Alumnus Johnny Strange, a well-known BASE jumper, mountain climber and surfer, died while attempting to BASE jump off of a mountain in the Swiss Alps last Thursday. He was 23.
Strange crashed into the side of a mountain around noon, ending a life that was filled with daring risks and daredevil stunts.
Strange lived a life dedicated to adventure and adrenaline. By the age of 17, he was the youngest person to climb the highest mountains on all seven continents. In his sophomore year at USC, Strange completed the final leg of the Explorers Grand Slam — climbing mountains on all seven continents and visiting both poles — by skydiving from 8,000 feet in the North Pole.
Strange came from a family of adventurers. His parents, Brian and Dianette, trekked around the world to compete in adventure races that involved hiking, climbing, rappelling and kayaking. Strange and his two sisters, Brianna and MacKenna, followed their parents, and the family’s adventurous spirit rubbed off on Strange.
The first activity that Strange became involved in was mountain climbing — something that used up the abundant energy that often drove his parents wild when he was younger. Soon, climbing became more than a hobby or an afternoon pastime for Strange, and he began to pick up other interests. He became a martial artist, a big-wave surfer, a scuba diver and a paraglider. It was the final activity that cost Strange his life, but his lifestyle was one that he cherished greatly.
“If I can say anything about Johnny, it’s that he really did live every day to the fullest and not in some cliche way. He never did what he didn’t feel like doing unless it was for our family, and he was really the best in the world at his sport,” Brianna Strange said.
Strange had always been one to take risks. His sister recalled a story of the day he decided to break the world record for speed on a skateboard. He held onto the back of a truck by one finger and reached 102 miles per hour on the highway, skateboard wobbling under his feet from the speed. When the board flew out from under him, Strange launched himself into the back of the truck to save himself from crashing.
“That was Johnny,” Brianna Strange said.
The day that Strange died, his plan was to BASE jump off of Mount Gitschen in Switzerland. Winds were powerful and choppy, something Strange noted before his jump. He had posted several videos of other jumps in Switzerland in the days leading up to his death. Besides poor conditions, it is uncertain what caused Strange to crash.
Strange is one of 25 BASE jumpers to die while jumping this year. One of the other BASE jumpers was Dean Potter, a world-renowned climber and adventurer who Strange openly admired. After Potter’s death in May, Strange posted on Instagram, mourning the loss of his idol.
“See you on the other side,” he wrote in the post.
“I made the mistake of reading the first few comments on one of his articles, and what I realized people don’t understand is that Johnny and people like Johnny have a certain hunger for life that is actually unstoppable,” Brianna Strange said. “Even if we could’ve taken away his wings and stopped his plane to Switzerland, and even if we could’ve grounded him forever, he would’ve found another way to go fast and to push the limits of what anyone thought was physically possible.”
While at USC, Strange majored in international relations and dedicated his free time to his two advocacy efforts — stopping genocide and curing Parkinson’s disease. He often used his status as a world-famous adventurer to raise awareness for both campaigns, holding signs that read “Stop genocide” while posing on top of mountains and then posting them on his Instagram. This effort reflected Strange’s approach to life: always attempting to make a difference in as many ways as possible. A passionate Oakland Raiders fan, Strange also commonly donned a Raiders helmet while skydiving.
Strange was also a member of the Sigma Chi fraternity, where he met Brett Linkletter during rush sophomore year. Linkletter remembers that they were a little worried that Strange’s propensity for risk would cause him to hurt himself, but Strange quickly became one of his closest friends.
“He was a puppy dog,” Linkletter said. “He constantly needed excitement, needed to infuse even the most boring things with energy and life and adventure. He was incredible to be around.”
After college, Strange often stayed with Linkletter in between his trips. Linkletter took pictures for Strange and advised him on how to manage his digital presence properly. The night before he died, Strange texted Linkletter a picture, asking if it looked “epic” enough to post on Instagram. Linkletter told him yes, encouraged him to post it and then went to bed. Linkletter woke up to a phone call from a close family friend with the news. For an hour, he refused to believe it. It was only when a second friend, another fraternity brother, called him that it sunk in — Strange was gone. Linkletter admits that it’s still hard to think about.
“It’s one of those things that your brain refuses to process,” Linkletter said. “He was always doing what he loved no matter what. He knew the dangers behind it, people encouraged him not to do it, but he never fell to traditional pressure from other people. He knew what he wanted to do, and he enjoyed it. That rubbed off on me a lot.”
Linkletter spoke to the Sigma Chi fraternity about Strange on Monday night. He told them about the legacy that Strange leaves behind, one that goes beyond world records and incredible stunts. He told them that what he remembers most of his friend is a young man who refused to let others define him, who stayed humble despite his accomplishments andchallenged the fraternity to live on in the same way, with that same pride and confidence. Strange inspired him to live an extraordinary life, to start his own marketing business and take risks. That passion and free-spirited nature is best summed up in a quote Strange gave earlier this year — a quote that Linkletter hopes to honor for the rest of his life.
“The day I let my fear deter my ability to follow my dreams, I have already died,” Strange wrote in a blog post on his website. “I will, as well as everyone else die someday, but on this day, I was more alive than I had ever been before.”
The Strange family will host a memorial service next Monday to honor Strange. The family will wear black and gray to support Strange’s favorite team, play a game of football and share stories from Strange’s life. Though he only lived to 23, family and friends agreed that Strange lived more in those years than most live in 80 or 90. His memorial will be a celebration — not a mourning — for a life well-lived and filled with purpose and adventure.
Strange is survived by his mother, father and two sisters.