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What’s the use of a fine house if you haven’t got a tolerable planet to put it on?

- Henry David Thoreau

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Air

Dec 02, 2014

Rise of the Birdman

From kindergarden teacher to wingsuit flyer: how a young graphic designer converted his dream into a reality by being hardcore. From watching viral YouTube videos to becoming them - this is the tale of Jokke Sommer.

WRITTEN BY

Himraj Soin

Videos of cats may be extremely popular on YouTube, but when Jokke Sommer put up a few clips of him being superman for his friends back home to see, he almost broke the Internet. It was the golden age for wingsuit flying- not many people participated in the sport, while others didn’t know what it was. Being several thousand miles away from home, he uploaded his GoPro footage onto YouTube for his friends and family back in Norway to see; he didn’t realize his videos would garner millions of views. The story of how a snowboard instructor, motocross rider, kindergarden teacher and graphic designer, become the king of the sky – one of the world’s most prolific proximity wingsuit flyers.

The highest jump of his life, Jokke Sommer steps off Aguille du Midi (3,842m), on the Mont Blanc massif in the French Alps. Photo: Christoph Dittmer
The highest jump of his life, Jokke Sommer steps off Aguille du Midi (3,842m), on the Mont Blanc massif in the French Alps. Photo: Chris Dittmer

 Jokke stands on the edge of a high rocky tower, looking down. It’s nearly a 3000m vertical drop to the distant valley below and the streets of Chamonix. He looks behind him, an alpine universe where the sharp granite triangle of the Mont Blanc du Tacul punctuates the rise up to the snowy mound of Western Europe’s highest peak. He rustles his two-layered nylon batsuit, he’s comfortable in it, the webbed wing surfaces flapping between his legs and under his arms.

At an elevation of 4000m, this isn’t going to be like any other jump he’s done before. Taking in the majesty of the French Alps, he thinks to himself, “what am I going to eat for dinner tonight”? Unserious thoughts help him concentrate. Taking a deep breath, he jumps into the deep void.

He feels the familiar weightlessness of freefall, the plunge into limbo, the butterflies in his stomach slowly gathering into formation as he plummets rapidly towards the earth.

Three very long seconds tick away as he falls to the ground.

He spreads his arms and legs, opening the suit’s wings, straightens his spine, pushes his shoulders forward, and straightens his legs as his suit fills with air. The death-fall turns into a glide, slowly at first, but rapidly accelerating, faster and faster, and an instant later he’s flying forward, hurtling at 200kmph.

Flying in proximity, close to the mountainside, gives him reference points so he can navigate. While altering the amount of tension he applies on the fabric, an unfamiliar emotion of fear comes over him and he feels like he’s about to lose control. Pulling his arms in, he narrowly avoids a rock jutting out of the cliff face, and losing his edge, he just about begins to spin out of control. “Man, my girlfriend is going to kill me if I die”, he thinks.

The usual, attainable glide ratio of a wingsuit is 2:5:1. For every meter dropped, two and a half meters are gained flying forward. Pictured here, an afternoon flight down Jokke's local spot in Bispen, Norway. Photo: Trond Teigen
The usual, attainable glide ratio of a wingsuit is 2:5:1. For every meter dropped, two and a half meters are gained flying forward. Pictured here, an afternoon flight down Jokke’s local spot in Bispen, Norway. Photo: Trond Teigen

The formative years

Born in Oslo in the summer of 1986, Jokke was always restless. As a little boy, he was fascinated with the sky, with speed, and heights.

“My father put me on alpine skis almost before I could walk. I enjoyed it, became quite good, but switched to snowboarding because I could do bigger jumps and be in the air more”, said Jokke, with a satisfied grin. Perpetually in his brain’s instant gratification hot-spot, all his activities had something to do with the art of flight. As a teenager, Jokke tried out motocross in a freestyle park he created- in his backyard. “My friends and I were literally flying in the air on our bikes”, he confessed.  Putting his dream of flight on hold, he pursued motocross seriously for a while. However, he had to compensate in his free time. A graphic designer by profession, he knew he didn’t want to live most of his life behind a desk, so he started watching YouTube videos of people living his dream – BASE jumpers, skydivers, motocross riders- he would watch their films over and over.

Apparently not satisfied with the amount of adrenaline being expended in his hobby, he yearned to transition from motorcross, although in retrospect, it proved to be a crucial part of his youth, introducing him to the world of extreme sports. He didn’t know about wingsuit flying at the time. This was 2004.

A few years later in 2007, he received a call from a close friend, Jorgen Eriksten, asking him to go get a skydive license together. But the plan couldn’t have come at a worse time. He’d also just gotten the chance of a lifetime, to go ride in Spain with Andre Villa, one of the best freestyle motocross riders in the world.

It was an incredibly tough decision. Impulsively, he took a massive gamble to prioritize his childhood dream. He sold his dirt bikes to fund his Accelerated Free Fall course in Oslo.

In 2008, Jokke traveled to Perris, California to complete 250 skydiving jumps in two months. But this wasn’t enough – skydiving was only a gateway drug. Shortly after, he returned to Kjerag, Norway and signed up for a BASE course. 20 BASE jumps and two dozen wingsuit videos later, Jokke tried on his first wingsuit. “After that, I knew I couldn’t turn back. I knew this is what I want to do with my life. This is fucking awesome”.

A surreal flight off Tianmen mountain in China's Hunan province. The World Wingsuit League held the first Wingsuit Championship here. Photo: Jeff Nebelkopf
A surreal flight off Tianmen mountain in China’s Hunan province. The World Wingsuit League held the first Wingsuit Championship here. Photo: Jeff Nebelkopf

The Golden Age of Wingsuit Flying

“At first, I was always flying like shit”, Jokke said, quite matter-of-factly, while I Skyped with him. Sounds of waves crashing in the background, he was talking to me from Hawaii. Just cruising along and jumping from planes – he wasn’t interested in proximity flying. But after many freefalls, he decided to give terrain flying a chance. Suddenly, he found it was easy, and he was getting better. He liked the context that the cliffs and peaks gave him. Flying closer and closer and taking risks, this became his daily diet. He started putting up videos on YouTube for his friends to see.

The next time he logged into his account he would find that he had garnered over a million views. Going viral was totally unexpected – not many people were participating in the sport at the time. “I was working part time as a kindergarden teacher, and part time as a snowboard instructor, but mostly, I was trying to not work at all so I could be in the sky”.

As his video’s view counts increased exponentially, people started noticing. He randomly got picked up by a Norwegian TV show and was meant to be the cameraman-flyer. Because he was so enthusiastic, he instead landed the main role as the protagonist-wingsuit-flyer.
“Red Bull had heard about me but didn’t want to get involved because I was known to be the most hardcore, and slightly risky”, said Sommer.  However, now RB wanted him as their athlete, and after the TV show, the deal went through and that’s how it all started. Shortly after, he got GoPro’s attention. His background in media and graphic design helped him edit and post his “Dream Lines” series on Youtube, which catapulted him on to the map, gathering over 10 million views.  He had always wanted to fly – he would never have imagined that he would become the world’s ballsiest flying squirrel.

The future’s uncertain but the end is always near

We’ve all had dreams of pummeling through the air like a superhero.  Take Franz Reichelt, who jumped off the Eifel Tower in 1912, to test his parachute-wingsuit prototype. Unfortunately, he died due to a heart attack before hitting his head on the pavement. Since then, we’ve had technology on our side. It’s a sport that’s growing very fast, however, it takes time to develop skills to fly. Due to the huge interest of people entering the sport, people are eager to be instantly gratified – to be hardcore immediately.

“It takes you a long time to fly 100%. I’m not even close to being fully trained. I have 10-20 years more till I can really say I’m fully trained”, Jokke tells me modestly, hours before jumping out of a helicopter over Switzerland. Understandably a risky sport, Jokke has his share of concerns and thoughts regarding the increase in popularity for the sport. “I love what wingsuit flying has given me. It’s something I want to learn more about. A lot of people want to get into the sport as they see the dream of flying coming true”. According to him, for some people, it’s the lack of training and the lack of knowing exactly what to do. However, one can also be incredibly skilled and unlucky. At the end of last year, the wingsuit community had 24 fatalities.

 “Do what you love – everything is kind of fun”

When asked about his interests apart from wingsuit flying, with a straight face, he replies, “girls and partying”. In his usual laidback tone, he tells me, quite frankly, “I used to longboard but I felt it was too risky – too much moving traffic and downhill.” Yes, he was serious – one of the world’s best BASE jumpers and wingsuit flyers is afraid of longboarding.

Much like the Obama campaign, Jokke is a poster boy for change – the graphic designer, snowboard instructor, kindergarden teacher, wingsuit flyer, BASE jumper, is now also training to become a big wave surfer. Involved in a project where pro surfer Nicola Porcella teaches him how to surf and he teaches him how to wingsuit fly, the great switcheroo called “Lift-Off” will soon air on TV. “It has become my second obsession, and now I’m trying to conquer 30ft waves. It’s very different to wingsuit flying but I love a great challenge”.

“Man, my girlfriend is going to kill me if I die. At this point, I’m like, man I fucked up. This is it. But then I started thinking of my family and how pissed off they’d be. And while I was thinking this, I was actually correcting the situation, and it took about 1.5 seconds. It felt like eternity. I cleared it by a few centimetres. It’s not fun, but it’s good to learn”.

Jokke's first big wave at Peahi, Hawaii. A popular big wave surfing break, Peahi is also known as "jaws". Photo: Richard Hallman
Jokke’s first big wave at Peahi, Hawaii. A popular big wave surfing break, Peahi is also known as “jaws”. Photo: Richard Hallman

For more information: https://www.facebook.com/JokkeSommerOfficial | Instagram: jokkesommer | Youtube.com/JokkeSommerOfficial

 

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Focus

Oct 01, 2018

The Forbidden Zone: Mongols, to Your Horses

The rolling green hills, rocky passes, flower-laden meadows and clear streams of Gorkhi Terelj National Park in northern Mongolia is the birthplace of the Mongols. The Outdoor Journal spent a week on horseback with Stone Horse Expeditions in the heart of this country’s vast wilderness.

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WRITTEN BY

Apoorva Prasad

Tdrihe Khan Khentii mountains stretched before us, from one end of the azure sky to the other. Tegri, the Great Sky God, watched us with his infinite panorama. From here, I could see miles and miles into the distance. This was the “Forbidden Zone”, that unknown wilderness where Genghis Khan was born. As a child and then again much later on, he hunted here, his true home, on a horse, sheltered in a ger or under the blue sky. When he was a boy, exiled with his family into the cold and harsh wilderness of the northern Mongolian hills, his only friends were what these lands contained. After he built an empire and died, it became a sacred and taboo zone, left to the deer and wolves. For decades the area had been closed off. The Soviets enforced it as a Highly Restricted Area to allow them to do what they wished with it – from logging and military exercises, to also countering any potential rise of Mongolian nationalism around the great Khan. Despite those years, the Area remained wild.

No wonder the Mongols worshipped it.

A day before, we had crossed fresh bear tracks. There were no signs of human presence apart from our train of horses and riders. And now, this vista lay in front of us, green and yellow grassy hills, long valleys, meadows of flowers stretching to higher mountains all the way to Siberia, some still snow-dusted despite the summer sun. Burkhan Khaldun stood further behind higher peaks. And that incredible sky. No wonder the Mongols worshipped it. We all lived once under this blue infinity. As we’d ridden northwards away from Ulan Bator, the city’s pollution had faded away long ago, the gray curse had lifted and my eyes had once again accustomed themselves to what they had evolved to do – see long distances, look for hares, deer, bears, navigate passes and ford streams, climb rocks, and watch falcons circle on thermals above. And over the last few days, we had done all these things.

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The weary horseriders arrive in the ger to refresh themselves.

We had left our last camp around mid-morning, some hours ago. One half of the party broke away to ride into another valley out west, while Keith and I wanted to ride up and to the pass in the range of hills that separated the Gorkhi Terelj from the Khan Khentii. We skirted the granite mounds which punctuated the ends of this valley, forded a marshy grassland below the campsite, fought off the bloodsucking horseflies that made our horses’ lives miserable for a little while, eventually entering a tall forest of larch and birch. The ground began to rise as we entered a narrow rocky trail that started to wind uphill. Jerry, my sturdy, stubborn little Mongolian horse plodded on. This easy gait was infinitely more comfortable than the long trots of our previous days in the saddle. Keith Swenson, a taciturn, the 64 year-old owner of Stone Horse Expeditions along with his wife Sabine Schmidt, showed none of the wear I felt – my skin of my thighs were quite literally raw after 50 kilometers of riding and trotting in the wilderness. After a few days Keith opened up with wisecracks. “People ask what do you do, and I say I’m a rider”, says Keith, punning on his American accent. “They think I mean ‘writer’, “and they ask, what have you written?” “So I say, Blackie, Brownie, Ol Dirty Face…”, naming his horses.

These lands, however remote, are important.

Halfway up the trail was a shaman’s totem, poles placed on the ground to make a conical structure, wrapped with bits of fabric and ribbons. But at the base, and near a tree, we also found broken shards of glass, vodka bottles drunk and thrown by unknown travelers who no longer respected their old ways. We’d been riding for an hour or so and we stopped for a short break in the little opening in the forest. It was quite warm in the strong sun, perhaps 30C like every day of the summer, but cold at nights, often dipping below freezing.

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These Mongolian horses play a huge role in making a trip across the steppe easy and fun for riders. Each horse has a unique personality. Big Dirty Face pictured here loves coffee and will drink it straight from your cup if you let him.

The Mongols invented the modern world*

The old ways are important. These lands, however remote, are important. The Mongols invented the modern world*. When, at the age of 55, Genghis Khan rode out into Asia and Europe, he created the largest empire known to humanity, as well as its first international postal system, and the largest free-flowing network of ideas, trade and culture. But today, Mongolia feels relatively isolated and far away, landlocked in the Eurasian continent. And getting there turned out to be a greater adventure than we’d expected. Instead of flying, we took the famous Trans-Mongolian from Beijing to Ulan Bator. At 11pm, the train pulled into the last station on the China-Mongolia border to change the undercarriage (the railway gauge is different in Mongolia). Three hours later we got back on the train and waited patiently for the Chinese guards to hand us all our passports back. Our intern’s passport was returned ripped from its cover. Before anyone could make a move, the train entered Mongolia… where the Mongolian border guard insisted that the 18-year old girl get off the train because she wasn’t allowed to enter on an invalid passport. Twenty minutes of arguing later, at nearly three am, we got off and watched the train leave without us.

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Mongolian cuisine is typically meat and dairy products. Vegans beware.

Fifteen hours later, after many phone calls and emails to various embassies and important officials, she was finally allowed to enter the country. The Trans-Mongolian having long gone, we finagled an eight-hour taxi ride across the great steppes (on a second-hand car coming off a goods train) for $45. Welcome to Mongolia.

REAL MEN TROT

I did not have much riding experience, but I usually don’t let a little thing like that deter me from a trip. Keith, once also a climber, agreed that anyone up for adventure would be perfectly fine on a Mongolian horse. They were sturdy and forgiving. We all gathered at their staging camp an hour’s drive from Ulan Bator – a Singaporean couple on their second trip with Stone Horse, their friend from Hong Kong, a French diplomat from Swaziland, our team of three, Keith, Sabine and their crew – Nyamaa, Buyana and Jackson, the American intern. Soon, our team of 16 horses and Stinky the Mongolian Dog, a most genuine companion if there ever was one, were off towards the north. Day one went reasonably well, with a short four hour ride to our first campsite inside the Gorkhi Terelj National Park. The other experienced riders asked me various questions about how I felt and whether my horse had cantered or galloped, and I said I didn’t know, but the horse seemed to know what it was doing. Apparently, they have many gaits.

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Nomads Yadmaa and Tavaasurn inside their summer ger, just outside Gorkhi Terelj.

I learned what that meant the next day.

The morning begins easily and we move along a gentle valley. At a stream, the horses bend to drink. They’re herd animals, comfortable only in their own numbers. Suddenly, there’s a commotion as one of the pack horses spooks and bolts. We’re unprepared, and good old Jerry decides to follow the bolting horse too, suddenly turning 180 degrees and galloping wildly. I have to pull firmly on the reins to stop him, while the teamsters have to get the other fella back. He’s bucking around wildly, his unshod feet stamping, his grass-eating brain telling him that that bee sting he felt on his hind was a wolf’s nip. Stinky ignores the commotion, running ahead happily back in his favorite hunting grounds, chasing ground squirrels to their holes. We continue, entering a forest and then riding uphill to a pass. On the other side, a wide open valley, and our first real gallop. Now I feel the sensation, riding with the animal as one, gently cycling my feet in the stirrups and gripping with my knees, all of it coming naturally to me and I urge Jerry on, on, on. Chhoo, Jerry, Chhoo! We stop at a babbling brook in the valley below where we wash our faces. Are we in paradise?

And then the long trot begins. For a horse, it’s the most comfortable way to move. But it’s bouncy. I try to “post” like all the real riders. Watching me grimace in agony, Keith smiled and said, “real men trot,” as he rode along comfortably with that rolling ankle movement to compensate for the horse’s bumpy ride. “Trotting is how the Mongols moved such vast distances. If you make him gallop, you won’t get very far, you’ll kill the horse”.

a melting pot of humanity and ethnicities

But Mongolia changed the course of human history since long before the great Khan and his riders, the ultimate, self-sufficient soldiers. Apart from the Mongols, it is also the original homeland of the Huns and the Turks. It is a melting pot of humanity and ethnicities, where thousands of years ago two language families met and separated – the Indo-Europeans and the Altaics – and possibly where the wild horse was first tamed, thereby changing the course of history. When men on horses first raced out of Central Asia, first ancient Mesopotamia, then Egypt fell. Europe’s original ‘mother culture’ and India’s Harappan civilization disappeared. Humans, moving incredible distances on horses, spread across Asia, from the western end of Europe to Korea, all the way down to Arabia and India, creating nearly all the cultures we know today. Some of the languages they spoke evolved today into English, and others evolved into Japanese, but some of their words have become so intermingled that it’s hard to distinguish which came from which. Hindi is an Indo-European language, but today the common Hindi word for “home” is “ghar” (from the Sanskrit “grhá”) which is nearly identical to the Altaic Mongolian’s word for home, ger.

When the Hunnu (“Huns”) fought the Chinese Hans, the clans that lost fled towards Europe, creating Hungary, as well as leading to the downfall of the Western Roman Empire. Centuries later, the Turkics originally from the Mongolian steppes came hurtling into Constantinople, wiping out the Eastern Roman Empire.

We ride through rocky hills and rock formations, up and down defiles, over passes and across shallow streams, through meadows of flowers and knee-high grass. We ride all day, and every evening set up our traveling camp like the Mongols of old. We sleep in modern-day lightweight tents, under trees or under the stars, breathing cold clear air, drinking from fresh rain-fed streams, eating atop rocks while falcons circle above and the horses graze.

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The Stone Horse team from left to right – Jackson, Keith, Buyana, Nyamaa and Sabine.

The world has continued to change, but horses and men will forever ride together.

One day we stretched out the ride to reach a farther campsite, a Hunnu gravesite. We set up our tents atop 2000-year old graves, low mounds of stones marking the places where men, women, children and horses were laid to rest. “I believe that these people would have loved us to be here, living like they did,” said Keith. When they hear our horses, they’ll feel alive”. The next morning, I pulled my horse off to a side and to a vantage point to shoot the group riding further down the valley. Jerry stomped and neighed angrily as the herd passed him by, but I held him back. When the group disappeared into the distance, I quickly packed my camera gear back into the saddlebags. Then jumping back on, I let the horse fly as he wished, back to his herd. Jerry, the funny but tough little horse, galloped madly a mile north over the gently rising slope. Our hooves rang out in the valley, as two large round mounds, Hun graves, emerged in front on the mountainside. Neither Jerry nor I needed to veer, and we galloped directly over the centre of the mounds, the sound of our hoofbeats gladdening passed Hunnu souls. Their ancestors, our ancestors, had once tamed wild horses, and together changed the world. The world has continued to change, but horses and men will forever ride together.

Images by Madhuri chowdhury.

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