Géraldine Fasnacht, the “bird woman”

There’s no slope too steep and no summit too high for her. Géraldine Fasnacht launches herself off the top of mountains equipped with skis, a snowboard, wingsuit or parachute. “I’m living my dream.”

She is charismatic, warm and open. Her words reflect her thoughts and feelings. She exudes joy and energy, tempered now and again with a hint of sadness. Géraldine Fasnacht has earned her “bird woman” nickname – all the more so since pictures of the moment she launched herself into the void from the summit of the Matterhorn in a wingsuit garnered worldwide attention. She is a “bird woman” not only because she knows how to fly, but also because of her deep-seated sense of freedom – the freedom to do what she loves most, regardless of the consequences.

Even as a child, Géraldine had always wanted to fly. On finishing her education, she worked for the airline Swiss at Geneva airport where she continued to feel the lure of the mountains. “I grew up in Poliez-le-Grand (in the canton of Vaud), but as soon as the first snow fell and we had any free time, our parents took us down to Verbier.” This was how she discovered snowboarding, which she practised with a passion every time she had the chance, without ever imagining it was how she would one day make her living. Géraldine worked full time and spent her leisure time on the slopes. She admired the intrepid snowboarders who lined up against one another each year at the Xtreme Verbier event. “They were my idols – I looked up to them and cherished the crazy dream of one day taking part in this competition where the stars tackle the Bec des Rosses.”

Her talent soon drew the attention of professionals within the sport. In 2002, they invited her to participate in the Xtreme Verbier. “I was totally panicking about it until an obvious fact struck me: if you’re given a chance like this, you have to prepare for it correctly. I spent a long time thinking about it, discussed it with my parents and finally decided to hand in my notice and move to Verbier for a year to undergo serious training.” Her mother encouraged her, saying: “Don’t pass up this opportunity or you may end up regretting it one day. And you can always find another job.”

Géraldine Fasnacht was 21 when she embarked on this new life. She trained on the slopes in the morning, before working at a travel agency in the afternoon and waiting tables in a restaurant in the evening. This enabled her to earn the money she needed for accommodation, food and her sport. When the big moment arrived, she joined the closed circle of the best freeriders for a week, training with them and immediately feeling at home in their company. “I felt like Alice in Wonderland. I had achieved my goal. I was overjoyed,” she recalls. On the day of the competition, she descended the practically vertical rock face with ease. “I was the youngest – most of the other competitors were in their 30s and I felt like they had taken me under their wing. I had no expectations whatsoever because I had already achieved what I had set out to do: get my name on the list of participants.” Nevertheless, Géraldine surprised everyone by taking first place and qualifying for the final. She enjoyed another special moment that day, too. “The riders always go up to the starting point on foot. For the final, we were taken up to the starting line by helicopter – an unforgettable experience. What followed has entered the history books: Géraldine went on to win the final, earning the title as the youngest ever female winner of the Xtreme Verbier event. All her doubts then disappeared. She knew that she would devote her life to off-piste skiing and snowboarding from that moment on.

Mont Fort, Géraldine Fastnacht, Verbier, Wallis/Valais, Freeride, Snowboard, fresh pow
During the climb up Mont Fort. Géraldine Fasnacht always wears a helmet and carries an airbag backpack.

So she took part in the Freeride World Tour, winning medals and notching up superb rankings. Improving day by day, the other freeriders soon came to dub her the “bird woman”. But her happiness was not yet complete. While perfectly content during the winter, in summer she was not always able to find the right outlet for her inexhaustible energy and missed the chance to stretch her boundaries. So she learned to parachute and discovered the joy of flying. After more than 300 jumps from a plane, it was time for Géraldine to move on to the next step. She took up base jumping, i.e. parachuting from a rocky outcrop or some other fixed object. From there, it was only a small step to wingsuit flying. She took the plunge in 2004, launching herself for the first time in the winged all-in-one garment that transforms the human body in such a way that it resembles a bird. “A wingsuit really does allow you to spread your wings and fly. There are no words to describe the sensation of soaring in the air and letting yourself glide on the wind as you play with the currents,” says the young woman, who has just turned 30. The spectacular flight she made with Julien Meyer from the top of the Matterhorn has brought her fame, and the photos of this record-breaking feat have garnered worldwide attention. Géraldine has become a bird woman in everyone’s eyes. To show that her exploits are not based solely on courage, she recently decided to carry out an almost poetic project. She circled in the air with an eagle before returning to the valley. For Géraldine, flying, the great dream of humankind, has become reality.

Of course, it’s impossible not to think of Icarus, who paid with his life for flying too close to the sun. She has seen this allegory, which teaches us not to tempt fate, lived out in the flesh. Her husband died while speed flying and Estelle Balet, her friend and pupil, lost her life in an avalanche in a corridor that Géraldine had just tackled without any difficulty. “I think of Estelle every day. Up to now, I’ve barely been able to wait for the first snow to arrive each year. This autumn, I’m almost happy for it to arrive late.” She has no fears for herself as her descents and flights are not chance adventures. A great deal of minute preparation goes into them – sometimes taking several years. “It’s just that I feel closest to the ones I love when I’m in the mountains.” She feels a strong rapport with them when climbing up towards the summit, hearing the snow crunch beneath her feet and drinking in the magnificent view. “If a friend is killed in a road accident, you don’t stop using your car.” Géraldine Fasnacht is convinced that life is not complete unless you listen to your inner voice. She has set up a foundation that helps young freeriders to realise their dream by providing them with practical and financial support. She wants to share the sensation of being free as a bird with others.

Interview: Monique Ryser,  Foto: David Carlier

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