Above photo by Michala Holm Rode
For Dutchman Jasper Van Der Meer–founding member of the legendary Tora Tora skydiving collective–getting into the sky couldn’t have been a simpler decision.
“It was obvious that I wanted to skydive,” Jasper grins. “I mean–obvious in the sense that you want to be a firefighter when you’re a kid, or you want to fly a jet airplane.”
Jasper was 18 years old when a high school friend of his asked him if he wanted to come along to Royan–a dropzone on the southwest coast of France–with a group, and make a tandem jump.
“I said of course I want to. but that’s impossible,” he laughs. “We would never be able to afford it and we would of course die. Then we found out that, like any other sport, you could book a course, learn it safely and then start practicing.” One never skydived again; the other one tried it for a while but petered out. Jasper, however, was hooked.
“I fell in love with the sport,” he explains, “And not entirely because of the adrenaline and “extreme sport” feeling; it was more than that. I think everyone has the dream to be able to fly. When I found out that was actually possible–at least in the experiential sense of it, when you free fall together with someone else and actually feel that you are flying around each other–that was it. When I found out flying was possible as a human being: that’s when I fell in love with skydiving.” He’s been at it for 18 years now.
The year after his first jump, Jasper went to Soulac Sur Mer, a Dutch-managed dropzone just outside the town of the same name. Jasper worked there in those early days, both on the packing mats and in the office, jumping as much as possible. He got better and better until people started to take notice.
“One day, Kuri from Babylon Freefly told me there was another Dutch skydiver that was also passionate and wanted to go for it,” Jasper remembers. “He hooked us up and we started a team. We were training and competing as an artistic freefly team, not so much with the intention of becoming world champions but more with the intention of progressing, sharing and building a community. That was how we framed it in the drafts of the things we wrote when we approached sponsors for the very first time: we wanted to put the focus on organizing events; on teaching people; on creating something durable.” That was 2005.
When the team became Tora Tora and started organizing events, they returned to Soulac almost every year for a very long time, until the school that they worked with moved to Mimizan. When the school moved, Tora Tora moved with them. For the last three years, the team has put on a really big summer event called the Hot Summer Boogie. In 2015, the event celebrated Tora Tora’s 10-year anniversary there.
Since then, Tora Tora has rabble-roused epic events at a couple dozen dropzones around the world: among them coastal Portugal; Moscow; California. If you press him, however, he’ll tell you that his favorite of the lot is one you’ve likely never heard of: the dropzone in Slovenia’s jaw-dropping mountain hamlet of Bovec. The village’s alpine terrain, aquamarine river and general pastoral grandeur is a dead ringer for much-pricier destinations further west. Tora Tora held their first event there this year, in 2017.
“It’s a magical place,” Jasper smiles. “We have done a lot of events at Eloy [Skydive Arizona] because it’s a massive skydiving machinery where you can start with a balloon jump at 6 a.m., skydive all day out of seven airplanes and then go to the wind tunnel at night. All that infrastructure makes it really easy. But Bovec is really beautiful, and it is authentic. It’s not so commercialized, so the feeling is really nice. And there is lot of opportunity for lots of other adventures outside skydiving. The event we organized there was also about kayaking, canyoning, caving, mountain biking and free diving.”
That list of “sideline activities” is significant, because it’s also a list of Jasper’s other pursuits.
“I am really into sports–outdoor sports, mainly,” Jasper explains. “Before I was skydiving so much, I skied in the winter time and did all kinds of other outdoor sports in the summer: kayaking, surfing, canyoning, climbing, caving, paragliding, and even a little bit of hang gliding. Skiing is one of the things I live for. I invest a lot of time and energy, and I get a lot back from it as well.”
“In the past,” he continues, “I’ve always balanced my seasons a little bit by doing outdoor sports and skydiving in the European summer. In winter, I was always away for five or six months to be in the snow. That’s how these ‘adventure’ events came to be, really: I wanted to find a way to spend more time in these ‘other’ sports myself, because I was missing them a lot, and I wanted to introduce all these amazing people I have met through skydiving to all these sports they maybe haven’t tried.”
One thing is certain: Jasper certainly has an audience for these introductions. In the beginning, Tora Tora hosted camps for around 30 people; these days, that number has tripled. Group sizes, however, are shrinking.
“We used to organize events where the ratio was one organizer for every 10 participants,” Jasper explains. “The resulting group size would be between 7 and 10. We’re bringing the group size down because it’s a lot safer and the participants learn more. We’re moving away from a boogie setup and moving towards a skills-camp setup to emphasize safety and progression.”
That format is significantly more expensive, of course–at Tora Tora’s Paradise boogie in Portugal, no less than 20 coaches were on staff–but the value to participants is also much higher. Thanks to the amount of focus and personal attention inherent in the skills-camp structure, participants walk away with serious level-ups. And, as a passionate CYPRES athlete, Jasper is adamant that participants do indeed walk away from his events. To that end, each participant is required to have an AAD.
“I haven’t had a CYPRES fire myself,” he says, “But I have witnessed a couple of life saves. In freefly–the thing we are mostly organizing and teaching–is in the process of moving towards angle flying, and it’s in angle flying that I have seen the most free fall collisions. Since we are doing more and more of the stuff that’s more likely to knock us out in freefall, it becomes more and more important for each of us to have a CYPRES. We don’t accept anyone on Tora Tora events without an AAD. We have sent people home. You have to remember that you aren’t using an AAD just to save your own life, but you are also wearing it for that guy who made a mistake and hit you in the air, so he doesn’t have to live with that for the rest of his life.”
These days, Jasper lives with his girlfriend and their three-year-old son–whom he “can’t wait to go skiing with”–and keeps a reliably busy schedule year-round, balancing his happy family life with a smorgasbord of pursuits, both in and below the sky. Aside from the big Tora Tora to-dos, he’s working on some highly secretive film projects and a couple of highly elite invitational events. It’s hard work, sure–but that’s the way he likes it.
“I don’t like the word ‘job’ so much,” he says, “because I don’t really believe in the concept anymore–especially looking toward the future. For now we still have ‘jobs’ that need people, and people that need those jobs, but that’s going to change, I think. My last real ‘job’ was working in a bar back in Holland 20 years ago.”
“I believe that if you are passionate about something and you are going for it–investing in it–and you bring some creativity and perseverance, you will get to a point where that is also going to give you something back,” he enthuses. “I do many different things and participate in many different projects, and some of them actually generate some money and some don’t; some of them even cost money. I don’t really experience them very differently. I have noticed that you are going to be able to live, and that the situation you create in that spirit will sustain itself. Your passion will support you with what you need. ”
CYPRES has been a proud supporter of Jasper Van Der Meer and Tora Tora for five years. To check out what events are coming up on the calendar, visit Tora Tora’s website at toratora.eu.