Skydiver and BASE jumper Miles Daisher, extreme snow skier Ingrid Backstrom and big wave surfer Laird Hamilton have discovered freedom and enlightenment testing the boundaries of their respective sports. Their daring, pioneering and record-setting feats can serve as inspiration for all of us.
The freedom of freefall
Descending at 100 mph in a white wingsuit, wind roaring beneath his outstretched arms and legs, Miles Daisher soars like a futuristic flying squirrel after jumping out of an airplane 10,000 feet above Twin Falls, Idaho
Rapidly approaching the ground, Daisher deploys his parachute and maneuvers to a safe landing along the Snake River.
“Mission accomplished!” shouts Daisher, 42, after completing his first jump of the day during the Perrine Bridge Festival last September. “What a great day to be alive!”
Described by friends as “a human windup toy,” the exuberant Daisher loves leaping out of airplanes and off towering structures and mountains. During the last 16 years, he’s completed more than 2,800 BASE jumps, more than anyone else in the world. BASE is an acronym for the categories of fixed objects—buildings, antennas, spans (bridges) and earth (cliffs)—from which parachuted daredevils jump.
“During flight, you’re completely in the moment, enjoying pure freedom,” Daisher says. “You have a heightened sense of awareness and feel so alive. Your inner animal takes over, and you get to experience the real you.”
Daisher leapt into extreme sports in 1995, when a friend persuaded him to try skydiving. Two years later, he began BASE jumping and in 1999 he started soaring in a wingsuit.
A member of the Red Bull Air Force, a group of freefalling fanatics that perform feats for the energy drink company, Daisher has plunged into mountainous chasms in Norway and New Zealand and leaped from some of the world’s tallest structures. When he’s not staging stunts for Red Bull, he teaches BASE jumping at Miles D’s BASE Camp in Twin Falls.
To stay invigorated, Daisher devises new high-flying stunts. For example, he pioneered “skyaking,” freefalling at 98 mph in a kayak before deploying his parachute and landing in a body of water.
“The name of the game is to make something difficult look easy and to come back alive to tell the story,” says Daisher, who is married and has three children.
Perched atop a snow-covered peak above Squaw Valley, Calif. (pop. 2,691), skier Ingrid Backstrom peers down the steep slope before plunging into the powder and reaching speeds of 60 mph as she carves tracks through narrow rocky chutes and bounds off alpine cliffs.
To friends watching Backstrom engage the untamed terrain, her wild ride exemplifies why she is the legendary queen of big mountain free-skiing, a sport in which skiers choose their route down a precipitous peak without the guidance and constraint of a groomed run.
To Backstrom, known for landing 45-foot cliff jumps and being the only female on Powder magazine’s 2002 list of “11 Future Big Mountain Heroes,” each run is a way to feel alive.
“It’s a zen feeling where your mind and body and surroundings are one,” explains Backstrom, 33, a Normandy Park, Wash., native who started skiing competitively at age 10. “I’m finding synergy in using my mind and body together. We all have a unique predisposition, depending on our DNA, to connect our minds and bodies to the world; we’re just trying to figure it out.”
After graduating in 2000 from Whitman College in Walla Walla, Wash., a friend encouraged Backstrom to enter a free-skiing competition in California. “I took a year off to ‘ski bum,’” she says, “and I’m fortunate enough to still be doing that.”
After skiing, she heads home to her rented cabin in the woods to keep in touch with corporate sponsors who periodically dispatch her to remote mountains around the world. She also pockets a paycheck by starring in Matchstick Productions’ extreme ski films, writing for Powder magazine and teaching ski clinics.
It’s a lifestyle that, despite its dangers, suits a trailblazing free-skier. “Every year, I love it more,” says Backstrom, whose 29-year-old brother, Arne, died last year in a skiing accident in Peru. “The coming winter presents a whole new set of challenges, opportunities and incredible fun.”
Big wave inspiration
Within earshot of his Hawaiian home, surfer Laird Hamilton can hear the thunderous waves that he craves, the kind that make most surfers cower. In the 1990s, Hamilton and friends pioneered the sport of big wave surfing, towing each other with jet skis onto ocean swells—20 to 100 feet tall—that sweep them along at 30 to 50 mph.
On Aug. 17, 2000, Hamilton etched his name in surfing lore when he rode one of Tahiti’s most powerful and treacherous waves. His historic ride was immortalized by a Surfer magazine cover photo, and in 2002 the magazine’s editor proclaimed Hamilton the world’s greatest big wave surfer.
Relaxing on the beach after a day of surfing, Hamilton, 47, describes the peace he feels when he rides a perfect wave near his island home of Maui.
“When you’re in that liquid energy, you’re part of it and observing it simultaneously,” says Hamilton, who began surfing at age 6 under the tutelage of his competitive surfer stepfather, Bill Hamilton. “At the apex, you’re in total harmony with it, in a place where time doesn’t start or stop.”
Hamilton admits sensing fear at times. However, instead of fear becoming a paralyzing foe, it’s a friend that helps him focus, or is an intuitive force that sends him to the safety of shore and home to his wife and three daughters.
Seeking new challenges, he designs surfing equipment, such as the foilboard, a short, elevated surfboard with an underwater wing, and standup paddle boards, on which riders stand and use a long paddle to navigate.
“Standup paddle boards are as functional and fun as a bicycle on land and can be used on any water,” says Hamilton, who earns a living with his surfing innovations and through corporate sponsorships.
Hamilton hopes his zest for big wave surfing inspires others to discover their own life’s passion.
“Ask yourself what brings you calmness, what settles you and brings peace to your heart and life at the end of a day,” he says. “Put your energy toward that activity.”