Chamonix is the world’s capital of wingsuit or BASE jumping, an incredibly dangerous sport, involving jumping off the top of a mountain wearing only a lightweight wingsuit.
It is home to Ellen Brennan, the world’s fastest flying woman, who won the title at the World BASE Race in Romsdalen, Norway. A base jumper, she reaches speeds of around 180kph, jumping off something high (a mountain peak, a clifftop, a high bridge) while wearing a wingsuit, which acts like glider wings, allowing her to ‘fly’.
“I got into extreme sports when I was 18,” she told The Connexion. “Before that I was a cheerleader!”
Born in New York, she and her family moved to the mountains in Utah when she was 10. At 18, she went parachuting with her father, did a tandem freefall jump with an instructor, and fell into a new life.
“I was in love straight away, it was the best experience I’d ever had, but I thought it was a one-time deal.” But her father had also done a jump, loved the experience and was keen to do it again. After that, the pair of them jumped regularly, and soon Ellen got her first skydiving licence, which meant she could jump solo.
After 500 jumps she got her professional licence, meaning she could do displays such as jumping into an arena, and for a time contemplated doing stunts in films. “But then it seemed like it would be like being employed, rather than self-employed, and I didn’t want that.”
She then got into BASE jumping and 18 months ago moved to France, so that she could do it more often. I love it here. There is more freedoms than in the US, where for example you can’t ski off-piste if you take a lift up the slope. Back home, most of the big cliffs, which would be great for base jumping, are in national parks where it is illegal.
“But here in Chamonix you can BASE jump off the terrace if you want. They just ask how they can help you, rather than trying to stop you, which makes it safer to jump here than anywhere else.”
Since arriving in Chamonix she has tried out all sorts of extreme sports, but her favourite remains jumping with a wingsuit.
She says the combination of access to the mountains, security and excellent rescue services has made Chamonix the world centre for extreme sports. She also enjoys being part of a whole community of people into extreme sports. “People come here for the mountains, for the jumping and climbing.”
She recently featured in a successful internet advert for Dunkin’ Donuts. In it, she base jumps off an Alpine cliff and flies past a Dunkin’ Donuts store, specially constructed on the mountainside, grabbing a bag of doughnuts as she flies past. She then releases her parachute and is bites down on a doughtnut as she glides gently back to earth.
“Making that advert was amazing,” she said. “We had a massive team and I totally enjoyed it, everyone was very supportive so I was like a kid in a playground. I loved it.
“I have the perfect life, and I’m just taking advantage while I can.”
She admits that she’s frightened of injuring herself, but quickly adds that she’s never had an accident. “I don’t jump unless I’m in top form, I don’t push too far beyond my limits, I only jump in good weather conditions, and with the correct equipment.”
Her father is really proud of his daredevil daughter and all her stunts, but she confesses that her mother is a typical mother and worries for her daughter's safety.
“She doesn’t love my BASE jumping at all, but I’ve been doing it for the last 10 years so despite worrying, she’s also quite proud,” says Ellen.
She plans to go on jumping until it does not make her happy any more. “But I can’t see that happening! Maybe when I start having kids? But I know moms who still jump, so we’ll see about that later.”
And, when she does hang up her wingsuit for the last time? “My heart really is in intensive care nursing, and I’d like to get back to that again.”
Nursing seems a long way from base jumping, but Ellen says it isn’t that different. “It’s handling chaos, dealing with really demanding, urgent situations, being under pressure and getting it on top of it all.”
She has learned French and is in the process of having her qualifications validated. “I hope I can pass the tests and start work next year. It’s so cool being able to speak two languages. Hardly anyone in the US can speak French!”
BASE jumping: A deadly dangerous business
Chamonix is the world’s capital of wingsuit or BASE jumping, a dangerous sport, involving jumping off the top of a mountain wearing only a lightweight wingsuit.
The sport is heavily regulated in many parts of the world and was temporarily banned in Chamonix last October after the death of Russian wingsuit star Ratmir Nagimianov, at the age of 32.
“It was the fifth death in 2016 and we temporarily banned the sport because we have to consider the safety of third parties,” said François-Régis Bouquin, directeur de cabinet at Chamonix Mairie.
The Mairie is carrying out a consultation process aimed at establishing rules to protect BASE jumpers and other people. “We don’t want to be the capital of death,” said Mr Bouquin. “And we would like to lift the ban before summer, but we need to reach an agreement with all parties concerned to make the sport safer. We want to ban BASE jumping above inhabited areas for example.”
It is calculated that there were 35 wingsuit deaths worldwide in 2016. Eight were in France, and six were in Chamonix. The death toll is high, the dangers are clear, but this does not deter BASE jumpers.