Valery Rozov knew he might die. Last May, the Russian BASE jumper stood on the North Col of Mount Everest, preparing to leap from the cliff’s edge. He was attempting to break the world record for the highest jump on the planet by making a dangerous leap through the notoriously thin Himalayan air – a wrong move and he would crash into the mountain. “I didn’t know how it would work at that altitude,” he says. “The air pressure is twice as weak.” Rozov, 48, had already climbed four days from base camp to reach this point on the world’s highest peak, 23,687 feet (about 4.5 miles) above sea level. With glaciers below and rugged mountains on either side, he gauged the conditions – just under zero degrees, not much wind – spread his arms, and made the leap of his career.
In his native Russia, Rozov is a combination Tony Hawk and Evel Knievel. Born in the bustling western Russian city of Nizhny Novgorod, he started as a climber and mountaineer before turning to skydiving in his mid-twenties. A quick study, Rozov was crowned skysurfing champ – he did board tricks while skydiving – at the X Games in 1998. But inspired by the sight of a French parachute jumper, Rozov became fascinated with BASE jumping and, in 1999, launched the Russian Extreme Project, a daredevil Slavic sports team performing dangerous leaps worldwide. By 2000, he had switched to wingsuit BASE jumps, taking off from fixed objects and then soaring in an outfit with webbed, air-ventilated wings between his arms and legs. With funding from Red Bull, he began making bigger headlines for more insane stunts. In 2009, he wingsuit-jumped into an active volcano in eastern Russia and, last year, leapt off Shivling, a Himalayan mountain in India. “I like to jump in the mountains,” he says. “Jumping in the city is illegal.”
Four years ago, Rozov decided to tackle the unthinkable – jumping from Mount Everest, the world’s highest peak – and began preparations. After creating a new, lighter custom design for his $2,000 wingsuit, Rozov formulated a plan to leap head first at a slight angle from the cliff, to gain enough speed for the wingsuit to catch the Himalayan air, before leveling off to steer himself to a safe landing. Finally, on the 60th anniversary of Sir Edmund Hillary’s first Everest ascent, Rozov reached the peak with four Sherpas, a film crew, and a camera-affixed helmet to make history of his own. (Rozov is that rare BASE jumper who prefers to climb to his destination and not be flown in.)
In the first moments after leaping from the cliff, Rozov dropped like a bullet. Staying more vertical allowed Rozov to maintain a consistent line as soon as he dropped – if he became horizontal too soon, he’d spin out of control to his death. As the cliff itself was not very high, Rozov had no room for error in dropping to his required speed. After falling for about seven seconds, Rozov turned his body and peeled away from the mountain, accelerating to 124 miles an hour. “I realized I did it and relaxed,” he says. “I could fly away.”
Rozov flew for nearly a minute, pulled his parachute ripcord, and then landed safely on the Rongbuk glacier. A minute after he’d jumped, his feat was over. “You feel fear when you’re thinking about whether or not to jump,” Rozov says, “but once you make the decision, your mind goes into another position. You only concentrate on what you’re supposed to do.”