skill is better, you can move up to a bigger size. Now I have the biggest.” Initially, wingsuiting did not hold a large appeal, until he came across some footage of people flying between trees. The fascination of heightening the risk – “wingsuit proximity flying” – is at first hard to comprehend. “It gives you a real sense of flying, plus the possibility to jump in a lot of different places,” he explains. “Where we are today, without a wingsuit you can freefall maybe for one second; with, you can fly for one minute.”

Before going pro, Mr Emanuele was a dishwasher in a restaurant over the border in Lauterbrunnen, Switzerland. While he uploaded videos of his exploits to YouTube with names such as “Scary Building Exit :)”, he largely flew under the radar. It wasn’t until he discovered a particular rock in the Lauterbrunnen Valley with a vertical gap of around 2m 70cm, or roughly 9ft, that things took off. The “fly-through” is the apex of difficulty in wingsuit proximity flying: the slightest miscalculation in any direction will almost invariably prove fatal. The subsequent video, on the action-camera maker GoPro’s channel, has been viewed 5.7 million times and counting; it’s been hailed as the most “technical” Base jump ever, and catapulted Mr Emanuele to the peak of the sport.

Mr Emanuele has a girlfriend who also jumps. His vocation has jeopardised previous relationships, but not for the reason that you might think. “It’s never about the danger,” he says. “It’s more the time I cannot spend with them: I’m always in the mountains, sleeping in my van – I’ve built a wooden bed in the back.” What about his mother, Ms Antonella Brunello? While somewhat inured to danger by her husband, she surely can’t be ecstatic at her son’s line of work. “Of course she worries about me a little bit,” he admits. “But she says: better a son who jumps than a son who sits at the bar drinking beer and smoking cigarettes. And she knows I’m doing everything with my head. I’m not a crazy one.”

Mr Emanuele’s newly raised profile enabled him to add other sponsors – a minor watch marque, a local chain of sport shops. But the profit margins in wingsuiting are far from sky-high: he makes merely “enough to survive”. The rewards are inversely proportionate to the risks involved, which outweigh those faced by well-renumerated extreme sportsmen such as, say, snowboarder Mr Shaun White, worth an estimated $40m. And it’s the resultant clicks that are Mr Emanuele’s currency: a follow-up film for GoPro, in which he flew through a ring of fire, failed to light up the internet, with a little over 300,000 views. The concern, then, is that he might be driven to attempt ever more dangerous feats.

Mr Emanuele is not god-fearing; he doesn’t believe in an afterlife. Rather than hold him back, that is his raison d’être for being a jumper: while he might appear to be trying to throw his life away on a daily basis, he is in fact treasuring it, spending as much of it as possible doing what makes him happy. The long-term career prospects of a wingsuiter may be limited, but Mr Emanuele has grand plans to travel to Japan, having already explored China and Iran. Every day, he ticks an item off his bucket list. And if something goes awry: “It’s the best thing you can feel, I think.” What scares him most is getting a mortgage.

“It has nothing to do with danger,” Mr Emanuele insists. “People can’t understand how technical the sport is.” He actually discovered the rock with the hole three years before he made the video, but his skill wasn’t at the required level: it took that same amount of “hard training” before he felt adequately prepared. Still, he must have feared for his life when the time finally came. “No,” he says flatly. “If I do something like that, it’s when I am sure 100 per cent I can do it. I was very sure.” The first time he flew through the hole, there were no cameras or other people watching: “It was just for me.” He ended up repeating the trick no fewer than four times in order to compile enough footage for the film. To date, no one else has repeated the feat. What satisfies him is not risk, but calculating a jump to perfection. 

But news of the fate of others is no deterrent. Does he know people who have had accidents? “Of course.” People close to him? “Yeah, yeah.” Does he ever pause to think that maybe he should stop? “No. That is the sport. You have to know that that can happen. I never think about stopping.” Sometimes Mr Emanuele jumps more than once per day. This seems not so much like staring death in the face as tweaking the Reaper’s nose.

And with that he says “Ciao,” hops off the edge and swoops gracefully down the mountain before landing 60 seconds later right next to where he left his car earlier. Looking on, the immediate sensation of stomach dropping is soon replaced by exhilaration and an overwhelming sense of serenity. The drive down to meet him takes half an hour.

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