Ten years ago, on 25th May 2008, Gus, my friend, colleague, and erstwhile housemate, died in an extreme sports accident. He was 29. His death was untimely, violent and shocking to those who knew him in a professional capacity. It was also unusual enough to warrant an obituary in the Telegraph and a feature in the Mail on Sunday.
Above and apart from the understandable shock, grief and anger, my abiding memory of his funeral was how little we knew him. I lived with Gus for three years at the start of my career; worked alongside him for longer. We climbed together at least weekly, and drank beer together more often than that. At his funeral, I realised I simply did not understand what made him tick.
Eulogies were delivered in discrete little bunches. A senior manager talked about his professional life, using words that I had helped prepare. His family spoke, of course, but they were describing someone I barely recognised: a quiet choirboy, fiercely proud of his heritage. (In all the years I knew him, I never met any of his family until that day.)
And then his fellow BASE jumpers stood up to speak, en masse, in a robust defence of their sport and in defiance of we outsiders, who could barely comprehend how this happened, let alone why. According to the Mail article linked above, the BASE community subsequently met Gus's family and they made their peace. I had forgotten, I suppose, that they were in mourning too. But in the moment, it certainly felt like a crass move to be so brash at such a time. Yes, I was angry with them. I felt not only that they bore some responsibility for what had happened, but also that they were fooling themselves by defending and supporting an activity whose dangers had so vividly been illustrated. They would, I supposed, shortly be returning to jumping; and sooner or later, inevitably, somebody else's family, friends and colleagues would find themselves at the memorial for a life needlessly cut short.
I have often thought about Gus since. His death profoundly affects my understanding of, and appetite for, risk. It shapes my understanding of privacy: the sense that people close off parts of themselves, only opening up the facets that they want to share in tiny slivers to different audiences. But most clearly, it affects my understanding of ikigai, his reason for living. Gus was a man who most certainly had his work-life balance exactly where he wanted it.
In the seven years I knew him, Gus was an exceptionally positive influence. He was politically aware and gave generously to charity - neither of which had occurred to me as a self-obsessed recent graduate setting out in the world of work. He pooh-poohed organised religion (a fact that might have surprised even his family, who arranged his funeral in a traditional CoE setting) but was a staunch supporter of human rights and social justice. He appreciated artistic films, great obscure music, good food, proper ale.
He didn't spend his early paycheques on flashy goods, as most of us grads probably did. He bought a modest car, a modest phone. For the first year or so, he didn't even buy a bed for his unfurnished room. Rather, he was spending most of his money - and spare time - on a hobby, travelling most weekends from Guildford to Nottingham to skydive. Over the early years that I knew him, this hobby started to grow. He started shooting and editing short films containing skydiving stunts, and they were often rather good. Later, he started jumping in a wingsuit.
I can't recall the exact time that he told me that he had started BASE jumping. I do remember that he explained it all to me quite carefully: the hierarchy, the mentoring, the licensing system. I also remember that I once put my foot in it by describing his activities to some of our mutual colleagues, who he would have preferred did not know. BASE jumping is not generally illegal, but very often involves some form of trespass and possible public order-type offences.
Gradually, I realised that he was spending more and more of his time participating in ever-riskier jumps. Almost everything he did outside of work - including, as it turned out, his interest in rock climbing - was in service to this hobby. He relayed to me some of the scariest incidents and I expect I made it known that I did not well understand this passion of his. In fact, not even his friends from the conventional skydiving community necessarily understood or condoned it. He described being chased by police; coming close to electrocution on top of a radio transmitter; and, most harrowingly, getting his parachute caught on an antenna guy cable, ending up suspended at a lethal height with no obvious prospect of getting free. Typically, the part of this incident that troubled him the most was that his parachute had been ruined by the guy wire's lubrication oil.
Even before all this, I had noted and commented on his seeming fearlessness. It was visible in his climbing, and in other activities such as go-karting, where he excelled. He once scaled the outside of his shared house in Gloucester to retrieve his housemate's room key, climbing in through a second-floor window without harness or ropes. In other contexts, that calculated risk-taking might have made him a formidable entrepreneur or stockbroker. But work was always the necessary enabler of his lifestyle; however good he was at his job, he had no interest in climbing the corporate ziggurat for its own sake.
However, the detail that I remember most clearly from his early BASE videos was not that fearlessness at all. In fact, he appeared to be pretty much terrified every time he jumped. This manifested itself in meticulous preparation for every jump, checking his equipment carefully and planning every "exit" with precision. And he did regularly cancel jumps if the conditions weren't perfect, even if he had spent ages planning and travelling. Despite everything, he was not at all reckless.
The thing that I most obviously failed to understand was just how accomplished and respected Gus had become as a BASE jumper in such a short period of time, and also his broadening scope and ambition. His passion for BASE had taken him to Norway and ultimately to Switzerland. Less than a fortnight before he died, he had travelled to Scotland to climb and jump from the Old Man of Hoy, a staggeringly difficult feat that I had barely even acknowledged for totally selfish reasons (he had undertaken the challenge in preference to a far more mundane activity that we had been planning together for some time).
Gus's death was an accident. It was not down to a lack of skill, experience or preparation. Nor was it due to a failure to appreciate the potential dangers. He was participating in a sport that he truly loved. If I still can't understand why he'd take such risks, that's my problem alone.
I have since read reports of other extreme sports accidents that do, in fact, give me a glimmer of understanding as to the reward part of his risk-reward calculation. The challenge of the climb, the exhilaration of the jump, the camaraderie, the deep technical skills, the pride of achieving a world-first jump. All of these attributes sound vastly more appealing than, say, an adventure-sport-turned-tourist-attraction with the potential for freezing to death and becoming a macabre permanent landmark on a remote mountainside; or one in which a possible outcome is drowning in the claustrophobic darkness of a deep cave system. Both of these reports, while sensitively written, contain highly distressing details: they lay bare the grim reality of extreme sports gone very wrong despite the skill and precaution of the participants. (By way of slight relief, a recent Guardian feature describes a vanishingly rare successful rescue of an inexperienced diver from an underwater cave. Her survival clearly depended entirely the level-headed bravery of her rescuer and a huge amount of luck.)
It's taken me a long time to come to terms with what I perceived as the troubling and selfish causes of my friend's death and the seemingly blasé response of the peer group that enabled him. There is never a right way to mourn; yet of course when we lose somebody close to us, we should try to honour them as best we can. While I have never felt compelled to try skydiving myself, Gus clearly offered much to admire and to emulate: his generosity, charity, humanity, integrity, wit and intelligence, and his passion and dedication to his sport. I shall continue to try to be as mindful as he was; and I shall continue to uphold my tradition of occasionally pouring myself a White Russian, and toasting my friend Gus.
Gus was born on 19th April 1979 in Norwich and grew up near Cromer, Norfolk. He graduated from the University of Nottingham in 2001 and started working with me in Guildford, Surrey, in September of that year. In around 2004, he moved to Gloucester for work, later returning to Guildford. He died in Meiringen, Switzerland on 25th May 2008. In the accompanying Mail On Sunday article, the photograph of Gus is incorrectly labelled: Gus is centre of the three men pictured. In the linked Wikipedia article on the Old Man Of Hoy, Gus's surname is spelt incorrectly.