Category: Wingsuit Flying

Safe Place to Sleep Tonight

Taya JeffWe leave the bar near the dropzone with hookah pipe smoke clinging to our clothes, into the darkness, the car, towards the neon signs of gas stations around the lake. He reaches over to hold my hand and I take it. I am his passenger and he has promised me a safe place to sleep tonight.

He says, “I think you’re scared of me because of how I make you feel. Either you’re worried that your feelings won’t be returned, or you’re just scared of the intensity – I’m not sure.”

I meet Jeff when I decide to attempt healing from the biggest loss I’ve ever experienced by trying out for a wingsuit world record. I’m not known in these circles since I’ve just moved back to the US from South Africa, but I can fly my slot. At the end of the weekend he takes me out for sushi and invites me to California. The mission is to organize the wingsuit bigway formation attempt, a 71-way at Lake Elsinore. It’s an exciting offer. Flying feels good but I’m grieving, and won’t get involved with anyone before a year has passed.

He says he understands. He has scheduled the wingsuit event to coincide with his late father’s birthday. His dad died when he was 29 years old, and he still wants to make him proud. His mom passed away, too. We will do a 71-way because he was born in 1971. He doesn’t want anyone to know that’s why he picked the number. I am sworn to secrecy. I trust him because he seems to understand loss and remembrance, so we agree to travel and work together.

Jeff turns left down a side road and I feel my stomach lurch. I recognize something about the neighborhood. Moonlight on the lake. The road dead-ends and the porch of the house still looks exactly as it did five years ago, when my friend Wyat lived there. He had cut away and was jumping full time. We had partied and talked about our dreams.

Wyat is dead now, crashed his motorcycle last year. A man who used to make a living jumping out of airplanes and flying tiny little parachutes down the sides of mountains. The irony of the ground getting him from only a few feet up is never lost on me.

We get out of the car at my dead friend’s house, now occupied by one of Jeff’s friends who is still very much alive and has invited us to stay.

I shouldn’t be here.

I see ghosts drinking Jack Daniels and kicking the rope swing out around the corner of the big porch. They turn to look at me, the dead skydivers. People I’ve held hands with in freefall. Wyat is there, and Elle. And with them is Eric, the love of my life, smiling at me and swilling his drink with a sideways look that says, “You know I hate this stuff but I’m trying to be social.”

“…I give people ladders,” Jeff is saying. “I let them think they’re better than me so they will achieve their dreams. Look at what I’ve done in this sport: for Justin, for Tony – for you.”

“Take me to a hotel.” I’m choking on the fear I don’t want to show.

“What?”

“Take me to a goddamn hotel.”

Edgeington


Taya Jess XRWOur goal was to explore the limits of a high-performance canopy pilot docking with a wingsuit flyer in freefall. The idea had been around for a while, but we wanted to do it in new ways that showed it could be developed as a discipline and not just advertised as a stunt.

Up late one night working on a funding proposal, I dubbed the effort “Project XRW” (Extreme Relative Work). It stuck. The first round featured Jonathan Tagle of the Performance Designs Factory Team under a 71-square-foot Velocity, surfing on the back of Jeff Nebelkopf flying his TonySuit X Bird wingsuit. The project logo had their names emblazoned across the letters XRW: Tagle. Nebelkopf.

It wasn’t until a few months later during the next iteration of the project that I aimed my own TonySuit X Bird in the direction of the PD Factory Team’s only female canopy pilot, Jessica Edgeington. She had bright pink nail polish on, her hand waving at me to come in closer as I balanced on the outside of my performance range in the wingsuit, trying not to screw up.

We became the first women to do XRW, but we hadn’t even met until we were on the verge of attempting what then seemed nearly impossible (or at least, very dangerous). It’s a hell of a way to meet your future best friend, midair at high speed wearing various forms of nylon and trying to hold hands.

Edgeington. Weiss.

Those names never appeared oWeiss Edgeingtonn a logo. Not that we cared. As we navigated the high-testosterone dynamics of that week, we both enjoyed laughing at the very masculine world we inhabited and thrived in. Mostly, we wanted the same leeway to train and achieve as the men around us.

When we narrowly missed the surf dock on the very first try, the guys were quick to pull the photographer away from us, worried it would be a waste if we took too long to figure it out (we nailed it on the very next jump).

We grew to be more than just dropzone buddies. We created, for and with each other, a safe place to share, bond, and vent about the often ridiculous challenges we faced. We spent time at each other’s family homes, planned weekends away together, and helped each other unconditionally through some very tough times. She once played the ukelele and sang to me while we sat on the banks of Walden Pond after a long swim.  

We were both serious about our skydiving, and struggled with the frustrations (unspeakable and unspoken in public, of course) of being women in our professional environment. But we never stopped laughing about it all, and using humor to keep each other afloat. Years after Project XRW’s initial success, we still started calls, voicemails, and text messages by intoning each other’s last name. If spoken, we went for either a wrestling-announcer voice or an evening news-anchor persona, no matter how mundane the subject matter following. 

“Edgeington. What time do you get off work?”

“Weiss. Mark and I are raising a baby… squirrel!”

“Edgeington. Shit’s hitting the fan. May drunk dial you later.”

“Weiss. I almost had a meltdown.”

“Edgeington. Time for a weekend catch-up.”

“EDGE-ING-TOOOOONNNN!!!!”

“WEEEEEEIIIISSSSSSS!”

In April, I got a call from the scene as soon as it happened. There was no filter, no lead-in, just the words: “Jess went in.”

Edgeington Weiss Pooch

Dust to Dust

1934099_19769534612_6418_nShe tells me she’s having a recurring dream about giving birth. She physically feels the contractions and the pain, pushing and breathing and yelling until she hears his first cries.

When she wakes, the sobs start low and growly. The dream vision of the birth is like the Big Bang, an explosion in her chest with the compressed mass of the human condition, pushing out and out. She gave birth, and she couldn’t protect him. Her son is dead.

Eight months later, Eric’s mother and I drive out to the skydiving club.

She rummages in her bag and gives me a slightly worn picture of him as a young boy to carry with me in my wingsuit pocket. At 19 years old in a collared button down shirt, he’s still scrawny, a gleam in his eye. He was 44 when he died, with the same smile.

She puts her hands on my shoulders and her forehead against mine (I am thinking: just like he used to do). She says, “He was my son. He came from my womb. His life started with me, and it ends with you.”

I walk to the plane with the handmade red pouch strapped to my left wrist. At boarding point, I sit with my head down. This is a solo mission. I look up once, opening my eyes to a view of our friend Raymond’s pants leg as he stands near me protectively. The embroidery reads, “Martin’s Funerals! 011-672-8104”. New sponsor. I start to crack, giggling hysterically.

On board, I sit near the pilot, close my eyes, breathe, and focus. I feel Eric’s presence. He is smiling, with a student. He is kissing me in the door.

Tears mark minutes until we get to altitude. I grab my soul and throw it over the threshold, then chase it out. The plane dives away and I begin to glide. The air feels dense. Everything is slow. He is off my left wingtip, he is underneath me, he is the air and the sky and the planet below.

I open my parachute and then the little pouch, feeling the rough ash with chunks of bone between my fingers. This magical dust. So many late night conversations, our deep trust, the way we rolled over together while sleeping, all condensed in the palm of my hand.

Pieces of him stream out to my left side, riding the relative wind.

I land where his blood marked the grass. Edith holds me and moans, “my baby, my baby”. I can’t tell if she is talking to me.

The sun is bright, the earth red, the breeze soft, the sky brilliant blue, the birds alive, the grass still growing. Everything in vivid color, heavy and bright, bleeding with his memory. 

I eat a banana, give our long-time packer a hug as he hands me my neatly closed container with the suit unzipped and ready to wear, and do what will come to define me. I give Edith a kiss on the cheek and get ready for the next jump.

Blue Skies

Taya and tonto“Blue Skies. This sport glows brightly, and burns incomparably beautiful images into our memories. That brightness comes at a very high cost. It’s the lives of our friends, the blood and the bones of our sky family. That’s the dark side, the Black Death. There is no one without the other.” -Eric “tonto” Stephenson

Blue Skies

The air inside the small plane is hot, but not for long. Ten bodies, most of them much bigger and hairier than mine, are crammed in with their gear. On the tiny bench, my hips are squeezed on either side and the guy on the floor is leaning on my legs. I put my head on Eric’s shoulder, feeling the rough cordura of his rig on my face and breathing the familiar smell of his wingsuit: nylon washed in atmosphere. He takes my hand. The Porter climbs at 800 feet per minute and I’m woken up by the two-minute call. We’re at 10,000 feet and it’s almost time to get out.

I look at Eric and we breathe together, link fingers, then clasp and let go. This is our ritual. The door opens at 11,000 feet and a rush of cool air floods into the steamy can of jumpers. Outside, canyons of cloud make the sky look like a soft, intricate mountain range. I look at him, red goggles, no helmet on his number-two shaved hair, grinning. He has the most adorable teeth I’ve ever seen.

He squeezes my hand again and leans in – sharing consciousness for that moment before exit. His lips, his cool tongue sliding into my mouth, and the adrenaline charges into my bloodstream. We step over the edge, leaving the plane behind.

Freedom. The whole world looks soft from this far up. We’re over the Carletonville mine dumps. From the air, they look like zen gardens, their arsenic-laced sand combed methodically. Even the one shaped like a coffin has somewhat rounded edges from altitude. The township shacks, the dumps, the roads, the railroad tracks, the grassy fields with cows, are draped today in fluffy white distractions.

Wings open, catching air, I glide for the edge of the nearest white canyon with the sun on my face. We dip our wings into the cloud, and it tickles my right hand with cold moisture. Eric flies up alongside me: “Hey!” I hear his voice on the rush of the relative wind. He’s laughing, face full of joy: “I LOVE YOU!”

The kisses on the ground are better than the ones in the plane. They affirm that we have chosen to fly and survived, yet again. When he leans in to kiss me on that hard ground, I am grateful for the red earth under my feet: for his closeness, acceptance, shared need to fly.  At sunset we crack open a cold beer, eat a home-cooked meal, and disappear to one of the wooden huts nearby. When I think of love, I see his smile in the door and I see him blowing kisses at me as he flies off my wingtip, and I see his red shorts hanging off a bare white bulb as we make love at the end of a day like this.

Looking into the Abyss

Kilimanjaro Glacier at the Summit“Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And when you look long into an abyss, the abyss also looks into you.” -Friedrich Nietzsche

Josh had a grin like the sun and an outsized sense of humor to match his huge frame and the strength of his bear hugs. He was from Michigan but he was back for a second winter in Southern California, living in his van in the parking lot and still missing the notorious van-adapted cat who had come with him the year before. The cat had met a tragic end. We didn’t talk about it.

When he said he was headed back to Michigan for a few weeks, I didn’t understand why he was going home for so long. It bothered me. The temperatures in Michigan were well below freezing; most people didn’t even want to go to the grocery store, let alone jump. And Josh needed to jump.

“Don’t stay in Michigan for two weeks! You’re going to go stir crazy. Don’t go climbing something and freeze before you get to the top.”

Days later, he died on a solo BASE jump from an antenna.

Once I had collected his wingsuits and gear from the team room, I continued attacking things I could control. I booked a hotel room for his brother and mother, made T-shirts with his image on them, and planned a memorial day. I made a card for his family and hugged people while asking them to write something in it. I cleaned and reorganized and color-coded.

The abyss can’t get you while you’re wielding a label-making machine and a vacuum.

It wasn’t until April that I had the first visions, after Jessica died. I was too emotionally exhausted to design a memorial logo or even to write anything meaningful. And then, as the days passed, I got upset and angry that no one else had done these things. Other dead friends of her stature in the sport, including her closest teammate, had a logo of their names or initials appearing on T-shirts, helmet stickers, and Facebook profile pictures.

What? You’ve never had death-logo FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out)? Don’t even get me started on body-identification FOMO and corpse-retrieval FOMO.

The first set of visions is about my body breaking.

I am standing on the edge of a cliff. There is a slight breeze; the air is clean. I run and leap, the thrill of that weightless moment transitioning to acceleration. I accelerate until I hit the ground, and my body shatters on the rocks. I see it break, from above.

By summer, the pace of deaths intensify, as expected when the European BASE jumping season gets underway. At the end of July, two friends die in separate incidents in different countries on the same day.

In December, when I finally slow down, I have a new vision.

I’m standing in a neutral place with no background. I grab my own head and wrench it off my body, throwing it. My head is the pin of the grenade. As I walk away, my body explodes in a burst of blood. Then, my body comes back together, I keep walking, and I methodically do it again.

I don’t want to die. Gruesome as they sound, the visions are not about a death wish. That much I know. I describe them to someone I trust, wondering aloud whether the second one is an escalation, trying to make sense of it.  

Smiling at me sideways she says, “Oh no, that’s progress with whatever this is about. You go from letting gravity break you to ripping your own head off? That’s kind of empowering.”

We laugh so hard, I can’t stop the tears.