France’s Wingsuit Graveyard Claims a Ninth Life

chamonix wingsuit death
Nine wingsuit pilots have died on Le Brevent since 2012. PHILIPPE DESMAZES / Getty

On August 22, 2016, Alexander Polli jumped off the cliffs of Le Brevent, adding to his near countless tally of flights down the French peak near Chamonix. Donning a wingsuit and action camera, the BASE jumping pioneer was filming another of his seemingly death-defying videos as he descended through the narrow, rock-strewn ENSA couloir. But while exiting the gully — with a barrel roll, no less — the YouTube star clipped a tree, lost control, and crashed, dying on impact. He was Le Brevent's ninth wingsuit fatality.

Le Brevent, on just its fifth summer of attracting pilots, has unwittingly claimed the title of world's deadliest wingsuit destination. The 8,284-foot peak wasn't considered for BASE jumping and wingsuits — even by the hardcore locals — until 2012. But once jump and flight lines were established, the floodgates opened, and the first wingsuit death followed that July. Local politicians enacted a one-year ban on the sport after the death, but the pilots were lined up again at the top of the mountain when the ban was lifted in 2013.

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The main attraction is the tight, craggy couloirs that make for astounding proximity flying (and ensuing videos). Valleys like ENSA also attract droves of freeride skiers in the winter, and the dangers are similar, says Jérôme Blanc-Gras, IFMGA guide and wingsuiter. “In the couloir, skiing or flying down the middle of the gully, you will go fast and you will surely be dead if you make one mistake. Many have the skill to go inside the couloir, but you have to be able to get out.”

For wingsuiters, that means having the control to gain speed as well as change direction when flying into and out of the couloir. Oftentimes, pilots will fly into a couloir, come out the end, cross a ridge, and descend into the next couloir. This type of extreme bunny hopping requires an immense amount of technical skill, precision, and expertise.

Another big draw for the aerial athletes is the unmatched accessibility. Anyone with a free afternoon and a few Euros can buy a lift ticket to Le Brevent's summit. And with the lift running all day, pilots can run laps from top to bottom as they see fit. “On a good day, there will be 400 jumps made from Le Brevent,” says Fred Bernard, UAIGM-certified mountain guide and founder of Peakpowder.

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“Pilots often fly four times per day from Le Brevent,” Bernard says. “It’s too easy to do laps, and that’s when it gets dangerous, because your tendency is to continue pushing the limits further and further.”

For those who knew Polli, they can attest that he was the type to test what was possible. “He was a very strong guy, but he enjoyed pushing the limits,” says Blanc-Gras. And Le Brevent is a place where limits are easily pushed too far. But, he adds, “with wingsuiting, you have the freedom to do what you want, and you will be the one taking the risk.” And despite the nine deaths in five years, there seems to be no shortage of wingsuit pilots willing to risk their lives.