Adventure sports in Chamonix are nothing new. The town and the mountains almost birthed the adventure sports scene in Europe. But with each passing year new adventure sports emerge and when they do people quickly discover that Chamonix is one of the best places in the world for anyone wanting to push their limits. Ellen Brennan is one of those athletes. One of the world's most accomplished BASE jumpers and Wingsuiters she now lives on the doorstep of Mont Blanc.
Hi Ellen, tell us bit about yourself
I am originally from New York, but I moved with my family at the age of 10 to Utah to be closer to the mountains. I moved to France 1 ½ years ago for a few reasons. Originally it has been my goal to learn French so I can work as a Nurse in western Africa. Then I started BASE jumping, and I realized that France has some of the best jumping in the world.
Now I live in Passy, surrounded by many big jumps, I can see 5 wingsuit jumps from my front door! And also, in Passy few people speak English so I am forced to speak French every day, it’s perfect! Currently I am a full-time jumper. In the States I work as a nurse, and I plan to get a nursing job this winter when the jumping season slows down.
How did you get into flying?
I got introduced to the idea of flying when I was 10, and I would go watch my dad paraglide. Then for my 18th birthday, my dad and I went for my first skydive together. When we landed he said, “Do you want to do it again?!” I hadn’t even thought of this sport as being something I could do more than once! So the next weekend we made a second jump, and I never stopped. Shortly after I started skydiving I started paragliding. They seemed to go hand in hand. And after about 300 skydives, I was getting bored and decided to learn to BASE jump. I started by jumping from bridges and hot air balloons. Then I started to jump from 100m cliffs in Moab Utah. When I first went to Moab to jump it really changed my life. It was so fun for me to hike and scramble up ‘trails’ to an exit point. And then jump off of a beautiful red-rock cliff. It introduced a sense of purity to the sport that I hadn’t felt before. I connected with nature in a way I never though possible.
One year later I took a trip to Lauterbrunnen Switzerland where I made my first sub-terminal jumps with a track suit. A track suit is basically a pair of baggy pants and jacket that inflate when you jump to help you move away from the cliff. But I wasn’t moving as far as my friend in wingsuits so I decided to go back to Utah and start skydiving a wingsuit so I would be ready to jump in the following year in Lauterbrunnen.
My first 2 seasons of wingsuiting I was concentrating on flying away from the walls, and as far as possible. But now I am more interested in diving my suit, and flying next to the mountain. With the newer technology the suits have become safer- with more power and more recovery, so it is safer to fly closer to the ground.
What is the best part of wingsuiting?
There is not one specific thing that makes wingsuiting great - it’s a whole recipe. The people you share a jump with makes a huge difference. If I jump with good friends who are solid pilots my jump is usually fun and low stress. But if I jump with people I don’t know well, or who are annoying, poor pilots, or even people who are in bad health, my jump will be stressful and less enjoyable.
I really enjoy the hike to a jump. It makes a huge impact on my opinion of the jump. I love taking the time to hike up. It makes me feel like I’ve really earned a jump. It also gives me time to warm up, and get acquainted with the mountain. I use this time to feel the air, watch the weather, look at the terrain, think about the jump and line I am about to fly. It really gives me a chance to center myself.
One of my favorite moments of jumping is the seconds just before I exit. At this moment, all of my surrounding dampen, and I am just focused on me and the cliff directly below. I don’t hear people talking, I don’t think about anything else going on in my life. I just feel my breath, my heart, and my feet on the ground. Many people practice meditation for many years to get to this point of ‘being present’, it is extremely satisfying.
And of course I love the sensation of flying! Flying over the ground like a hawk honing in on its prey, is the stuff I had always dreamed about but now it’s a reality! And the hit of adrenalin and dopamine I get from a jump is something I can’t ignore; it feels so good.
Where has your sport taken you?
If I didn’t BASE jump, I don’t think I would have ever come to Europe. I have jumped all over France, Switzerland, Italy, Norway, Turkey, and next month I am going to China.
Why do you live in Chamonix?
Chamonix is a big kids playground. It still blows my mind that they have built a lift up to the top of Aiguille du Midi, with instant alpine access, and no secure piste or trail down. That would NEVER happen in the states. Its like, “here kids, this mountain is super awesome, and we want everyone to have access to it. And we trust you to know your limits!” There are not many places in the world like Chamonix, and I remind myself every day how lucky I am to live here.
You were recently crowned "World's Fastest Flying Woman". How did you win this title?
This summer I got in the Wingsuit BASE racing. I knew I flew fast, I just didn’t realize how fast I actually was. This first wingsuit race I competed in this summer was in Kjerag Norway, where I took 1st place in the female compatition, and 8th place overall. I was the first girl to ever make it to the final round at a wingsuit race. The next race was at Romsdalen Norway, where I again took 1st in the female category. The last and final race of the ProBASE World Cup is on the 19 of September taking place in Lauterbrunnen Switzerland. I hope again to take first, earning first in the Overall Female Ranking.
I was also recently invited to the World Wingsuit League Grand Prix in China. 16 people were invited, me being the only female. This will be the only terrain/proximity race. We will be jumping from Tianmen Mountain, the place that inspired the scenery in the movie Avatar.
How is Competition Winsuiting judged?
Each race is a bit different, with different courses, but in general it starts out with a triggering a laser gate when you first exit to start the timing, and the we fly over the finish line, which is usually a tarp or flags set up on the ground with a person recording the times and a camera taking a photo to make sure you are actually within the finish line. Some races involve turns, like the one in Kjerag. We had to make a U-Turn over a marker that was on the ground, there they had a camera set up to make sure we didn’t cut the corner. If you cut the corner you are disqualified. The second factor in the race is canopy-time. You have to be under canopy (an open parachute) for a minimum of 25 seconds or else you are considered to have a low-pull and are disqualified. Typically the goal is to dive your suit as much as possible, gaining speed, but not diving it so hard that you open low after crossing the finish line.
What are your plans/goals for this winter 2014?
Get a real job! And of course speedride as much as possible
Wingsuiting is quite new sport but it is getting a lot of coverage. What is the future of the sport commercially and technically?
Wingsuit BASE jumping is a very niche sport. I don’t think it will ever be done by the masses. But I think as technology improves, the sport becomes safer and more accessible to people who are interested in doing it. In the last few years wingsuit development has progressed from having suits that fly at maybe a 2:1 ratio to flying at 3.5:1, or more in some cases. With the added glide and performance, we are also able to start flying the suits faster. We used to start flying in 6 seconds a few years ago, and now we are flying in 2.5-3 seconds. This opens up the possibilities of many new cliffs and mountains to jump off of. It’s really clear this year, with the new Squirrel Suit, people have been opening jumps all along the Mont Blanc massif. Jumping from cliffs we never dreamed would be jumpable.
The sport has been banned then allowed in Chamonix and there have recently been deaths in the wingsuiting community.
Is it more dangerous than other arial sports?
Of course the sport is dangerous if you don’t know your limits. But it is easy to make safe jumps with a large margin for error. Wingsuit BASE jumping is not an easy sport. There are countless things you have to take into consideration before making a jump:
the start- do you start flying quickly enough to jump from this height of cliff, the terrain- is it steep enough for me to easily out-fly, weather- So important to understand the weather, wind, thermals, sink, because this can greatly impact the flight your mental state- are you sharp enough today to make this jump safely, your physical shape- are you dehydrated- this can cause cramping, making it impossible to fly the suit, the list goes on…. and if you over look one of these factors it can greatly impact the jump and you could find yourself in big trouble.
The second most dangerous sport next to BASE jumping is speedriding. Both of these are very new sports, and it is unfortunate that the pioneers make the ultimate sacrifice in order for the next generation to have a safer sport.
Describe your perfect day.
My perfect day start with waking up in my car at the base of a huge mountain. Then making a big, beautiful hike with a few of my closest friends to the summit where there is a perfect exit-point waiting to be jumped. Jumping down to land next to a café where we share the high from the jump and drink our panache’s. Then going to the lake to cool off and BBQ. And finally making an evening jump or paragliding flight.
And I get to do this all the time!!
Best of luck to Ellen at the Pro BASE Wingsuit Race in Lauterbrunnen Switzerland on September 19th.
- Speed Riding