Friends and colleagues of a Canadian adventurer who died in China are flooding social media with glowing tributes, loving remembrances and some small measure of resignation at the inevitability of his demise.
The body of 28-year-old Graham Dickinson was found last Thursday on a cliff in the Tianmen Mountain National Forest Park in the central province of Hunan. The day before, he posted a picture of the mountain on his Facebook page, accompanied by a smiling emoji and the description “feeling like he is dreaming.”
Dickinson was regarded as one of the best in the world at a sport called wingsuiting, in which athletes jump from high places and glide to the ground with the aid of aerodynamic body suits that make their wearers look a little like flying squirrels.
Dickinson’s specialty was terrain flying, in which he swooped frighteningly close to mountain cliffs, buildings, trees and the ground — many of his flights are documented on video and easily found on the Internet.
“Certainly knew this day would come but no less gutted that it’s here,” Glen J. Kilpatrick wrote on the World Wingsuit League’s Facebook page.
“I think many of us already knew in a way that he was going to die soon, since his flights were closer and crazy day by day,” wrote Jose Montero. “It was a matter of time.”
Despite his celebrity inside his sport, Dickinson was hardly a household name. His biggest brush with fame back home may have been when he got in trouble for allegedly jumping from a gondola at Whistler, B.C.
“I’ve been travelling all around the world wingsuiting — everywhere in North America, Europe, Australia, Asia. I do it as much as I can,” he said in a recent video posted to YouTube. “It’s my passion, my hobby, my love. I try to do it every single day.”
According to his bio with the World Wingsuit League, Dickinson started out parachuting but quickly took up wingsuiting.
“Human beings have been obsessed by the idea of flight, and imagined themselves flying among the clouds, and soaring like birds,” he explained. “The mythology of many cultures abounds with gods and kings borne through the air; the power of flight was often attributed to gods. In this day and age we have the tools and technology to be able to fly and some people have no desire — I personally cannot fathom this concept.
“I live to fly and to explore the heavens every possible day I can.”
According to the WWL, Dickinson was travelling in China alone with a mission to scout and open new jumping exit points. He was reported missing by friends on Wednesday and local search and rescue personnel found his body the next morning.
The sport is without a doubt a dangerous one and some of its top practitioners have met the same fate, including Dickinson’s friend, Italian Dario Zanon, who died last summer, and Hungarian Victor Kovats, who died in the same area as Dickinson back in 2013.
One of the most famous fatalities was Mark Sutton, who gained international fame at the 2012 London Olympics for parachuting into the stadium dressed as James Bond. He was killed the following summer during a TV-sponsored event in Switzerland.
“Graham represented the most cutting edge in proximity wingsuit flying and his name became synonymous for dangerous and challenging wingsuit lines,” said the WWL.
“Graham was well known, not only as one of the world’s most popular, talented and active BASE-jumpers, but also, as a serious risk taker who was willing to put everything in the line to pursuit his dreams.”
His girlfriend, Kristen Johnson, paid tribute to their exciting lifestyle on her Facebook memorial to Dickinson, recalling the first time he took her to jump off a building, the first time he helped her jump off cliffs in the United Arab Emirates, and “my first encounters with security on an illegal jump.”
She also recalled jumping off 3,000-foot fjords in unicorn onesies and being pulled over in rural Germany for six hours by the local police.
“I’ve picked him up from jail twice, helped him get emergency dental done in a foreign country as he swore at me the entire time, and literally lived in a Fiat 500 with him as we toured Europe together,” she wrote.
“The experiences and stories I have from the short time I shared with him are the stuff of legend and are what I will be forever grateful for.
“He was certainly no saint and definitely drove me to tears on more than one occasion, but he had a heart of gold. One of those rare, genuine, shiny souls that makes you want to be, no, forces you to be a better person.”