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Human ‘flying squirrel’ recounts near-fatal leap

Wearing his wingsuit plus a titanium rod in his broken leg, BASE jumper Hans Lange ruefully recalled his near-fatal jump from a mile-high peak, which ended with him crashing into a tree: “There is no room for this in the sport.”
/ Source: TODAY contributor

The footage of BASE jumper Hans Lange’s brush with death in a Norwegian fjord is dramatic enough — a kaleidoscopic whirl of rocky cliffs, sky and trees. But it is the soundtrack that makes it riveting, a cacophony of impacts with rock and trees backed up by Lange’s chorus of guttural grunts, groans and growls ... and finally a simple observation, spoken directly into his helmet camera.

“What a bummer,” the 44-year-old daredevil tells himself as he hangs in a tree some 200 feet above the ocean. Then he adds: “Oh, well, I'm alive.” 

Dressed in the same wingsuit that he wore during his jump and carrying a titanium rod in his broken right leg, Lange joined TODAY’s Matt Lauer on Thursday in New York to watch the video of his Aug. 23 jump and talk about what went wrong — and why he intends to continue leaping into space in pursuit of his ultimate thrill.

“It’s never been into my mind stopping doing this,” the Norwegian said in accented English. “It’s been a dream — flying — for so many years. It’s an extraordinary feeling, flying along the mountains.”

That’s a feeling the veteran of more than 400 BASE jumps wants to experience again. But the other feeling — flying into a mountain — is one he aims to avoid.

‘A bad reminder’
“This will not happen again, you know. There is no room for this in the sport,” Lange told Lauer after watching himself crash and get hung up in the tree that saved his life. “You have to be there all the time, and this is a pretty bad reminder.”

BASE is an acronym for Building, Antenna, Span and Earth, and those are the things that people like Lange leap from. Originally it was done with just a parachute, but in recent years, some BASE jumpers have taken to wearing wingsuits that make them look like flying squirrels and allow them to fly and maneuver at speeds that can exceed 140 mph.

Lange had jumped from an altitude of 5,250 feet — just short of a mile above the ocean. After 10 or 12 seconds, he was flying at about 110 mph and everything was great.

“Enjoying all the way,” is how Lange described it to Lauer. “You have a very nice feeling in your body … you’re flying, and when you really get the speed, you can really control the curves.”

Steering is all in the shoulders and knees, he explained. “You can make a pretty sharp curve,” he said. “You can also slide it. It depends on how you move your shoulders and knees. Very small, tiny movements of the shoulders make this thing move very fast.”

Flirting with disasterBASE jumpers used to try to get as far away as possible from the cliffs and structures that were their launch points. But as they became more confident in their ability to control their descent, they found it was more thrilling to fly closer to danger.

Lange admitted to Lauer that his error was in flying too close to the cliff. “That’s my mistake,” he said in an analytical tone as he watched the film. “I should have turned out a little bit earlier. I should have had at least 100, 150 meters to the wall.”

Lange realized he was in a potentially fatal situation. “I’m conscious about it, conscious about being too close. When you’re that close, you invite Murphy for a party,” he said, referring to Murphy’s law: Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong. “He got me. He turned that parachute into the wall.”

Lange had opened his chute when he realized he was too close. That slowed his rate of descent to about 15 mph, but it didn’t turn him away from the cliff. To keep from crashing into it, he twice tried to push away by kicking with his legs. On the second kick, he felt his right leg break.

That’s when trees growing out of the cliff grabbed his parachute and stopped his out-of-control fall. When Lange finally felt safe, he ran an inventory of his body.

“I had this feeling in my body I was OK,” Lange told Lauer. “It was no doubt that my leg was broken. But it was also no doubt I was also OK elsewhere.”

At that point, dangling in the tree, Lange took his helmet off and spoke directly into the camera mounted atop the headgear. “I was like, ‘OK, why don’t I make an interview with myself?’ I was pretty angry with myself.”

How angry was Lange?

“It was holy @#&!” he said, letting slip a vulgarity on live television. (The verbal slip went out only in the Eastern time zone; it was bleeped out elsewhere in the country.)

Lauer gasped and quickly explained, “That’s Norwegian for ‘oops!’ ”