Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 2 June 2020

Portrait of a Nation: Wingsuit flyer Khalifa Al Ghafri - the 'Emirati batman'

The mountaineer and daredevil found a passion for high-octane sports - after his taste of skiing in an indoor mall

Khalifa Al Ghafri knew he had made it when he was crowned 'Batman Al Emarat'.

For it takes a rare kind of courage to leap head-first from a summit with just thin strips of fabric to carry you.

The UAE's own caped crusader, a modest family man from Ras Al Khaimah, has completed a remarkable 1,500 jumps and has set his sights on ever-greater feats.

“I was always fascinated with the people who have the nerve to jump from high places – and wondered why they risked their lives to do such thing,” the 32-year-old told The National.

I immediately fell in love and realised why they do it - it is simply freedom

Khalifa Al Ghafri

He experienced that feeling first-hand when he took a skydive jump five years ago.

“I immediately fell in love and realised why they do it – it is simply freedom," he said.

Mr Al Ghafri had always been an outdoorsman with a love of hiking up Jebel Jais, not far from his home in RAK City. He leads mountaineering tours and volunteers with the local search and rescue team.

He played handball in his teens and was urged by his mother to always keep fit and active.

But he has turned a rare passion for dizzying heights into a career.

It began with a trip to Ski Dubai at Mall of the Emirates in 2013, which marked "the beginning of my journey in the world of adventure".

“It was a turning point in my life,” he said of his fast downhill ski run on a slope in the huge indoor facility.

“The adrenaline rush kept me going and pushed me to look for more adrenaline-boosting sports and eventually the road led me to skydiving, and that’s where the story began.”

Mr Al Ghafri went on to become certified trainer in hiking and mountaineering after taking courses in Norway, France and South Korea.

“In 2016, I tried skydiving with a wingsuit and took a basic course but in order to become an expert in wingsuit flying I had to learn base jumping first,” he said.

He travelled to Turkey for a course, jumping from bridges with a parachute.

“I took a 10-day course which included jumping off a 60-metre high bridge in Turkey - 58 times,” he said.

In December 2016, he performed his first base jump wearing an inflatable tracking suit, an attire often used by beginners, from Jebel Jais, which is 1,900 high at the summit. The suit allows jumpers to glide over long horizontal distances.

“Fear was in control as it was the first time I jumped from a mountain at such a high altitude,” he said.

“I backed off many times before taking the first leap, but when I did it was indescribably beautiful.”

“I kept jumping from Jebel Jais for two weeks as I couldn't get enough of the excitement in every jump and the mountain view on the way down."

In 2017, he began wingsuit training in Monte Brento, a mountain in Trentino, Italy, with aa height of 1,545 metres.

“The first jump was one of the greatest 90 seconds in my life,” he said, ”I had a fear mixed with joy feeling that I cannot describe, as if I was a bird.”

After Italy, Mr Al Ghafri came back home and performed his first jump off Jebel Jais with a wingsuit.

Since then, the father-of-five - two girls and three boys - has travelled the world for jumps and basejumping competitions. In 2018, he took part in a mass base jumping world record from Katthammaren cliff in Norway that involved 69 professionals.

“My elder son Rashid, who is now 10, felt very proud when his friends at school told him that he is lucky to be the son of the UAE’s Batman," he said.

POAN about Khalifa Al Ghafri an Emirati adventurer and wingsuit diver
Khalifa leads hiking groups and volunteers with mountain rescue

“It made me happy to feel that I might be some sort of a 'good influencer' on the younger generation and to encourage them to play sports more and stay fit.

He acknowledges the dangers involved.

Last week, a female wingsuit flyer from Beijing died in an accident in Tianmen Mountain National Park in southern China.

"If I get concerned [about the situation], even for a split second, I back off immediately without hesitating," he said.

His goal is to establish a basejumping and wingsuit business and bring international competitions to the Emirates, while training others in the safest way possible.

“It is an extreme sport that changes your life for the better,” he said.

The biog

Lives: Al Mamourah, RAK City

Job: trains in mountaineering and climbing, runs tours and volunteers in mountain rescue.

Hobbies: diving, fishing, kayaking and paragliding

Favourite food: sushi

Favourite place in the world: Jebel Jais

Updated: May 21, 2020 01:39 PM

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