‘No end states’ — Dan Schilling’s evolution from combat controller to bestselling author

Schilling has spent a lifetime defying death, breaking records and pushing limits. Now he’s found a home in Alta, Utah

The strangest part about cresting the ridge is the stillness. Not a whisper of wind. You can peer down from the traverse at the Albion Basin on one side, and Collins Gulch on the other — blue sky spread silently from horizon to horizon. The spring day feels warm for the altitude, 10,400 feet, and the snow that was firm on the climb is now softening. Dan Schilling plants his skis like flag poles in the boot-packed snow and begins to remove a nylon chute from his pack.

He’s breathing normally despite the steep trek on skis from the base of Alta Ski Area and the fact that moments from now he will be skiing fast enough to break from the steeply pitched face of the mountain and take flight. 

Few have done what Schilling is about to do here. Speed riding, a low-altitude glide from the tops of mountains to the valley below, is much less risky than, say, the BASE jumping with parachutes Schilling has made a career out of (and for which he holds a world record). But there are risks. 

In another hour or so, the wind will pick up, making for a dangerous ride down. One stray gust can throw a rider into trees or the rocky ground. But for Schilling, it’s an opportunity to feel space and light, weightlessly navigating the limbo between earth and sky.

“Dying isn’t something that terrifies me or bothers me,” he said. “I faced my own mortality a number of times. But I think it’s OK, because it’s the way the universe functions, man. We’re all just part of the universe unfolding itself.”

Bird song can be heard from a pocket of pines farther along the ridge as Schilling methodically checks his gear. The ritual starts with his skis and boots, moving to his wings, harness, trim tabs and helmet. If 30 years of special operations experience has taught him anything, it’s how to follow a checklist. 

He has left his vocational labels in his truck, hundreds of feet below. Here he is not the black ops specialist who has seen some of the deadliest fighting since the Vietnam War. Neither is he the author, entrepreneur, movie producer, public speaker or the multitude of other terms that are often used to describe him. In flight, he’s barely human, more like pure sentience. 

The 60-year-old becomes meditative. With one last measured breath, Schilling leans into his bindings, grips the steering lines and pushes off over the ridge.

Dan Schilling, a special operations veteran and bestselling author, uses backcountry skis to ascend before speed riding at Alta Ski Area, which has closed for the season, on Wednesday, May 17, 2023. | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

When Schilling first moved to the small town of Farmington, Utah in 1976, he did not fit in. An often shirtless, usually barefoot teen with stringy blond hair, he had a southern California way of speaking (think “The Big Lebowski”). He was the last born of six kids, with 10 years between him and his nearest sibling, Joe. Growing up in the late ’60s and early ’70s, he spent afternoons surfing, skateboarding and patrolling the turf between 18th and 54th streets of Newport Beach. 

Both his parents were in the Second World War. His mother, Ruth, was a nurse. They called her “Ruthless” — she could grab an egg from a pot of boiling water barehanded. But she was also steadfast and sweet, the glue of the family. His father, Will, served on the USS Yosemite in the Pacific. He was in Nagasaki, Japan, months after the bomb dropped, when the effects of radiation were not understood.

The family spent summers out West, exploring the mountains and deserts, camping for a month at a time. At 10 years old, Schilling could read a map and drive. So when his father, an aerospace engineer, accepted a job with Thompson Ramo Wooldridge Inc. (later Northrop Grumman) in Farmington, young Dan was all about it.

“I was a really hyperactive, nonfocused kid,” Schilling told me. According to his high school friend Dave Bock, “a hummingbird had less energy. … It was fun just tagging along for the ride.”

Dave, Dan and a few others hung out in the Schillings’ basement. Though today Schilling doesn’t drink alcohol or coffee, and doesn’t smoke or eat meat, as a teen he would use his “cheesy mustache” to buy beer underage from the Shamrock up Highway 89 to fuel weekly poker nights.

But Schilling was as smart as he was restless. He joined the Air Force at 23, beginning a career that would span more than 30 years. He earned his place in one of the most elite special operations communities on the planet as a combat controller. Green Berets, Rangers and SEALs get highly specialized training, but Air Force combat controllers must be trained in all areas, to fit into any special operations team.

“I have had the good fortune to learn that I could push my boundaries much harder than I thought I could,” he said. “And that has made all the difference in my life.”

“I have had the good fortune to learn that I could push my boundaries much harder than I thought I could, and that has made all the difference in my life.”

In 1993, Schilling found himself in the middle of the Somali Civil War. He came close to death countless times during the Battle of Mogadishu, known commonly as the “Black Hawk Down” incident.

Matt Eversmann later co-edited a book of firsthand accounts with Schilling, “The Battle of Mogadishu.” Eversmann wrote, “That mission — that horrifying event, that brutal experience, that episode of complete savagery — will be, without exception, one of the finest examples of American tenacity, selfless service, courage, and commitment ever witnessed in modern times.”

Col. Randy Watt met Schilling in his time with the Utah National Guard, years later. “Dan’s pure professional,” he said. “He was the most skilled HALO parachutist I’ve ever met.”

Schilling convinced the National Guard Bureau to allow him to train a new special operations squadron, even though the Pentagon was cool to the idea. “That was a big deal,” Watt said. “He did so well with it that the Joint Special Operations community said, ‘Look, we need you to build a similar secret dark-side unit inside the Joint Special Operations Command.’”

According to Watt, it was like starting a new NHL franchise, recruiting players and coaches, buying all the equipment, designing the training programs. “It’s a big deal,” Watt reiterated.

Dan Schilling, a special operations veteran and bestselling author, poses for a photo in Alta on Wednesday, May 17, 2023. | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

Schilling’s office is tidy and practical. His bookshelves are lined with fiction and philosophy, history and science; white boards are covered in charts and diagrams. His cat flitted in and out while we talked.

The white beard and long hair are a far cry from Schilling’s clean-shaven, crew-cut look of the past, evidence that he does not feel defined by his military career anymore. “I’m in constant pursuit of evolution,” he said. “I have no end states. I don’t really know what I’m evolving into.”

Now, he volunteers extensively with the nonprofit Wasatch Adaptive Sports, helping people with adaptive needs experience Utah’s legendary skiing. He runs The Power of Awareness Institute, helping save lives with person safety training. On the side, he is working with manufacturers to develop better hydration rations for troops on the battlefield. His books make The New York Times’ bestseller lists.

Schilling’s book “Alone at Dawn,” cowritten with Lori Longfritz, is about a fellow combat controller, John Chapman, during the Afghanistan War. Schilling is helping produce the movie version starring Jake Gyllenhaal, but more importantly, his research was a large reason why Chapman was considered for, and subsequently earned, the Medal of Honor.

“At this stage of my life, it’s a way to push myself and grow and explore, which is very different from the physical types of things I used to do,” he told me. “I’m really kind of in pursuit of a renaissance existence in a 21st century sense.”

Dan Schilling, left, sits on the side of an MH-6 Little Bird helicopter while training for attacking urban targets at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, in 1994. | Courtesy of Dan Schilling

We heard a commotion outside the office window. A bird was trying to fly through the glass, bumping and scraping the nearly invisible surface. Dan looked at it with pleasure, before turning around.

“There’s a book on that shelf that saved my life,” he said, pointing behind me. Eckhart Tolle’s “The Power of Now” is what Schilling describes as a nondenominational philosophical approach to understanding your own existence. “I was in a really dark place, and that book brought me out of it.”

Schilling’s wife of 13 years, Julie, told me later that “those moments are not something that are ever gonna go away because of what he’s seen.” 

She remembered when a “small, sweet little bird” hit their window. “He went out with gloves, trying not to scare the bird, but he kind of helped this little bird until she could recover.” After it fluttered away again, she remembered Dan saying, “I feel like I got a piece of my soul back.”

“I forget how deep it runs, how much pain is in there,” she said. “It would break your heart, even if you didn’t know him.”

Julie grew up in Holladay, and spent her career as a cyber warfare operative for the National Security Agency. In 2010, they happened to be on the same flight headed to Honolulu for different training exercises. “This is gonna sound a little woo-woo,” she laughed. “I saw him and it just hit me like a brick in the head — I’ve been looking for you my whole life.” She still has the ticket, and they’ve been inseparable ever since.

Schilling’s son from a previous marriage, John, couldn’t be happier for the pair. “It’s one of those relationships where the two parties are just additive to each other,” he said. “The puzzle pieces fit perfectly.”

Growing up, John was a witness to his father’s pain. “I’ve seen him break down before when I was much younger, over things he had to deal with when he was on missions and deployed. I’ve seen how it affects him,” he said. In 2001, Schilling lost his best friend, Pat Rogers, to suicide. “That bothers him to this day,” Julie said. “It will never stop bothering him because it crushed him. ... It just gutted him.” 

“Love is a commitment to somebody else. That commitment can take many, many forms.”

“I really struggled with the things that I had done, and I contemplated killing myself a number of times,” Schilling told me. “A lot of my friends have killed themselves from my very small community. The first guy I supervised, and my best friend.”

For Schilling, and many others who saw combat in military service, finding healthy ways of dealing with what they’ve seen and experienced is a matter of survival. Schilling turned to Buddhism, to his family and friends and doing good in a world he was nihilistic about. 

“There are things you have done in your life that you did poorly, or were objectively identified as bad — you cannot change them. This is one of the reasons I’m a Buddhist,” he said. “You cannot change the past. Where you are in the moment is truly where you are, which requires acceptance.”

Part of his acceptance is holding vigil days for his fallen friends. No matter what else is on his schedule, Schilling takes the time to remember them. “Love is a commitment to somebody else,” he told me. “That commitment can take many, many forms.”

“For him, people shouldn’t be forgotten just because they’re gone,” John said. “They should be remembered when they’re important to you.” 

Air National Guard Capt. Dan Schilling leaps off the Perrine Bridge Saturday, July 8, 2006, in Twin Falls, Idaho. The military parachutist set a new world record for BASE jumping by jumping 201 times in 24 hours. | Meagan Thompson, South Idaho Press via Associated Press

More publicly, in 2006, he raised money for the Special Operations Warrior Foundation by setting a world record for number of BASE jumps in 24 hours. According to The Associated Press, he jumped 201 times — or once every six minutes and 20 seconds for 21 hours. He broke his arm six hours in, but kept jumping.

“In the community where I come from, that’s nothing, man,” he said, downplaying the incident. In another close call, the steering lines snapped off his parachute, but he was able to land in water.

“It was a simple fracture. It wasn’t compound,” he told me. “I had a medic on standby who wrapped me up, and gave me a shot of Toradol in the butt cheek, which isn’t, you know, cognitively the smartest thing. But it’s BASE jumping. It’s not rocket science.”

Dan Schilling, a special operations veteran and bestselling author, prepares his wing before speed riding at Alta Ski Area, which has closed for the season, on Wednesday, May 17, 2023. | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

Back at Alta, the chute fills with air, and Schilling’s skis barely graze the ground. It’s a moment where he’s neither flying nor skiing. Pulling up to gain some clearance from the slope, he cuts through a gap in two evergreens on his way down towards the valley floor.

This is his version of slowing down. No matter who you talk to about Schilling, they mention his unmatched energy. 

Schilling and his wife moved to Alta full time in 2016, soon after his retirement from the military, finding solace in the quiet mountain town. They now split their time between a house in Draper and Alta, in order to care for Julie’s parents. “For me,” Dan said, “Little Cottonwood is the center of the universe.”

“That community made such a huge difference for him,” Julie said. “All you do is sit and listen to the quiet of your skis, stop and listen to the wind blowing through the trees. It’s what helps him get through those dark times, where we just sit and talk.”

“Sometimes we describe Alta as the ‘Land of Broken Toys,’” Alta avalanche director Dave Richards told me. “Dan fits into that; he’s found a home here with this community. He’s just a wonderful, pleasant personality that everybody in the community cares for and adores.”

Richards jokes, “Our friendship was forced on me by Dan just being such a nice guy.” A few years ago, when Richards was in the hospital, Schilling charmed his way past the nurse’s station, despite the strict no-visitation policy, to make sure that Richards was doing OK.

“It meant a lot to me,” he remembered. “At that point, we were just neighbors, but he cared enough to be the first person to show up. That’s what I’ve learned from Dan — just give a damn, you know. Give enough of a damn to either be nice or be mean, but care one way or another.”

“After what he’s experienced,” Julie said, “I find that even more of a testament to what an extraordinary human he is. He really genuinely cares. … He just wants to do good things in this world. He wants to have peace.”

If you or a veteran you know is in crisis, call the Veterans Crisis Line by dialing 988 then pressing 1. Or, text 838255 to reach crisis responders for confidential support 24/7, 365 days a year.

Dan Schilling, a special operations veteran and bestselling author, skis down the slopes at Alta Ski Area, which has closed for the season, after speed riding down from a higher ridge on Wednesday, May 17, 2023. | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News