It was a crisp spring day in Switzerland when New Zealand action man Dan Vicary set out to do what he loved most – fly.
He knew the drill. The aerial expert had already clocked up 6000 skydives, 750 base jumps and 450 wingsuit flights, and was one of the most professional and experienced jumpers in the world. But what he did not know is that this jump would be his last.
At just 33 years old, his death left his New Zealand-based family, his English wife of nearly four years and the base jumping community devastated. Now eight weeks on from his passing, wife Lisa Hutchins (33) has opened up about the courageous man she knew, paying tribute to the Kiwi who died tragically doing what he was most passionate about.
“Every time before he did a jump, he told me, ‘Just know, if something happens, I wanted to be up there,’” recalls a heartbroken Lisa, speaking from their Switzerland home.
“He would often get up before breakfast and go for a jump. There’s a cable car station near our home and he would take the car to a 2000ft (600m) base jumping spot. Within 45 minutes of leaving the house, he would call to say, ‘I’m jumping. I will be home in a minute.’ “I’d see him jump from the cliff above our house – he’d open the parachute and land in our back garden.”
Base jumping is when a person jumps from a helicopter or a cliff wearing a wingsuit, using a parachute to break their fall – the ultimate test of precision and a heady mix of fear and adrenaline.
Dan, who was originally from Invercargill, introduced like-minded adventurer Lisa to New Zealand, where they wed in an Ashburton registry office in 2010. The pair had met seven months earlier in Australia, where they both worked at a skydiving school.
“I was editing video footage and Dan was a tandem skydive instructor. He turned up one weekend to work and that was it – it was love at first sight,” says Lisa. “Neither of us had been good at settling down so we were well matched. I was backpacking and he’d just got back from a nine-month base jumping trip to Malaysia, China, Thailand and New Zealand.”
Their relationship blossomed quickly and a proposal followed within months of meeting.
“We knew it was right. He proposed to me one day while I was on the computer. He wrote, ‘Will you marry me?’ on my leg. I just thought he was doodling! Then he said, ‘Why don’t we pop to New Zealand – you can meet my mum and we can get married?’ I couldn’t see any reason not to!”
After tying the knot, they moved to Europe, where they joined a large base jumping community in Switzerland.
“On our flight, we were carrying 95kg of luggage – sports equipment, base gear, skydiving gear. It was ridiculous! Our aim was to live in France, but we drove to Italy, where Dan went base jumping and ended up in Switzerland. We were only going to stay for two days, but Dan got a job as a skydive instructor the day we arrived.”
The couple lived together in the alpine tourism hub of Lauterbrunnen for three years and established three businesses together. Dan worked as a professional skydive instructor and wingsuit pilot, teaching base jumping.
“Dan was a born teacher, always happy to share his knowledge. I worried about him often, but I knew he was doing everything in his power to be safe. He never jumped with his ego or when he was distracted. If he got up in the morning and spilt his coffee, he wouldn’t go jumping. You have to be sharp.”
The couple had spoken on many occasions about death, a common conversation among the base jumping community.
“Dan was of the opinion that there would be nothing worse than fading away. You could live to 85 years and suffer health problems or make the most of every single day that you have. You might die sooner because what you are doing is risky, or you might not.”
But his time came earlier than expected. On March 29, Dan, along with Frenchman Ludovic Woerth (34) and American Brian Drake (33), were killed when they crashed into an alpine field during a jump over the Lütschental Valley. In the first 14 seconds of their flight, they were too low to the ground to pull their parachutes.
“I was in England when I got a call telling me what had happened. I went straight back to Switzerland,” says Lisa.
“Dan’s parents arranged a memorial service in New Zealand, but I didn’t feel like spending 36 hours on a plane thinking about Dan. I just needed to be in our house with our dog and friends.”
The tragic news spread quickly and video footage was recovered of their fatal jump.
“I saw it on camera,” Lisa says. “I believe if you don’t know what happened, you can’t learn from it.”
While Dan’s family mourned in New Zealand, Lisa organised another memorial in Switzerland for Dan – “Action Dan Day”.
“I thought, ‘What better way to remember him than to have hundreds outside our house flying?’
“There were skydivers, a wingsuiter flying past them, paragliders, speed flyers and an acro paraglider. Dan would have been proud!”
Dan was cremated and his family later brought his ashes back to New Zealand.
“Dan was not a fan of having a gravestone or single plaque. He was worried his family would feel guilty if they moved away. He was a practical guy. He said, ‘Just throw me in the sea, then I’m everywhere.’”
Since his passing, Lisa has been taking life one day at a time, but hopes to visit New Zealand later in the year – the country that Dan proudly called home.
But having established herself in Switzerland, it’s there she plans to remain and continue running the couple’s businesses.
“I can’t imagine being anywhere else right now,” Lisa says frankly.
“A lot of people don’t talk about death. They go through life thinking they’re not going to die, then it happens and it’s a horrible shock for all. Whereas in all sports where there is a risk, we are open about death.
“I haven’t needed constant sympathy. I just need people to talk about Dan, cry and laugh.
“I always supported him because he was so passionate about it. It was his life, outside of me and our dog. To take away someone’s passion so they live a bit longer, well, it’s a no-brainer.”
Lisa’s Tribute To Dan:
“Dan Vicary was my husband, my best friend, my business partner and my life.
He was also a kick-ass pilot with a passion for life and for flight… and I cannot feel sad for him. I am sad for me – and for us – because I don’t get to hang out with one of the most beautiful, caring, sensitive and fun people I have ever met.
I am grateful to have known him, loved him and spent four incredible years with him. There should have been more. He was so happy. Fly free, my love.”
Lisa Hutchins, April 15, 2014
About Linda Shackelford
Linda has worked as a journalist for New Zealand’s best-selling weekly women’s national mass market magazines, leading national and regional newspapers. She has also worked in public relations, digital communications, web content writing and marketing, social media and event management roles for a range of companies, entrepreneurs and publications, including technology start-ups. Linda has always been keen to embrace new challenges, learn as much as she can and expand her networks and contacts both in New Zealand and internationally.more of this author