BY: ROB HOFFMAN
If you plan on watching Mike Wilson’s videos, you should probably bring a brown paper bag to hyperventilate into. Wilson’s career is basically founded on the ability to be the world’s ultimate badass with a completed section of his bucket list so large that it would make Chuck Norris’s balls shrink.
Wilson started his career at the age of 11 as a pro skier. By age 13, he had 13 sponsors, and by 17 he landed the world’s first ever double cork. He began BASE-jumping by the age of 18, and has been flipping, spinning, and diving off just about everything since.
He makes it look easy, but it’s actually a wonder that Wilson is still breathing. How many people can say that they’ve fallen 600ft onto a pile of rocks and lived? Not only did he live, but he also walked away—only to construct a 600ft rope-swing-bungee-jump off a cliff in South Africa a few years later.
I was first introduced to Mike from his “99 Foot Rope Swing Quadruple Backflips” video (See below). I got goose bumps when he hit the water for the first time, the camera following him all the way down into the break in the bright blue water. How does someone build up to a stunt like that?
One of the greatest things about Wilson is, despite his accomplishments, that he’s probably one of the most humble people on the planet. He’s also a physics nerd and if you ask him about his projects, be prepared for a very in-depth explanation of “trajectories” and “velocity” and “lift/drag ratios”. Is this knowledge necessary to what he does? According to Wilson, “only if you want to live.”
There’s a hard-to-find video of Mike BASE-jumping off the Angel falls in Venezuela. The jump off the world’s tallest waterfall is highly illegal due to a landing, which has claimed many broken legs, backs, and even deaths. This didn’t stop Wilson from throwing a few gainers off the top.
Maybe he’s got a few horseshoes hidden up his ass. Personally, I think Wilson was born to make the world cringe, sweat and watch through our fingers and hope we aren’t about to see someone die on video.
This is the man behind the madness:
1. You once fell 600ft into a pile of rocks because of a parachute malfunction. Where do you find the balls to keep jumping?
The idea of not jumping never really crossed my mind. I sent the parachute back to the manufacturer, and they didn’t see anything wrong with it, so I just decided never to jump that parachute (or even that model) again. I’ve jumped thousands of times on other models, and only once on that model. Since it didn’t work, I avoid it, and stick to what I know does work.
2. Do you think it’s something you have to be born with? Or can the extreme athleticism we see in these videos be learned?
You can learn everything I know. The three things to work towards are very good air awareness, participation in (and a solid understanding of the concepts behind) many different action sports, and a solid understanding of physics and math.
I got my first trampoline when I was 12. I spent three to five hours a day on it until I was 15, when I moved to Utah and starting bouncing closer to 30 or 35 hours a week. I learned how to transfer tricks from a trampoline to skis, and also to cliff diving, BASE-jumping, or anything else that puts me in the air. The trampoline is the best bang-for-your-buck for air awareness training due to the amount of time you’re actually in the air.
I never lost anyone I knew until I was 17. Then it was a few more years. Then my friends started dropping like flies. I’ve had two roommates die (one skiing, one skydiving), one friend kill himself, and have lost between four and six friends a year for the last six or eight years. It’s a lot, and entirely too many. That being said, I understand the risks involved in what I do.
I call them “heads up sports”, because you’ll die as soon as you stop paying attention to what you’re doing. You can’t afford to lose focus. To be honest though, death doesn’t really scare me. Paralysis scares the crap out of me. If you look at what it takes away from you, I freak out. I’ve lost touch with my best friend, travel partner, and film guy because he was paralyzed a few years ago and I’m too scared to even consider that as a reality for me.
4. You’ve said that you’re a physics nerd. Is a wide knowledge of physics necessary to your line of work (or for anyone looking to get into action sports)?
Only if you want to live. Often people try to progress too quickly and don’t have the experience to draw from to know how to stay safe in a certain situation, which leads to injuries and often death. I’ve had it happen, when I was 18. I had never broken a bone or been seriously hurt, which as a professional skier was rare. I was basically convinced I was superman and couldn’t get hurt. I had hit a 130 foot jump before, and wanted to clear 150 to break the world record of 135. I showed up for the shoot, the jump was 195 feet, and I figured I’d go for it. I ended up in the hospital, and had to take three months off for physical therapy. Since I had hit many 100 to 130 foot jumps, I would have had the experience I needed to figure out the speeds and trajectory needed for a 140 or 150 foot jump without many issues. But I got into a jump 30% larger, and didn’t have the knowledge (from experience) to fully understand what I’d gotten myself into. I learned three main things from that experience.
1.) Never let anyone pressure you into anything.
2.) Always have a safe way to pull out and start over and
3.) A good knowledge of high school physics will allow you to accurately calculate speeds and trajectories for most sports.
5. Which stunt are you most proud of and why?
I think probably building the world’s biggest zip line. It was a childhood dream to build a zip line so big you’d zip through the clouds, so when I did, it was pretty surreal. Plus it took me about four years to research it, locate the materials, and truly be ready to build it. I paid for the whole thing personally as a passion project, so anything I could do to save another few dollars was worth it. Finally, when I had everything I needed it came together and was built in three days, totaling about four hours of work. I think it means a lot to me because it was four plus years of work, that turned into exactly what I imagined.
6. What do you think made you get bored of skiing?
It wasn’t really that it became boring, but that it became a job. My sponsors were telling me where to go, who to ski with, what to do, and basically how to do it. It became monotonous, and I felt like I’d done everything cool that I was going to get to do, so I didn’t see a point in continuing.
7. Why are sponsors afraid to let you do the stunts you want to do?
No major brand can afford bad publicity, which means no real element of risk. BASE-jumping will always be an inherently risky sport. There are many ways to make it more dangerous, and certain things you can do to make it safer, but it will never be a “safe” sport. This is true about most things that I do for fun. Even if I’ve found ways to minimize risk to the point that I’m ready to do a stunt, most companies are afraid to be associated with it due to the chance of anything going wrong. Bad publicity has a far worse effect than great publicity has a good effect. I’ve seen plenty of people get hurt filming, but I’ve never had anyone get hurt on a shoot I produced, and even with a perfect record, companies are still cautious.
8. How much work, time and money gets put into the stunts you do?
Every project is different. As a general rule, the less time you have, the more it costs. This is basically because if you’re in a time crunch, you don’t have time to shop around and find better prices, or less expensive ways of doing things. I’ve shot projects for fun with equipment I already own, and I’ve shot million dollar ad campaigns. You’ll see a huge jump in production quality when I have a proper budget, but I play those sports for fun, so I build a lot of the setups without ever worrying about filming them, and the film (if we bother to film it) quality isn’t as good.
9. You’ve told me that one of the favorite aspects of your career is being told that a stunt can’t be done, and then doing it. Is this an important attitude to have in action sports?
No, not at all. In fact, if you’re a competitor, it’s the worst attitude to have. My love to prove people wrong is what drives me to innovate and push my sports, and myself but it causes me to always be thinking outside the box. As a competitor, you need to be focused on what it takes to win. You won’t find many athletes who can focus on winning and pushing the boundaries. Travis Rice is one person who did for a while, but even he has cut back on contests to further snowboarding and snowboard filmmaking.
10. If you lost the capability to do extreme sports, what would you do?
Go back to school for physical therapy, and set up a non-profit to fund surgeries and therapy for underfunded youth athletes.