Talk of being an adrenaline junkie. This guy is totally loon. I can't listen to him talk, but the videos of him doing stuff are outstanding.
The Evel Knievel of BASE jumping, Jeb Corliss, is at his best dropping from the sky and buzzing cliffs inches from death. It’s when he’s on the ground that things get dark.
by Bill GiffordOn the afternoon of April 27, 2006, Jeb Corliss rode the elevator up to the 86th floor of the Empire State Building wearing a fat suit and a stick-on handlebar mustache.
This was nothing special for the 34-year-old Corliss, the world’s most famous BASE jumper. Over his 14-year career, he has jumped off some of the world’s most iconic structures, including the Petronas Towers in Malaysia, the Golden Gate Bridge, and the Stratosphere casino in Las Vegas (smuggling his parachute through security inside an enormous stuffed puppy). He has jumped down the inside of the Eiffel Tower — turning a couple of twisting reverses on the way just to make it more exciting. Compared with those, the Empire State Building leap would be cake. A parachute was hidden inside the fat suit, but as he scrambled over the safety fence on the observation deck and prepared to jump, two security guards grabbed him through the rails. He was arrested and charged with “reckless endangerment with depraved indifference to life.” The last part of the charge particularly irked him: He had made sure to time his jump so he’d land on Fifth Avenue when the lights were red. In the ensuing media frenzy, an unrepentant Corliss appeared everywhere from the front page of the New York Times to Geraldo; later, he chatted with the Today show while flying in a wingsuit above Florida.
“My life is very, very simple,” he likes to say. “Life is a bunch of experiences you have…until you die. And my goal is to make those experiences as amazing as I possibly can.” He fully believes, he says, that “everybody has a gift, something they’re good at — and my gift is fear. I can do things with fear. When most people are crippled by fear, on the ground, puking, that’s when I’m at my best.”
The Empire State debacle turned out to be bad news for the small, secretive world of BASE jumping — the New York City Council passed a law banning the sport in all five boroughs. But the attention was great for Jeb Corliss. Although the nonjump jump nearly landed him in jail (he got off with three years’ probation), it kept him in the headlines for nearly three years and helped attract independent filmmakers looking to chronicle his exploits — attention that will make it easier to line up both sponsors and media coverage for his next big project, the one he’s been dreaming about for years: becoming the first man to jump from a plane and land (alive) without a parachute.
He’s convinced it can be done. All he needs, he says, is $2 million to build a meticulously engineered landing structure. It’s a visionary idea, a dream of skydivers for decades, but it’s also wildly dangerous, with a high probability he’ll die in the attempt.
That’s a perception Corliss cultivates. “I don’t like to sugarcoat things,” he says, “and it’s a guarantee that if you get into BASE jumping, you’re going to hurt yourself. You’re going to break bones. You are going to see people die, and guess what? Some of them are going to be your very good friends. And if you keep BASE jumping long enough, it will kill you.”
As Corliss well knows, it’s also a guarantee that if you keep talking like that, people will keep watching you.
In essence, base jumping is like playing chicken with the ground. The moment a jumper launches off an object or cliff (BASE stands for Building, Antenna, Span, and Earth), he has just a few seconds — as little as one or two, or as many as 10 or 12, depending on the height of the precipice — to accelerate in free fall and “track,” or fly his body free and clear of whatever he leaped from, and then throw the pilot chute, which in turn extracts the main canopy from its container. If something goes wrong — an “off-heading” chute opening sends the jumper hurtling back into the building, say, or a stray wind gust pushes him someplace he’d rather not be, or maybe he just waits too long to pop the chute — there’s not much chance to fix the situation. (There are no backup chutes in BASE jumping because there’s no time to activate them.)
Jumpers not only live for the free fall but also try to make it last as long as possible, traveling to places like the fjords of Norway, which feature 5,000-foot cliffs. (Switzerland has a few 6,000-footers.) As BASE jumping has surged in popularity over the past decade or so, the sport’s leading athletes — including Corliss — have pushed its boundaries, adding high-level acrobatic moves to their jumps and, increasingly, using wingsuits made of tough, reinforced nylon that let them soar like flying squirrels and execute basic aeronautic maneuvers at 100 mph. Chances are you’ve gotten a knot in your stomach watching a wingsuited BASE jumper on YouTube. Corliss is one of the world’s top wingsuiters; his résumé includes buzzing the famous Christ the Redeemer statue that towers above Rio de Janeiro.
When I caught up with him last fall in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Corliss was obsessed with taking his wingsuit technique to the next level of so-called “proximity flying”: gliding as close as possible to cliff faces and solid objects without touching them. In the spring of 2009, he leaped from a helicopter and flew down the spine of the Matterhorn while being filmed for a Channel 4 documentary that aired in September. It’s a terrifying display, with Corliss’s body skimming past jagged outcrops as he screams down the mountainside. Even scarier: He did four separate runs to ensure that the producers would have enough footage. “The Matterhorn was some of the best proxy flying I’ve ever done,” he says. “The second time, when I almost touched, I was really, really close. I almost went in.”
He’d come to Kuala Lumpur, Australian film crew in tow, to take part in the KL Tower International BASE Jump, a multiday festival that draws about 70 top jumpers from around the world. Here he could jump without violating his probation and teach his girlfriend, the ridiculously hot Italian model and champion skydiver Roberta Mancino, a thing or two (she wanted to notch the B on her BASE belt).
Even in a crowd of extremists, Corliss is easy to spot. Standing well over six feet, he has a hollow, severe face and a quarter-inch of fuzz on his head; dressed entirely in black, from his Oakleys down to his cargo pants and Converse boots, he looks like a punk-rock commando. His T-shirt is emblazoned with the international “no smoking” symbol and a slogan: there are cooler ways to die.
“In some ways his public persona is like a real-life superhero,” says his friend Iiro Seppanen, a Finnish jumper and filmmaker who has made many trips with Corliss. “He’s almost like a frickin’ cartoon figure.”
Corliss doesn’t really make small talk; he holds forth, his words pouring out in a hot torrent. When he laughs it’s unsettling, a high-pitched, whinnying cackle. As Corliss’s close friend, the Norwegian pro skier Karina Hollekim, explains: “He’s not one of those people you don’t have an opinion about. When people meet Jeb, it’s either-or.” As the film crew zooms in, a group of jumpers is glaring daggers at Corliss from across the room. “Count how many times he says ‘I,’ ” a European jumper mutters to me under his breath.
Reaching the top of the tower, 1,000 feet up, we shuffle off the elevator into a panoramic ballroom that serves as a staging ground for the jumpers. Corliss and Mancino quickly get ready, folding their canopies, their nylon lines stretched out carefully on the carpet, side by side. As he works, Corliss rocks steadily back and forth to an invisible rhythm, keeping one eye on Mancino’s work. “What’s this?” he says, pointing to her lines. “You want this, up here,” he says, making a slight adjustment in her rig.
Aside from his big mouth, Corliss is known for bringing a new level of acrobatics to BASE jumping. He studied for years with an Olympic-caliber dive coach at USC. At KL, however, he’s taking it easy, throwing nothing more complicated than a gainer (a single reverse flip before straightening out); otherwise he’s content to coach Mancino, sometimes jumping in tandem to film her as she falls.
Coming back up in the elevator after one such two-way jump (they’ll complete four nearly flawless jumps before calling it quits for the day), Mancino is glowing, though Corliss is wearing an exasperated-boyfriend face. “She tried to kill me,” he says, after one jump in which he thought she waited too long to throw her chute.
“I keel you,” she says, squaring off at him in a kickboxing stance, clearly trying to lighten the mood. “I keek you in the knots,” she adds, her foot hovering inches from his crotch. Mancino competed nationally in kickboxing before she switched to skydiving. “She could totally kick my ass,” Corliss admits.
As they repack, the Aussie cameraman takes Corliss to task for teaching his girlfriend such a dangerous sport. “C’mon, mate,” he says good-naturedly. “Look after that girl!”
“I am looking after her,” Corliss replies. “I’m a little different from most people. A lot of guys would be, ‘Oh, you can’t do this.’ I’m not like that. I will never stop someone from doing something they want to do. If she wants to do it, I know she can. So I’m gonna try to teach her the safest, best way possible.”
What does her family think of this?
“Her parents are all. Pissed. Off,” he says, getting indignant. Mancino nods. “And I’m like, You guys are being selfish. You get to live your life the way you wanted to; now you need to let her live the way she wants to. And if something happens, who’s gonna feel sad? You. So, I’m sorry, fuck you.”
The middle child of three, Corliss was born to an adventurous pair of artifacts dealers who traveled the world in search of exotic religious totems to sell in their gallery in Santa Fe, New Mexico. By the time he was seven, Corliss had circled the globe three times. When the family lived in Kathmandu, five-year-old Jeb would often wander over to the Buddhist monastery and hang out with the monks. “He was a very, very different child,” says his mother. “He had a really strong way of being, from the moment he first existed. He had an aura.”
Moving so frequently, Corliss found it hard to make and keep friends. Even in Santa Fe he changed schools, it seemed, once a year. “For me, school was not a place to go learn,” he says. “It was a place to go fight.”
After his parents divorced when he was eight, Corliss and his sisters and mother settled in Palm Springs, California. By the end of sixth grade, he was pulled out of school for good (except for a three-month attempt at 12th grade). “School is evil,” he says. “It made me a very dark, unhappy person.”
His home life didn’t help. When he was 15, his mother “just disappeared,” he says. She was gone for four months, and didn’t even call on his birthday. Then one day the phone rang. “My mom was like, ‘Hey, Jeb, how would you like to go to Cancún?’ ”
Turns out she’d met a new boyfriend, who had decided to take her on an extended trip through Central America — over her strong initial objections. “She basically got abducted,” Corliss says. Still, he and his younger sister ended up joining her and the boyfriend, a man named Barry Fitzmorris, for what turned into a nine-month odyssey through Central and South America. Soon after, his mother married Fitzmorris and the new family moved into an oceanfront house in Malibu, which is where Corliss lived until about a year ago, when his mother and Fitzmorris separated. (Corliss and Mancino now share a rented house in Venice, California, with Corliss’s mom.)
In Malibu, Corliss grew even more disaffected and depressed. Things got so bad for him that when the Columbine killings happened, he understood why the killers did it. “Everybody was like, Oh, my God, how could this happen?” he says. “I’ll tell you what: I know exactly how it happened. I was one inch from being one of those guys.”
Luckily for everyone, he discovered skydiving instead. When he turned 18, he began hanging out at the drop zone in nearby Bermuda Dunes. To pay for his skydiving courses, he worked in a local movie theater where, after too many run-ins with the public, he was moved to the solitude of the projectionist’s booth. “I actually liked that job,” he says. “If it paid better, I’d still be doing it.”
His goal, even then, was not just to skydive: He knew he wanted to be a professional BASE jumper, a job that barely even existed in 1994, before sponsors like Red Bull started underwriting the top jumpers. When he’d logged the requisite number of skydives, he enrolled in a jumping course offered by Apex BASE, a husband-and-wife team that operated out of the drop zone in nearby Perris.
“Before he’d ever made his first BASE jump,” recalls Todd Shoebotham, owner of Apex, “he was pretty much already saying, I know I’m gonna love this.”
He didn’t tell anyone why he was doing it; in fact, he didn’t say much of anything at all. Corliss had turned into a lonely, brooding figure, hanging around the drop zone dressed in head-to-toe black. His friend Hollekim puts it bluntly: “When he started BASE jumping, he didn’t want to live anymore.”
A couple of months in, he was ready to jump from an antenna — a dicey prospect that carries the risk of flying into the guy wires. He found one that he liked, a low-ish tower just off Highway 101 near Camarillo. It was 300 feet tall, close to the lowest jumpable height and something only an expert would attempt. But Corliss had made only six jumps at the time. His instructor told him he was nowhere near ready to handle such a low and technical jump. When he told his mom, she cried and begged him not to go; she told him not to come back if he did.
He went anyway — alone, because no one would go with him. He drove out to Camarillo in the dark, parked by the freeway, gathered his gear. As he walked through the low scrub, he says, “I’m going, This is stupid. You’re going to hurt yourself. And there’s nobody to help you.” He knew his mother was lying awake in his bed, keeping a vigil as she often did when Corliss went off on jumps.
“But I keep going, continue to walk,” he goes on, getting into the rhythm of the story now. “I get to the razor-wire fence, throw my stuff over, and climb over. And start to climb the antenna. And with every rung I go up, my brain’s like, I’m not doing this, I’m not gonna do this. So I start trying to trick myself: Okay, what I’m gonna do is I’m gonna climb up to the top, take a look down, and I’m not gonna jump. And I get to the top — I’m sitting, like, inside the antenna — and all of a sudden I’m like, I’m not doing this.
“And as I’m saying that, I’m getting my pilot chute ready, and I climb out of the antenna, so I’m, like, hanging out over the edge, and I say, I’m not doing this, as I step off the antenna.”
As he fell, accelerating madly, he watched the long support wires flash past. He had thrown his pilot chute, but it still hadn’t opened when he passed the red light marking the center point of the antenna — with only 150 feet left to fall. The razor-wire fence was coming fast. I’m going in, he thought to himself, and instinctively threw his arms out in front of his face. Just at that moment, his parachute opened with a sound like a shotgun blast.
Seconds later, he slammed into the road and lay there, prone but unhurt. “My entire body is, like, shaking, vibrating,” he says. “All the hair on my body is standing on end. I can actually hear little insects crawling on the grass. I could see everything. I could taste the air.”
Some might have counted their blessings and backed off after such a close call, but not Corliss, who pursued BASE jumping with even greater fervor until, in 1999, he managed to persuade the producers of a show called Real TV to hire him to travel to South Africa and film himself BASE jumping there. A month in, as he jumped 300 feet off Howick Falls near Durban, he miscalculated a steering maneuver, forcing his chute into the falls. Corliss plunged down onto the rocks, fracturing several vertebrae. “I spent an hour lying in the water getting eaten by animals,” he says. “It was really gnarly.”
Corliss was on his back in a hospital bed for a month, unable even to go to the bathroom without assistance. And yet it turned out to be one of the best things that had ever happened to him. Real TV loved the footage, and on the strength of that one video, Corliss invented a new business model for BASE jumpers, as he’s sold it and resold it to documentary producers and extreme-sports shows worldwide. “They can show the waterfall and say, ‘He continued on; he didn’t stop,’ ” Corliss says. “That one piece of footage has basically paid for most of my life for the last 10 years.”
Before the Empire State bust, Corliss was the host of the Discovery Channel show Stunt Junkies, but that gig ended with his arrest — an outcome he doesn’t seem to regret. Even without the show, though, he doesn’t seem to be hurting: He travels the world seemingly at will, jumping last year alone at Lauterbrunnen, Switzerland, and in the Dolomites, as well as diving with sharks in Fiji with Mancino. Despite the appearance of wealth, Corliss denies the BASE-world rumors of a vast trust fund. “I’m in debt, man — big time,” he says, citing legal bills from the Empire State case, which is ongoing. “I don’t own a car; I don’t own a house. I own nothing.”
Corliss is full of stories about almost dying. Like the first time he went scuba diving in Mexico, as a teenager, and the boat flipped and sent him to the bottom with a weight belt around his waist, nearly drowning him. Or when he broke through thin ice on a pond. “Dude, I was done,” he says. “I was dead for, like, two hours.” Or when his babysitter thought it would be funny to get him drunk — he was eight at the time — and he ended up with severe alcohol poisoning (the reason he cites for shunning booze).
But while he has been remarkably lucky, his closest friends have not fared so well. Case in point: Hollekim, who had never BASE jumped before she met Corliss. He got her hooked. “It’s kind of the same feeling as falling in love,” she says now. “It’s kind of scary; you don’t know if you’re going to get hurt or what’s going to happen. But you always want more.”
Then, in August 2006, she was wingsuit skydiving when her parachute failed to open properly. She hit the ground hard, breaking one leg badly and completely shattering the other, driving her femur through her hip. She spent the next three years in and out of surgery.
“He told me, when I was in hospital, ‘You know, Karina, this accident saved your life,’ ” she says. “I said, ‘How’s that possible?’ He said, ‘In the direction that you were going, you probably wouldn’t have survived if it wasn’t for this accident.’ ”
Iiro Seppanen was similarly saved, when — after a series of ever-nastier BASE-jumping accidents — he finally gave up the sport in 2006.
Then there was his friend Dwain Weston, a popular, carefree Aussie with John Denver hair. Known for his daring low-altitude acrobatics, Weston was a kind of mentor to Corliss. In October 2003 they were supposed to do a combo jump from a plane flying above Colorado’s Royal Gorge Bridge, with Jeb wingsuiting and Dwain parachuting. At the last minute, Corliss says, Dwain decided to fly a wingsuit instead. Jeb would fly under the bridge, which was lined with hundreds of spectators, while Dwain would go over it. “All he had to do is miss it by a foot,” one of Dwain’s friends told me, “and he would have been a hero.”
Instead Dwain smacked into the bridge railing, which tore his body in half. His parachute deployed, carrying what was left of his torso, while his severed leg plunged to the bottom of the gorge. “I thought people were throwing things off the bridge,” Jeb says, retelling the story in the ballroom at the KL Tower. All around us, jumpers are quietly repacking their chutes and trying not to listen. “Instead, I was flying through his parts. And when I landed, I was covered in his blood.”
“Almost all my friends are dead,” he says, and for once, he goes quiet.
After three days of jumping from the KL Tower, a select group is invited across town to jump from the striking, shark fin–like Telekom Malaysia tower. It’s another steamy morning, and the vast helipad atop the 55-story building is already reflecting the morning sun like a big metal skillet.
Over dinner the night before, Corliss dismissed the idea that he has some sort of death wish. “Everyone makes a big deal: ‘Oh, he was suicidal…’ I haven’t had a suicidal thought since I was 19. I’m a pretty normal guy who gets to do some extraordinary things. If I were to die tomorrow, I would have no regrets.”
His ultimate goal of skydiving without a parachute, he insists, will be the most extraordinary of all these “extraordinary things.” A born showman, he plans on pulling off a stunning public spectacle.
Corliss himself is tight-lipped about the details of his plan (at least five other countries are also working on it), but he hints at a carefully calibrated landing structure, built of high-tensile fabric and shaped like a ski-jump landing, so he could come in at an angle and decelerate slowly along the ramp — all of which is even harder than it sounds (see “The No-Chute Landing,” page 109).
“You have to arrive at an exact position in space — x, y, and z — and you have to be very close to the right angle,” says Roy Haggard, an aerospace engineer who has consulted with Corliss. “You can’t have any error. If your approach angle is too shallow or too steep, you’re either gonna overshoot or undershoot.”
Corliss wants the first landing to happen in Vegas; wherever it’s staged, though, plans are moving forward. “It looks like the first steps forward will happen this year,” says Seppanen, who’s partnering with Corliss on the project.
The wingsuit landing project has had the BASE world buzzing for years. Resting between jumps in Kuala Lumpur, a friendly jumper named Nick quizzes him about it. “I guarantee,” Nick jokes, “I will not beat you to it.”
“I guarantee you,” Jeb shoots back, “that once it’s done, you will be doing it. Trust me, it will be no more dangerous than landing a high-performance [rig]. Everything is going to be completely controlled. The variables have been eliminated. Eliminated!”
“Except for pilot error,” Nick points out.
“No, that’s pretty much been eliminated,” Jeb insists. “You’d have to be a real retard.”
Atop the Telekom Malaysia tower, Corliss makes his final adjustments and holds out a handheld video camera.
“It’s looking pretty good,” he says, talking into the lens.
A moment later he steps to the edge, and everyone stops talking. His arms go up, as if nailed to an invisible cross. “Have fun, dude,” he says to no one in particular. “See ya!”
He leaps forward, into empty space, and hangs there for an instant, suspended above the highway in the sun. Then his head tips back and downward, passing within just a few feet of the edge. His legs follow, still locked together in perfect diver position, and he plunges down, picking up speed before his body levels out; at three seconds, the floors of the building are flashing past at more than 60 mph. At four seconds, he’s plummeting toward the ground at close to 80 mph when he reaches for his right hip to throw his chute.
Up on top, the other jumpers lean over the edge and watch him drop. His chute pops open, but the lines are twisted together; unable to steer, he spirals around once and then flies straight at the side of the building. His body bounces off the building’s skeleton and his chute accelerates toward the ground.
He pulls up his legs, bracing for impact, and slams hard into a concrete retaining wall. From the landing zone, Mancino screams and runs over to him. The radios crackle: “Medical! Medical!”
He ends up in a clean, spacious hospital room with a picture window affording a terrific view of the Telekom Malaysia tower. “Dude!” he says by way of greeting. “Worst-case scenario! One-eighty with line twists!”
A nurse comes in to check his blood pressure. She asks if he wants any painkillers, but he waves her away; Corliss doesn’t do medication. Earlier, he’d told me that he’d refused morphine when he broke his back in Africa: “If something’s painful, I want to feel the pain,” he’d insisted. I figured he was being dramatic, exaggerating for effect.
Now I believe him. And this has got to hurt: He’s broken his left foot and cracked his left hip. His right ankle is swollen and severely sprained, too, which means he’ll be in a wheelchair for weeks. Of course, it could have been a lot worse. He got lucky yet again.
“Dude, I hit so hard,” he says, almost gleefully. “Luckily I saw it coming, and I bent my knees, put my arms in. If I had hit that with my back? Paralyzed for life, no question.”
This article originally appeared in the May 2010 issue of Men’s Journal.