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The mountains are calling and I must go, and I will work on while I can, studying incessantly.

- John Muir


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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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Adventurers & Explorers

Jun 06, 2018

Breaking Stereotypes: Meet India’s Action Heroes

The origins of Rushes dates back to two years ago when the format was conceptualised to throw light on the adventure lifestyle community within India.

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WRITTEN BY

The Outdoor Journal

TheVibe Originals presented the opportunity to articulate this lifestyle. Since then, a very compelling series has come about which explores the backstories of a few handpicked extreme sports athletes who pursue their respective rushes.

Produced in association with Mercedes-Benz India, Rushes breaks stereotypes by bringing India’s action heroes in all their authenticity via a branded content series as opposed to having it celebrity-endorsed.

The Outdoor Journal is introducing the following Indian extreme sports athletes as a sampling of exciting talent that will soon arise from the high-potential region in the future.

Kiteboarding in Tuticorin with Arjun Motha and Jehan Driver

What makes Tuticorin an important place of interest with regards to kiteboarding?

AM: The wind has brought people to Tuticorin for centuries in search of spices and pearls. The wind blows here for 300 days. The town is located in between India and Sri Lanka. Tuticorin is in the heart of Gulf of Mannar and had served as a natural port and a safe haven with its bays and safe seas. It has flat lagoons, waves, coral reefs, marine life and most importantly amazing wind for kite surfers and sailors. Making it an ideal spot for wind worshippers. Tuticorin is one of the spots in south-east Asia to have wind throughout the year drawing the attention of many kiters here.

What do you think of the current state of adventure sports here in India?

AM: India is only scratching the surface of the global adventure scene. There is so much raw potential and talent here. There’s so much natural diversity geographically in our country and when coupled with human skills and raw talent, the growth could be explosive. This is only the beginning stages in the birth of adventure sports in India. Nevertheless, it is guaranteed to be growing rapidly and being recognised globally for its potential. India has many undiscovered athletes and raw talent pushing limits and finding their rushes. India will soon be one of the top destinations for adventure and water sports churning out top athletes.

What makes Rameswaram an important place of interest with regards to kiteboarding?

JD: After touring the entire coastline of India we found this piece of paradise! One of the only places where we receive both the North East & South West trade winds where the peninsula allows for ideal conditions for Kiteboarding. With around 300 days of wind to play with we decided to live here & call it home. Flat water lagoons, reef breaks and isolated beaches make the region an awesome learning ground for beginners as well as experienced riders.

What do you think of the current state of adventure sports here in India?

JD: It’s like a bunch of clouds floating around that never met, any guesses to what happens when they do? The scene of adventure sports has always been well developed in India and it is still growing. Thanks to social media the awareness is spreading and acceptance is also growing at a rapid pace.There was a time we had to import physical maps to navigate our own backyard but now with Google earth the world is a different place. We never knew if there were more slackliners in the country but through social media the community connects. Similarly there are more kiteboarders/mountain bikers/surfers, etc in India than we know of.

Follow Arjun Motha on Instagram

Follow Jehan Driver on Instagram and Twitter

Extreme Kayaking in Rishikesh with Bhupendra Singh Rana

“Extreme kayaking doesn’t show any mercy and has next to no room for an error.”

What makes Rishikesh an important place of interest with regards to extreme kayaking?

Rishikesh is my hometown and the river Ganges is my playground. This is where I started my kayaking career which to me is a good enough reason for me to call Rishikesh a very special place! Rishikesh is also the hub of extreme sports (known as the yoga and adventure capital of India) and kayaking was born on the river Ganges back in the early 80’s. Rishikesh is the place where the river Ganges comes out of the Himalayas (higher ground to the plain ground). Rishikesh has the best river sections where you can get into kayaking while providing a platform to step up your game to extreme kayaking. Heading upstream to the river Ganges valley there are endless rivers from high volume to steep creeks and even waterfalls. The overall experience in Rishikesh is very fulfilling. Enjoying a cup of chai while watching the sunset over the Ganges is unreal. Also, interacting with the very friendly local river community makes Rishikesh a very special place for me!

What do you think of the current state of adventure sports here in India?

As I said Rishikesh is the adventure capital of India so I can not think of any other state other than my home state Uttarakhand. Uttarakhand is the best mix of a calm lifestyle – you can practice yoga to extreme sports such as mountain climbing or downhill extreme kayaking. Uttarakhand is one of those states where you can do adventure activities year around while other states might be available for few months out of a year.

I love extreme kayaking but I’m also well aware of what it takes to be a pro. I keep fit, educate myself on the areas, rivers, advanced rescue training, advance medical training etc.

  1. I’m a certified Yoga instructor who has taught yoga classes in India, Norway and Africa.
  2. I’m a nationally certified Emergency Medical Technician (EMT).
  3. I’m a Trained Wilderness First Responder

Education is the key. The majority of our local kayakers are getting into the sports at an early age but compromising their academic education. Not many people know that I’ve earned my degree in English literature, Indian and world history and political science.

My main goal is to pass a positive message to the community to know what it takes to be a pro at any sport especially rivers. Water is nature’s most dynamic and powerful element. Extreme kayaking doesn’t show any mercy and has next to no room for an error.

Wingsuit flying in Jaisalmer with Udit Thapar

What makes Jaisalmer an important place of interest with regards to Wingsuit diving?

While flying over the desert in Jaisalmer, there is a unique view. The desert seamlessly merged into the sky at the horizon. The light during sunsets is amazing. It’s a feeling you can’t get anywhere else.

What do you think of the current state of adventure sports here in India?

Adventure sports are on the rise as a whole. People are travelling for adventure. The Indian people have an appetite for adventure that is only going to grow. We are not just opening doors in the field of adventure but also slowly conquering the scene.

Follow Udit on Instagram and Twitter

Downhill Biking in Valparai with Vinay Menon

“Coming up-close with wild elephants and bison on the ride was the masala in my tea!”

What makes Valparai a place of interest with regards to downhill biking?

I like to drink tea and to ride dirt. Valparai has both! Perfect to get Dirt-tea down the hill! Good trails everywhere with tea plantations touching the horizon, Valparai will wake you right up for your ride! Coming up-close with wild elephants and bison on the ride was the masala in my tea!

The vast number of trails streaming down the hillsides of Valparai will give you unlimited descending options.

What do you think of the current state of adventure sports here in India?

Current state of adventure sports in India? It’s spreading like wild fire! With its growing number of athletes, equipment availability and a more accepting population, adventure sports is gaining popularity in India, I feel.  With exposure to the international scene through various mediums such as social media, an enthusiast can follow and practice adventure sports easier than before.

Follow Vinay on Instagram and Twitter

Underwater Photography in the Andamans with Sumer Verma

What makes the Andamans an important place of interest with regards to Underwater Photography?

The two best destinations in India for underwater photography and scuba diving are the Andaman Islands and the Lakshwadeep Islands. Lakshwadeep have natural coral reef islands, and the Andamans volcanic ones. Both are at a large distance from the mainland country, are relatively unpolluted and have clear waters. The unique geological conditions, clarity of water and relative remoteness make it a perfect destination for scuba diving and underwater photography.

What do you think of the current state of adventure sports here in India?

India is a growing market and the potential is encouraging. Thanks to social media and emerging communication, there is far greater exposure to sports. Skydiving, MTB, whitewater rafting, kayaking, slacklining and fly fishing are all finding an audience. These also offer an opportunity to the youth to pursue them with greater earnestness, and they are interested. A decade strong platform has now been established and thanks to our diverse topographies — a lot can be done. We need further administrative support and inclusion of these sports for a bigger impetus.

Follow Sumer on Instagram and Twitter

Slacklining in Bhedaghat with Samar Farooqui

What makes Bhedaghat an important place of interest with regards to slacklining?

The geographical features make the place unique. The Jabalpur marble rocks are iconic and epic. The features, the landscape and the water allow the huge potential for some really fun and epic lines.

What do you think of the current state of adventure sports here in India?

India, with regards to Adventure sports, is at a potential turning point. So far we’ve been really behind in Adventure sports here in India. With regards to skills, safety measures and equipment. It is not easy to find high-quality gear in India, so that usually has to be imported. Our import duties are ridiculously high. This high import duty is making it hard to practice safe adventure sport in India.

Most of the adventurers are using outdated gear in India. Stuff that was being used a decade ago in the west is our current standard. Very few actually bother to go out and stay current with the new equipment that comes to the market. I think we’re at a good point, to begin with, but plenty of work still needs to be done. We need more support from the laws and the lawmakers, we need more support from corporations and philanthropists.

Follow Samar on Instagram and Twitter.

On the project as a whole, Asad Abid, Executive Producer, The Vibe Originals said “We hope more progressive mainstream brands take a lead from a brand such as Mercedes-Benz, to reach out to TheVibe community and makes our formats and community stronger. We hope to make further seasons in the future.”

Follow Asad on Instagram and Twitter

Speaking of the initiative Michael Jopp, VP, Sales and Marketing, Mercedes-Benz said, “India is a country of diversity not only in the form of different landscapes that you can visit across the country but also from the varied pool of talent that it houses. Our association with TheVibe and creating Rushes was with the idea of celebrating these beautiful people and places of India. The content features a very emotional story wherein passion and dedication of these local heroes are showcased with their abundant talent and vigour towards one dedicated adventure sport. The same passion and dedication is what we strive to put in our cars and give our best to the customers.”

Footage Courtesy is provided to TheVibe.

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