Skip to content
Home » Features » Searching for Light in the Dark Arts

Searching for Light in the Dark Arts

[Photo] Jeff Shapiro Collection

Jeff Shapiro reflects on wingsuit flight after the death of his friends Sean “Stanley” Leary, Dean Potter and Graham Hunt. See the tribute to the three men in Alpinist 51 (on newsstands now and available online) or read the feature here–Ed.

A vague memory of colorful wings, weightlessness and freedom dissolves from my consciousness as I wake to the sound of a repetitive beep. The black of morning brings a familiar recognition of uncertainty.

“How could my alarm be going off already?”

Even before I can look at the glowing red numbers, my hand finds the small, plastic button to halt the disruption.

Sleep didn’t come easily last night but the good conditions, the “safe” conditions, are almost always found early. Calm, crisp morning air allows the perfect environment for predictable flight. My thoughts drift toward wind, and I listen carefully for any sign from outside my window that I should go back to sleep.

Sometimes sleep is a fleeting escape from decisions. “Life and death,” as commonly used, is an interesting and exclusive term. Isn’t it all life and death? Isn’t that the essence of all real decisions?

Waking up, I feel the strong senses of both nostalgia and lament as I pour jet-black coffee into my favorite cup. It’s a ceramic mug with perfect shape and weight. It was Stanley’s. His sister, Erin, gave it to me after she learned it was the cup that I commonly drank from at his family property in El Portal, near Yosemite Valley. Before our predawn hikes to fly like birds, I would sip from it, curious how close we could get to the sun before our wings melted. Stanley always loved his coffee. “First things first dude… strong coffee,” he would say, “it’s gotta happen, then…we’re psyched.”

Now drinking from it in my kitchen in Missoula, Montana, I find comfort in the steam permeating my nose. I smile and sigh because I miss my friend.

During the short drive to the canyon, the sun cracks the eastern horizon and somehow the day feels special. My experiences of life as a flyer have convinced me to appreciate the beauty of each sunrise. As I arrive at the trailhead and shoulder my pack, I become acutely aware of being alone. I wonder what will happen this morning–how will it go? The passage of time on these hikes has a more approximate chronology. The steady pronouncement of clocks and calendars no longer hold the same weight.

I can almost hear Graham’s easygoing laugh behind me, his rythmic soft-spoken words. When he had something to say it was always easy to listen. During our first flight from this cliff a few years ago, we explored heavy subjects like life and love with a security stemming from recognition that our time on this planet is finite.

As I get close to the exit now, questions come faster than clarity, like snowflakes streaking through headlights during a winter drive. I know it’s just part of my “pre-jump” process, but I’m having trouble seeing through them into the dark. Why am I doing this and more importantly, do I need it? Is it worth it? Living in the present is the essence, humility and gratitude is the result; finding the answers, discovering the definition of what’s important and what is trivial…but with so much consequence and so little room for error.

The back and forth in my mind is important; it’s necessary. If I do this thing perfectly, I survive. If I do not, I don’t. But perfect is an illusion, much like the terms security and fear.

How can I, as a fallible human being, be perfect? Not just perfect during the three minutes of a flight but also in each moment leading up to the decision? To be successful, I have to believe, I have to find balance. Are the lessons worth it? Are they learned and forgotten? Why continue to explore a question I’ve already answered and yet, that question also involves whether I can cease to be who I am–someone who answers a call and peers into the dark–someone who believes in magic. If I quit flying, am I quitting who I am, giving into my doubts, allowing comfort and complacency, normalcy and the illusion of security to be the excuses I need? Yet, losing friends continuously has made me tired and weary.

[Photo] Jeff Shapiro Collection

These questions evoke an image in my head: sitting at a roulette table, up ten grand, everyone at the table but me loses their entire life savings. Do I get up and walk away and be thankful for what I’ve gained, or do I continue to play with the chance to win more? Somehow, peace comes with a deep breath and a longing gaze at these mountains. The still air and beauty of this place somehow answers these questions and brings resolve to my “why,” “what” and “if.”

I lay my pack down, pull out my wingsuit and double check my pins and bridle, my vents and zippers, and I walk over to the exit. During my hike, I watched the birds, the clouds, the leaves; all signs that help me to make an informed and logical decision. A bird squawks as I take one last drink of water. When I see the black shape of a raven gliding overhead, I smile, feeling like those feathers belong to a friend.

Dean’s calm composure and words often inspired me. While flying with my mentor, my friend, the confidence I felt to let go into the unknown was always easier. Dean had that way about him. His belief in friendship and me always made me more confident. My last jump with him flashes in my mind: a three-way flight with Graham and a feeling of brotherhood in the mountains. I believe ravens are messengers from another plane. I feel as if my friends are with me. Flying this morning feels right.

I zip my arm wings closed and walk up to the cliff’s edge, clear of all thought, focused and present. The decision to fly has been made and the finality is comforting. I take a deep breath and look down. No one is around, but I wouldn’t know it even if someone were standing right behind me. All is right and timing is perfect; “3, 2, 1…see ya.”

I feel each second, each moment in time. My arm wings inflate, and I shape my body into a wing. The wall rushing by my left hand and the open space to my right provides a sense of speed to match the loud sound of wind in my ears.

The second I deploy my parachute and snap back into a more normalized state of mind, what happened during the flight has already changed me. I understand almost immediately, that this is the most amazing thing a human being can do.

I know subconsciously that I’m going to survive, and as I land, relief and joy set in. I turn with reverence and watch the light nylon of my canopy lose loft and slowly, silently drape onto the sticks and ground. I notice the sound of the creek, the breeze through the spring growth, the movement in each blade of grass as it sways indifferent to anything but the breeze. I know that I am insignificant. Regardless of the outcome of my flight, the world around me hasn’t changed.

I feel a strong sense of what’s important and what’s trivial. “This is why.”

But then, the connection to life rushes back in. My clarity is so fleeting. I wish it could stay but it doesn’t, it won’t. As I reach into my pocket for my phone to let my partner, Kara, know that I’m on the ground; a ritual that now completes the jump, I think back to my friends. Where are they? What do they know?

“Well, was it?”

Was it worth it? Is it worth it? I can’t find the same peace I used to as this way of flying is inexplicably connected to the dark now. I’ve heard it said “the brighter the flame, the darker the shadow,” and I’d love to focus only on the light but this shadow keeps following me, on the cliff face, down the trail, connected to me.

“Is this balance?”

I know it’s important, even necessary but this type of balance frustrates me. Internal dialogue is again loud as I walk out on the single-track trail, overgrown and rich with springtime smells. A friend once told me, “you can’t exorcise the demons, Jeff, you can only exercise them.” I pick thimble-berries, and somehow, they do taste sweeter.

Thinking about my friends that left this world too early, the list is too long; my mind drifts to Kara. The frustration comes from the realization that each time I tell her I’m going to fly my wingsuit, I see the lines in her face grow deeper. Yet I’ve gained a greater capacity to love and appreciate her from my experiences in the air.

“Why does this balance have to be so dramatic?”

As a climber, pilot and a generally curious person, I know that, inherently, sometimes there is no good life or bad life, hard life or easy life; there’s just life. Nothing that happens to me is “bad,” only earned lessons, that teach me more about humility and gratitude. Being grateful is a necessary component to being happy.

“Isn’t that worth it?”

I take one last glance over my shoulder to look at the cold, hard cliff and the perfect morning. Beauty was found but doubts remain. Looking down at my feet, I can’t help smirking, as I’m no closer to resolution. I think of a memorably cynical quote and somehow repeating it out loud seems to help.

“Only the dammed survive.”