As a kid, I remember gazing longingly out the car window as birds flew overhead, wishing I could fly. I think we all had that dream. Once I strapped a sort of pillow-wing system to my arms before barreling head-first off the top bunk—only to have gravity issue a polite reminder of its existence. It’s a captivating thought, after all; the freedom to soar above everything. I think that freedom is what inspired so many of my friends to go skydiving for special events like birthdays, but for me, my face meeting my bedroom floor after the pillow-wing incident left me afraid to even approach a viewing deck. For most of my life I assumed a fear of heights was natural—until I met Matt Gerdes.
“A friend of mine showed me a paper photo . . . of a guy in Northern California, a guy named Frank Gambalie, wearing a parachute, jumping through the steel on this bridge. I was just like, ‘That’s possible?’” Matt laughs, continuing, “ . . . it was the first time I realized you could do something like this, and the moment I saw that photo I was like, ‘Ah! That’s for me. That’s my sport.’” For someone who eventually progressed to wingsuit flying and wingsuit BASE jumping (an acronym for building, antenna, span and earth—all things one can jump off), it shouldn’t be too surprising. While most of us would’ve looked at that photo of Gambalie with a mixture of fear and disbelief, Matt felt excitement. But he isn’t some lunatic throwing himself off mountains, though some may argue otherwise. In fact, he’s quite the opposite.
Like most outdoor extremists, Matt’s adrenaline-pumping activities started at a young age—albeit ones a lot less intense than his BASE jumps of today. Rock climbing, which involves scouting locations, researching routes and a good deal of material preparation, was sort of a natural starting point. Just as Matt describes many aspects of his life, “it’s a progression.” He didn’t wake up one day and start flying in wingsuits, full-body, aerodynamic suits that allow one to actually glide through the air while descending from a tall jump. In fact, “when you first begin something like this . . . you don’t really know what all is possible, or what opportunities there will be,” Matt clarifies.
While the progression may seem a bit aggressive, skydiving was the natural course he had to take to achieve his BASE jumping dreams. There are suggested guidelines for the level of experience one should have before being allowed to BASE, much less pilot a wingsuit. When Matt first saw some of his buddies wingsuit fly, “it looked fun,” he recalls, “but it looked complicated and so much gnarlier than normal BASE jumping that it was kind of back-burnered for me. It took me a few years to get to that point.”
As you might expect, the sort of person looking to do BASE or wingsuit piloting often doesn’t follow rules or guidelines to the letter. “I didn’t have a ton of skydiving experience before I started BASE jumping,” Matt admits, “which is not exactly the right way to do it. So I definitely had my hands full with my early BASE progression.” This isn’t to say jumpers don’t quickly come to appreciate the delicacy of their craft. Though Matt smiles slightly as he thinks back on his early advances in the sport, his face reveals a quiet reserve; he seems happy with his accomplishments, but perhaps equally perturbed by the risks he took.
Considering Matt may be one of the most meticulous people I’ve met, you can see why he’s concerned with the rapid progression of many of today’s jumpers. “We’re seeing people push much harder today. There’s a lot less training and forethought and obsession, and a lot more assumption,” explains Matt. I’ve watched countless hours of BASE and wingsuit videos with no desire to replicate the act, yet I can only imagine what the footage does to a novice athlete hungry for more experience.
The difficulty of BASE jumping, coupled with the risks inherent to the sport, often forces pilots to retire—or risk the inevitable. At this point, Matt is considered ‘old’ amongst many of the star pilots today. In fact, many don’t recognize him as much of a pilot anymore, despite flying weekly and having podiumed several competitions. You could say he even mellowed out a bit. “That’s what happens when you get older, right?” he jokes. Having aligned himself with the equipment manufacturing and modification side of the industry, Matt seems to have found a niche that hosts his passion for the sport and champions safety for the pilots.
Squirrel, a wingsuit and BASE supply company, was founded to create “the most advanced wingsuits and freefall equipment in the world,” as per their website. Matt, a Squirrel co-founder, has taken the daring role of Chief Test Pilot and wingsuit co-designer. That means every suit sold by Squirrel, including those worn by podium winners, has been made according to the ratios, statistics and results of Matt’s flights. He’s felt the weight of his decisions before, with each and every jump; he now designs equipment that acts as the only separation between jumpers and the earth itself. After meeting Matt, who has lost friends and colleagues to the sport, it’s clear he understands the gravity of his position, and aims to make BASE as safe as it can possibly be.
Read More Articles from the October DOPE “Active Issue”