On the first day of October the world lost some of its beauty when 23-year-old Johnny Strange died in a wingsuit accident. The young man had been climbing and jumping his entire life. He holds the world record as the youngest person to have ever climbed all Seven of the World’s Summits. I never met Johnny Strange and were it not for Johnny’s Mother and our Facebook connection, I might not have known about his adventures. Johnny’s Mother, Dianette Wells is an old friend from High School, and we (like millions of other adults) have reconnected over the years through social media.
Dianette was a year behind me in High School, but miles ahead of me in enthusiasm, belief and confidence. She was a bundle of perkiness in a cheer-leading uniform, with radiant skin and a fire beneath her intelligent eyes. Being a year ahead of Dianette gave me some sway at the time, and she allowed me that leverage of faux maturity despite my utter failures.
Once we reconnected via Facebook I wasn’t surprised to see that Dianette had only improved over time, her confidence spilling into everything she touched. She’s an activist in her community, fighting for the humane treatment of all animals, including strays and sea life. She’s consistent and present. Her pictures and updates show an authentic woman climbing, hiking, and embracing life. Even now in her grieving–Dianette does so with grace, transparency, and presence of mind.
Knowing these things about Dianette, I wasn’t surprised by the things I learned about her son when I read his eulogy. The tribute was written and read aloud by his father, Brian Strange at Johnny’s Memorial service earlier this week. I am honored to share it with you, as it is easily one of the most beautiful statements of life that I have read in a very long time.
“I stood on top of the world with my son. I sat with him and the King of Bhutan—a small nation in the Himalayas—as we planned adventures to motivate the youth of that country. I even had the “pleasure”……. of representing him as an attorney on the well publicized car surfing charges. But THIS is the day. . . THIS is the day I prayed would never come.
On behalf of his mother Dianette and his sisters Brianna and MacKenna, and his step mother Shamra, his brother Ashton and his little sister Ava, I want to express what we feel to those who celebrate my son Johnny’s life with us here today. I have been worried about Johnny since the day he was born. Once when Johnny was four, he leaped off the back of the couch yelling that he could fly. He smashed his forehead on the floor. After we rushed to the hospital, while waiting for the doctor, Johnny proceded to head-but the gurney requiring yet another set of stitches.
When Johnny was 12, I had my climbing bags laid out all over the living room on my way to Antarctica. Johnny asked me if he could come. Even knowing that he would never be able to summit and that might mean I would not either; I could not give up the opportunity to take my 12 year old boy to Antarctica. Johnny went straight up the mountain in temperatures at time negative 40 F and summited Mount Vinson at age 12. He was the youngest to ever summit and, since you now have to be 16 to even try, the youngest for all time. Johnny and I went on to climb 6 of the Seven Summits together including Aconcagua in Argentina twice because we went down the mountain and came right back up after fixing some frost bite. We spent two months on Mount Everest before summiting together on May 22, 2009, making Johnny the youngest to climb the Seven Summits at the time.
What I learned and observed about my teenage Johnny through the two months we spent together in a tent in Nepal—and numerous other adventures across the world we shared while he was growing up—and what most of you already know, is that Johnny was a ball of boundless energy—boundless energy coupled with inspiration, determination, and love for his family. Johnny was always on our side. And he was also on the side of those less fortunate in all the countries we visited together. The poverty and the unjust treatment of good people upset him deeply. Johnny was enraged by the imperfection of human justice, by governments and people who just stood by, unwilling to stand up against the slaughter of innocent people. I will never forget the conversation I had a few years ago with Johnny and his step-mother Shamra about why we would not fund a trip to arm Johnny so he could parachute in and single-handedly kill Joseph Kony.
Johnny refused to accept what SO many of us already had accepted. Things like: we can’t stop genocide, we can’t find a cure for Parkinson’s, we can’t skateboard at 100 mph down Kanan Road and even . . . human beings can’t fly like birds. For all the things that most people accept as limits, Johnny by his force of nature had to try, to PUSH, to REACH for.
This brought many clashes at home and personally it terrified me. Johnny rejected the idea of what most would consider a normal life, a safe life. That is not who he was or what he wanted, and he refused to live that way. I wished and tried in numerous ways to make him compromise, to get him to live a normal life. But Johnny knew and accepted the risks. Even if I did not.
Johnny also accepted the disapproval of those who want a safe and secure existence, those not willing or not able to push the boundaries. That was just not for Johnny. As his father, I just could never accept that.
When I went to pick up my son’s body in Switzerland, I met the young man Alex who was with him on his last adventure. Shamra and I spent some time with Alex and climbed up the mountain where Johnny jumped. As I looked over what is truly one of the more beautiful views in the world, I listened to Alex speak about wingsuit flying in a way I could never listen to Johnny because I refused to hear it. Alex explained that to fly in a wingsuit made him feel almost superhuman. He could soar over trees and so close to the ground that he could high five you. And as I looked down the mountain, I could envision Johnny on that flight. And Alex explained that once you have had that feeling, you can never go back to a normal life. And even after watching Johnny’s tragic accident, making Johnny his 6th friend to die while flying, Alex told us with tears in his eyes that he would never stop. At that moment, I finally began to understand Johnny’s passion.
Flying was not just about danger or thrill seeking, it was about freedom. Freedom of Spirit. Flying was the time Johnny felt most alive, most present and most connected to the universe.
You see, Johnny was not raised going to church. The mountains were his church and the presence and the connection of flight were his prayer. If Johnny had a religion, it would be to not accept limits—to refuse to accept injustice as a way of life or disease as inevitable.
It has been said that, “Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the judgment that something else is more important than fear.”
I know not why my son was taken from me and my family at the age of 23. He had so much more to do, so many more fights to take on, so many more mountains to climb and fly off of.
But in those 23 years, his Spirit and his Courage and his Smile touched so many people—people from Antarctica to Russia, from to Nepal to Patagonia, from to the North Pole to the South. Johnny loved life and he loved all of you here today.
While I am not and would not encourage young people to go wingsuit flying off mountain tops—I do ask that you choose courage over fear, and to live a life of adventure, purpose and passion and chose a life of love over the love of ease.
There are so many things on this planet worth fighting for. We should, like Johnny, believe in the limitless of who we are and in the possibility of what we can accomplish. I hope that will be the legacy of Johnny Strange.”