Skiing the Deadliest Mountains
Matthias Giraud strapped on a parachute and pioneered a new sport: Ski BASE jumping.
“Everybody wants to feel,” says Matthias Giraud, a professional big mountain skier and BASE jumper, whose typical "day at the office" entails leaping from gut-wrenching heights and dodging avalanches. “Some choose to feel in a detrimental way by experiencing with drugs. Others choose to feel in a constructive way by being true and honest to themselves and deciding to follow their heart and passion,” he adds. For someone who has been skiing for 26 years, skydiving for five years and BASE jumping for four years while growing up in the Megeve area of the French Alps, Giraud’s journey into the adrenaline soaked world of big mountain skiing and BASE jumping began at an early age. “My father did about a hundred jumps during his military service and hearing his stories as a kid always triggered my interest,” he says. “I generally present myself as a professional big mountain skier and BASE jumper, but over the last few years, I have made a name for myself through what I call ‘parachute assisted big mountain skiing’ or ‘ski BASE’ jumping. It’s the combination of big mountain skiing and BASE jumping,” he explains. “The parachute is more a tool to ski mountains that would not be skiable or survivable otherwise.” He often compares his sport to big wave surfing. “[Big wave] surfers use jet-skis to tow themselves into waves so big that they couldn’t catch them by paddling. I use a parachute to be able to ski closed out lines that dead end on cliffs so big that you couldn’t survive the jump without a parachute.” Giraud first adopted BASE jumping after moving to Durango, Colorado in 2004 when he came across a peak called Engineer Mountain. After surveying the massive mountain, he knew he would need a parachute to ski it properly. “It was the perfect opportunity to pick up BASE jumping, which I wanted to do since I was nine years old after watching a movie called Pushing The Limits.” Giraud describes his sessions as an “increasing rush” until you are actually in the air. “It is a very intense process and the night before generally involves a lot of tossing and turning and not much sleep!” He continues, “The whole approach or climb helps you get in the zone but once you are on top of the peak and start doing a gear check and gearing up, you start getting pretty nervous.” He claims that once the descent has started is when “you find the balance between fear and happiness.”
It wouldn’t be of much surprise to know this community is very small. Aside from the skills required and nature of the sport, he adds, “Only so many BASE jumpers have the skills to ski exposed lines and there are only a few skiers that can BASE jump. Add to it, the willingness to ski to the point of no return and you get a pretty small community.” Giraud estimates that there are less than 20 or 30 ski BASE jumpers in the world compared to the millions of skiers and about 5,000 BASE jumpers. “I like to explore the opposite by skiing a full face, pedal to the floor for at least a thousand feet before catching air off a huge cliff. This is why I call what I do big mountain ski BASE jumping instead of ski BASE jumping.” Adrenaline rushes are rarely unaccompanied by risks. Giraud has had a few close calls, one in particular while skiing off the Matterhorn in Zermatt, Switzerland. “We had a very short window with the weather, so we had to take a helicopter. Once I got up there, the face was very rocky but skiable. There were so many hazards everywhere, it required a lot of focus,” he remembers. When on the run and preparing to go airborne, his right ski caught a hidden rock. “The impact was so strong that my ski came off. The inertia threw me forward so I had to try to control the motion by throwing a big front flip into the north face of the Matterhorn.” As he scrambled to recover from the flawed start, he recalls being able to pull his parachute and not get caught in the lines. “I had a bunch of line twists to clear, but luckily I was flying away from the wall and not into the face.” Looking back on the experience, Giraud says, “It was a beautiful day on one of the most beautiful mountains in the world that ended up turning into a full survival mission.”