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As a Wingsuit BASE Jumper, Laurent Frat ‘s pursuit of high octane thrills certainly won’t be to everyone’s taste, but the acceptance of the sport has never been greater
Words: Paul Dargan

American Laurent Frat first strapped himself into a wingsuit just over a decade ago. At that time, he felt this rapidly expanding pursuit was heading towards troubled ground, despite the almost unparalleled thrill of hurtling off a mountain at 200kph. “When I started wingsuit base jumping, there was very little instruction available. With only a few knowledgeable people out there, it was a somewhat mystical search for knowledge. You had to hunt out the guys who were willing to share this coveted information.

“Most unfamiliar with base jumping couldn’t believe what we were doing was possible, or that competitors would genuinely throw themselves off cliffs and mountains for the pursuit of the sport. But we did, and gradually, the numbers of those competing began to increase.”

With any emerging trend, a rise in participation is invariably accompanied by greater controls, but progress was slow, and the culmination of several years of inadequate self-regulation came in 2016 when 31 incidences of death or serious injury were recorded. Around the same time, researchers in the British Journal of Sports Medicine estimated base jumping to have a fatality and accident rate over 30 times greater than parachuting from a plane. “We got to the point where it was clear something had to be done,” he says. Most famously, in that year, Italian base jumper Uli Emanuele died at Lauterbrunnen in Switzerland during filming for a promotional video. The adventurer had received global acclaim for flying through a 9ft wide ‘needle’s eye’, and was been regarded as one of the most progressive names in the sport.

His passing might have proved an unrecoverable blow for a pursuit that had claimed so many lives. Instead, it fuelled base jumping into positive action. Experienced names – some, for the first time – were asked what they felt was the responsible way forward in order to protect competitors whilst welcoming in new participants. A drive to improve the technology behind the equipment was next, and accidents were properly assessed in order for others to learn the lessons of those who had sadly perished on the slopes.

In a sense, it all made Frat’s progression into the sport well-timed. Not only had safety become the first consideration, but the timing of the competitor’s arrival from a number of other extreme sports saw him regarded as one of a new breed of responsible base jumpers who could mend its reputation.

Born in the United States and having competed in Brazilian Ju-Jitsu and Endurance Mountain Bike Racing, Frat was also a member of a local search and rescue team.

Add to that time as a firefighter and paramedic, and it makes his new life in the French Alps all the more remarkable. “I have always pursued very challenging and intense activities and when I saw wingsuit base jumping for the first time, I thought, ‘I have to do this’. There have been very few things I’ve seen that have engaged me from the first second, so it was a massive life-changing moment, to be honest.

Frat, who is an instructor with Next Level, continues: “I started skydiving and progressing into the wingsuit, but then quickly realised this wasn’t an activity that I could do part-time. I had come to what I thought was the glass-ceiling in my career and I decided that I was going to do a complete 180˚, move to Europe and try to do as much base jumping as I possibly could.

“There is lots going on in the United States, but the access is much more difficult. In North America, the wilderness area is huge with lots of mountains and cliffs, but the access to them can sometimes take days. In Europe, access is good – there are roads and mechanical lifts everywhere, so it makes going to places so much easier. In fact, it’s almost impossible to find a cliff or a peak that doesn’t have a hut or a café where you can get a coffee!” In addition, and with geology in mind, the fact the Alps are younger means many of their sharp, jagged points remain, offering routes and passageways down. In Nevada, the rocks are older and have been rounded from so much wear, presenting big, vertical cliffs that, while safer, are also less challenging.

So, what makes a wingsuit base jumper? Having experienced around 3,000 skydiving jumps from a plane, Frat believes he is well qualified to answer. “With wingsuit base jumping, you don’t rise to the occasion,” he says. “It’s more like you dip to the level of your training. There’s not so much of a thought process going on, it’s more a flow state.

“When you jump out of an aeroplane the feeling is to try different manoeuvres and different flight configurations in a giant airspace, while a base jump is like the intensity of skydiving times a thousand, with a lot less margin. You are flying the wingsuit, but it’s a very considered descent.”

In addition, the technicalities of the jump cannot be underestimated, factoring in body configurations to manipulate the shape of the wingsuit, wind effect, the angle of the tact, drag and a few other elements.
“It all culminates in people flying through caves and hitting targets the size of a lunchbag. We are able to be incredibly precise when we need to be.”

And to return to the safety aspect of the sport, Frat believes we’ve never been in a better place. “The gear continues to improve well beyond what we were dealing with in the past. There are some fantastic manufacturers producing top-of-the-line equipment, and rather than guesswork, they’re using all the data available.

“People can attend camps and schools, or simply head online to participate in organised sessions with experienced jumpers. It’s all about getting access to the sort of information that makes the sport not just safer, but more accessible as well, because the problem with the majority of the people who get into the sport is they don’t know what they don’t know – and the worst time to find out is when you’re in mid-air.”