Matthias “Super Frenchie” Giraud is the least risk-averse dad you’ll ever meet. Hover over his kid? Not exactly. Instead, he pushes his seven-year-old son Sören to take on the things he enjoys without looking back. They happen to be indoor skydiving, surfing, and skateboarding.
Giraud comes by this parenting style honestly: As one of the best ski-BASE jumpers in the world, he puts his life at risk for his profession. But even when he’s skiing off a cliff in the Alps, floating to the ground with his parachute deployed as an avalanche crashes down off the slope behind him (that happened), Giraud takes issue with saying he throws caution to the wind. He argues that few people are more aware of the risks and rewards in life than he.
Giraud isn’t teaching his son to be reckless, but to face risk, assess it, and live more fully for doing so. Giraud is a risk-taker and philosopher, about life and death and risk and parenting. He knows that a high-risk life isn’t for everyone, but he also would like parents to question their risk-aversion at every turn. Are you holding them back, or letting them fly? Giraud explores all this in a new documentary, Super Frenchie — equal parts heart-pounding, touching, and thought-provoking — which you can rent-to-stream now on YouTube, Amazon Prime, and Apple TV.
We talked to Giraud months ago, before the release of his movie about risk-taking, fear, and what advice he has for parents who are grappling with the level of risk-taking they should allow their kids (i.e. all parents).
When you go BASE jumping, how do you deal with fear?
I feel it every time. You always hear people talk about having no fear or being fearless or conquering their fear. I honestly think that’s a load of crap. Fear is always going to be there. It’s a normal reaction to a dangerous and threatening environment. You just have to learn to accept your fear and embrace it. That’s the way it empowers you. I really feel fear when I’m thinking about a project and establishing a route to access the mountain. I think it’s directly linked to not knowing all the variables. My fear is directly linked to uncertainty. And once I know more about my environment, or how we’re going to do the jump, or if we’re going to do it, the fear diminishes.
When I was a 24-year-old ski-BASE jumper, I ignored my fear. I put it to the side and I just went for the stunt. Now, I fully embrace it. I’ve come to terms with the fact that it is part of the process. And no matter what, the more dangerous the adventure is going to be, the more you’re going to experience that fear. If I’m terrified, it’s because there’s something in the environment that I need to pay attention to. Ignoring fear is dangerous because it puts blinders on you. By embracing fear, you feel a lot more connected to your surroundings and are adaptable and aware.
What is your approach to letting your son take his own risks?
He drops a vert ramp on a skateboard with 9- to 10-foot overhanging walls. He was doing that at six years old. It’s not in his blood, because you’re not born with skills, and I’m not a great skateboarder myself. But I attend every single lesson. A lot of the time, he would say, “Papa, I’m really scared right now.” My response is, I’m not going to shelter him from fear. I always tell him, “Well, that’s a good thing. It’s good that you’re scared. The fear is telling you that you have to pay attention.” I help him develop that mindset of finding tranquility and sharpness when things feel threatening and chaotic.
You have said that your primary focus is on cognitive reframing. What exactly do you mean by that?
Cognitive reframing is turning a negative into a positive. Throughout my life, I’ve had ups and downs, just like anybody. I lose friends in the mountains quite often, unfortunately. There was a phase of four or five years when I lost about 40 or 50 friends. It felt like we were dropping like flies. It was almost one person every month. That leaves a deep mark on you. I felt like I had a number on my head, and I didn’t know what the number was. That was an episode of cognitive reframing — learning to deal with losing a friend and how you can use that almost as a source of knowledge and empowerment to be safer yourself while doing daring and dangerous things. I had a big crash right in the middle of that period, so I also had to learn to re-accept my mortality and develop a process to approach risk and go back home in one piece.
Were there any points that you considered ending your career?
It crossed my mind after my crash. I crashed three weeks before the birth of my son on a big ski mountaineering descent in the Alps with a BASE jump at the end. So I’m in France halfway across the world, three days in a coma, double fracture in my left femur, and brain hemorrhage. I couldn’t fly home with my brain bleeding. But then I made it home six days before his birth. I was able to be there — on crutches and cross-eyed, but I was there. It took me about a year and a half to get back to normal. It was a slow process. Six years after the crash, I went back to that mountain and finished it. Two months later, I got a world record by ski-BASE jumping from the top of Mount Blanc, getting the highest altitude ski-BASE jump.
I considered stopping BASE jumping only for a couple days when I was in the hospital. When you’re in a coma, your brain is still functioning. Even though I wasn’t awake, I still remember all my dreams, and all my dreams were about skiing powder and jumping cliffs. Stopping was a guilt-based decision. I was like, dammit, I’m letting my family down. But coming out of the coma, I was clear-headed again, enough to realize I can’t stop. Some people would consider it wise, but I would consider it an act of cowardice. I would be betraying myself. I have to keep going. This is what I chose to dedicate my life to. I made a commitment, and it means having to work through the difficult times.
How do you balance the very real risk that this could kill you with the responsibility of being a parent?
When I’m home, I’m really invested in my son’s life and education. We’re very close. We share a lot of interests. You can introduce your kid to stuff, and either it sticks or it doesn’t. I’ve taken him to death metal concerts, we go indoor skydiving, surfing, skiing, and we really connect. I think it helps to do a lot of stuff with him, because he knows I love him.
I talk about everything with him. Obviously, I put it in terms that he can understand as a child. When I have a friend that dies BASE jumping, sometimes he asks, “What did they do?” And I say, “Here’s what happened. Here’s what they did wrong.” I think he can see a very rational approach to it.
Being fully invested with him helps me reach a healthy level of selfishness when I leave. As soon as I sit in the aircraft, that’s when the jump starts. From that moment on, there’s nothing obstructing my sight. The worst thing you could do when you’re about to BASE jump is think about your family or look at a picture of your kid. In that instance, they become a weakness. They distract your mind and your emotions. It’s a barrier to fully immersing yourself in your environment and connecting with it.
Some parents will criticize what I’m doing by saying that it’s selfish and immoral. They say, you’re a father and you should be home. I think it’s exactly the opposite. You have to lead by example. By doing this, I’m fulfilling myself as an individual, but I’m also showing my son what it means to live a true, authentic, and full life. The ethos is very important. I’m not an adrenaline junkie. I don’t seek the rush. I do it because it is so incredibly fulfilling. It’s something that I truly love. It’s something that I choose to dedicate myself to.
What does your son think about BASE jumping?
He thinks it’s super cool. But when I was leaving for Mont Blanc, he gets out of the shower, all wet, hasn’t dried himself, and he comes up naked and gives me a hug in my office. I’m like, “What’s going on?” And he’s like, “I don’t want you to get hurt when you go to Mont Blanc.” Because he knows I was really injured. I said, “I understand, but sometimes accidents happen. I’m doing everything I can to do it smartly and safely.” And we did it flawlessly.
Last December, I got towed by jet ski into a 30 foot wave on the Oregon coast. My son was really worried before, but he’s learning to trust my judgment. Yet as he’s getting older, he’s understanding the risk more and the concept of death, which is hard for him. But at the same time, that’s part of the evolution of a human.
How do you approach risk reduction in your daily life as a parent?
I think the biggest risk reduction we do is empowering our kid to be as independent and autonomous as early as possible. We obviously don’t feed him to the lions right away, but we gradually increase the level of independence and autonomy. Sports have helped so much, especially skateboarding because it’s a high-consequence sport. You can get hurt easily. He’s learned to take the hit and get back up, but also analyze the situation and his environment. I think that translates well into other situations in life.
At five years old, I didn’t want anybody to walk me to ski school, so I put on my ski suit and boots by myself, and I walked all the way to ski school, took the lift by myself, and checked in. I really valued that independence as a kid, so that’s something I practice with my son. Independence is something that has to be earned. I increase it gradually, and when he does something that you’re not supposed to do, then I reel it back. I say, “I wish you could do this, but you messed up.”
Do you have any advice for parents who are afraid to let their kids go run around the neighborhood alone or climb the tallest tree or go skateboarding?
Part of me is tempted to say stop being a wimp. But at the same time, they’re also being smart because they’re protecting their kid. I would say, learn to trust your child — and you can trust your child. A child is the definition of a superhero because they’re always doing better. A lot of parents think that kids can’t do something because they’re too little. But a kid is perfectly functioning.
I’m not saying that you have to put unnecessary, suffocating pressure on them. But I think a lot of parents need to know that their kids can and will do really cool things. You just have to show them how, and then trust that they can do it. If you overly shelter them, you’re not helping them in the long run, because you’re not teaching them to be adaptable.
A documentary on Giraud’s life and career is available for rent now: