TO LIVE HARD AND DIE LAUGHING
Matthias Giraud is going 50 miles an hour when he slams into the rock spire that juts out from the Pointe d’Areu; a peak just northwest of Mont Blanc. An impact at such speed, even within the protection of modern cars, is invariably catastrophic and likely fatal. Hanging from his parachute like a puppet attached to strings, Giraud has no such protection. He stops moving the instant his body makes contact with the rock, and free fall is interrupted only when his parachute fills with enough thin air to pull him from his spiral; the reprieve is short lived; soon his unprotected body is rocketed back into the granite.
Moments before Giraud intentionally jettisoned himself into 400 feet of open air equipped with skis and a parachute, he looked into the lens of his action cam, and his sunburnt features were made more clear. With the sun behind his left shoulder, messy brown hair paraded down his face, and a tuft on his forehead blew in the wind. He spoke into the camera with calmness marinated in hinted anxiety.
“You have one life, live your dream, and go broke. That’s the way to go, let’s do it. Have a good time… see you guys at the bottom.”
His limp body slams into the spire four times before he breaks free from the vicious cycle. Finally, the parachute finds the unobstructed air of the valley, and he slowly drifts through scattered clouds as blood leaks into his brain.
Twenty minutes later Giraud is evacuated by helicopter to a hospital where he lies for three days. Deep in a coma with a shattered femur and blood leaking into his brain, it is unclear if he will survive.
Then he wakes up.
His wife is in labor with their first child.
BASE jumping is exceptionally dangerous. Statistics give you a 1 in 60 chance of dying from the activity. To compare, your chances of dying whilst riding a motorcycle sit at a comparatively dull 1 in 770. Matthias Giraud, complicating the matter by being a professional ski-BASE jumper, brings that one in sixty chance of dying down to something even more clench worthy. When asked how many of his friends and acquaintances have passed away base jumping, Giraud puts the number in the high fifties. It seems to give him little pause.
On June 24th, 2019, six years after his near-fatal accident, Giraud became the first person to complete a ski-BASE jump off the summit of Mont Blanc. In doing so, he also became the first person to ski-BASE the famous Eiger-Matterhorn-Mont Blanc alpinist trilogy. After the news had circulated of his accomplishment, Giraud posted an instagram with an image of himself after the jump. Giraud described how he “went from feeling like I was going to throw up at any moment, to accepting my place in the mountains, to having a huge feeling of accomplishment.” I was curious, what does it mean for someone to accept their place in the mountains?
One of the first things you notice after speaking with Giraud for a short while is how often he breaks into a light-hearted and enthusiastic laughter. It’s the sort of laughter that acts to diminish the gravity of his words and prevents the listener from being sucked into a kind of existential chasm. A charismatic and playful feature, it allows Giraud to laugh at death as he explains that his profession is “a recipe for doom and despair, and the death of your mind and the individual.”
The other striking aspect about Giraud is how simple questions lead to big answers. In a sport where athletes are so often categorized as thoughtlessly reckless, such contemplation is remarkably startling.
* * *
Giraud was, perhaps surprisingly, not born in the mountains. In a quirk of fate, he was instead born in the city of Evreux, France; a town far from the scraping peaks of the Western Alps. Regardless, his family would take vacations to the mountains, and in the high peaks of the Alps, Giraud found an escape from the highly regimented and constrictive pressure of the French school system. It was there that he would find his idols. He speaks with boyish wonder about the French mountain guides of lore; the likes of Sylvain Saudan and Laurent Bouquet. To him, they represented the pinnacle of manhood; the very grasping of life in one’s hands and refusing to let go, regardless of how badly it can scare you.
“Seeing the images of all of these men, pretty much putting it all on the line. In a very thorough and professional manner. These guys were grown men. They were adults, they had facial hair. And they had made a career in the mountains. It wasn't even a question on money. It was a question of life direction. These guys assumed the risk 100% that they accepted during their lives in creating themselves. And being in charge of their existence in the mountains while still accepting that the mountains can do whatever they wanted with them. The mountains can do what they please with you. It was the first time I saw men fully accepting the good and the bad of their actions and taking responsibility for it,” Giraud says.
And, though he may not have been skiing off mountains just yet, he learned to take responsibility for hard decisions early in life.
Giraud shares a story from his boyhood. He recalls when he was six years old, standing atop a thirty-foot high dive while on a school trip to a local swimming pool. To his left, teachers screeched “NO! NO! Don’t jump!” while they flung their arms around in wild, erratic circles. To his right, a young man working as a swim instructor flashed him an eager smile and a big thumbs up. He knew he would be reprimanded if he jumped. Teachers would call the act stupid and dangerous. Afterwards, his parents would be called; told of his reckless stunt and thoughtless behavior.
But, minutes earlier, and with the guidance of the swim instructor, Giraud had tried the lower diving board for the first time. It was frightening at first, and he had landed awkwardly, but after a few more attempts he had learned to hit the water perfectly. It was time for the next step. So, he stood suspended over his naysayers and contemplated his choices. Then, he looked into the emptiness below and unknowingly jumped into the rest of his life.
* * *
In 2010, some days after he first ski-BASEd the Eiger, Giraud was driving through the night on his way back home to Chamonix when he crested the top of a mountain pass. As the mountains came into view and a full moon shimmered over the evanescent white of Mont Blanc, Giraud knew exactly what was next for him. And it wasn’t Mont Blanc. Not yet. Instead, Matthias had an epic trilogy in mind. The big three: the Eiger, Matterhorn, and Mont Blanc. With the Eiger complete, the next step was obvious: the Matterhorn. Soon enough, less than a year after Giraud’s plan materialized above the glimmering heights of Mont Blanc, Giraud found himself being lowered onto the top of the Matterhorn by a helicopter. In typical fashion, Giraud pointed his skis towards the north face of the infamous mountain and straight-lined off the peak. The jump was, in Giraud’s words “a shitshow.” Seconds before he skied off the face, Matthias clipped a rock and the impact knocked off a ski while sending him into an uncontrolled front flip. When he managed to pull the cord on his parachute, his wild pirouette left the lines tangled, and he was forced to take drastic measures to recover. By the time he returned to the valley floor, he was feeling lucky. Really lucky. But, he was alive and unhurt, and there was only one more mountain left in the trilogy. He had only one thing to do next.
The weather above Mont Blanc is a fickle beast. The noble mass of ice and rock that straddles Italy, France, and Switzerland creates its own unpredictable weather patterns, and Giraud, requiring good climbing conditions as well as good flying conditions, was at the mercy of the mountain. With traditional weather reports inadequate given the precision required, Giraud soon developed a nontraditional form of weather reconnaissance: paragliders. With a network of friendly mountain guides living in the Chamonix area, Giraud employed his friends like human birdwatchers. Word of a paraglider rising from the valley to the peak of Mont Blanc signalled good air conditions for Giraud to jump. A lack-thereof signalled otherwise. No paragliders were able to make the journey for four years. And even if they had, Giraud would need a long enough window to book a flight to the Alps from his new home of Oregon. Every year Giraud trained, preparing mind and body for when the weather would eventually break in his favor. Finally, in September 2015, his patience paid off: paragliders dotted the skies. Spirits were high when he flew to Chamonix; the weather was holding and he was ready. Then, on the eve of what would be his landmark jump, he received a call with terrible news. One of Matthias’s closest friends, Erik Roner, had died. Roner, a member of the TGR family and an extreme sports legend in his own right, and had been influential in Giraud’s action sports journey.
“I got the call the night before climbing and I just wasn't ready mentally to go and do it. You know when you lose a friend jumping and it was right before doing such a demanding project I just didn't have it in me.”
The weather had been perfect, and Giraud was exactly where he needed to be, but he couldn’t go through with the jump. He used the time to do some scouting and then returned home. But, three years later when the paragliders returned, so would Giraud.
* * *
After keeping a watchful eye on the weather patterns during the winter of 2018/19, Giraud came to observe a cycle: two weeks of terrible weather would be followed by two weeks of bluebird skies. Yet, when May came around, what would have been Giraud's first opportunity for a legitimate weather window materialized as a month long snowstorm. No go. Still, Giraud was hopeful. Intuition told him that if May was a month of bad weather then June would come with clear skies. The days ticked down, and June arrived, but not with the untarnished open skies he had hoped for. Instead, the mornings would be clear, but by noon, storm systems would roll into the mountains. This, paired with unseasonably high temperatures, created doable, but fickle conditions. Determined to be ready when the skies inevitably cleared, on the 20th of June, Giraud flew to Chamonix and prepared to strike.
An opportunity presented itself soon after Giraud arrived in France. Reports showed a few days of good weather moving in on the 24th and 25th, right before a major heat wave was expected to hit. With everything in place, Giraud decided to do one last scouting mission via helicopter.
“From a helicopter everything looks flat because you look straight down. I landed back with the helicopter and we were going to head to the train and start climbing and I was nauseous. I wanted to throw up. I was like oh my god no it’s a lot lower than I remembered… at that altitude my parachute is going to open 30% slower because there’s 30% less oxygen and it’s going to warm up so my parachute is going to sink in a lot.”
After the reconnaissance, Matthias sat down with a childhood friend and mountain guide on Mont Blanc to try and calm his nerves. His friend reminded Giraud of one of his principals: don’t make a decision until you are at the top. Soon after, at 9:10 a.m., Giraud began making his way up the mountain with 45 pounds of climbing, skiing and BASE gear on his back.
“Climbing, I could start seeing the proportion of things around me. The rocks, the glaciers, the seracs. And as I started climbing literally that feeling of nausea just went away at every step… within an hour of climbing I felt so good... I'm not a religious person and all that stuff. But when you get in the mountains there is something that feels spiritual; you are connected with the mountain so much. The mountain has an aura and a force and immersing yourself in it is the only way to do a project like that.”
As he climbed, Giraud began to feel in touch with the mountain, and he was prepared for what would come next. After a night in the Dome Du Gouter refuge, Giraud awoke at 2 a.m for an alpine start and summited the mountain just under six hours later.
* * *
“These are the dumb motherf****ers who end up dying because they want to ‘push themselves’”
“What an idiot”
“Adrenaline Junkie. Death Wish.”
People who do extremely dangerous things are often categorized as reckless, or stupid. There is an implication that they do what they do because they do not comprehend the risk involved; as though they are too unintelligent or too naive to grasp the simple fact that what their actions are very likely to kill them.
But what if dying weren’t the worst thing that could happen to you? It is, in fact, an absolute and universal part of the human experience. You’re going to die, I’m going to die, and the people who write shitty comments about people on youtube are going to die. So, if the baseline of our lives—the thing that unites us all—is that we’re going to die, the logical evaluation of a person’s life lies not in how they die, but how they live. Giraud knows that he will die; do not expect him to read a comment on youtube informing him of his mortality, suddenly acknowledge his fragility and run terrified off the mountain to lock himself in the trappings of a nine to five office job. It is more likely he would do the opposite. To push higher, faster, farther. This is not because Giraud needs adrenaline to feel alive, or because he has some perverted death wish. It is because death is not his greatest enemy. In fact, it is the very presence of death that allows for risk. And for Giraud, risk is a powerful, shaping force.
“There is so much meaning to find in risk. It is not just a foolish act, it is a meaningful act. It’s the meaning of risk. Forcing yourself to ask why you’re doing it. When you’re doing something risky you have no choice but to be 100% dedicated to it. And that’s incredibly pure, incredibly beautiful, incredibly powerful, and it steers your whole life and is going to determine all of your choices. And then what it does in the end, risk forces you to live intentionally. If you don’t live with intention. What the fuck are you doing.”
* * *
Giraud’s son Sören is six years old now. He loves to skateboard and just dropped his first twelve foot quarter pipe. Every day he tells his dad he want to skateboard and ski for the rest of his life.
“That's beautiful because so many people are in search of meaning. In search of something. And if you have it inside of you then it's just a question of courage. Do you have the courage to commit to it or do you not have the courage to commit to it and then live a life of misery.” he says.
After an hour of rest and contemplation on the summit, Giraud prepared his gear, thought about his son, and asked himself a final question “was I still willing to pay the price for this?”
“Obviously I want to go home, I want to go back to my son, I want to be healthy, I want to live. But I also know that for any reason I didn’t have the courage to commit to it I would have lived a miserable rest of my life."
“The answer was.. yes.”
Then he skied into history.
Credit: Henri Marius