Ren Huschle used to fall. He started skydiving near Kalispell when he was 22. Three years later, after moving to California, he started BASE jumping off cliffs. In both cases he just tumbled through the air, waiting to deploy his parachute. He fell.
Now Huschle flies. He still jumps out of planes, and off of cliffs and bridges, but when he does he opens the wings of a special suit with flaps of fabric under each arm and between his legs that catch the air, slow his descent and make him look something like a flying squirrel. Your average skydiver falls at around 120 miles per hour. In his wingsuit, Huschle glides at half that speed.
"You open up your arms and you pretty much lean the way you want to go," says Huschle, now 34 and living in Bozeman. "You've got time to look around. If you jump with other people, you can fly next to each other. You can fly in formation like planes. You look at a bird flying, and that's what it feels like."
Over the past seven years, Huschle's done some amazing wingsuit jumps. He's flown extensively in Europe, including a launch off The Eiger, a 13,025-foot mountain in Switzerland's Bernese Alps. He's jumped in Idaho and California. Most notably, however, he's one of only two wingsuit jumpers to have flown in Montana. He's secretive about the locationsone jump was in "southwest Montana" and another in "western Montana" is all he offersbut it's clear he sees his home state as a new frontier.
"It's unexplored territory," Huschle says.
Huschle believes he's one of only a few in Montana who have even tried the sport; Huschle knows of some active BASE jumpers, but none who have tried wingsuits yet. That leaves him mostly on his own when scouting new cliffs. It's a tricky process because Montana's mountains don't have as much relief as, say, the Alps. But the technology has improved enough in the last few years to put Montana peaks in play. He says flying is "safer, easier" than it was even five years ago.
It's still far from a beginner's sport. Wingsuit flights require intense training and evaluation with a coach, and that only happens after a recommended minimum of 200 traditional skydives. Huschle says one mistake, one distraction, one extra second of flight and even his parachute may become useless. He's made mistakes, but never a fatal one.
"If you're not paying attention, you're still falling out of the sky," Huschle says.
The words catch in his throat for a moment. He's been liberal with the word "flying" up to now, but the mention of falling seems to make him reflect. "We're not flying yet," he confesses. "We glide. Poorly."