Everyone has a vice

In skiing there’s an old adage that says if there’s a bump in your way you should jump it, whether you can see the landing or not. Matthias Giraud has made this his mantra. The skier BASE jumper launched himself into this strange dual discipline just like he lives the rest of his life: at full throttle.

Straight ahead. The heart rate increases. The ground flies past at an astonishing speed. Everything is going to plan. Then just free your hands to grab that all-important ejector toggle. The stoke must be all-time… Matthias Giraud, aka Super Frenchie, skis off cliffs with a parachute on for kicks..

James Meigh

Skier

It all started at the family chalet in Bettex near Saint-Gervais les Bains, on the fringes of the Mont-Blanc massif. Here he spent his school holidays, learning to ski at a young age before going through the ESF and catching the so-called ‘bug’ for the mountains. With a natural drive, he improved quickly and tried his best to keep up with the local valley kids. He started competing and posted some decent little results. At just 11 years old he wanted to sign up to sports studies in Chamonix but his parents didn’t like the prospect of him being schooled away from home at such a young age.

Eventually he signed up to sport studies in Saint Nicolas-de-Véroce in the shadow of the Mont-Blanc massif when he was 13 years old. Matthias jumped into a life in the mountains. “I remember arriving on the first day and my trainer said he’d never seen anyone ski with two left feet before. But I had such a fire. I was skiing gates, I never gave up on anything and hung in there as best I could.”

Richard Hallman

His tenacity would take him onto a few podiums, not quite at the top level, but enough to keep the teenager going. He bought himself a pair of Salomon X-Scream to ski everywhere with, putting himself through the paces in all the different emerging disciplines of freeskiing. “I started jumping cliffs, doing flips, things like that. I’ve always been really agile, which has really helped my skiing. Well saying that, I did break my sternum four times in the first two years because I didn’t really know what I was doing…Around the age of 15, my goal was to throw a backflip every day. Basically between the age of 15 and 21, no matter what the conditions I did a backflip each day. That time allowed me to ride a bit of everything. I took part in derbys, snowpark sessions but without really excelling in one discipline. I guess it was about having a good time but I didn’t stand out in anything.”

Convinced he wanted to make a living in skiing, he enrolled in business school in Lyon, two hours away from various large alpine resorts. Quickly an opportunity arose, a family friend invited him to come and work at Purgatory ski area in south-west Colorado. He would continue his business studies at Fort Lewis College in the city Durango. “I didn’t even have to think about it. The thought of going to Colorado skiing and doing my business degree at the same time…I had to go. Because I worked in the marketing department and knew how to ski, they asked me to do a little photo shoot for the resort when I was over there. I sent it pretty hard and they decided that they’d sponsor me for the stages of the Freeride World Tour in the US. That’s how I entered onto the big mountain circuit.”

Richard Hallman

Base jumper

Although you won’t find any trace of skier base jumper in Matthias’ DNA, his father’s military service in the 9th parachute regiment should perhaps be taken into consideration. Parachuting adventures were definitely a regular highlight of his bedtime stories, feeding and absorbing into his imagination. “Since my early childhood I was obsessed with parachutes. My father told me that one night when I was 4, he heard a noise in the lounge. We lived on the first floor and there was a table in front of the window. He found me standing on the table with a backpack on with the window wide-open saying to myself: you can do it, you can do it…(laughs). So I guess I already had a devil on my shoulder.”

A while after arriving in the States, he went to the SIA tradeshow in Denver, a big skiing and mountain exhibition. There he met one of the forefathers of ski base, Shane McConkey. “As soon as I saw my first videos of ski base I dreamt of doing it too but didn’t know how to get into it. I thought about it but I hadn’t done anything like it, not even skydiving. Then I met Shane and he said: start skydiving, once you’ve done around 100 jumps then you can start. I was on my way.”

James Meigh

From then on he was on a mission to go skydiving but an injured cruciate meant he had to go back to France and save a bit of cash to pay for his course. “I got three jobs to save enough money for my licence. I started skydiving at the end of the 2006 season. I got my licence and after about 30 jumps I thought, ah, it’s not so hard, I can try base jumping. I had a mate who had 600-odd jumps under his belt and he wanted to teach me. He spoke to a base jump equipment manufacturer telling them he’d look after me and so they made me my first “trap”, the parachute.”

Matthias was on about 45 jumps when, harnessed in to his brand new base jumping system, he stepped onto the guard rail of an Idaho bridge. “There we managed nine jumps in one day. At the end of the day we did huge sixty-metre backflips. It was awesome! Coming from skiing I could already throw big back flips and big double backs so I think that gave me good timing.” After one last jump from a cliff, his friend dropped him off at the airport, wishing him a good trip. By then he’d completed jumps off a variety of different structures and felt it was time to put his ski base project into action.

Mathias Giraud

Skier base jumper

“A few months later I decided to try a cliff that I had spotted at Mt Hood. It wasn’t huge, about 70m but it was big enough for a ski base jump. It was my twentieth base jump and just four months after starting out, I was ready to launch. That was that!” Already in the habit of working with cameramen and photographers, in the ski world, Matthias contacted someone he knew to film him. One thing led to another and one of the guys knew someone else at the local television network and the subject made it onto the news. “The next day I woke up at nine o’clock; my phone kept ringing. It was Good Morning America, the ABC news programme! I didn’t realise how famous Mt Hood was in America. That created a real media buzz (even CNN talked about it) and my career took off from there. Most of all though, that day I realised I’d achieved something I set out to do four years ago from my first skydiving jumps: I had found a way of skiing things you normally can’t, by base jumping.”

The intuition that Matthias showed in following certain paths and making certain choices now forms part of his daily lifestyle. Daredevil skier in the land of ‘going big’ and self-made men? The stage is set. The public are always thirsty for crazy stunts so, with his French accent and Kryptonite-charged enthusiasm, he slotted right into a niche. But after having set the stage alight the first time, how was he going to hold people’s attention? Differnent adventures like being the first person to ski base jump off the Matterhorn or the really nice aiguille Croches combination racked up a huge number of Internet views… Gradually he started making his own show by seeking out new challenges and developing his own unique style. “I really allow myself to be inspired by what I see in the mountains. I ski and suddenly I see a beautiful face with a cliff band under it. Then I can’t think of anything else other than skiing full speed and launching myself off it. I’ve been lucky because I’ve always managed to meet people who are keen to come and film nonsense with me. I just knew that I could trust them from the first time I met them. It’s thanks to the mountain community that I’ve been able to do all this.”

Aidan Bolger

It’s not easy to put yourself in the shoes of a guy skiing towards the abyss. He describes it as a combination of two types of concentration, one of skiing and trajectories, and the other of base jumping and explosiveness. “On the approach you have to get yourself totally absorbed and tell yourself: another day of skiing, this is cool. I try to be relaxed, live every turn, to be calm but committed. And when I see the end of the run, when I see the cliff thirty metres away, that’s the clutch moment. Your survival instinct tells you to stop where you are but you actually have to speed up and go as fast as possible. This is the point of no return.” Then it’s all about trying not to get into a spin and tangle your skis up. “At the moment you jump the cliff it’s all about your angle. If you have quite a flat angle, which provides a bit of a curve, it helps to stabilise you. But if it’s a diving jump that throws you straight into the ground, it’s a lot less stable. For my skis, I don’t go over 108 underfoot as beyond that they can get caught and spin you round headfirst. If you launch like that there’s a high risk of getting everything tangled and not surviving. So the exit is crucial because you have to be stable. Before releasing your wing you can easily fall 50m. You have to keep your balance that whole time.”

These days Matthias is settled in Oregon with his son and companion and is still one of the few practising skier base jumpers. Many of his thrill-seeking peers have given up or are dead, mostly while doing other sports. Shane McConkey, who was his role model from the start was killed in an attempt at a ski base jump followed by wingsuit flight. But contrary to what you might think, few accidents happen. So Matthias is continuing on his path, with no regard for naysayers. “Moaners will always moan. You just have to do your thing without putting others in danger. If you do your thing and mess it up it’s your problem. This negative outlook kills the spirit of adventure and the creative spirit of the mountains. As soon as you get stuck in a rut it’s the beginning of the end for your intellectual and emotional journey. The only thing that scares me is if a dumbass follows my tracks off piste. (Laughs) Thankfully most of the spots aren’t easy to get to.

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