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Meet the adventurer: Géraldine Fasnacht, the Swiss 'bird woman'

Nicknamed the ‘bird woman’ for her pioneering wingsuit flights, the Swiss adventurer has blazed a trail of world firsts, from the Alps to Antarctica.

Published 8 Feb 2022, 06:00 GMT
Extreme athlete Géraldine Fasnacht explores the Alps around Verbier, Switzerland, by snowboard, wingsuit and light aircraft.

Extreme athlete Géraldine Fasnacht explores the Alps around Verbier, Switzerland, by snowboard, wingsuit and light aircraft.

Photograph by Raphaël Surmont

What inspired you to get into extreme sports?

By the time I was 15, my idols were Steve Klassen and Gilles Voirol; I had posters on my bedroom wall. They were strong and fast snowboarding champions, always finding aesthetic lines on the mountain. I knew then I wanted to ride like them on the Bec des Rosses, the Swiss peak home to the most extreme skiing and boarding competition in the world, Verbier Xtreme.

When did your passion for wingsuit flying begin?

I did my first wingsuit flight in 2001, in Voss, Norway. I was completely focused on my exit from the plane — how to navigate the door at the back, how to hold my body in the air. There was a lot to think about. But when I jumped, I just had the feeling of flying like a bird. It was so intense that I just flew and flew, enjoying the view, and forgot to turn to land back at the airport!

How did you prepare for this?

I started skydiving in 1998 when I was 18 years old with a tandem jump. As soon as I landed, I wanted to jump again. I started the process for getting my own skydiving licence straight away. In 2001, I did my first base jump [a parachute jump from a fixed object] — I really loved the feeling of starting from a solid place and then simply feeling the air accelerating in my ears. When I switched from highway bridges to mountains, I realised I was in my element, surrounded by nature. 

Fulfilling a childhood dream, Géraldine won the Verbier Xtreme, the grand finale of the Freeride World Tour, in 2002, 2003 and 2009.

Photograph by Lionel Favre

Where’s the best place to wingsuit?

I love a beautiful mountain — to jump and draw a line of flight over a ridge or glacier, to fly over forests of different colours or seracs [columns of glacial ice]. I think my home, Verbier, is the best playground on Earth. I can do everything I love in nearly every season, be it base jumping, with or without a wingsuit, freeriding with my snowboard down steep lines or flying my ultralight plane to glaciers. But I’ve had been lucky enough to go on some incredible trips, too: an expedition on Canada’s remote Baffin Island with a film crew, and the first ever wingsuit flights in places like Iran and Antarctica.

Are the thrills worth the risks?

If you’re a good wingsuit pilot, it can be less risky than driving on a motorway. The more experience you get, the better you’re going to be — that’s my advice to anyone looking to start. But don’t attempt challenging jumps too soon — you’ll burn your wings. The most important thing in this sport is to know your limits. 

What are you most proud of?

Opening my wingsuit on the first base jump in Antarctica in 2009. It took my team two years to prepare and get the permits. Then, to get the best conditions, we spent two months completely isolated at the bottom of the Holtanna Peak on a glacier in Queen Maud Land, just four of us. Finally, we got lucky with the weather. 

Left: Top:

Géraldine opening her wingsuit over the desert in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

Right: Bottom:

Géraldine flying in Silvaplana, Switzerland.

photographs by Roger Gruetter / X-project

What’s it like jumping off the Matterhorn wearing just a wingsuit?

I’d dreamed about flying off this iconic summit since 2009, when I first rode the east face with my snowboard. But at that time, wingsuit technology wasn’t advanced enough for the complexities of the exit point. I never thought my generation would be the one to see this through. I flew new prototypes and collected data about my jumps with a GPS tracker, helping develop the glide of the suits, training hard to get perfect starts with my wingsuit until, finally, I was ready to summit the Matterhorn in 2014.

What’s next?

I’m trying to be the best mum I can to my son, Odin. I want to help him find his own passion, but I’m also sharing my love for the mountains with him. This year is all about just enjoying flying and riding in my mountains [around Verbier]. There’s still so much to do. 

Finally, what’s the best piece of advice anyone has ever given you?

My mum says life is made of opportunities so try to achieve as much as you can, and never regret anything! Swiss-South African explorer Mike Horn also said ‘If your dreams don’t scare you, they are not big enough.” I think he’s right.

Géraldine Fasnacht is a freeride snowboarder, base jumper and wingsuit pilot based in Switzerland.

Read more from our Meet the Adventurer series

Published in the March 2022 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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