I'm sitting in the prettiest yard in the prettiest Valley with what might be the prettiest view in the world.
This Swiss postcard I've pulled up a lawn chair to enjoy is the front patio at Dan Vicary and Lisa Hutchins' house. Beers in their hands, matching dreadlocks on their heads and easygoing smiles on their faces, you'd never guess the extent of their power-couplehood: Dan, a breakout champion on the wingsuit BASE jumping competition circuit, and Lisa, a sagacious entrepreneur, have become beloved fixtures in the Lauterbrunnen Valley over the last two years. I'm lucky to call them friends.
From my recliner, I'm within view of several of the exit points in Stechelberg and the imposing waterfall that stands guard aside them. Beers in hand, we watch as the last of the afternoon loads jump against the background of rosy alpenglow splashing warmly across the alpine skyline. A helicopter slashes across the space between Trummelbach Falls and Mürren, carefully avoiding the path of a spiraling speedwing. The couple's dog, a floppy-eared ball of muscle named Chunk, joyfully careens his brindle body around the yard for no apparent reason. When the roar of the helicopter fades over the rise, the Valley sinks into a somnolent quiet broken only by Chunk's heavy gallops and the rushing of the next-door river.
From the bucolic setting, you'd never know there's a war on: a wingsuit brand war, and Dan is in the front lines. He's a test jumper for Squirrel, a wingsuit manufacturer that burst onto the scene just last year with a suite of groundbreaking riffs on the engineering theme. "I have five jumps on this suit and a few skydives," he tells me, "but they're already talking about making me a new, faster one."
Dan racks up a dizzying amount of freefall here. He has been jumping all day -- for Lauterbrunnen's tandem skydiving helicopter operation, for Squirrel tests, for wingsuit coaching and for fun -- and he's still bounding around the yard after Chunk. That's just the way he likes it, and that's why he's the man to watch in the wingsuit competition season that's unfolding around us: he's in it for the love of flight. The hard work energizes him.
The gold medals are a shiny bonus.
Dan Vicary started in the water before he ever took to the air.
An avid kayaker, he worked for a few years as a whitewater rafting guide in Scotland in his early 20's. "It was mostly taking boats full of English hen parties to scream it out for a couple of hours," he laughs. "It was good fun." In fact, it was in close proximity to the water that Vicary found an affinity for air. He started cliff jumping with some of the other guides, finding higher and higher launches from which to jump.
"The landings started to get painful," Vicary says, "But I liked the flying bit, and I liked the flippiedoos. I needed a better way to land."
A parachute was the clear answer. He went straight to the NZ Skydiving School, working skydiving as a means of getting into BASE. He was soon making a living throwing drogues at the Wollongong drop zone in Australia, racking up jump numbers and, as he puts it, "wingsuiting [his] face off."
In 2009, Dan took 9 months off. His mission: to go BASE jump. In crazy places.
The next week, he and a Mandarin-speaking friend were standing on a bridge with their rigs on. This would have been a very normal occurrence in the sport, but for two important factors. Firstly, they were standing on the railing of the tallest bridge in the entire world. Secondly, the two had taken public transportation into the back-of-beyond in rural China to get there. Now, the Ba Ling Bridge is well-known in BASE; at the moment, it was under construction by massive crews of Chinese villagers.
"The construction workers were losing their minds with excitement," Vicary remembers. "The bridge was enormous -- if we'd had to hike around and up, it would have taken forever, but someone always left the ground-level access door unbolted for us." He laughs. "They had the military come to stop us, eventually. We left. Then we came back again a week later and then smashed it for another three weeks."
"That bridge was where I did my first wingsuit BASE, in a little S-Fly." He grins wryly. "It was scary, doing it in the backwoods of China -- if you mess up, you don't want to be in those hospitals. It might be different now."
On Christmas morning, the two jumpers landed at the Tiankeng Cave. The enormous sinkhole -- the world's largest, in fact, at 680 meters deep and 626 meters wide -- was covered with a thick blanket of winter snow. A tightrope-walking stunt in the 1960s had left a cable strung all the way across the enormous cave mouth. The Red Bull Air Force had done a mission out to the cave for a summertime BASE jumping video they shot in 2008. They left their landing platform lying in broken pieces at the bottom of the sinkhole below the exit point.
"It was surreal," Dan remembers, "to be standing there. It was a hell of a jump."
Lisa Hutchins was working at the Wollongong drop zone when Vicary made his triumphant return. Lisa, a recent escapee from a high-pressure life owning several boutique shops in her home country of England, had missed Vicary the last time he'd been around.
"He was the new boy." She remembers, smiling wryly.
The two were together 24 hours later. Almost immediately, the couple bought a van and started traveling around Australia in it. Seven months after they met, they got married.
They ended up in England at the start of the summer in 2011.
"We bought an ancient car," Lisa remembers, "and we drove it to Brento for the Easter weekend boogie. We didn't think it'd make it. Honestly, we thought the wheels would fall off in France."
But it made it. In Brento, Dan and Lisa met some other jumpers who brought them to the Lauterbrunnen Valley, which neither had ever seen. The two crashed with Chris "Douggs" McDougall the first night they were there, and Douggs took Dan out for his first Valley jumps the next morning.
While he was out jumping on that first day, Lisa hung out on the couch at the Airtime Cafe: the Valley landmark which was soon to loom large in their lives. When Dan strolled up to meet her in the afternoon, he had surprising news: he had just landed a job as a tandem master at the helicopter drop zone based smack-dab in the middle of the Valley. They were staying.
Lisa accepted it with open arms. "We didn't know Switzerland yet," she remembers, "So I thought: we have no money, so we'll just be able to spend the summer here. Then summer was over and things were still great, so we thought: screw it, we might as well do a ski season."
While that ski season was on, the two started to notice a trend: the hundreds of BASE jumpers descending on the Valley had to have their friends bring in supplies. Other than a couple of general-inventory sporting-goods stores, there was no gear available in town, and certainly nothing BASE-specific. Lisa, with her experience owning high-end retail stores in England, immediately saw a niche -- something she could do to help. She and Dan talked to Airtime about setting up a little shop in a back room at the cafe, and Valley BASE Gear was born.
They never left.
"It was rough at the very beginning," Lisa says, "because we were a couple of complete unknowns in a very tight-knit sport, calling up the legends out of nowhere." She laughs. "Like rocking up to Jean-Noël [Itzstein] at Adrenalin Base and saying: Hi, I'm nobody you know but we want to open a shop, and we want to stock your stuff."
It probably owes to Lisa's infinite charm that the reception was totally awesome.
"Jean-Noël was really supportive," Lisa recalls. "He spoke to Robi [Pečnik, founder/owner of Phoenix Fly] about us -- said we had a good idea, and to help us. It took off quickly."
"We didn't want to go big. We didn't want a big off-the-shelf BASE supermarket. The idea was to do the little, important spare things that people need, and to build great relationships with manufacturers for the bigger-ticket gear that Valley natives need."
In the past year, that little shop in the back room of the Airtime Cafe has become a Valley institution. There always seem to be jumpers milling around, ogling the wares in the display case and reverently running fingers over the Squirrel suit on the shop mannequin.
"It has grown a bunch -- along with the sport of BASE jumping, really." Dan smiles proudly at Lisa. "It'll keep growing. Who knows what it'll be in a couple of years?"
"We do the VBG stuff for the love, really," Lisa adds. "More and more people seem to know about it and use it, but the idea is just doing something for the Valley, for the community, for BASE jumpers. And to just keep the Valley going, you know? We love this place."
Dan Vicary's career in wingsuit BASE competition started in the water, too.
"I was in the shower," Dan remembers, "And Lisa yelled in to me that she was booking me a ticket to the World Wingsuit Race in Brazil. I wasn't going to go, but she wouldn't have it. She just said, 'All your friends are going!' And she booked it anyway."
It was their first time in the country. Happily, the event coincided with the 2013 Carnaval celebration. They loved it -- the food; the music; the jumps. Dan had a great ramp-up to his first BASE jumping competition, nailing several other exits within driving distance of the course.
"I got to jump Gavea, which was amazing -- four-second rock drop, right in the heart of Rio." Vicary waxes nostalgic. "It's a Via-Ferrata-style jump, but Brazil makes it intense. You're basically jumping over this enormous favela, and as you're in free fall you can hearing gunfire and dogs barking and screaming. I was the first Kiwi ever to jump it. I think maybe 20 people have jumped it, ever." He wiggles his eyebrows. "You really don't want to have a mal over that."
When the competition started, there was still significant gnarliness in evidence. "The chopper pilot was taking off with people hanging out of the door," Vicary remembers. "[Fellow wingsuit pilot] Espen [Fadnes] and I -- we said, screw that. Let's get fit for the summer. Let's hike together. The weather was so hot, it felt insane to do the hike. We were the only two who didn't take the chopper -- except for the end, when the other competitors ran out of helicopter money. One of the other competitors ended up hiking naked to try to stay cool. I'm pretty sure it didn't work."
Dan won the top spot in accuracy, and second overall. That, of course, is a heckuva showing for a first competition.
Dan Vicary is not, by nature, a competitive guy. He's profoundly generous with his smiles, his counsel and his time. He's clever, but he's not conniving; he's driven, but charmingly self-effacing; he's focused, but not at the price of his friendships.
Clearly, exit-point posturing does not come naturally to him.
This doesn't work entirely to his advantage on the wingsuit racing circuit, as he discovered when he was qualifying for this year's Red Bull World Wingsuit League race, which will be held at China's Tianmen Mountain in October of this year.
"I actually only did three qualifying rounds for China instead of four," Dan says. "Because the competitive vibe was not fun. I kinda march away from the exit point when people start to get that look on their faces."
"It's amazing," he continues. "When I was in Brazil, I was on a lot of rotations that were perfect… but paired with the wrong guy, the vibe is completely different."
He qualified anyway, regardless of the missed round. The competition is stiff -- and the names are big -- but Dan can fly the hell out of a wingsuit.
I ask him if the exit-point trash-talking messes with him. Mustn't it?
"I just block them out and race the track," he replies. "It doesn't matter what the other guy is doing. I don't have to shout about it on Facebook. I just have fun and race."
The sun is going down over the alpine skyline, and the glow is fading from the snow-dusted summer mountainscape. The helicopter has landed, the last speedwing is on the ground and Chunk is lying in an exhausted pile at Dan's feet.
I take the opportunity of the lull to ask the obvious question: what's next?
What's next, apparently, is Skydive Verbier.
Dan and Lisa have recently secured the permits to operate a very boutique wintertime drop zone, specifically for helicopter tandem skydives, in the upper-crust ski resort that crowns Switzerland's Valais region. The calling card is luxury -- poshly outfitted helicopters, sparkly gear and hand-holding service -- and the tandem masters are name-brand: Dan, of course, and the legendary Chris "Douggs" McDougall.
"We decided on Verbier because friends who worked there suggested it'd be a smart move," Lisa explains. "The clientele is a match, and the helicopters are handy. When they're not in use, they just sit there on top of the mountain, waiting. It's common sense from a business perspective."
"I think it's ridiculous that skydiving DZs don't allow their staff to BASE jump during the high season," she goes on. "People like Dan and Douggs -- yes, they're tandem masters, but they're pro BASE jumpers and camera flyers and wingsuiters. They can't do a seven-day week hucking tandems. It's beyond that, though. We're innovating a way to help the public connect to the guys they idolize on YouTube -- making that hero experience part of tandem skydiving." She grins, watching Dan bound around the yard with Chunk. "Anyway, I'd want to do a tandem skydive with a famous BASE jumper who looks like he just stepped out of 'Point Break.' Wouldn't you?"
No disagreement here.
Skydive Verbier launches this winter, during the peak of the ski season. It'll operate 3 days a week during the trial phase. Dan and Lisa are certain it'll be a hit.
Vicary plunks down into the chair next to Lisa and smiles. "Basically, we just want to keep living this life." He pauses. "And that means staying here, in the Valley we love, and not working a normal job."