“Everest has fascinated me since I was a child. As a teenager, I devoured the stories of the heroes on this mountain, their triumphs and tragedies.
So it was very special for me to wake up at the base camp of Mount Everest and actually see it in front of me. It moved me. Everest is like no other mountain in the world.”
After a month in the Himalayas, Valery Rozov, the 48-year-old adventure sportsman from Nizhny Novgorod, Russia, had just returned to civilization -- or more precisely, to the Yak & Yeti Hotel in Nepal’s capital, Kathmandu, with its hot showers, soft beds, an Internet connection, and restaurants. He set out from here exactly 30 days ago to fulfill a dream: to be the first man to fly from the northern face of Everest. Up to now, the father of three had accomplished over 9,000 BASE jumps, exploring new territory and pushing the boundaries of what is possible.
But even for him, Everest was something special. “Not because it is the highest wingsuit flight, but because this mountain has so much history,” says Rozov. “To do something fresh, that’s what attracted me.”
It took a full four years from the idea to the actual flight. “My good friend, the mountaineer Alex Abramov, has organized tours in the Himalayas for the last 12 years,” says Rozov. “We met in 2009, and he showed me pictures of Everest: ‘What do you say to jumping here?’ I couldn’t shake the idea. In the spring of 2011, I went to do a location check. Is it at all possible what I’m picturing in my head? Is it realistic?”
Three things had to be considered. Firstly, there was finding a suitable take-off point where the wall was steep enough. Second: Is it possible to shift from the freefall into forward motion while wearing a wingsuit in thin air? Third: locating the ideal landing spot on the Rongbuk Glacier, which begins at the foot of the north face. The Rongbuk is, like many glaciers in the region, notorious for its crevasses.
Rozov put together an expedition and looked at some possible launching and landing points. The plan soon came together. It would be best to ascend via the classic northern route, then, after reaching the North Col ridge, turn right toward the highest point of the north face (23,667 feet above sea level) instead of heading left toward the summit. Taking the many variables into account, they came to the conclusion that the jump would be technically difficult -- the first rock wall is not very high -- but feasible.
A few unknowns remained. How would Rozov feel after the arduous climb in thin air? Would his flying instincts still be sound in those conditions? Also, how could he and his team optimize the wingsuit to get away from the rock face quickly and out into free air space?
The project demanded the BASE jumper turn into an even better climber than he already was. During the last two years, Rozov had spent many months at high altitude. “This helps tremendously, even though I’ll never be a professional high-altitude mountaineer,” he says. Anyone who climbs the 19,341 feet of Mount Kilimanjaro just for training purposes is being modest in making such a statement.
For the project to succeed, a new kind of wingsuit was needed. In partnership with Tony Suits, an American wingsuit manufacturer, a suitable model was developed that Rozov tested at trial jumps. In June 2012, he leapt from Shivling, a 21,466-foot mountain in the northern part of the Indian Himalayas. Like the Matterhorn -- the northern flank of which Rozov jumped from last October as he prepared for the Everest assault -- the Shivling features what Rozov calls a “short takeoff ramp,” so he was able to get a feel for the conditions that awaited him on Everest.
After that, the project took shape through a series of scientific experiments. In the wind tunnel at the University of Stuttgart in Germany, Rozov and his team attempted to gather more data but faced limitations in simulating the reality of a wingsuit flight. In November 2012, Rozov met with the wingsuit manufacturer once again to incorporate the findings into the final suit design.
On April 10, the expedition team flew to Kathmandu. They pinned their hopes on a decent weather window in the first week of May. As in all Everest expeditions, the procedure consisted of three days of checking equipment, the bus ride to the Chinese border, five days to the base camp, then a few days acclimatizing, which involved ascents up to 20,000 feet before quickly heading back down again. The final piece: inspecting the landing zone and departing for North Col on May 1.
Unlike other visitors to base camp, Rozov’s team was not focused on the summit. “For me the summit is not a big motivation,” says Rozov. “With enough oxygen and Sherpas, it’s not particularly difficult. With mountain climbing in particular, style is crucial. In this regard I’m a purist.”
Everest during spring is full-on rush hour, and not everyone behaves the way you would expect of climbers on the way to the roof of the world. One inglorious highlight this year was a fistfight on the way to the summit that made headlines around the world. How wild can it really get, then?
“When we were at Everest base camp, there were approximately 200 to 250 climbers waiting for their chance to ascend the mountain,” explains Rozov. “Their fitness and experience levels varied dramatically. It was amusing to watch.”
The wingsuit and parachute weigh just over 17 pounds, and Rozov schlepped them himself, step by step, rope length by rope length, up to the exit point.
The route from the base camp to the top took four days and was exhausting, even with oxygen support. “We had to hurry because we only had a three-day weather window open for the jump,” says Rozov. “At times there were winds of 20 to 26 feet per second -- that’s almost 18 mph.”
Four mountain guides took part in the expedition -- nothing would be left to chance during the ascent. Safety was the absolute priority.
After reaching the top, Rozov put on his wingsuit and began going through safety and wind checks. He then took a few final breaths from an oxygen bottle to clear his head and finally took flight at 2:30 p.m. local time.
“After the first four, five seconds I felt really happy when I realized that I’d cleared the wall and everything was going according to plan. That was great,” he says. “The rest of the flight, which lasted less than a minute, was pretty unspectacular. I controlled my body position and my flight path and listened to the commands from my team. Unfortunately, there was no opportunity to enjoy the view. I opened the parachute relatively early, about 20 seconds before landing. My team had marked out the landing field at the foot of the north wall -- a windsock was also in place. Everything was professionally prepared.”
Rozov is a very cool customer. Few emotions, no racing pulse rate. “I trained hard for two years toward this goal, so it felt almost logical,” he explains. “Of course it makes me proud and happy, but the flight was only the final step in a long chain. And in the air it makes no huge difference if you jump from 23,000 or from 6,500 feet above sea level. You don’t notice the speed and height. You only realize when you look at the videos how long it takes to get from falling to flying, but the difference is less significant than you’d expect, maybe 25 percent.”
And the landing? “I was so exhausted that I barely felt anything. Of course, I was glad that I had landed and all went well, but the big, deep thrill -- that satisfaction of having achieved something that no one else has done before -- only welled up two days later at base camp.”
Rozov watches the video of his flight on a laptop back at the hotel in Kathmandu five days after the jump. Everything still feels as if it has just happened. The wind, the air, the noise, the wall, Everest, the dark sky, the glaciers, the pioneering feat. Now he relives the various phases of the flight, frame by frame, with immense joy and satisfaction. But there is something else, too, which he knows can happen. “The longer the time is between my last jump, the more often it happens that I think to myself: ‘Was that really me? Did I actually do that?’ ”
Some things are so powerful that they threaten to rewire the memory.
Check out the July 2013 issue of Red Bulletin magazine (on newsstands June 11) for more articles. To read the magazine on your iPad, download the Red Bulletin iPad app. Follow Red Bulletin on Twitter for more.