Peter Welcome to our travel podcast. We’re specialist travel writers and we’ve spent half a lifetime exploring every corner of the world.
Felice We want to share with you some of our extraordinary experiences and the amazing people we’ve met along the way.
Peter This week, we’re back in Switzerland talking to Geraldine Fasnacht, who represents the ultimate in action packed travel. She’s an extreme free ride snowboarder, microlight pilot and skydiver. Geraldine’s idea of a little light, adrenaline-fuelled recreation is to climb one of Europe’s highest peaks and then dive off it in a wing suit at speeds of up to 180 kilometres per hour. We caught up with her on the ground at her home in Verbier. Geraldine, you live your life in the mountains that you love, where you explore the very limits of the laws of gravity. Where did this love affair with mountains, speed and danger begin for you?
Geraldine Ok, nice, nice introduction. Thank you. It all begins because my parents are really good skiers. They love skiing and they have been skiing forever in Verbier. And they brought me every weekend, every vacations here in Verbier and it’s where I learned to ski when I was two years old.
Felice Wow. That’s very young…two!
Geraldine In Switzerland it’s not such a surprise because three quarters of our country is full of mountains and everywhere we can, we slide. So it’s kind of common as soon as a baby can walk, he starts to slide.
Peter So your relationship with the mountains started at a very early age and then you went on to become an extreme snowboarder. You won the Extreme de Verbier three times?
Peter And then after that, you did Freeride World Cup, I think?
Geraldine Yes, actually at the real beginning when I did the Verbier Extreme, when for the Freeride World Tour didn’t exist. So the tour started right after. So I was part of the tour as well, and I made eight years of competing on a high level and had 11 titles on the world tour and three times at Verbier Extreme on a snowboard. I started snowboarding when I was eight years old and this was for me a real beginning of something, I found of a real passion for the mountains and I really wanted to go further with my snowboard to ride new lines on mountains. It’s really why I started to learn how to behave in the mountains because of my snowboard.
Felice So when did you first fly?
Geraldine That was a big dream since I was a kid to be a pilot. That was an impossible dream for me because it was a lot of money to be able to be a pilot one day. So I started to think a bit…I thought maybe I need to be part of the army and I can get the license for free. But that didn’t work out because I asked to be part of the army too late. So I decided to see if one day it could be possible to fly.
So before I was starting to be a pilot, I started skydiving because one of my colleagues, when I was working for Swissair at Geneva Airport, she was a skydiver and she brought me into skydiving and I just loved it and I just didn’t want to stop. But my goal was to combine my love for the mountain with skydiving. So I started base jumping and after two full years of skydiving, 300 jumps from the plane, I started base jumping.
Peter Can you just explain to us, for those who don’t know, what base jumping is?
Geraldine Base jumping is starting from a fixed object. So when you jump off a building, antenna, or earth – in Switzerland we are full of mountains, so most of the objects I’m jumping off are from earth, from mountains. But I did a few buildings and a few antennas to complete my base jumping career.
Felice So how do you learn base jumping?
Geraldine To learn base jumping, I would say the best way is to have a solid experience in skydiving or also flying into a wind tunnel. Now wind tunnels are all around the world, you can fly into a tube indoors, and this is also a really good way to learn how to fly with your buddy. Base jumping is so quick, everything has to be perfect, so you cannot learn how to jump when you base jump. So that’s why I did 300 skydives before my first base jump. But this is not the perfect package and sometimes people need more, sometimes maybe people need a bit less, but I will rather say jump more as much as you can before you base jump.
Felice And when you’re base jumping, do you have a parachute?
Geraldine Yes, you are wearing a parachute on your back and then it depends which object you are jumping off. You have sometimes really short, sometimes longer jumps. Then you can add a wing suit on your body and then you can fly longer. And it’s the same from a plane – you can jump with or without wing suits.
Peter Well, I was just going to say about wing suits, because that’s something that you now do a lot of. How do you learn to wing suit? Because there’s no room for error, no room at all. How do possibly do that first jump?
Geraldine You have to jump first from the plane one day. So it’s also a good experience from skydiving. We are actually now having some rules – for small wing suits you have to have 150 jumps without the suit. Then you can fly the small wing suits that are kind of easy to fly and you can have troubles and it’s not a big trouble to handle. And then to fly the big wing suits, you will have to have at least 250 skydives before you can fly with the big wing suits. And now there is a wing suit tunnel indoors in Stockholm, so it’s also possible to fly indoors, really safe with an instructor next to you. So this is also a really good way to learn how to to wing suit.
Felice What are wing suits made from?
Geraldine The wing suits are made from tissue, the same tissue that we use for the paragliders. We are trying to be as light as possible because we have to carry our gear on our back when we walk on top of the mountain. And we have to carry also the parachutes and the harness, so it makes a heavy bag. The backpack can be up to eight to ten kilos. If we go to big mountains, we need to take with us also a lot of mountain gear: crampons, ice axe, ropes, food, water. So it makes a heavy bag.
Peter And how fast, how many kilometres an hour do you go when you’re in a wing suit? What’s the fastest you travel at?
Geraldine So now there is a lot of different types of wing suits, but the wing suits I really like is called the Aura. And the Aura is flying fast for 160 kilometres per hour and it’s going down approximately at 40 kilometres an hour, vertically. But if I really go deep and I push my head down, I can go steeper and faster to 180 kilometres per hour and then I can slow down my flight before I pull my parachute. This is exactly what I do. I gain some speed, then I break. And when I break, I’m nearly not falling at all.
Sometimes if the conditions are really good, I can also go a little bit higher and not fall at all. And then I pull my parachute because now the wing suits are getting so much pressure into the wings that if you don’t dive and top your flights and lose the pressure into your wings, it’s really hard to get to your handle to open your parachute. So this is also things that we have to adapt with the new generation of the wing suits.
Peter When you release the parachute, how close to the ground are you?
Geraldine Not below 200 metres above the ground, because I really like to have time to unzip my wing suit and break my canopy, check the landing. Most of the time I know from which side is coming the wind already, because I’ve done my jump before the take-off. But it’s always good to have some time to release everything and be ready for the landing.
Peter With 200 meters, you don’t have a lot of time.
Geraldine Yes, because the wing we use for base jumping is not going as fast as the parachute we’re using for skydiving. The parachute we’re using for skydiving is really made to fly, and fly well. The parachute we use for base jumping is really like a trap, it is not going fast forward, it is really made to land safely, slowly in a little patch of grass somewhere. It’s really slow.
Peter You land on your feet?
Geraldine Yes, I land on my feet, because now it’s not like 20, 30 years ago the parachute were not as good as today. Today the parachutes are so good we can really land in small fields with really low velocity, so it’s super easy to land with a parachute today.
Felice Do many women do what you do?
Geraldine Nowadays more and more women that doing what I’m doing, that’s for sure. In the mountains I’m most of the time with boys, as always. But there is more and more girls that are wing suiting, so when theIy go jumping from the plane, these are friends of mine that the women – not only boys – some of my girlfriends are also now starting to jump from cliffs, but not only easy the cliffs, they are starting to also go a little bit further into the mountains. So that’s cool, though, isn’t it? More girls in the mountains.
Peter I believe you’ve jumped off the Matterhorn.
Geraldine Yes, I did open the summit of the Matterhorn in 2014, and it was repeated several times after I opened it. And I also went back last summer for my fifth jump off the Matterhorn with my husband, because my husband haven’t done it and he was dreaming about jumping it. So I brought him there.
Felice So does your husband do the same as you do?
Geraldine Yes, unfortunately my husband is also a base jumper, but it’s also a way for us to share such incredible moments in the mountains, in the air. And we are flying together since, I would say, over 12 years now. And he’s got to a really, really big level and I really trust him 100 percent. He’s really a good flyer.
Peter Now, are you ever frightened?
Geraldine Yes, for sure. In the mountains, if you’re not frightened, it’s not good, I think, it’s always good to think twice. That doesn’t mean that I don’t make mistakes. It’s also really important to learn from your mistakes and the mistakes of the people around you, and listen to the stories of what’s happening also understand how to react differently if something happened, and train hard to have always a good reaction when the moment needs to have a good reaction, because when you’re base jumping you need to have the perfect reaction in the next second.
Felice Do you need to be very fit to do base jumping?
Geraldine Oh, yes, you need to be really fit to be base jumping because you fly with your body, so you have to really feel your body really well. If you are not fitting well into your wing suit, because you also have to put your material inside and you don’t feel like flying. Well, I can talk about myself: after my pregnancy, for example, or when I was pregnant, I was still jumping for a while and when I started to feel too fat, I was not feeling good to fly anymore, and just wanted to relax and enjoy my pregnancy and the arrival of my baby. And after the pregnancy, it took me a while to be fit again and to be ready to go jumping.
Peter Well, that’s a different take on the whole thing, Felice. I remember when you were pregnant with all three of our children, you skied and people thought that was pretty brave, but to be base jumping that’s another world altogether.
Geraldine My doctor told me that I have to do what makes me happy. And what makes me happy is to be in the mountains – and my way to be in the mountains is snowboarding and base jumping. But I stopped paragliding.
Felice Your child, how old is he?
Geraldine He is 14 months now and he’s walking, he’s a happy boy and he loves being outside.
Peter Ready for his first wing suit, no doubt!
Geraldine Not yet! He jumped enough in my belly already.
Peter Going back to the mountains, you’ve also jumped off Mont Blanc. Was that an interesting experience?
Geraldine Yes, because actually Les Drus was in 2012 and it was the first big mountain jump for me. At that time it was the evolution of the wing suits were good, but certainly one prototype my sponsor sent me made a huge step forward. When I tried it, I said, actually, now with this wing suit, we can we can just jump Big Mountain, not only just cliffs above the valley that are completely sheer and straight, but we can fly over the mountains and climb big mountains with this one.
He was new and he told me: ‘Actually, which one are you thinking about?’ And I said that probably that Les Drus would be possible. But then it made a lot of noise around it and a lot of people were telling me, yes, but, you know, it’s not possible. Les Drus is not straight, it’s not sheer enough to to fly off this cliff. I decided to climb the mountain to get to the top and laser the start to make sure that it would be possible to fly it. Before going there, I jumped with a GPS on my helmet to make sure that my flights were good enough to fly over the ledge of Les Drus.
After this big preparation, we climbed to the summit of Les Drus with a friend of mine. And we did open Les Drus, and that’s changed a lot in the sport, because right after this, it showed that it was possible to fly off mountains – not only small cliffs, and a lot of other mountains started to be opened around.
So Le Brevent was open, Le Pontdurier was open, the Aiguille du Midi was open – lots of cliffs in the road. And I started to look into my book and say, ‘OK, let’s go instead to check out the Matterhorn, let’s check out lots of different mountains.’ And the goal was to climb and fly.
Peter And then you’ve been a lot further afield, you’ve been to Baffin Island. What did you do there?
Geraldine My first trip to Baffin Island was in 2007 and we were a group of six. So I was with five boys and our goal for the six of us was to ski and snowboard down the fantastic couloir you have in Baffin. Most of the couloirs are between the cliffs and they are steep and they are so beautiful and they ending up into the ice at the bottom of the cliff.
It’s the sea actually, but it’s just icy in winter and beside these couloirs are these huge cliffs that are above the sea as well and they are going up to 1000 to 1800 metres. And it was a dream to be able to go there. So we spent nearly two months, six weeks, seven weeks on the ice in complete autonomy with a base camp. And we were starting from the base camp to climb a different mountain and finally ended up opening eight different cliffs with our wing suits.
Peter Up there between Greenland and Canada it must be extremely cold?
Geraldine Definitely, really extremely cold. It was some days –35, but hopefully not every day. We were having lots of good gear and so it was OK. But sometimes jumping in this kind of condition was pretty tough.
Felice So how do you keep warm when you’re doing this?
Geraldine You have to move all the time, and when you are in the mountain trying to gear up as well as possible, because when you are flying you cannot take the big down suit or the big down jacket. You have to take the small ones to be able to fly in your wing suit. And when you are at the base camp then, as soon as you get into your tent, you put the big one down suit like…you feeling like a penguin and you get warm again.
Peter Talking of penguins, you’ve also been to Antarctica as well? And you’ve flown there as well?
Geraldine Yes, exactly. We have our first trip in Antarctica was in 2009, and our dream was to be the first one to open a cliff there, to be the first one to base jump in the continent of Antarctica. So we did, and we were there in December 2009. And the first base jump we opened there was the day of Christmas and we ended up opening two different cliffs. We also spent two months in Antarctica in complete autonomy and that was really special because Baffin Island is the North Pole, Antarctica is the South Pole, and you imagine it could be kind of the same, but it’s totally different.
We were also in the period that was summer, so the sunlight is 24 hours. But actually, Antarctica is completely different because as soon as you are getting close to the mountains, so you are getting farther away from the sea and there is absolutely no life at all. So the only noise you hear is the noise of the wind and that’s it for two months.
Felice And you’ve also done something like this in Iran?
Geraldine Exactly. I was in Iran, actually, the Club Alpin Français and the Club Alpin, Iranais, both of the clubs organised a climbing festival. And as I have a lot of friends that are good climbers, they told me: ‘You should come with us and maybe climb a route on that mountain because there may be a jump for you there.’
And I said, ‘Oh, ok, I’ll come and check it out.’ And it was kind of cool because being a woman and seeing how women are, it’s hard to say ‘treated’ because actually the Iranians are not so much into politics against women. And if you understand the whole story of Iran in the past, it was not like that at all, and they’re all dreaming about this time to come back.
So the time I spent in Iran was just fantastic. And the friendship I have there was with the women I’ve met and the men I’ve met in the mountains is still really strong today. So I went back, because in 2010 I opened the first wing suit jump on the Bisutoon Wall and I went back two years ago to jump again this mountain and I did few speeches for women in Iran and in the mountains. I really had this feeling that the women are getting more active and trying also to push other women to be active in sports and in different movements.
Felice You’re also a light aircraft pilot?
Geraldine Yes, a light aircraft pilot and a plane pilot and a mountain glacier pilot as well. And I did a few years to be all that.
Felice Where do you go and do that?
Geraldine Most of the time I go around my house because I have an airport 40 minutes away from my house, and my ultralight plane is there. Another plane I’m renting is also based at the same place. So most of the time I fly my ultralight because I like to go in the mountains and land on the glacier with it. I clip my snowboard on my plane and I go snowboarding.
Peter You fly into the mountains, land on the glacier and secure the plane, and then you climb up to where you going to snowboard down?
Geraldine Exactly, yes, because of my ultralight plane landing on the glacier. I mean, that I don’t need to make all this approach that is really long and not so easy sometimes, because you get to really long valleys and it takes ages to get to. And because of my ultralight, I get to a glacier really close to the line I’m dreaming to do with my snowboard. I land just at the bottom, sometimes I sleep at the bottom of the line and I climb during the night to do the line because sometimes these big lines are 2000 metres of elevation or 1500, and it needs to be in really good condition early morning. So most of the time I fly, I sleep overnight with my plane on the glacier, and I climb during the night and I ride early morning.
Felice Sounds amazing, does your husband do the same thing as that as well?
Geraldine He’s a really good skier, but he says that when I go for steep lines like this, you rather stay with our baby because he’s not so keen riding steep faces like I do.
Felice So one of you has to stay with the baby anyway.
Geraldine Yes, we have a really great nanny that is in love with our baby, but we also love to stay. Sometimes my husband, sometimes I love to stay with my baby as well. So we both have activities that we love to share, but we also love to have activities on each side. When I go for steep snowboarding, he doesn’t want to come.
Peter You seem to take a huge number of risks here, but they’re very calculated risks. You obviously know exactly what you’re doing?
Geraldine Yes, because it’s like I don’t know if you drive different cars because you have children. So, you know, for me, sometimes driving a car, going in the city or being on the high roads is more dangerous than jumping off a cliff because we are alone in the sky. We take care of our gear. We pack our own parachutes, we are checking our wing suits, and we are jumping off really a lot and we are training for that. You say that to most of the people, they don’t really understand or they think that I’m totally mad to say that. But I think there is more risk on the roads than jumping off a cliff.
Felice Has anything ever gone wrong?
Geraldine Yes, for sure. You have some days that things can go wrong, but actually I think that’s why it’s important to be current in what you do. When I decided to stop for my baby, when I decided to stop because of an injury or something, I don’t make one jump here, one jump there. When I stop, I stop. When I start again, I start again and I’m current. It’s the same when I go flying my plane. I don’t leave my plane for one day and then I go flying again in six months. This is the best way to have an accident.
So it’s good to be current, but it’s good also to be aware of what you can do. It’s good to know exactly your limits and it’s also good to just stand back sometimes.
Peter So what’s your ambition for the future in five years time?
Geraldine I hope is I will bring my baby into nature and I hope I will be a good mom and and be able to understand what he really likes, what he really needs. If it’s not sport, maybe music or whatever. I really hope I’m going to be a good mom and I hope my body will still be good with me and bring me where I want to go.
Felice Is there an age limit for doing what you do?
Geraldine I don’t think there are real age limits; I think it’s really your body that can probably stop you one day. So that’s why I am really training and trying to keep my body in good shape, having a healthy life, healthy foods, be fit – everything goes together. And I have some friends that are still really good snowboarders or really good base jumpers, and they are maybe 12, 15 years above me, so I have some time.
Peter So presumably to make a living out of this, you have to rely upon sponsorship. Is that difficult to get sponsorship?
Geraldine Actually, I never thought that would be a professional snowboarder first, then because of my career in snowboarding, I became a professional base jumper. But I had a normal job. I had a normal life that you can call normal. I was working for Swissair when it was still Swissair at Geneva Airport. I was a red cap load controller and I loved my job really. When I received my first invitation to be part of the Verbier Extreme, I thought, that’s my life, 100 percent working at Geneva Airport with the training to be ready to go down such a steep face like the Bec des Rosses on the Verbier Extreme. It would not fit together.
I asked to have three months off my job to be able to train hard for this competition, but they refused it. I thought, ‘OK, so I have to choose between both of these lives. I cannot combine them, but I can still find another job. Maybe not this one even though I love it, but the Verbier Extreme would be once in my life.’ So I decided to quit my job. I found a job in a travel agency and every afternoon I was working from two to six and that was not enough money to live in such a big ski resort, so I was also working as a really bad waitress in the area at night until midnight.
But I could pay my bills and every morning I could go training from eight to 1pm. So I was the happiest person on earth at the time because I lived in my dreaming place, Verbier. Every morning I was writing my dreaming mountains, and I was going to do the biggest event of the world, the Verbier Extreme, and that would be riding with the riders I have posters of in my room. I was dreaming to be able to ride with them maybe once in my life. So that’s how we started. And the first Verbier Extreme I made, I won it, and that’s how I had my first sponsorships.
After this first Verbier Extreme, when I had my first contract in front of me, they said, ‘Yes, we want you to continue competing and do the Verbier Extreme once again.’ And I was like, ‘Yes, it was a cool year, thank you very much. But now I have to go back to work because I have no more money and I really need to find the real job.’
And they said, ‘No, no, no, you don’t understand. Here’s a contract. We want to pay you to snowboard.’ And I was like, ‘No, no. I did not understand. So can you please explain to me what do you mean?’ Because at that time, no freerider were having really good contracts. And that was for me, not the job, that was the passion and my passion became my job.
Felice That sounds wonderful. So if people want to know more about you, where can they find out? Do you have a website?
Geraldine I have a website. My website is www.geraldinefasnacht.com and you can find me also on Instagram and Facebook.
Felice Can you spell your surname for people?
Geraldine I can even spell it in the pilot way if you want: Fox. Alpha. Sierra. November. Alpha, Charlie. Hotel. Tango.
Peter Geraldine, thank you very much for appearing on the show. It’s been an absolute pleasure having you on. We wish you and your husband and your baby the very best in the future with all your flying and snowboarding and wing suit experiences.
Geraldine Thank you so much for having me. And I hope I’m going to meet you in the future soon, or maybe you come and visit my little paradise here in Switzerland, Verbier.
Felice That’s all for now. If you’ve enjoyed the show, please share this episode with at least one other person! Do also subscribe on Spotify, i-Tunes or any of the many podcast providers – where you can give us a rating. You can subscribe on Spotify, Apple Podcasts or any of the many podcast platforms. You can also find us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. We’d love you to sign up for our regular emails to [email protected].
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