The Life and Death of Hervé le Gallou – The New York Times Magazine

A minute before he died, Hervé le Gallou stood at the edge of a cliff at Obiou, in the French Alps, with acres of thin air before him. The view that morning, June 23, 2012, was breathtaking: moonscape cliff faces, pocked with snow, that gave way to plateaus of pale grass and ashen rock, then to bottle-green pine forests in the valley below and to mountains beyond.

Le Gallou was wearing a wingsuit, a webbed all-in-one that has transformed base jumping — the sport in which you leap from a fixed object, like a bridge or a cliff — by allowing “pilots” to create long, glissando flights at speeds of 100 m.p.h. or more before pulling their parachutes. Le Gallou once told me that he started base jumping in an attempt to recreate a recurrent childhood dream, of “flying with my arms.” Wingsuits, he said, brought him “very close” to this fantasy. Whenever he stood at an exit point, the spot from which you jump, his overriding sensation was not terror but a supersensory alertness. It was the feeling of a fighter pilot rather than of a human cannonball.

“I know exactly what I’m doing,” he said. “I just go for pleasure. There is still some stress, some fear, because there is some danger. But I know exactly what I can do. I know where is my limit.”

At 51, Le Gallou was a veteran of thousands of base jumps. But he had never flown from the exit point at Obiou before. In order to execute his intended flight, he needed to guide himself away from the cliff face, and then sharply to the right, over a rocky outcrop. For an experienced pilot, this maneuver was relatively straightforward. The next period of the flight, however, was tricky. Le Gallou would need to glide over a long, moderately inclined plateau. In order to do so, it was imperative that he pay attention to what French wingsuit pilots call la finesse: the ratio of forward to downward movement. (To maximize lift and finesse, a pilot needs to find the perfect “angle of attack” — the best position of the wings in relation to the wind.)

If he couldn’t maintain an adequate glide in this part of the flight, he had an escape: he could pull his parachute and land on the plateau. This plan would work as long as he made the decision early enough. But if he bailed too late, he would crash before his chute could fill with air. The best case would be the simplest: to fly with “une bonne finesse,” continue over the inclined plateau and the pine trees and eventually pull his chute above the valley floor.

On the morning of June 23, the chances of a long, birdlike flight in perfect conditions seemed good. Nonetheless, dark thoughts may have assailed Le Gallou. He was fatigued, short on practice and unhappy with his equipment. The previous day, moreover, he received news that his mother was involved in a car accident in Paris, the latest in a string of misfortunes that had bedeviled his family in recent months.

Dave McDonnell, an English friend of Le Gallou’s, said that before he quit base jumping, he used to hear three distinct internal voices at the exit point, which he called “Yes,” “Fear” and “No.”

“If you’re all tuned in, there’s ‘Yes,’ ” he said. “On the mediocre days, there are two other voices­. One’s ‘Fear.’ Your body is screaming out at you, ‘Don’t do this,’ because it’s dangerous, unnatural. You’re there to conquer your fear. But there’s another voice that hangs around every now and again, and that’s called ‘No.’ Something’s not right. You can never put your finger on it — it could be something in your pack job, or the weather, or the people you’re jumping with, or your mind-set. It’s just, ‘Walk away, don’t go jumping today.’ The difficulty is trying to discern between ‘Fear’ and ‘No,’ because they’re both telling you the same thing. ‘No’ is your sixth sense that’s trying to save your life.”

Whatever voice Le Gallou heard that morning, he jumped.

Le Gallou was an unremarkable-looking man of medium height, with a slim physique, short brown hair and wide eyes. I met him only once: in January 2009, at a restaurant in Paris. A friend had told me about an astonishing coup that took place months earlier in Dubai, in which Le Gallou and McDonnell walked into the Burj Khalifa skyscraper, then under construction, disguised as engineers. They evaded security, climbed 155 floors on foot and then flung themselves from the top at dawn — thus becoming the first people to base-jump from the tallest building in the world. I wanted Le Gallou himself to tell me about the adventure.

He was a wonderful raconteur. At dinner, he recalled with amusement how he fashioned a fake ID that fooled the tower’s lackluster security. It read: “Hervé Le Gallou: Technicien de Base — Spécialiste des Ascenseurs de Descente Rapide” (“Base Technician — Specialist Fast Downward Moving Elevators”). Apparently, nobody asked him about his unusual job title, or why his identification was written in French.

He also described a vivid scene at the top of the Burj. Le Gallou explained that when he was in his late 40s, he began to suffer from night blindness. As a result, he preferred to wait until dawn to jump buildings he infiltrated in the dark. At the exit point, he and McDonnell watched the desert turn from blue to pink as day broke over Dubai. At that moment, Le Gallou later recalled, “you feel everything belongs to you.”

We spoke too of his other notable coups. In 2000, he and a friend, Benoît Paquet, scaled the exterior of the 88-story Jin Mao Tower in Shanghai in the middle of the night and jumped at dawn. By 2009, Le Gallou had also jumped from the Eiffel Tower 40 times. He had, he said, become the de facto “official guide” of the Parisian landmark for novice jumpers — the one who knew how to evade the cameras and guards.

These stories granted Le Gallou near-mythic status among European base jumpers. (After Dubai, his friends jokingly nicknamed him l’Aigle d’Arabie: the Eagle of Arabia.) For McDonnell, Le Gallou’s urban adventures were “the nearest thing you could get to being a master criminal, without getting into too much trouble.” Unless you were involved in base jumping, however, it’s very unlikely you would ever have heard of Le Gallou. In recent years, several base jumpers have gained a high public profile. Men like Jeb Corliss and Felix Baumgartner — the daredevil who sky-dived from the edge of space — have become YouTube stars, backed by brands like Red Bull. But Le Gallou was not after fame. He maintained a Web site, but it was rudimentary; he preferred to share stories face to face.

The sport he loved began in earnest in the late 1970s, when a group of American parachutists led by Carl Boenish started jumping El Capitan, above the Yosemite Valley, using regular sky-diving equipment. There had been similar jumps before — for movie stunts and one-off kicks — but it was Boenish and his gang who invented the term B.A.S.E. (for Building, Antenna, Span, Earth, four types of objects from which it is possible to jump).

It wasn’t until the 1980s and early 1990s that B.A.S.E. began to coalesce into a sport. Base specialists emerged in Europe and the United States, sharing expertise when they met. Today, despite a growing interest in base jumping, there are still only a few hundred regular jumpers in Europe and the U.S.

When Le Gallou made his first jump in 1994, only a few dozen people in France knew what base jumping was. He was already a proficient sky diver. Having bought a base rig and learned to pack from a video, he traveled to the Fades Viaduct near Clermont-Ferrand in southern France, steeled himself and jumped alone. The experience was a revelation.

“When you see the ground coming up very fast — it’s more like a suicide than a sport,” he told me. “I was almost sure that I was going to die, you know? Because it was so frightening. And when I jumped, I pulled. And then you have to wait for the opening of the canopy. And when you are waiting, the feeling is . . . I don’t know the word in English.Impuissant?”

Powerless. Le Gallou spent the rest of his life trying to take control of those heart-stopping milliseconds. In order to survive an intermittently illegal sport in which one mistake can be fatal, a jumper needs to be alert to myriad dangers. For a start, you carry only one parachute, rather than the two used in traditional sky diving. Not only must your chute be packed exactly right, it must also be pulled at the correct time, with enough distance between you, the object and the ground. Even when the canopy is released properly, a menu of potential problems awaits. If, for instance, you open “off-heading,” or less than straight, you can find yourself speeding back toward the cliff or building from which you just jumped. This outcome is known, in the macabre argot of the sport, as an “object strike.”

For these reasons, the sport has traditionally appealed as much to control freaks as to adrenaline junkies. Many European base jumpers of Le Gallou’s generation are middle-aged men and women (but mostly men) with solid professions: dentistry, engineering, I.T. and so on. Few seem to lead particularly risky lives. They view the sport as a private obsession, and publicity, especially for those in high-profile jobs, is to be avoided.

One of Le Gallou’s oldest jumping buddies, Joel Gerardin, said that for Le Gallou, the thrill of infiltrating a building, jumping it and escaping without notice was “indescribable.” He added: “I actually don’t know anyone else in Europe who gained such an experience in city jumps, ‘illegally,’ with no sponsorship, all around the world. Not for the image of himself, just for himself.”

On that June morning, four other jumpers were with Le Gallou at Obiou. Two were Americans who moved to France, partly to spend more time flying wingsuits in the Alps: Ellen Brennan, a 25-year-old nurse, and her partner, Laurent Frat, a 35-year-old news producer. The others were Raoul, a 38-year-old engineer and a friend of Le Gallou’s (who asked to be identified by only his nickname because it is not publicly known that he base-jumps); and Ludovic Woerth, a 32-year-old professional wingsuit pilot and a former employee at Adrenalin Base, a French base-equipment supplier. Le Gallou was wearing a wingsuit provided by Adrenalin Base and manufactured by a Croatian company, Phoenix-Fly.

Raoul jumped first, and then Woerth. Having completed their flights, they waited in the valley for the others. Le Gallou jumped third. His flight started well, according to Brennan and Frat. He banked high over the rocky outcrop and then dropped out of sight. The two Americans jumped fourth and fifth. When they landed in the valley, after flights of more than a minute, they asked about Le Gallou. Neither Raoul nor Woerth had seen him.

Le Gallou’s four fellow jumpers hoped their friend had pulled his parachute safely above the plateau. The whole flight path is not visible from either the valley or the exit point, and it was possible, they believed, that he could have landed unseen. After hiking for a while to get better phone reception, they tried to call Le Gallou. Nothing. Brennan remembers the group opening beers to celebrate their successful jumps while they waited for news.

“Just after like the first sip of beer maybe, we heard a helicopter coming over,” Brennan recalled. “And the helicopters never fly over there unless they’re doing a rescue or something. . . . The worst sound I’ve ever heard in my life was the sound of that helicopter coming.”

A passing hiker saw the fallen Le Gallou and called mountain rescue. Le Gallou had hit the plateau and died on impact, his canopy stretched out behind him. In the days that followed, three of the jumpers posted accounts on base Web sites, detailing what they thought went wrong with Le Gallou’s last flight. Frat wrote that “for reasons we can only speculate, he was unable to outfly the plateau.”

For Joumana Seif, Le Gallou’s former girlfriend, however, the accident could not be dismissed so easily. Seif, an elegant, 36-year-old orthodontist of French and Lebanese origin, lives in Geneva. She met Le Gallou through base jumping, and beginning in 2001, they had what she describes as an “intense” relationship. They split up in 2005 but remained close friends. When Le Gallou died, Seif organized several events in his memory, including a cremation in Grenoble, a Catholic Mass in Paris and a base-jumping memorial at his favorite spot at Cirque d’Archiane, in the Alps.

I spent two days with Seif in Paris last fall. As we talked about Le Gallou — Seif often pausing as she wept — she told me that two things bothered her about the accident. The first centered on the question of character. Le Gallou, she said, was a conservative base jumper. (This may appear a contradiction in terms, but as many of his friends confirmed recently, Le Gallou rarely pressed beyond his limits. Mavericks do not survive 18 years in a sport like base.) It seemed implausible to Seif that Le Gallou would have tried a risky line on his flight from Obiou. If he’d lost good finesse, she thinks he would have pulled above the plateau and lived to jump another day. To her, there was only one root cause for the accident: equipment trouble. The fact that his parachute was deployed when he crashed indicated some kind of delay in finding the handle for his pilot chute, the small canopy that precedes the larger parachute. (Failing to find the chute’s handle is known as a No Pull Find.) Once Le Gallou realized he was in trouble, Seif believes he lost precious fractions of seconds trying to deploy his pilot chute. By the time he did, it was too late.

Her second concern was Le Gallou’s helmet camera. It was his habit to record jumps. On the day he died, he wore a ContourHD camera attached to a rugby helmet. Grieving and searching for answers, Seif hunted feverishly for the device. But after the accident, the Contour camera was nowhere to be found. It was not among the personal effects collected by the police. Seif says she searched the crash site six times with a metal detector but found nothing.

None of Le Gallou’s fellow jumpers had an explanation for what happened to the device. Seif recalled that when she asked about the camera some days after the crash, one of the jumpers told her it was useless to look for it. “‘Maybe it’s in a million pieces,” he said. “Maybe a marmot took it.’ ”

Some weeks after the accident, however, the camera was discovered by the police 40 meters uphill from the crash site, near some flowers Seif had left. It seemed clear to her, though she had no proof, that the camera had later been moved or replaced. The police, who ruled Le Gallou’s death an accident, eventually found the HD card but said it was unreadable.

Seif remained dogged in her pursuit of what happened; she says she recently found a memory card at the site that she believes is Le Gallou’s. She is trying to retrieve the images from it. She contends there is “omertà” about a gear problem that may have led to Le Gallou’s accident. When I asked her why she thinks so, she produced a folder of documents that she gathered about the case. She also talked of her “intuition.”

Le Gallou’s life was consumed by flight, in both senses of the word. Raised in the 19th Arrondissement of Paris, he was the youngest of three boys. He was close to his mother, but he told friends his relationship with his father, a nuclear scientist, was more strained. A bright but rebellious teenager, Le Gallou did not attend university. “Instead of following his father, he started to do always the opposite,” Seif explained. “I don’t know why.”

After completing his national service, Le Gallou worked as a security guard, and then as the manager of a supermarket. In 1993, he became a train driver on the Métro. The job came with flexible working hours and allowed him to indulge in his extracurricular interests. As soon as he could, Le Gallou transferred to Line 6, an airy route that cuts through the heart of the city and that allowed him to see the Eiffel Tower — his favorite base-jumping object — several times a day. Base jumping, McDonnell said, enabled Le Gallou to fulfill his potential.

“The one big thing that I noticed was: Wow, what a mind he’s got!” McDonnell continued. “It was just impenetrable. It was a constant, flat line — calm, considered, calculated . . . on every jump. You just had this feeling of, when you were with him, everything was going to be all right. Not everybody’s got that. I was in the army. You can teach people to shout and bawl and be a leader, but you can’t teach ‘it’ — that X factor, that magic gene. You’re just born with it. He had it.”

These qualities were tested in Le Gallou’s final year. In 2011, one brother died, his elderly father’s health worsened and Le Gallou was increasingly bothered by a foot he broke years ago. He spent much of his free time in 2011 supporting his mother and jumped less often.

Many of Le Gallou’s friends note that he liked to have “simplicité” in his life. He was also very private. Le Gallou and Paquet were close friends, but when I asked Paquet where Le Gallou grew up, he didn’t know. He said, “It’s strange for me now, because I realize we never talked about his childhood.” John Halford, an English base-jumping friend, remembered that “although I knew him as well as I knew any of the base jumpers, I didn’t know a lot about his background. There was a little bit of a dark side to him.”

In his mid-40s, Le Gallou surprised many who knew him by training to become a hairdresser. Several of his female colleagues from the Métro say he was a wonderful coiffeur, who never charged for his services. Indeed, Seif said he hoped to quit the trains eventually and open his own salon. She also explained that although he was always successful with the opposite sex, he was happier dealing with what she opaquely termed “woman things.” She concluded by saying that Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side” was played at his memorial services in Grenoble and Paris.

When he stood at the exit point at Obiou, one concern may have nagged Le Gallou above all others: his “Venom” wingsuit. In recent years, the wing area of suits has increased greatly, in order to satisfy a desire for flights lasting a minute or more. The Venom is one of the largest suits that Phoenix-Fly offers, and Le Gallou struggled with it from the beginning.

He first started using a Venom in late 2011. A selection of e-mails between him and his friends, provided by Seif, confirms that he had trouble finding the handle on the pilot chute. In an e-mail exchange between Le Gallou and Raoul from December 2011, Le Gallou said he wished to sell his Venom, as he had problems with the “handle on the bottom of the bag” containing the chute. Raoul replied, saying he had tested the Venom and had a similar issue with the handle for the pilot chute. (Phoenix-Fly does not make the pilot chute or the container, worn on the back, in which it’s enclosed; these are made by several manufacturers and are sold separately. A larger wingsuit can, however, create problems for pilots. For instance, there is a greater area of turbulence — or “burble” — behind the flier, which can make it more difficult to deploy the parachute.) In March 2012, Le Gallou e-mailed another friend to say that he was interested in buying an X-Bird — a wingsuit by the rival American company, TonySuit.

If Le Gallou was not happy with his equipment, he nonetheless persisted with it. Seif said that he flew two Venom suits. One was blue, and another, which he was wearing when he died, was red, black and white.

Robert Pecnik, who owns Phoenix-Fly, said that Le Gallou tried out a Venom from Adrenalin Base, liked it and — on April 14, 2012 — bought his own version. With the new suit, Pecnik said, Le Gallou wore the pilot-chute container higher on his back. The adjustment did not go smoothly. Later that month, Le Gallou wrote to another friend to say that he had tested his new gear with three jumps from a plane over Dieppe. But, he complained, “the problem remains the same!”

“I find the handle,” he wrote, “but I still have the impression of having to twist like an earthworm to find it.”

Pecnik was adamant that the Venom was not at fault for the accident. It was, he said, too simplistic to blame a No Pull Find for the crash, as by the time Le Gallou tried to pull, he seemed to be in trouble. There were always a series of problems that occurred when an experienced jumper died. Pilots who chose large wingsuits, Pecnik said, “accepted the risk.”

A year after Le Gallou’s death, one thing seems certain: He was practicing a sport that was leaving him behind. By 2012, largely because of wingsuits, base jumping had become increasingly visible and accessible. Where once, novice jumpers went to extreme lengths to find mentors — or, like Le Gallou, made their first jumps alone and terrified — base schools now offered classes at popular jumping spots in Europe and America. The sport had also become professionalized. Last year, Red Bull sponsored the first-ever “World Wingsuit League” in China, in which pilots raced one another for speed between two fixed points. Woerth was a contestant.

This entrepreneurial spirit has come at a cost. According to a crowd-sourced database maintained by jumpers, of some 200 people who have died base jumping since 1981, nearly half have died in the last five years, after wingsuits became popular. Since Le Gallou’s death last summer, 22 other base jumpers have died; 18 were wearing wingsuits.

Le Gallou did not resist the changes in base jumping. Although he was not an expert pilot, the wingsuit revolution thrilled him. Yet the values he embodied — modesty, caution, patience — were being eroded by this new generation of wingsuit pilots, stimulated by speed and YouTube hits.

For some experienced jumpers, the sport has become too dangerous. In December, Gerardin wrote to me, saying: “It looks like this year, many old-timers retired. They gave me different reasons, but the point is that they all told me Hervé’s death was the bell ringing the end of the game.”