“I think some people thought I was reckless to try and teach myself speed-flying.” So begins the film I made with Jöttnar's Willis Morris last year – with typical understatement. It was the first time I’d met Willis, and his story struck me as a stark example of how differently risk can be perceived by different people.
I doubt anyone reading this will subscribe to the adrenalin-junkie-stereotype often foisted upon the outdoor community, and Willis certainly doesn’t fit that caricature, despite regularly jumping off cliffs. My first impression of him was of a complex young character; wide-eyed with enthusiasm but with a measured maturity in the way he spoke, which only comes from a certain level of self-reflection. I knew his take on risk would be fascinating, so we followed up with a conversation.
Daniel Wildey: Do you remember your attitude to risk whilst growing up? Were you a reckless kid or were you wrapped in cotton wool?
Willis Morris: I was always adventurous, outside whenever possible, climbing trees or hill walking with my parents. I was constantly building things to make my time outside as crazy as possible. Sometimes it would be pretty sketchy but that never held me back. I would create massive 20-metre freefall swings from trees; the strongest rated piece of gear would be a leather belt I’d bumped from my Dad’s suit drawer. I even built a waterslide one summer with a vertical launch ramp from a two-storey house that ended with a jump I’d probably shy away from today!
So yeah, risk was always something I dealt with as a kid, and I quickly learnt that the highest risk experiences were where the most fun was to be had. I guess I learnt to calculate risks pretty well, to justify and manage what I could by preparing or learning and then built up a tolerance to be able to accept what I couldn’t manage. This tolerance has given me the ability to cope with and enjoy an amount of stress other people would probably define as a bad experience. For me to get the same thrill most would get from a roller-coaster, my perception of what is extreme has had to shift.
Did your adventurous upbringing help you to have a healthy relationship with adrenaline?
I started climbing at age 11 so it’s something I’ve just always done and something I’ve always felt came quite naturally. Because I started so young I guess the usual fears aren’t something I need to consider so much, unless they’re extremely amplified.
I approach the main risks I deal with in climbing like calculations. Risk versus reward and likelihood versus consequences. It can be hard to deal with in situations that are high risk but that mental battle is exactly where the best kick comes from. I’d say I don’t struggle to turn around and back off. Sometimes it even feels great to turn around knowing you’ve made a sensible decision. I know however that I’m certainly the sort of person that likes to push my mental strength right to the limit.
No one wants to steal tomorrow’s fun just to have a better day today, but nothing feels better than when the needle is in the red. The risks are high, the consequences serious, yet you hold it together and manage to push through to take the rewards of making the top. That moment of mind over matter is what draws me back.
Willis Morris | JÖTTNAR pro team
I started climbing when I was 10 years old and quickly became obsessed with its indoor version. I began competing and soon made my way onto the Scottish team. With my sense of adventure, it didn’t take long for the world of real rock to pull me away from plastic and I spent my teenage years learning with friends and branching into every discipline possible....
How would you describe your relationship with risk while you were teaching yourself to speed-fly?
Is there any rationalising of the risk involved?For me it was similar to how I’d always approached my climbing, perhaps not always by the rulebook, but by what felt natural and acceptable to me. I think I understood the risks pretty well but speed-flying felt seriously scary to start with. I was desperate to get into the sport after seeing others and knowing how well it could mix with my climbing. Reflecting back, I think this is what allowed me to ignore those risks I wasn’t able to deal with at the start.
I broke the learning stage down so that commitment to high risk situations was as low as possible. I was a lot less gung-ho than a lot of people thought. I went at it pretty methodically, doing so much preparation that I felt in control. I was dedicated to learning this sport and to make that happen I had to stay alive through the process. I immersed myself in learning, did hours and hours of ground handling, tonnes of research collecting knowledge and experience from whatever sources I could find and practiced endlessly so that when it came to actually going for my first flight it didn’t feel totally out of my comfort zone. I was in the hills every day, regardless of the weather, even if there was a 90% chance of rain and I only had a few hours between split shifts. I would drive out to the local hills, hike for an hour or more, all for what might only be a 30-second flight from a beginner hill. It’s easy to adapt and become accustomed to something so dangerous when you are completely dedicated to it.
Learning to speed-fly was dangerous, but I minimised the risks by being prepared and giving myself the best odds possible with tonnes of practice. The risks that couldn’t be overcome were easily diluted and justified in my head by the passion to fulfil the dream.
How has your attitude to risk changed since teaching yourself speed-flying?
It’s easy to assume that you come to have a keener appreciation of the risks, a healthier respect?I think the way you perceive risk changes every day. No one can be marked down as someone that’s always sensible or constantly reckless. I know when I started out speed-flying my drive to succeed pushed me well beyond the limits of risk that I would usually be able to accept and overcome. When you’re young, blinded by your own determination in a sport where the rewards are the substance of dreams, it’s all too easy to feel invincible and be ignorant to the fact that you’re risking your life. I think with experience your perception changes and you realise that if you really want to enjoy this sport for the long run, then you need to be able to control the desire to chase that buzz, for doing so may lead you to chasing your demise. You learn all too quickly that it’s far better to be on the ground wishing you were in the sky, than it is to be in the sky wishing you were on the ground!
I’ve seen countless people downsizing wings [smaller wings are faster] to improve their flying or increase the rush, only to end up in hospital. That fear of crashing from making a stupid mistake or pushing too hard was actually significant when I was learning, but has since subsided. I hope I am now more sensible than in the past and that I know better than to do something reckless. However, this still doesn’t stop the fear of an accident, as we all know it’s easy to make mistakes and when you’re flying at the limit of the sport, pushing boundaries, a miscalculation of centimetres can be catastrophic.
"It’s hard enough to justify in my own head,
let alone try to make someone else understand.
Until you've actually done it yourself you can't really appreciate all the emotions."
For me it’s a sport in which you must be humble. Being humble doesn't mean that you never push hard or that you never take risks. Rather, it involves recognizing that you can’t control everything and must limit your exposure to unfavourable odds. You have to be willing to walk away sometimes.
This year I’ve watched close friends, wingmen that I consider brothers, crash at devastating speeds right in front of me. I’ve watched them obliterate their former selves and struggle to rebuild their shattered bodies after months of rehabilitation. Some friends I’ve lost.
I guess if you last long enough in speed-flying to become experienced, the reality of this sport will, in time, force you to witness such events. This in turn will change your appreciation of risk.
I don’t have the words to describe why, after witnessing such devastating incidents, I still fly. It’s hard enough to justify in my own head, let alone try to make someone else understand. Until you've actually done it yourself you can't really appreciate all the emotions.
I guess when every small input can dictate life or death, I get the chance to experience an intensity of life that most don’t get. It makes me feel alive, it makes me feel vibrant. Even after the initial exhilarating adrenaline rush has passed I’m often left with a more serene, meditative experience, one that I rarely get in my day-to-day life. It gives me a heightened focus and appreciation of both myself and of my surroundings, and allows me a sense of personal fulfilment that I otherwise can’t experience.For me, the risk of losing all that outweighs the risks of the sport. It’s what I live for. It’s why I fly.