Stories

The Point of No Return

26. March 2016

And we’re off for another Nuit de la Glisse shoot, this time for a wingsuit sequence, the free flight discipline where athletes wear suits that give them wings.

 

Athletes: Van MONK – Mathias WYSS

 

Travel Diary- Nuit de la Glisse film shoot

The Point of No Return

 

 

From Thierry Donard’s point of view, director of the Nuit de la Glisse films.


Van MONK – (Arnaud) An enigmatic wingsuit pilot who prefers to stay out the limelight. He has opened numerous flights in Europe and undoubtedly belongs to the world’s elite pilots.

Mathias WYSS - Mathias is one of the precursors of this discipline. Combining freedom of expression and big thrills, he is approaching man’s dream of flying. A leap from the peaks is all it takes to give him his wings.

 

The day before the shoot:

We set off in two cars from the Alps, heading east towards the Dolomites range. Despite months of preparation for this shoot, none of the team could put into words the feverish excitement that consumed the journey. One question hung in the air, would Van Monk complete the challenge that he’d set himself?

My personal feeling was that we’d just started out on an adventure that was impossible to foresee..

Wingsuit flying is a special sport with athletes who may easily be labelled selfish or reckless, not caring whether they live or die… Our athletes are the antithesis of these preconceptions; the risks they take are meticulously calculated. Mathias and Arnaud are both accomplished sportsmen who are respected within their discipline. They are also scientists in their own right who happen to go wingsuiting as a hobby. They are at the forefront of a sport where the equipment is constantly evolving, pushing the limits of what is humanly possible and yielding incredible feats that would have seemed impossible just 5 years ago.

When I shot the first wingsuiting images in 1996, we were at the dawn of the sport. We have followed the sport’s evolution over the years with the ultimate goal of flying with extreme precision and this is exactly what we were heading towards in this shoot in the Dolomites..

 

Day one of the shoot:

After an 8-hour drive and a good night’s sleep, we got up before dawn and wasted no time starting the shoot. The objective we set ourselves for the first day of the shoot was already highly ambitious but it wasn’t until afterwards that I realised exactly what we would have in store in the days to come...

Accompanied by our cameraman Roch Malnuit and photographer Soren Rickards, we set ourselves up on a 45° ridge and in case we fell we harnessed ourselves onto a rope. This was hanging from two pitons driven into the rock, more as a psychological anchor than a physical one. Sat on a crumbly rock pinnacle with an 80m void opening out below me, I overlooked the 8-metre wide, 40° couloir encased by sheer rock walls.

After a moment of anticipation on the peak, Van Monk and Mathias Wyss turned their radios on to signal that they were ready to go. We had 30 seconds to get ready before watching them fly through the couloir underneath. It took us 15 seconds to turn our cameras on then we hear the noise that wingsuits generate as they slice through the air, similar to the sound of a fighter jet. I was pointing my lens at the top of the couloir when I saw them arrive at over 200km/ before following them in a clean sweep of my camera for just a few seconds before disappearing out of sight. As I turned to Soren we shared a look as if to say yep, we just got an amazing shot! I said to myself that even if Van Monk decides not to take on his ultimate goal this time, at this rate we’ll have enough material for the film anyway.

That day and the following day we had perfect weather conditions, allowing us to reach parts of the mountain that skiers and mountaineers wouldn’t even think about going and we took loads of wingsuit footage from the ground. This angle provides a different perspective to videos that only contain POV footage from mounted cameras.

 

Day three of the shoot:

This day was spent on reconnaissance. The viewpoints were difficult to get to but after spending two days operating on rocky outcrops, walking up the 40° grassy slopes over crags weighed down by filming equipment seemed like a walk in the park. Our team was pretty unusual with a film crew comprised of a sound engineer, camera operator, photographer and assistant while on the other side were our scientist wingsuit pilots who were taking laser measurements and calculating trajectories on a laptop to work out the ideal flight path.

Day four of the shoot:

This was a test day for Van Monk’s project. The wingsuiters had to tweak their flight path in order to build a visual memory before eventually bearing off towards a cleft leading to a 40m long arch across the mountain. The main difficulty in this flight resided in the fact that the pilot only has two second to line up his path before taking the final decision to pull out or commit to going for the stone arch.

Mathias had approved Arnaud’s calculations, he would pass over the mountain and would surely have the most incredible view of his flight, watching him disappear and then come out on the other side of the mountain.

It’s hard to describe the tension that grips you when you watch someone commit to the point of no return. There are few athletes I could put my faith into for such a project but Arnaud is one of them. As the tension mounted, the weather was becoming more and more unpredictable.

 

3 days’ wait…

3 days of living together with butterflies in the stomach, no one expressing any negativity or thinking about what happens if it doesn’t work.

Final day of the shoot:

The final day for the crew, the last chance.

At that point no one could say whether Van Monk would or wouldn’t take the decision to bank and head towards the black hole. He has no sponsors and he chooses to remain anonymous so this project is only for himself, for the feeling he can take home. How many people would be prepared to stake their life on a flight path that they themselves had scientifically calculated and on their own physical, technical and mental capacities?

I had already set up five cameras when at the last moment I decided to get on a rope and descend into the rock cavity to place my own camera, my own angle. Until then I had inexplicably refused to set my foot into it, maybe I thought the project wouldn’t be seen through. But right then I just knew it would be done, Arnaud himself said that in the previous test he could have easily just done it. So I accepted the situation as it was and stepped up to become the main witness. I walked onto a promontory, each step a dangerous one, the tunnel was reminiscent of Swiss cheese with snow resting on the fragile rocky bridges to form holes overlooking the cliff. I had an incredible angle.

The start signal was given and they were in flight. In 25 seconds they would be here and nothing was going to stop Arnaud, at least, that’s what I hoped… Next came the most powerful image I had ever captured in my whole life. All the time and investment I had made in wingsuiting was justified right then in the perfect art of the flight path. It couldn’t have lasted more than one second but in my mind it was an eternity, I saw each moment of the flight in slow motion. I felt like I had seen a bird passing by, in perfect control of its aeronautics. Arnaud had not just gone through a hole in a cliff, he’d gone through the mountain!

He was so pleased with his first flight that he decided to do another and once again, it was perfectly executed. Judging by his poise, I marvelled at the thought that he could probably do it ten times without incident. We were obviously pretty pleased with the shots we’d got and this incredible feat was the perfect way to round off our adventure in the Dolomites...

 

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