Lucky Chance and the Death Swing
LAST JANUARY, three months after Lucky Chance woke up from a coma in France and a week after he arrived back home in the suburbs west of Sydney, he put on his oversize monkey costume and hobbled across the street to a playground. There, his mother held a camera and helped Lucky, now 28, make a video.
Lucky had been creating short films since he became Lucky Chance, a name he legally adopted after he dropped out of high school at 15, lived as a rock-climbing bum, and joined Australia’s Lennon Brothers circus. The videos are beautiful and terrifying, halfway magical, two-thirds nuts, exploring what it looks like when a young man in his prime pushes his body hard up against the edge of risk. In them, Lucky does handstands on the lips of cliffs. He hurls himself off rock walls holding only a rope. He BASE-jumps from unfamiliar exit points on days when clouds obscure the landing zone. He sets up a diving board on a sheer rock face, inches backward toward the end, and leans back.
“It’s physical image creation—art through physicality,” explains Lucky, who was born Toby Benham. We’re sitting in front of his mom’s computer at her house in Emu Plains, where he’s come to convalesce and figure out what to do next. Carol Hahnfeld, a preschool teacher, is one of only a few people who still call him Toby. Her office is small and stuffy, cluttered with filing cabinets, an ironing board, and old family photos, homey enough to make anyone with a strong taste for adventure want to cannonball from a ledge.
Much of the world met Lucky in July 2011, when a video surfaced of him doing just that. Or, to be more precise, when the world saw Lucky, wearing a pirate costume, do a triple backflip with a double layout from the end of a 100-foot-long climbing rope bolted to a cliff in the Blue Mountains, about two hours from Sydney. Lucky called the apparatus the Death Swing, and in July 2010, a camera crew working on a climbing movie called Smitten was there to film him as he flew off and landed with a parachute. But as he rotated, his legs splayed. The chute tangled around one leg, and Lucky fell 560 feet before it finally deployed, 30 feet from the ground. He hit the earth standing and walked away. Lucky’s sister, Melanie, a 30-year-old account manager for a financial-analysis firm in Melbourne, told me that the event made her brother feel “a little bit invincible.” A video clip of the fall went viral—more than 400,000 hits.
The man sitting next to me in his mother’s house looks quite different from the man in that video. His handsome face is lined with scars. The light in his eyes flickers like a wonky fluorescent bulb. His legs get stiff. On August 16, a little over a year after his miracle on the Death Swing, Lucky’s name and the cloak of protection it implied betrayed him. In what he estimates was his 500th BASE jump, he hiked down from the village of Les Carroz to a thousand-foot cliff in Magland, near Chamonix in the French Alps. The place is known as a good, accessible spot—the first cliff many BASE jumpers approach upon arriving in France. Lucky chose to jump from Dérivator, a side exit point less steep than the main one, which requires a running start. He planned to leap off and practice his trademark somersaults and flips in flight.
Lucky remembers, or says he remembers, no details of that day. All he knows or will acknowledge is that he was jumping with his best friend, fellow Australian Alex Duncan (who did not respond to interview requests), and that he did the two things he always did before a BASE jump: he checked the wind direction and speed and pushed negative thoughts from his mind. “It is commonly the case that you overestimate the difficulty of a particular jump. This may have been my undoing, but I would never have had it any other way,” Lucky told me in his grand archaic style. Much of the short, fantastic life of Lucky Chance feels like a fable: dramatic, timeless, containing a moral—and a little vague. On principle he refused to surrender to risk.
That day in Magland, Lucky’s persona or worldview or whatever you want to call it caught up with him. With his wide harlequin’s smile and BASE-jumping backpack, he launched himself off the cliff, threw a complicated set of aerials, and hit a rock ledge almost 450 feet below the exit point. According to reports from other jumpers, the day was very windy, and Lucky freestyled (did airborne gymnastics) where he needed to track (put his body in the best position to gain distance from the wall). When he bounced off the granite his chute partially opened, and he wound up suspended, unconscious, from his canopy, which was caught in a tree 300 feet above the grassy landing zone. He suffered a fractured jaw, a broken pelvis, open fractures in his left femur and heel—and a traumatic brain injury. Three French jumpers later retrieved his canopy, which was full of cuts and holes. As one of them, Jean-Michel Peuzin, said, “A canopy in a cliff is no good for karma.”
In the first video Lucky made after returning to Australia, he is not Lucky at all. Instead he is a character he calls Stunt Monkey. Before showing me the video, Lucky stood up and walked with his stiff, wide gait across the hall to his childhood bedroom. There, stacked in the corner, next to the twin bed with the floral coverlet, sat a pile of three football-mascot-type costumes: a monkey, a dog, and a bunny. “You have to meet Stunt Monkey,” he said. “He’s my alter ego. Monkeys like to do all the same things I like to do: climb and swing.” Before the accident, Lucky had given Stunt Monkey cameos in several videos. Stunt Monkey—who has a head filled with foam, a brown body, black eyes, and a tan face and belly—front-flipped off the Death Swing cliff wearing a rope and harness. He walked down the sidewalk in Sydney, glanced up at a building, and scaled it unroped. Near the top, Stunt Monkey sat to rest on a windowsill. Then he climbed back down.
That first post-accident video is unbearably sad. Stunt Monkey, his balance off and his confidence tattered, wobbles on crutches around a tiny playground. The sky is gray, the music melancholy. The adventures du jour do not involve handstands on cliffs, skateboarding prostrate downhill at 45 miles per hour, or double back layouts through the sky. Instead, Stunt Monkey flails his arms through the bars of a jungle gym built for a toddler. He crawls on hands and feet up a flight of three stairs. He pauses timidly at the top of a tiny slide. Then he inches down.
FOLLOWING THE ACCIDENT, Lucky was evacuated by helicopter to the village of Sallanches, but his injuries were so severe that doctors there sent him on to the University Hospital of Grenoble. The Grenoble doctors searched for Lucky, who was still unconscious, on YouTube to learn more about who he was. He started waking up six weeks later. When he was finally coherent, eight weeks after the accident, and the doctors told him what had happened, Lucky said, “That sounds exactly like something I would do.”
According to Carol, Lucky has been seeking high-altitude trouble all his life. When he was a child, if she wanted to find him, she needed to look up. Lucky—then still Toby—spent a lot of time on the roof of the house and of his school and on top of the bus-stop sign. His younger cousin Ben Ko, 23, describes him as that awesome, terrifying older cousin you always wanted to be around even though he’d feed you 30 packets of sugar just to see you freak out. Toby, a smart but disinterested student, didn’t have much of a superego. “There was very little difference for him between thinking and actualizing,” Ben said. “Toby would say, ‘You know what I’d really like to do? I’d like to climb naked.’ ” Then he would.
Toby’s parents divorced when he was 12. Shortly after, he signed up for a rappelling class in Glenbrook, in the Blue Mountains. Carol encouraged this—she’d just made her son move to a small house in a new suburb, and she wanted to give him something positive. Toby’s love for the mountains was fierce and magnetic. He already possessed that sparkling ambition and love of heights that characterizes the puer aeternus. French pilot and writer Antoine de Saint-Exupéry is the classic of the type: charming, impractical, talented, short-lived. Toby started climbing. Then he started jumping off a nearby highway bridge, 60 feet down into the Nepean River. School felt deadly: too boring and too many rules. The day his mother flew to Germany for a honeymoon with her new husband, a postman named Knuth Hahnefeld, Toby dropped out of high school and moved about an hour away to a climbing campground. He was 15.
The hand-to-mouth dirtbag life suited Toby, as did free soloing—climbing without a rope. Toby was never a sponsored climber, never well-known outside Australia, but he was a talented athlete with a magic about him. (This magic seems to have been less charming up close; by Lucky’s own admission, those who loved him found him colossally self-centered.) He also had a bottomless appetite for daring, free-soloing routes close to the edge of his ability—climbing walls he’d never climbed before, without safety gear.
Over breakfast one morning near the city of Parramatta, Lucky told me about his formative on-sight solo route, Ferrets and Berts, rated 5.11c. The line is overhung at the crux, near the top, so, already exhausted, he threw a hand—a “dyno”—toward the final hold. “That was a massive, massive experience for me,” Lucky said while wolfing down a plate of French toast and bacon with his fingers. “My friends were not keen to do it themselves. But the rope was unnecessary! It was unreasonable! If I knew I wasn’t going to fall, what was the point?”
On an extended trip to Mount Arapiles, in southern Australia, Toby picked fruit for farmers in exchange for food and did his first backflip off a rope swing into a reservoir. He loved the feeling of tumbling midair, and he started flipping compulsively off ever higher objects: fences, stairs, buildings. Six months later, when he returned to the Blue Mountains, climbing in any traditional way no longer interested him. As he puts it now, “I wanted to keep making mental gains along with physical ones, and that was only achieved through danger.”
In 2002, Toby, then 19, traveled around the world, hitting the climber-vagabond highlights and sharpening his skills. He ate candy and watched TV while sitting in lawn chairs at the Kmart in Bishop, California. He got tendinitis in his forearms and, while he was grounded, learned to cartwheel on a slackline. He shoplifted food in Salt Lake City and spent four days in jail. In Europe, Toby fell in love with a French girl. In Germany, he found ticks, he says, embedded in “both my Johnson and my butt.”
Then he encountered England’s famous gritstone scene—a dangerous, technical head game, as the rock is nearly featureless and the local ethos prevents climbers from placing bolts. With his tendinitis in check, he hurled himself at the walls, meeting a British climber named James Pearson at a crag in northern England’s Peak District and crashing on Pearson’s parents’ floor.
Pearson, 26, is now sponsored by North Face, La Sportiva, Adidas Eyewear, and others. As he recalls, Toby returned to England the following year, 2003, and the two embarked on a “gritstone rampage.”
“We were psyched out of our tiny little minds,” Pearson told me. “We climbed pretty much every day, in all weather.” According to Pearson, at that time only one or two other guys in the world could match their skill on the hard grit. “We would try routes in really bad conditions so that when we went for the lead on a cold, crisp day, it would feel relatively easy. We were playing a dangerous game, and we both came close to losing.”
In late 2003, Toby soloed Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door, graded E9 6c (the rough equivalent of 5.14), with no mats and no ropes, after a night of dancing on ecstasy. On Christmas Day, which he spent with Pearson’s family, he climbed Harder, Faster—rated E9 7a. The route was the pinnacle of his climbing career. His tendinitis was returning so regularly and ferociously that he could no longer climb enough days in a row to progress. Soon, Toby got what Pearson calls “itchy feet” and flew to Spain to learn to BASE jump.
“If I’m honest, nothing Toby did surprised me,” Pearson said recently. “And if I am really honest, I expected one day to hear that he had gone too far. From our time climbing together, I would say that while Toby had a huge desire to enjoy life to its absolute maximum, he actually had a fairly low appreciation of the gift he had. Last year, when I saw news of his accident, I remember thinking, Well, shit, here it is—he finally pushed things too much.”
LUCKY SAYS HIS reaction to BASE jumping was like a junkie’s to heroin. “From my first jump I wanted more. It was like a drug—just a taster was never enough.”
BASE jumping is far more dangerous than anything else we consider a sport. It has what statisticians call a crude death rate of 43 per 100,000 people. (By comparison, skydiving’s rate is 1 per 100,000 and rock climbing’s is 0.31 per 100,000.) Regardless of the statistics, Lucky soon began trying new jumps no one else would dare try. He gravitated toward the fringe sport of freeBASEing—climbing with only a BASE-jumping parachute for protection, which on Australia’s low cliffs pretty much means climbing with no protection at all. But Lucky never achieved much notoriety outside of Australia. (Neither Dean Potter nor Jeb Corliss, two of the most cutting-edge jumpers in the world, had heard of him before his accident.) Smitten played in five Australian states, and clips aired on TV and in festivals in Europe. Director Ed Thornhill described Lucky as an “athlete who could often make vastly complicated stunts appear effortless.” Still, his approach worried many who knew him, including Gary Cunningham, president of the Australian BASE Association. “His raw talent and background in other extreme sports allowed him to quickly excel to a level well beyond that of the average BASE jumper,” Cunningham said. “He would do advanced jumps that most people would not even consider. Many took the view that it was only a matter of time before he got injured or killed.”
Toby Benham’s short life came to an end in August 2008, when he walked into the Registry of Births Deaths and Marriages in the town of Wollongong, an hour south of Sydney, and legally changed his name to Lucky Chance. He was 24 and working as a circus performer, traveling across Australia doing what he describes as a high-wire spider-man routine. After Europe, he’d enrolled in a two-year program at the CircoArts school in New Zealand to perfect his balance, body control, and tumbling skills for flight. Before choosing the name Lucky Chance, he considered Phoenix in Flames. He loved the ancient myth, the bird that dies in a fire of its own making and then rises from its ashes. When he turned 18, he had a phoenix tattooed on his back.
His first six months as Lucky did not go as planned. He tore a muscle. His slackline snapped. The LEDs in his costume short-circuited. He lost his phone. A girl stood him up. He worried that his new name might be undermining his karma and tempting fate. But then his luck seemed to turn. He landed a great job riding jet skis and diving off 50-foot masts in the Pirates Unleashed show at Sea World, on Australia’s Gold Coast. By the summer of 2011, he considered his luck restored, perhaps even augmented. That’s when, in his red-and-white-striped pirate shirt, he fell 590 feet from the Death Swing and walked away.
“OH, MY GOD, you don’t know who he is?”
The women working the desk at the Edge, a climbing gym in a suburban strip mall, are Googling Lucky and watching his YouTube videos. Behind them on the floor, Lucky, in his Edge work shirt, is putting up sport routes for high school groups. He’s grateful to have the job; he needs the money and the distraction. But as anyone with a Web browser can see, Lucky is a broken-down version of his former self, a former emperor of the air who now looks exhausted and walks like a golden retriever with hip dysplasia.
Lucky grips the railing as he descends the stairs to find more footholds for gossiping high school kids. The other guys who work at the Edge bounce along on their toes, all smooth skin and popping veins. “It’s hard to lose so much physical ability,” Lucky admits in an unguarded moment. When his shift ends, he leaves immediately. His mother is driving him to another doctor’s appointment.
Lucky has lived in limbo since the crash. He doesn’t remember the first couple of months—those were for Carol to endure. She’d been half-waiting for the call for years. He takes calculated risks, she’d tell herself. He takes calculated risks. Three days after the fall, his mother and his sister, Melanie, flew to France. Lucky’s then girlfriend, 20-year-old acrobat and stuntwoman Nandalie Campbell Killick, met them there. When they finally saw their boy, comatose in the ICU, he was swollen almost beyond recognition. Carol later learned that Lucky’s doctors didn’t think he was going to live. “He had loads of tubes everywhere going in and out of his body,” she said. “A machine was breathing for him. It was very surreal. We could only touch his arms. I just kept holding his fat, puffed-up hand and thinking, He’s so big.”
The day after they arrived, a doctor cataloged Lucky’s injuries: the broken jaw, the fractured pelvis, the open fractures to the left foot and femur, the blunt contusion to the left side of his brain, the twisted neck, the air between his lung and thoracic spine, and the lacerations down the left side of the face. The pressure inside his skull was 30 mmHg, two to four times normal—a dangerous situation, as high intracranial pressure can lead to crushed brain tissue, brain herniation, and damaged oxygen supply. He lay with his upper body elevated 45 degrees. Given his condition, doctors couldn’t yet operate on Lucky’s broken bones, but no one considered this a major problem. Either his brain was going to survive the trauma or it wasn’t.
Early on, James Pearson visited as well. Lucky’s family spent the night telling funny stories about Lucky, but as Pearson recalls, “Things seemed bleak, to say the least. I left feeling that in a few days, weeks, or months, I would learn of Toby’s death—something that touched me more than I would have imagined.” Lucky or Toby or whoever he was then finally woke up one day when Carol stayed back in the apartment she and the girls had rented in Grenoble. Carol had a cold. Lucky assumed he’d get right back to being Lucky. Only slowly, he told me, did “the reality of how much I fucked myself up dawn on me.”
That is not to say the fall broke his spirit. In the hospital’s purgatorial-sounding post-reanimation ward, with a steel rod bolted to what remained of his left femur and infections raging in his foot and lung, Lucky tried to wiggle off the mattress and slide to the floor. In mid-October, once he could sit in a wheelchair, he appeared to break free. Nurses found his bed empty and called security. Friends on Facebook rejoiced: Lucky had made a runner! A grand gesture! The trickster had survived! Lucky, however, deflates that interpretation. “My aim was to get to the cafeteria to buy a pain au chocolat. They had these donuts with no holes and Nutella inside. They were mighty good.”
When Lucky returned home to Australia last November, three months after his fall, he set about rebuilding his body and his life. He still quickly fatigued, both mentally and physically, but his work ethic served him well. He set up a gym on his mother’s back porch. He relearned to walk on an old elliptical machine and gained strength with a chin-up bar and an ancient universal weight machine. But repairing his finances hasn’t been so easy. Lucky was not insured for the accident; not even the traveler’s insurance on his credit card covered him for “airborne activities.” Climbers, friends, and family donated a total of $30,000 to offset the cost of his medical-transport flight back to Australia. But Lucky owes an estimated $280,000 to the hospital in Grenoble, and he worries that his wages will be garnisheed for the rest of his life.
LUCKY'S WORLD HAS contracted since his fall. Some of his close friends stuck by him, but the Australian BASE community has distanced itself, party because Lucky was always a little too interested in risk. They claim to revere safety, though promoting this message has required some political jujitsu over the years. Dwain Weston, one of Australia’s best jumpers and a childhood inspiration to Lucky, literally cut himself in half when he BASE-jumped from an airplane and hit Colorado’s Royal Gorge Bridge in 2003.
On the shelf of Lucky’s bedroom is his collection of Rubik’s Cubes: three-by-threes, four-by-fours, five-by-fives. One of his signature tricks, before his crash, was solving a Rubik’s Cube while standing on a slackline. (This is even harder than it sounds, because it means you can’t use your eyes for balance.) His cognitive function seems quite good, considering. Lucky declined to put me in touch with his doctors, but according to Alan Weintraub, medical director of the Brain Injury Program at Craig Hospital in Denver, even patients who’ve been in comas as long as Lucky was can improve dramatically. “Unexpected functional recoveries are entirely possible,” he told me. “Usually, this is the result of relentless effort and motivation by those patients, families, and loved ones.” Already, Lucky’s conversation and writing are lucid. But according to his mother, he still has some short-term-memory problems and what she describes as trouble “planning.” He can no longer solve Rubik’s Cubes at all.
Lucky is adamant that his crash not be viewed as a tragedy. “I’m excited about this second chance at life, and I will live it completely differently,” he told me. “Instead of living for myself, as I’ve done in the past, I will live for other people. Maybe volunteer overseas, teach English, work in conservation—try to be of use.”
The question of who to be kept nagging Lucky during my last day in Australia, when we drove to the Blue Mountains, the place Toby started climbing, where Lucky launched off the Death Swing. For the entire hour-long ride in the rain, Lucky hummed the Simple Minds song “Don’t You (Forget About Me).” When I asked why he seemed so melancholy, he told me what I’d suspected since I first met him, looking hollow in the Sydney airport: Lucky Chance died in Chamonix. He was trying to think of a new name.
“I consider this a new life,” he said when we stopped for breakfast before heading out to get soaked on the crags. “Lucky’s been great. He’s given me lots of amazing moments. But I’ve changed exponentially. I can’t feel bad about it or wish it didn’t happen, but I need a new name for these next years.” He was considering Avant Garde, though he didn’t think Avant was a great first name. He was also thinking about Stunt Monkey, but he didn’t particularly want to be called Stunt, either.
After breakfast we parked near a trail leading to the Three Sisters rock formation. A half-mile into our hike, a fence barred the track, announcing that it was closed. Still we walked on. Almost all BASE jumps are illegal. Lucky long ago made a habit of ignoring signs. He tottered wide-legged through puddles and over branches like an old man or a gremlin, experienced but wracked. He still has a steel rod in his leg; lingering damage to his left hip and both ACLs means his body can’t withstand the impact of landing BASE jumps anymore. But he’s got a few plans. He’d like to walk a gondola cable in the Jamison Valley, just below where we are now. He’d also like to walk municipal power lines. At an overlook, Lucky hoisted himself onto the railing along the cliff’s edge. You could tell he yearned for the freedom of falling, the freedom of not knowing what risks cost. “I’m glad to be out here instead of sitting at home,” he said, looking down toward the waterfalls and sandstone towers, none of which we could see through the clouds. “And we’re not dead! That’s fantastic! If you’re dead, you feel nothing.”
On the way back to the car, we played one of Lucky’s favorite games: What’s the most useless superpower? His initial vote was the power to see two seconds into the future—too short to alter it. Then he changed his mind. The most useless superpower would be the ability to see the future but to be mute, unable to warn anybody.
A few weeks later, I received an email from Lucky. “The time has come to change my name again. It’s as good as done,” he wrote. “I really feel like a different person yet again.” The ones Lucky was considering required only a new first name. He’d call himself Second, or maybe Next Chance.