“I’ve come to realize we all crave inspiration…. People really aren’t that jaded and cynical after all. When we can bring people along to share adventures, they are moved, and the result is amazing. The best part is that one inspiration will trigger the next. That’s how we all keep moving forward.”
—Felix Baumgartner, 2013 People’s Choice Adventurer of the Year
Last November we announced ten Adventurers of the Year, then asked our audience to vote for the person who best captures the spirit of adventure. With nearly 55,000 votes cast, today we announced that Felix Baumgartner won the People’s Choice.
You probably already know that the 43-year-old Austrian pilot set a handful of new records when he free fell from 24.2 miles above Earth last October, ending his seven-year quest. You most likely watched it happen live on You Tube, along with more than 8 million other concurrent viewers (the largest livestream audience ever). He free fell for nearly 120,000 feet—that’s falling the height of the Empire State Building 85 times–at a maximum vertical speed of 843.6 miles per hour. And he was utterly alone. It was thrilling and terrifying at the same time to watch him step out of the capsule and tumble back to Earth.
But you probably don’t know that Baumgartner doesn’t consider himself a daredevil, that he’s interested in going to space, that he loves riding his fixies around his home in Switzerland, and that he dreamed of flying helicopters as a kid. Get to know Baumgartner in the interview below, then see photos from his career of pushing the boundaries of BASE jumping and skydiving.
Adventure: How does it feel that our audience voted you the National Geographic People’s Choice Adventurer of the Year for your spirit of adventure?
Felix Baumgartner: I was honored just to be on the same list with the other nominees. National Geographic has been opening people’s eyes to the world’s adventures for over a century, so being awarded this title is humbling. The fact that so many people made the effort to vote for me means the most of all. During the preparations for my jump, the support of fans kept me going through the tough times of waiting and uncertainty. It’s great to know that so many people are still following the mission.
A: What does adventure mean to you in your life?
F.B.: Adventure is life. It’s how we learn—when you’re a little child, adventure is feeling snow for the first time, or climbing a tree and seeing the world from an entirely new perspective. It’s exploration. As we get older our adventures change—maybe they become more sophisticated or more complex—but hopefully we never stop being curious, and we never stop exploring.
I want to add, though, that to me adventure does not mean being an adrenaline junkie. I’ve never liked the assumption that I am a daredevil just because I take on projects that few people would attempt. The reason I have been successful all these years is because I plan each one of my projects very carefully. The more ambitious the adventure, the better you have to plan. Being smart about it doesn’t take away from the excitement—for me that only adds to the experience, because I can appreciate what it took to get there, and I have the satisfaction of knowing that I gave it everything I had.
Adventure has taught me how to work toward goals successfully. The really big adventures—the ones that break boundaries and create “firsts”—aren’t undertaken lightly. They demand a lot of planning and preparation and risk assessment, or you’re probably going to fail. Throughout my life I’ve taken on progressively more demanding adventures, and I’ve learned from each one. That progression has enabled me to experience some incredible moments in a safe way. I can’t imagine life without adventurous goals.
A: How did jumping from the edge of space last October changed your life, in big and small ways?
F.B.: It really has been life changing, without a doubt. It used to be that sometimes I’d get recognized back in Austria where I grew up, but now people are calling my name on the streets of New York and Moscow and Dubai. It’s pretty amazing. And then there are those moments that completely blow me away—like when the secretary-general of the United Nations asked me to pay him a visit to discuss how I might work as a role model for young people. That’s an honor I never would have dreamed of.
A: Now months later, what insights has the jump given you?
F.B.: I think there’s something to learn from the worldwide response we’ve received. As people continue to send me photos of their children dressed in spacesuit costumes, and as teachers write to tell me how the jump sparked new curiosity in their students, I realize how much we all crave inspiration. It might seem like there aren’t any records left to break or places left to explore. It might seem like the world doesn’t have a lot of heroes anymore. But you know what? People really aren’t that jaded and cynical after all. When we can bring people along to share adventures (especially, I think, through the incredible kind of live images we were able to provide with Red Bull Stratos), they are moved, and the result is amazing. The best part is that one inspiration will trigger the next. That’s how we all keep moving forward.
A: The jump made you famous around the world. Do you still feel like a normal guy?
F.B.: I guess I feel like a normal guy who is very fortunate to have some extraordinary experiences. I still wear jeans and t-shirts, and I still like working on my car. I’m still very close with my family and friends. The important things in my life haven’t changed.
A: Do you want to go back up there? Or even higher?
F.B: I wouldn’t be interested in simply repeating the jump. Once I’ve reached a goal I’m always looking for the next challenge, and since we were successful in gathering a great deal of information that can advance aerospace safety, I wouldn’t see the point in doing exactly the same thing again.
That doesn’t mean I wouldn’t go back up, however. If somebody offered me a trip to space, I would definitely consider it. Why? Because I had only about ten seconds to take in the moment when I was standing on the step of the capsule. I was finally on top of the world, with the curvature of the Earth stretching below me and a totally black sky above. It was incredible, and I wanted to stay there longer; but I knew I had only ten minutes of oxygen on my back. I had to jump without delay. So I feel like it was a great moment, but I want more. If somebody told me, “Felix, we need you up there,” I’d be on the way.
A: Are you and Joe Kittinger still buddies? What do you do together now?
F.B.: After working with Joe Kittinger for four years, he became like my father. When I received the honor of a special BAMBI award in Germany last November, Joe came all the way to Düsseldorf to present it to me. And my girlfriend and I traveled to Florida to celebrate New Year’s Eve with Joe, his wife, and some other members of the Red Bull Stratos team. No matter where life takes us, Joe and I will always be in touch.
A: As a kid, what did you think you’d be when you grew up?
F.B.: From a very early age, I dreamed of skydiving and flying helicopters. And I grew up to do both! With Red Bull Stratos complete, I’ll still skydive and BASE jump for fun, but I look forward to having more time for piloting helis.
A: What was your favorite outdoor adventure as a kid?
F.B.: This doesn’t go all the way back to my childhood, but ever since I started BASE jumping in my 20s, my favorite place for training has been what we call the “Dragon Wall” cliffs in the Salzburg of Austria.
A: When did you realize you didn’t want a “normal” job, like a lawyer or businessman, for your life?
F.B.: There was never a time when I did want an office type of job. I always loved being outside and especially seeing the world from up high. Everybody’s different, and for me, being confined at a desk indoors has never been part of the equation.
A: Where’s your favorite place to relax in the outdoors now? And favorite activity?
F.B.: As I write this, it’s been less than four months since the jump, and I’ve been on the road so much that I haven’t really done a lot of relaxing outdoors. I love the area around my home in Switzerland, where I can ride my “fixies” [fixed-gear bikes], go in-line skating, or go boating on the lake that’s only steps from my house. Flying my helicopter is another way I love to take in scenery. But I like exploring other areas, too. I was able to spend some time in Dubai recently, and it was a great location for recharging my batteries.
A: What big adventure are you planning to do next?
F.B.: I want to take a little time to appreciate and absorb all that we accomplished with Red Bull Stratos before turning that page completely. So I don’t yet know what the next chapter of my life will hold, but I have some ideas in mind, and I’m curious to find out.