Tribute to Xaver Bongard
by Will Oxx
Photo: Thomas Ulrich
It is time to recognize and celebrate the achievements and life of Xaver Bongard (BASE #362), a true Swiss legend. I am proud to have been his close friend. “Toto”, as he was affectionately called, was a Swiss mountain guide, world famous big wall rock and ice climber, and the pioneer of BASE jumping in Switzerland. Anyone who was fortunate enough to have known Xaver remembers his friendly smile, cheerful laugh and his great sense of humor.
I first met Xaver in 1989. Our paths crossed one day in Yosemite Valley when he told me he would like to BASE jump from El Capitan and wished for me to teach him. I remember the energy of his presence and saw the alertness in his eyes which instantly set him apart from the others who I had been asked to mentor. I told Xaver the same thing I said to many others; that before we can begin, he first needed to complete a 100 skydives, learn how to track and accurately land his square parachute.
The very next summer in Yosemite he briskly marched up to me and handed me his logbook stating: “I’ve made 100 jumps and have my B license”. I inspected his parachute rig and we disappeared into the forest where I began to teach him how to pack, make an exit into still air, and how we would escape.
The next night we jumped off El Cap together bathed in the silver light of a full moon. Xaver’s girlfriend, Annabelle Crivelli, was part of our ground crew. I’ll never forget listening to the sound of her soft voice cooing over the radio telling us in beautiful Swiss German that the coast was clear, the winds were calm, and that everything was right down below. Xaver and I had a wonderful first jump together. I remember surprising a group of sleeping deer in a grassy meadow below as we came out of the night sky above them.
Our partnership had begun. We enjoyed some more climbing and BASE jumping together for the next few months. The next year we were very fortunate to work with each other on an award-winning film which documented the passion we both had for the sports we enjoyed so much.
Xaver kept talking about “this beautiful valley” in his Swiss homeland. He said Lauterbrunnen was in his backyard and that “the cliffs overhung so much that the valley is shaped like a fishbowl”. He exclaimed how it offered the potential for a great many exit sites around the rim. Xaver proudly proclaimed that “best of all was the fact that we don’t have to run away and hide after we jump!” He explained that: “In my homeland we are a mountain culture and accept that things can happen”. Lauterbrunnen sounded like a fairytale to me. I remember learning how Walt Disney was inspired to create Disneyland after visiting Switzerland, so as an American I made the ironic decision to “re-cross the Atlantic in pursuit of freedom”.
In 1991 I went to France to climb and jump. I called Xaver after traveling around Europe for a few months and he said: “You need to get out here now - I’ve already made 10 jumps from Staubbach. You’ve got to see this place!” So, I got on a train the next day and joined him in Interlaken. That is when the magic began.
I’ll never forget when Xaver first drove me into Lauterbrunnen and we stood by the church together looking up at the Staubbach. The waterfall was so beautiful! I distinctly remember the feeling of how stunned I was after making a slow pirouette and taking in the view of the whole valley. Xaver pointed all around the valley rim showing me how there was potential for jumps to be made everywhere. The great cliff walls were seemingly “color coded” with long yellow and orange streaks showing where water never touched the stone. I found all the beauty and wonder hard to comprehend.
That night Xaver and I prepared and checked our gear. The next morning Xaver helped me sign up for REGA before we set off on a hiking trail where we leaped off the Staubbach. We landed at noon and the church bells exploded and rang loudly. I was brought to my knees by the beauty of the experience. We laughed, “high fived” - and embraced each other in a big hug celebrating the gift that life is - a feeling jumpers know so very well. Both of us were very happy and truly grateful after each jump that we made - and to be able to stroll a short distance back into town for some tasty treats and drinks was the icing on the cake!
Lauterbrunnen is a special place to be cherished. I am so happy to know that the SBA protects this little piece of “Heaven on Earth”. We travelled around Switzerland jumping from different locations being careful to coordinate with land owners and airports for restrictions. I was profoundly humbled to find acceptance as a sportsman in Switzerland. BASE-jumping is treated as criminal behaviour and is not permitted in my own country of the United States. I had to re-cross the Atlantic to find this kind of freedom.
Will Oxx and Xaver Bongard (Photo: Thomas Ulrich)
Xaver’s good friend Thomas Ulrich joined us on several of our adventures and explorations around the local area to different cliff sites. Tommy was instrumental in supporting us. It is Tommy who first discovered “The Mushroom” exit point on the Eiger while flying over it in a helicopter. (He showed it to Dave Barlia and I - I brought Dave out to Switzerland after Xaver passed - another story).
Some of my fondest memories with Xaver were the many times we would encounter chamois (mountain goats) as we slowly worked our way down to a cliff’s edge from above the different cliff walls. We would round a corner and suddenly come face to face with them, stop, and remain motionless silently looking at each other. Long quiet moments of solitude would pass before they would move expertly always from us - seemingly leading us “the right way to a new exit point”. The magic filled the air so heavily I swore I started seeing the "Heinzelmännchen"!
I returned to Switzerland for several years in the early 1990s during the winter months because I also enjoyed ice climbing and snow sports. When we set off to jump the Nose below Mürren Xaver spoke with the train conductor who let us dive out of the moving train into the deep snow drifts with our gear and ropes wrapped around us. We set up rope rappels down to the cliff’s edge and cleared exit spots with our ice axes and crampons.
Xaver made the first BASE jump in Lauterbrunnen using the first true modern BASE rig - a single parachute container with a parachute specifically made for our sport. (Moe Viletto jumped from the footstool of the Eiger using a single container rig with a modified skydiving canopy). Xaver used a FOX (first edition) - the first ram air square parachute and container specifically made for BASE jumping. I had borrowed this prototype system from friends at Basic Research. All the other systems in use at or before this time were modifications to existing skydiving equipment.
I would like to say something to the BASE jumpers active in the sport today. Take care of each other out there. Be a Shepard in the mountains and leave each place cleaner than you found it. Give some time back to help the sport we love. Share your knowledge and skills with those who wish to learn. Challenge yourself, but know and accept your own limitations. Stop showing off for the camera. Shed and lose your ego. Craving recognition leads to bad decision making and poor risk management.
In this extremely dangerous sport, I have found that “along with the highest of highs come the lowest of lows”. Xaver died while jumping from Staubbach on April 15, 1994 when he cut away from his main canopy and his reserve parachute failed to open. Xaver had purchased a Sorcerer (Vertigo BASE Outfitters) parachute system and had a double malfunction. He decided he did not want to wait several months for a new FOX container and canopy.
I feel partially responsible for Xaver’s death in that I promised to bring back his FOX to manufacture for examination and further analysis when I returned to the States. Xaver and I had already each ordered a new one, but the wait time would take several months. Xaver decided to purchase and use a Sorcerer instead.
I still feel the pain and mourn Xaver’s loss after all these years. Our own deaths are always most painful for the loved ones we leave behind in this world. In our mad pursuit of extreme adventure, we need to pause and take time to reflect on this fact. I often ponder the question: “Are our actions and pursuits selfish?” It’s tough to be honest with yourself and weigh your responsibilities and the devastating impact your death will cause your family and friends. Yes, follow your dreams and passions and remain focused on your goals. Seek knowledge and learn the appropriate training steps to take. Don’t Rush - Ever! Know that your own limitation can vary from day to day. Take care to maintain your equipment. Check small things. Become a mountain weather expert. Use good judgement and know when to wait and when to turn around. You will learn MORE from the jumps you don’t make - and turn around and walk away from - than from ANY jump you successfully make (It’s so much easier to jump than to NOT jump, right? I mean who wants to suffer by reversing the brutal path you toiled all day on to get to the exit point?) Follow this advice out of respect for the ones you love. This is part of proper risk management.
I have record of Xaver and I jumping from 10 different exit points in Lauterbrunnen and several more outside the valley. We shared and enjoyed many of them with friends, but Xaver never told anyone about some of them. Xaver (and I) wished to remain anonymous. We quietly pursued our sport in secret sharing many jumps with our friends - who asked us to name them and record the details. A guide book was never written or published. Xaver was a humble sportsman from Freiburg who didn’t seek recognition. The only thing I ever heard him boast about was “the best cream in the world comes from Freiburg”.
I remained quiet about my exploits to protect my professional career as a pilot. Only now, having just retired from a career as both a Naval Aviator and captain for a major commercial airline, am I free to share the details of such adventures. I mean, what leader or manager in their right mind is going to allow some whacko adrenaline junkie take command of a jet?
© Will Oxx, 10th of December 2021