These pages are the result of five years of research, reporting, and writing, a process that required travel on four continents and exploration of internal landscapes I hadn’t known existed.
For years I had been writing about so-called extreme sports, such as skateboarding, snowboarding, big-wave surfing, and free-style motocross. So it seemed natural to editors at the New York Times that I should look into BASE jumping, an activity that could hardly appear more extreme. It was during the course of my research that I discovered wingsuit flying and learned that some pilots had ambitions to actually land without a parachute. The idea captivated me from the start.
When I began, there was no guarantee that anyone would succeed in flying and landing without a chute. But to dwell on that possibility, it seemed, missed the point. The point was that in a unique and fascinating sphere of sports, men (mostly men, anyway) were willing to confront a stark choice: succeed or possibly die trying. The high stakes and commitment required by practitioners appealed to my most basic instincts as a journalist; the challenge, and joy, would come from uncovering their humanity.
In the course of examining the characters, culture, training, and courage required to perform a BASE jump with a wingsuit, I would come to meditate on questions concerning the nature of risk: What kind of person not only approaches the edge, but then leaps off? Why are some attracted to scenarios that seem counter to the most basic instincts for self-preservation? Do they suffer from a deficit of fear? Is their behavior pathological? Which specific skills are required for survival?
Bird Dream is an attempt to answer those questions and scores more encountered along the way.
Who are these that fly like a cloud . . . ?
SATURDAY, JULY 16, 2011
On the morning that would make him famous, mountains upon mountains stretched to the horizon, and the air at seven thousand feet above sea level came cool and thin. An occasional gust bent thick grass on the ledge around his black boots. And more than a mile below, in a plush green valley, sun caught the waters of the Walensee and warmed cobblestones in a distant Swiss village along the lakeshore. It was one of those glorious days. The view, the sun and wind on your cheeks, made you grateful just to be alive.
“What do you reckon, ten miles an hour?” one of his companions asked Jeb about the wind. “Twelve?” Jeb was Jeb Corliss, a thirty-five-year-old stuntman and BASE jumper from California—“BASE” being an acronym for “buildings, antennas, spans (bridges), and earth (cliffs),” the primary objects that practitioners leap from. Jeb had plunged from the Eiffel Tower, the Golden Gate Bridge, Angel Falls, in Venezuela, and the Petronas Towers, in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia; from countless mountainsides; and into a cave in Mexico more than a thousand feet deep. With a thousand jumps and counting, he was one of the leading lights in the most dangerous sport yet devised.
“More,” Jeb replied, not taking note of the scenery, his mouth hard-set, conveying the seriousness of what he was about to attempt.
• • •
HIS COMPANIONS ON THE ledge that morning were a Swiss graduate student named Gian, a British model with a West Country accent named Jessica, and an American reporter with a notebook and pen—and a case of nerves over what was coming. Jeb stood out among this group, as he tended to in any gathering. Rawboned, six feet three inches tall, and sharp-featured, he dressed all in black, from hiking boots to cotton pants to a spring jacket. On his head, a black knit beanie covered a scalp usually shaved smooth as a lightbulb but which was showing a bit of stubble this day. Modern mirrored sunglasses shielded his eyes. At his feet sat a black nylon stash bag, from which he had pulled gear moments earlier. Out came his parachute rig, helmet, a pair of goggles equipped with GPS sensors, gloves (all of which were black, too), the latest miniature point-of-view (POV) cameras, and, of course, his wingsuit.
Nearby on the ledge, the Swiss BASE Association had placed a comfort station consisting of a weatherproof black box containing cigarettes, rope, chocolate, and a logbook and first-aid kit. Above the box, a sign read:
After some misunderstandings with locals and negative press about jumping here the situation is relaxed right now.
Please use some common sense to keep it this way.
• This is an advanced BASE jump suitable only for experienced wingsuit pilots.
• Know your limits.
• Rockdrop is about 230 m/750 ft.
• Watch out for airtraffic.
• Please no close flybys on paragliders.
• No littering.
• Let the world know you have been here, write something in the book.
• In an emergency call Rega helicopter rescue: +41 333 333 333.
• The Mountain you stand on is called Hinderrugg, exit coordinates are 47.15323 N 9.302303 E.
• Enjoy the jump.
One mile below as the crow flies, other members of Jeb’s team had assembled along a meadow dotted with wildflowers and echoing with the slow clang of cowbells. The meadow disappeared abruptly at the mouth of a jagged S-shaped fissure in the mountain, called Schattenloch Canyon, a feature known colloquially as the Crack. This seam twisted through the earth for a few hundred yards before ending sharply at a sheer cliff dropping straight into the valley to Walenstadt, the village from which Jeb and his accomplices had set out by car in the blue hours before dawn.
Two locals, brothers named Christian and Andreas Gubser, had volunteered to act as ground crew. An attorney and a surveyor, respectively, they had connected with Jeb on Facebook after seeing video of him jumping at the site months earlier. Their eagerness to help came from nothing other than a chance to witness something spectacular firsthand.
The brothers took up positions around the Crack, Andreas suspended in a harness tethered to a gnarled old tree on the edge of the ravine. Through a long camera lens he watched his brother, who, wearing a red Montreal Canadiens T-shirt, stood at the mouth of the Crack, clutching by their strings one red and one blue party balloon acquired from a nearby McDonald’s. Stationed to Christian’s immediate left was a father-and-son camera crew from Germany hired by the ABC program 20/20. Their producer, Marc, waited below, on the outskirts of Walenstadt, with a camera to capture the final sequence as Jeb came in for a landing.
• • •
UP ON THE LEDGE, Jeb had pulled on a black wingsuit, an innovation that, aeronautically speaking, is more flying squirrel than bird or plane.
Wingsuits are not new; they have captured the imagination of storytellers since man first dreamed of flying. From Icarus to Wile E. Coyote, who crashed into a mesa on his attempt, the results have usually been disastrous. Yet a new design, developed during the past two decades, has made them safer and more predictable. These modern suits feature two layers of tightly woven nylon sewed between the legs and between the arms and torso of a jumpsuit, creating vented wings with cells inside that fill with air and create lift, allowing for forward motion and aerial maneuvers while also slowing descent. Unlike skydiving or BASE jumping, in which trajectories are pretty much vertical, wingsuit flying creates a third dimension by providing glide. Pilots fly along a downward slope, expressed in a ratio of, say, 1:1—for every foot of forward motion, they descend one foot. Some have achieved ratios as high as 3:1, moving three feet forward for every foot of descent, similar to the glide of a parachute. As wingsuits, which cost about $1,000, have become more sophisticated, so have the pilots. The best fliers, and there are not many, trace the contours of cliffs, ridges, and mountainsides, in what’s known as “proximity” or “terrain” flying. That’s what Jeb was about to do at the Crack, the equivalent of a double-black diamond for difficulty.
Grasping a cable bolted to the mountain as a handhold, Jeb traversed a terrifyingly exposed stretch of ledge, the fabric between his legs restricting movement, and arrived at another grassy area; this was the exit. He had jumped here eleven times, the last time months earlier, rocketing over the head of Christian, who had been holding a pair of balloons as a target. The vortices in the wake of Jeb’s wingsuit had ripped the balloons from Christian’s hand and spun them into the Crack, making for stunning video footage, which had stirred a sensation on YouTube and lured the team from 20/20 on this day for another round of what everyone was referring to as a wingsuit William Tell.
• • •
THIS TIME JEB PHONED Christian to tell him to expect a jump in two minutes and secured the phone in a pocket. He pulled on a shiny black helmet with cameras mounted on booms like antennae. The helmet covered his head and mouth, and goggles shielded his eyes, making him look like those robot DJs from Daft Punk. He clipped more cameras to his suit. On his back he wore a parachute rig containing a single canopy. In the event of a malfunction, there wouldn’t be sufficient altitude for a reserve.
“Ten seconds!” Jeb called to the others on the ledge, and then: “Three, two, one . . . See ya!”
Every jump is a drama in four acts. In this case, the first part, Jeb’s launch, was unstable. He plunged head first, off-balance, an eight-second drop to the ground below.
Kicking his feet furiously like a swimmer, Jeb gained stability. Arms canted away from his body, legs apart, he resembled Leonardo da Vinci’s famous Vitruvian Man pose. Air rushed into the vents on his suit, and his wings inflated. Jeb glided toward the meadow, gaining speed, mountain terrain and evergreen trees far below. Half a minute passed in flight as he made his approach, air roaring into his helmet like the sound of static. Soaring over the meadow, his shadow vanished beneath his suit, testifying to how close to the ground he was cruising.
Tall pines bracket the entrance to the Crack like goalposts. Aiming for them, he bore down on Christian’s red T-shirt like a black bull to a matador’s cape. Moving at 120 miles per hour, Jeb covered five hundred feet in three seconds, an unholy roar rising up as his suit sliced the air. He was bearing down on his target—fast!
Christian watched him approach, his trepidation growing. Feet apart, Christian steadied, balloons bobbing above him like thought bubbles. Jeb appeared low, possibly too low. A voice in Christian’s head told him, Dive! Dive! Dive! and he lurched to the left, hitting the dirt hard on his chest and practically landing on a startled cameraman, crouched low, viewfinder pressed to his eye.
With a dark flash, Jeb burst past where Christian’s head had been only a moment earlier. Six feet off the deck, the leading edge of his wing snagged the balloons’ strings before they could float away.
Jeb did not flinch. Navigating the ravine in seconds, he emerged out the end, high above town. Reaching back with his right hand to grasp his parachute handle, Jeb pitched the pilot chute to the side, in one motion concluding the second act of his jump, and commencing the third, his parachute opening. His square black canopy bloomed instantly, snapping open like the crack of a whip. The final act of this jump, any jump, required landing, and as Jeb lined up, boots touching gently in freshly mown grass in a farmer’s field, gray slab of mountain looming behind, he giggled over how close he’d come.
Up on the mountain, though, they were not laughing. Not the cameramen from ABC especially. They were galled that Jeb appeared to risk not only his own life but that of another man. Christian confessed to being shaken up too. “I think this jump goes bad,” he said. “It’s so close.”
An element of near disaster would make for compelling footage, though, everyone had to admit. No one could anticipate precisely how compelling the sequence would prove once placed in a nice package and set loose online. Still, they knew they had something special. GPS readings told how Jeb topped out at 123 miles per hour during the 1:20-second flight, traveling a total of three miles.
• • •
The following day, the jump over, footage secured, the ABC contingent departed, and Jeb sat in the lobby of the Hotel Churfirsten, across the motorway from the train station with a passel of wingsuit pilots, in town to test their skills from Sputnik too. None of them had their own camera crew in tow, with a producer, reporter, and personal ground crew. They weren’t even staying at the hotel. They had shacked up at a campground, went without showers. They had only come to the hotel for the free wi-fi. In the lobby, they peered at laptop screens and smartphones, checking weather reports, sending e-mail, and updating social media, electrical cords snaking underfoot to feed at outlets, half a dozen conversations carrying on at once.
Jeb talked with two other pilots from California. At rest, he tended to crackle with nervous energy, head tick-tocking, legs pumping like sewing machine needles. He could be loud at times, delivering jeremiads in stentorian tones when excited or angry. Yet he was calm on this afternoon, passions stilled by the close brush with danger a day earlier, all of his quirks, tics, and contradictions went quiet and settled into a serene sort of winsome charm.
“China has forced me to become a little more scientific,” he said, his voice slightly nasal, speaking in the patois of a surfer, which he is. He was referring to a stunt two months hence, in which he would attempt to fly through a gaping hole in the side of a mountain in central China. The stunt would be the first of its kind and the featured event during a daylong spectacular sponsored by the Chinese arm of energy drink maker Red Bull. Jeb had invited several of his friends and fellow pilots along to participate in the extravaganza. And he was treating his jumps that summer in Switzerland as training for a flight that would stretch his skills into unknown territory.
With a multimillion-dollar budget and a national television audience in China, the stunt would be the biggest of Jeb’s career, a career he began with clandestine parachute jumps from the windows of high-rise hotels. But Jeb was finished sneaking around, trespassing, and operating in legal gray areas. The end had arrived in April 2006, when he had worn an elaborate disguise and attempted to parachute from the eighty-sixth-floor observation deck of the Empire State Building, where he was famously captured and handcuffed while dangling on a ledge a thousand feet above Thirty-third Street. His legal problems got him fired from his job as host of a show on Discovery called Stunt Junkies and prompted a reevaluation of his life. He had flirted with walking away from jumping, but the rise of wingsuit proximity flights drew him back. He kept seeing video of young pilots, kids he’d never heard of, making marvelous flights in the mountains. So he had been lured back to the new wingsuit thing.
Even during his days of cat-and-mouse with the authorities, though, Jeb’s imagination had been fired by a grander ambition. In the first, formative years of the twenty-first century, he sought to achieve one of the last great challenges on earth. Jeb Corliss wanted to fly. Not like the Wright brothers, but the way we do in our dreams. He wanted to jump from a helicopter and land without using a parachute.
He was not alone. Around the globe, at least a half-dozen groups—in France, South Africa, Australia, Russia, and the United States—had the same goal. Although nobody was waving a flag, the quest evoked the spirit of nations’ pursuits of Everest and the North and South Poles.
The landing, as one might expect, posed the biggest challenge, and each group had a different approach. In France, a wingsuit flier and champion skydiver figured that a pilot could glide to a stop on a snowy mountainside. “The basic idea is getting parallel to the snow so we don’t have a vertical speed at all, there is no shock, and then slide,” he explained, while also acknowledging the risks: “You might do it well one time and try another time and crash and die.”
In South Africa, a costume designer for the motion picture industry turned wingsuit maker had a suit in mind that would allow pilots to land on their feet along a horizontal surface. “I think people will recognize this makes sense,” she said. “Why didn’t someone think of this long ago? I’m hoping that will be the reaction.”
In the meantime, Jeb pursued his own plans, talking publicly about how he intended to land headfirst, on his stomach, at 120 miles per hour, using a massive landing apparatus that would borrow from the principles of Nordic ski jumping. The project would require millions of dollars, a team of engineers and scientists, and uncommon vision and courage.
“We laugh and we think those guys are crazy, but they’re not,” said a physics professor at St. Louis University who for thirteen years performed parachute-inflation research for the U.S. Army. “I will not be the one person who thinks that they’re lunatics or they’re stupid. These folks are very smart.”
“Is it possible?” asked a gruff aeronautical engineer from California who had worked on projects for NASA and the U.S. military and who created his own concept for landing without a parachute. “Yeah! Anything’s possible. It requires time, money, and innovation.” He added: “Everybody wants to be the first one to do it.”
For those inclined to wonder why—why dedicate many years and many millions of dollars in a perilous and uncertain outcome that could claim your life—Jeb possessed a ready answer: “Because everybody thinks that it’s not possible,” he explained. “The point is to show people anything can be done. If you want to do amazing things, then you have to take amazing risks.”
And with his amazing risk at the Crack, Jeb appeared at last on the verge of assembling the final components—including funding—for what he called the Wingsuit Landing Project. In the coming weeks, before the summer was over, video footage of his close call at the Crack would go viral, luring many millions of views, as well as interest from TV executives eager to hear his proposal for landing.
Among those who marveled at the video footage from the Crack that summer was another wingsuit pilot, from England, who worked as a stuntman for TV and film. This particular pilot had no access to major funding, and hardly anyone knew who he was. He could not claim a name or much reputation within the wingsuit world, although he had a record of performing a range of dangerous stunts safely. Yet he possessed vision and an obdurate temperament not easily swayed from a task. Inspired by what he had seen of Jeb at the Crack, by late summer this pilot would vow to become the first to fly and land without a parachute. His reasons were personal, and he made no public announcement of his plans at first. That’s why no one would see him coming. Jeb had no way of knowing, but this contender was quietly making moves, setting up a final, frantic finish that would nearly cost one of them his life.
• • •
Yet there was no hint of all that was to come as the pilots sat in the lobby of the hotel, debating where to seek refuge as the weather turned wet and windy in advance of an unseasonable cold front advancing across Europe. One of the pilots mentioned Arco, a charming small town at the base of a mountain in northern Italy. France, outside Chamonix, was also briefly considered. But some French jumpers had resorted to vigilantism against interlopers, and no one had the vital connections, so the idea was dropped.
While all of this was under discussion, the brakes of a touring bus sighed in the parking lot outside, and pensioners entered the lobby, gabbing loudly in Swiss German. An older woman, gray hair in a bun, finally waddled over to the pilots. “Are you da fly-ing boys?” she asked in lilting English.
“Yes!” Jeb said with great gusto. And pointing to Steph Davis, a rock climber and pilot from Moab, Utah, and one of the few women in the wingsuit scene, he added: “And the flying girl!”
The woman clapped her hands. Her companions, all male, were touring singers from Bern, she explained, and they had seen footage of pilots flying the Crack and wanted to offer a song in tribute?
“Sure,” Jeb said.
As he and the other pilots listened politely, the singers belted out harmonies. None of the pilots had any notion what the singing was about, but it sounded traditional, authentic, stuff of the volk, evoking all the Swiss tropes. When the song was done, the pilots applauded the gesture with an understanding that, yes, their feats on the mountain had moved men to song. They could not imagine how, soon, footage of Jeb’s close call at the Crack would, buoyed by a popular song, captivate the wider world.
• • •
IN THE ZEND, FLEEING wind and rain in Walenstadt, which grounded any chance at flight, Jeb and some of the others headed southwest into the Bernese Alps of Switzerland, winding up in Lauterbrunnen, an ideal redoubt in which to ride out bad weather, if only because of diversions. Lauterbrunnen is a fairy-tale town, located in a steep-sided valley with neck-straining views of the frosty peaks of the Eiger, the Mönch, and the Jungfrau, some thirteen thousand feet high. The gray cliffs bracketing the valley rise two thousand feet in some places and issue a series of thin waterfalls, filling the air with a magical light-altering mist and feeding a cold glacial stream, the blue color of a barber’s antiseptic, which courses through town and down the valley to where cowbells clang in green pastures. The presence of so much moisture lends the valley air a faint mineral taste and, perhaps lyrical inspiration. Byron, who came to Lauterbrunnen fleeing the private storms of his own life, compared the largest cascade, Staubbach Falls, to the “long white tale of the pale horse upon which death is mounted in the Book of Revelations.”
Eventually, many in the valley would complain that it was the BASE jumpers who brought death to the valley as they launched from the cliffs. Jeb had been coming for ten years, staying at the Hotel Oberland, a modest, staid place on the main drag, with green painted shutters and geraniums in the window boxes. In that time, owners Mark and Ursula Nolan had gotten to know him well. A sturdy and gregarious Australian with white hair, Mark Nolan arrived while on a rugby tour and never left, marrying a local woman, building his business interests. Mark recalled that when Jeb first arrived, a decade earlier, he spoke so loudly on the terrace during dinner one night that other guests asked to be moved. Nolan had to request that Jeb turn down the volume. “He used to be crazier and take more risks,” Mark says, “but now he’s calculated, like an athlete.”
The Oberland is a quiet place, where families feel comfortable staying. Much of the extracurricular action in town takes place down the road, at the Hotel Horner, a four-story wooden structure with a steep gabled roof and long eaves. You never know who you will encounter there, a guy wearing a T-shirt with the words “Fuck Normal Life” printed on the front, or a group of jumpers seated on a table on the porch, wielding a set of crotchety electric shears, giving each other Mohawks. Many jumpers lodge upstairs in rooms that start at thirty-five Swiss francs (about $40) a night. Lodgers pass most nights and days gathered at tables on the stone porch at the pub downstairs, nursing beers and rumors and gossip in the long, dull hours between jumps that inevitably make up the bulk of a jumper’s life.
In the convivial atmosphere of rough wood and dim lighting on the first floor, regulars and repeat customers cultivate reputations and acquire nicknames, such as Black Simon, Jewbag, Special Tom, the Girl Whisperer, and Douggs. Still, an egalitarian spirit prevails, and newcomers are always welcome.
One summer afternoon, a smallish dark-haired kid bounded up the porch and stopped short. “You can’t be Jeb Corliss,” he said.
Jeb looked up from a table. “Hey, dude,” he said. “How’s it goin’?”
“I just arrived from Argentina,” the kid said. Continuing into the bar, he announced that he had just met the famous Jeb Corliss outside.
No one inside was too impressed, not least because they already knew Jeb; that, and getting starstruck constituted bad form.
Yet that’s what it had been like in the summer of 2011. Trainloads of newcomers unloaded in Lauterbrunnen and failed to observe established codes on which rested a delicate and hard-won relationship between visiting jumpers and a local community unconvinced they wanted them. Media coverage of fatalities in the valley had earned Lauterbrunnen a reputation as the place where jumpers go to die, a potentially serious problem for an economy promoting a tourist idyll.
From August 2010 through August 2011, seven jumpers were killed, bringing the total in the valley to twenty-eight over two decades. On July 23, 2011, Berner Zeitung, the daily newspaper in Bern, published a story beneath the headline “Reckless Jumpers Annoy Valley Dwellers.” Der Spiegel, in distant Germany, followed, stating the case more forcefully: “Village Appalled by Thrill Seekers’ Deaths.” Both papers told of jumpers flouting posted rules governing their activities. Some had failed to pay for a registration card, the proceeds from which compensate farmers for meadows trampled when jumpers land there, affecting their silage.
Ruined grass was one thing, but much more serious were incidents in which schoolchildren witnessed jumpers screaming to their deaths from the cliffs. The papers told how some valley residents wanted jumping banned altogether.
Mark Nolan embodied the ambivalence. In addition to running a hotel, he worked on the local ambulance rescue, observing jumpers broken physically and emotionally on the valley floor. “I think they’re selfish people,” he admitted. “They’re gone. Think about the people they leave behind—friends, loved ones.”
Meanwhile, each summer more arrived. In 2010, an estimated fifteen thousand jumps took place in the valley. To Dr. Bruno Durrer, the valley doctor responsible for treating injured jumpers and scooping up the dead, the figures suggested that the sport was actually getting safer, at least in Lauterbrunnen. Durrer had been present for the first BASE fatality in the valley, on April 14, 1994. And his records showed 170 accidents since, with an average of fewer than two fatalities annually. Yet 2011 was shaping up to be an especially deadly year worldwide. Citing twenty-one fatalities that year, Outside magazine would deem BASE the “world’s deadliest sport.” Of those deaths, twelve involved wingsuits.
Even the doctor’s support for jumpers had begun to waver following incidents in the summer of 2011. “It’s that this year now we had crazy groups coming into the valley that didn’t actually play into the rules,” he explained. “And we have rules established here.”
The rules required jumping only at marked exits, having at least the minimum required level of experience, and respecting the airspace of paragliders and the helicopter ferrying skydivers to altitude. Enforcement was lax, however, and jumpers relied mainly on self-policing. “Now we had a few groups that didn’t care about the existing rules,” Durrer said. “They’re ruining the goodwill we have in the valley towards the BASE-jumping scene.”
One of the doctor’s patients was a former Marine from California who went by “Jewbag,” and his example was instructive. A hard landing from an exit called La Mousse had left him limping out of the health clinic in an ankle splint while clutching anti-inflammatory ointment and pain meds. Durrer had instructed him to wait two to three weeks before jumping again. “But I’m only here a month,” Jewbag said. “I’ll be out there soon. I’m retarded.”
• • •
Jeb had been incorrigible in his earlier days, too. He had a mentor who told him not to do certain things, which Jeb would do anyway. But he had learned to avoid some unnecessary risks, like jumping in foul weather. One morning, when the skies finally cleared and sun slanted in the front window at the Airtime café, Jeb scraped the last bites of egg from his fork and finalized plans to hike up to the High Nose, a promontory some two thousand feet above the valley floor and one of the more popular exits. Across from him at a varnished wooden table sat Joby Ogwyn, one of his closest friends that summer. Muscular, thirty-seven years old, with a nest of thick curls and an easygoing Louisiana twang, Joby was an accomplished high-altitude climber who had once been the youngest to scale the world’s Seven Summits (the tallest mountains on each continent). He had been the youngest American to reach the summit of Everest, at twenty-four, earning an invitation to the White House, where he met President Clinton in the Oval Office. Next: he planned to launch from Everest with a wingsuit.
Joby had come to BASE jumping and wingsuits while hosting a show on the National Geographic Channel called Adventure Wanted; each episode revolved around his learning some new outdoor-sports discipline, from race car driving to bull riding to white water kayaking. He met Jeb at the Horner one night, and, given their shared background in television, they wound up hitting it off. It seemed only natural for Jeb to invite Joby to be a part of his project in China.
Stash bags slung over their shoulders, the two men made their way to the cable car station as parachutes and paragliders drifted from the cliffs behind them like tossed confetti. Somewhere unseen, the Air-Glaciers chopper thumped skydivers to altitude. At the cable car station they encountered other jumpers and joined them for a one-mile ride to Grütschalp, then a transfer to an electric train to Winteregg. From there, eight pilots hiked through thick stands of pine, and a logging operation, arriving twenty minutes later at an area of flat rocks where someone had placed a woodcut memorial in a notch reading STEFAN POR SIEMPRE, a reminder that men had died there.
Through the trees, the skies had turned the color of wet cement, and a rumble echoed across the valley, from either thunder or a distant avalanche.
Gearing up rapidly to beat the coming rain, they snapped POV cameras and clips into place. A quick call to the helicopter base and they were cleared to jump. With the chopper’s flight path beneath the Nose, no one wanted a collision.
A short path wound to the exit, and any misstep would translate into a tumble straight to the valley floor, 1,910 feet below. In pairs, the pilots moved to the precipice, where two pine trees with knotty roots like rheumatic fingers gripped the rock. Beyond was a fifteen-second plunge to a certain demise. A length of climbing rope lashed to a tree provided a handhold on a vertiginous traverse to a slab of rock and dirt scarcely large enough to hold two people. The only thing between the ledge and the scenery of tiny farmsteads was an outcropping, a seven-second rock drop, and a hazard to anyone who didn’t fly away urgently.
On the ledge, each man performed a final inspection of clips, fasteners, straps, and zippers, making sure cameras and GPS were activated. There were no histrionics or bravado, only supportive banter.
“Okay. You, too.”
The first pair dove off, stable, arms wide, fabric on their suits fluttering like flags in a stiff wind until their wings inflated and went rigid with pressurized air. The pilots disappeared fast beneath the ledge, heading hard left, hugging the wall, in the direction of town.
• • •
THEY HAD ALL WOUND up in Lauterbrunnen eventually: the Italian beauty, the magician from Finland, the Australian computer programmer, the financial analyst from England, the professional skier from Norway, the former bricklayer in Florida, and an international collection of champion skydivers and professional stunt performers. Anyone serious about BASE jumping and wingsuits passed through the valley, their inheritance a hazy history of human flight that spanned centuries and continents and included many thousands of jumps, from before recorded time and through the Depression, a heyday of deadly homemade winged contraptions flown at barnstorming air shows around the world. Earlier trials were messy, ending in tragedy; it was not until recent times that science and skill had finally caught up with human longing.
Some would flirt seriously with fulfilling an ancient archetypal idea of flight. Much of their training was while falling from the big walls of the Lauterbrunnen Valley.
• • •
FOR SEVERAL WEEKS THAT summer, though, it was mainly rain that fell. When the weather turns, jumpers catch up on laundry and e-mail and paying bills. They read and watch movies, too. But when lonely or bored, they frequently lapse into a barroom routine, like skiers or climbers or anyone who spends too much time in mountain towns. In Lauterbrunnen, bad weather can mean brisk business at the Horner. Because he does not drink, such gatherings quickly grow tedious for Jeb, if he attends at all. One dark and rainy night when he remained holed up at his hotel, the bar action picked up early.
At the center, as he often is, was Douggs, a garrulous Australian with the Christian name Christopher McDougall. With his arms, back, and neck covered in lurid tattoos, his hair in a Mohawk, and his ears and eyebrow pierced, Douggs was a well-known character about town. He had overstayed his visa and was dodging authorities for as long as possible, hiding in plain sight. Returning home to Australia meant he would be back at work as a carpenter, or inspecting offshore oil platforms somewhere. Douggs did not love the work, yet he maintained a bright outlook on life, a philosophy he expanded on in a madcap, hilarious memoir, Confessions of an Idiot. His upbeat attitude and often deranged quips, delivered in a voice corroded from hard living, made him one of the more popular figures among his fellow pilots. Douggs had known Jeb for years, and it was a given that he would be invited to China to participate in his fly-through event.
Rain drumming the awning overhead, Douggs huddled in amber light on the porch at the Horner, brown liter beer bottle in hand, Aussie voice booming above the crowd. He was in his customary high spirits. “I get about one job every year or two, and we’re gonna change that, aren’t we, Joby?”
“Yes, we are,” Joby said in his down-home Southern accent.
“That’s all I want to hear. I don’t care if it’s a lie. I don’t care if nothing happens. I just need a little hope to get me through. It gives you so much more drive to do stuff. Worst-case scenario, I’m going to live and jump off shit.” Douggs laughed, eyes glowing, and added: “But I’d like to do cool shit.”
Several members of the Red Bull Air Force, a cadre of parachute sport athletes sponsored by the energy drink company, had been haunting the Horner and the high cliffs around Lauterbrunnen all week. The Red Bull Air Force, in the minds of many jumpers, had coveted status, having mastered the art of getting paid for their stunts. They carried themselves with an easy grace.
Yet Jeb was the biggest name in the life, having fashioned a career with his black wardrobe, black talk, and appearances on television delivering homilies about mortality and living one’s dreams. Still, his shtick tended to get under the skin of some of his peers.
“People only get to see his spiel during a documentary,” Douggs said in Jeb’s defense, “which is what he has to do to earn a living. It’s done in a way that BASE jumpers will say, ‘The shit he’s saying, he brings down the sport.’” Douggs had a ready reply to such a charge: “The sport’s down already. He imparts truth in a way non-jumpers will sometimes get shocked by, sometimes appreciate, sometimes get emotional by. He works harder than anyone, by the way. I tried it for a while. You’ve got to work your balls off to get one out of twenty projects. Most people can’t sustain that. And he’s in a position where he can now, whereas the rest of us have to go back to work.”
Douggs and Joby agreed that Jeb’s avoidance of booze and drugs had contributed to his success. “I wouldn’t like to give him anything, either,” Douggs added, muttering darkly and shaking his head. “Jeb on pills? Jesus!”
All week in Lauterbrunnen, Jeb had elicited mixed reactions. “Some people don’t like him,” a kiwi wingsuit pilot at the High Nose admitted with a shrug at the mere mention of Jeb Corliss’s name. “I reckon he’s good for the sport.”
While out walking the valley one afternoon, Jeb happened to meet a Dutch jumper who had moments earlier plunged from the High Nose and was stuffing his parachute into a stash bag at the edge of a farmer’s field. The guy introduced himself as Jens.
“Hi, good to meet you,” Jeb said as they shook hands.
“You don’t say your name?” Jens replied, an edge to his voice. “Everyone knows you?”
Taken aback, Jeb stammered a half apology, although Jens obviously knew exactly who he was.
“They’re all jealous of Jeb because he’s loud and American and one of the best,” Mark Nolan would say of critics. “I don’t think many could do what he does.”
And yet the advent of online video had made the prospect of instant fame and glory, in the manner of Jeb Corliss, suddenly seem tangible for a fresh generation of pilots. “Someone like Jeb has slowly worked his way over fifteen years to get where he is now,” Douggs said on the crowded porch at the Horner. “These new punks are coming in and trying to do it in six months. And they haven’t carried their friends’ dead bodies. They haven’t dealt with the injuries, and they see YouTube and say, ‘I want—’”
“‘To go through the Crack,’” Joby said, completing the thought. “‘I’m going to put my cameras on and go through the Crack like Jeb Corliss.’ Bad idea. You might make it. Probably not. That’s a super-advanced deal. He’s doing multiple jumps to hone it down.”
As the night wore on, conversation would veer in many directions, from the serious to the strange to the profane, banter steady as the rain. A man would threaten to expose himself. “Let me fluff it up for a second,” he was heard to say. “I don’t want to be embarrassed.” A burst of laughter followed from the crowd. Cosseted under the awning in the close heat of human contact, cigarette smoke, and the occasional cloud of cannabis—the clink of empty bottles marking the passing hours—the crowd on the porch would grow more congested, the night gauzier. Outside, the pavement was slick with streetlight and gathering rain poured in torrents from the big walls, roaring like applause for the flying men and women of the Lauterbrunnen Valley, safe at least for another night.
BEGINNINGS . . .
We are not the sole authors of our destiny, each of us; our destinies are entangled—messily, unpredictably.
—Firmin DeBrabander, philosopher
PERRIS, CALIFORNIA, LATE TWENTIETH CENTURY
For centuries, people have jumped off objects with primitive parachutes. During the Age of Discovery, in fifteenth-century Italy, Leonardo da Vinci sketched a pyramid-shaped device to save those who during fires were trapped in the upper reaches of stone towers, hundreds of feet above medieval settlements. Meant to be constructed of linen and wood, the parachute was among dozens of concepts that never made it further than the prolific polymath genius’s drafting table.
The French would eventually give the parachute its name, which means “to prevent falling.” But early constructions were crude, without manuals, tutorials, or design specs. And testing was dicey. In 1783, a physicist successfully plunged from the top of an observatory in Montpellier, France, with a design similar to Leonardo’s concept. But attempts just as often went wrong. In 1837, a watercolor artist tested a two-hundred-pound creation, built in the shape of an inverted cone, from a balloon over an expectant crowd in south London. When the chute broke apart in the sky, the parachutist plunged to his death in a field.
By the twentieth century, structural steel construction had made the first skyscrapers possible, and a dozen vertiginous buildings had altered Manhattan’s profile. It was the job of Frederick R. Law, a steeplejack, to maintain the city’s rising monuments to commerce, painting flagpoles on the likes of the Singer and Pulitzer buildings. During a period when work was slack, Law acquired the necessary permits and a camera crew and, on a February day in 1912, parachuted from the torch atop the Statue of Liberty, more than 300 feet above New York Harbor. His parachute was primitive by modern standards and lacked any steering mechanism, so Law swam desperately through the air to avoid a dip in the frigid harbor. Limping away following a hard landing on coping along the island’s perimeter, he declined a request for an interview by the New York Times. But four days later, Law stepped from a taxi on the Brooklyn Bridge and parachuted 133 feet into an East River choked with ice as movie cameras captured the scene. A waiting tug rescued him. Two months would pass before his next act, a leap from the thirty-first floor of the Bankers Trust Building, at the intersection of Broad and Wall Streets. With stockbrokers and newsboys gaping, Law settled on the roof of the Sub-Treasury Building. According to the Times, he called over the edge to a stunned crowd on Nassau Street that he was unhurt and “feeling fine.”
For the next fifty years, an occasional daring soul would make a fixed-object jump—a building here, a cliff or tower there, and the occasional bridge—but the resulting headlines and notoriety resulting from these stunts was fleeting. A new era had opened following the breakthrough in powered aircraft flight by Wilbur and Orville Wright in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, on December 17, 1903. Two world wars would transform aviation, and beget recreational skydiving. By the 1960s a growing population of experienced and skilled parachutists would include some with a thirst for stronger thrills than exiting airplanes. Appraising the proportions of large fixed objects, they allowed their imagination to roam unchecked.
That is more or less what led two men to pose for a snapshot at a trailhead beneath towering ponderosa pines on a sunny July day in 1966. That day, an accountant named Mike Pelkey and a truck driver named Brian Schubert, both from Barstow, California, would launch from El Capitan, a hunk of cracked gray granite like an elephant’s hide, rising three thousand sheer feet above California’s Yosemite Valley. They wore bulky military-issue parachutes, and on the way down both men were battered mercilessly against the cliff by winds, ending up with multiple fractures. When their ordeal made national news, Schubert told a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, “I would suggest no one else do it.”
It says something about a strain of skydivers that his warning served as a challenge instead. By 1971 a stuntman named Rick Sylvester would ski off the top of El Cap with a parachute (a move he repeated five years later on Canada’s Baffin Island as a double for Roger Moore in the opening sequence of the James Bond film The Spy Who Loved Me). Then, in July 1975, a skydiver from Queens named Owen Quinn sneaked to the top of the North Tower of the World Trade Center while posing as an antenna repairman and plunged 1,368 feet into Manhattan, the sight of lesser buildings rushing up at him, like “jumping into a glass full of pencils.” Months later, as workmen constructed the CN Tower 1,510 feet over Toronto, a member of the crew, Bill Eustace, parachuted off and was promptly fired.
Taking note of these pioneering jumps was a skydiving cinematographer in California named Carl Boenish, who had filmed scenes in The Gypsy Moths, a 1969 Hollywood production about a wingsuit starring Burt Lancaster, Gene Hackman, and Deborah Kerr. An original thinker who called his skydiving documentaries “film poems,” Boenish avoided alcohol, drank buttermilk, and believed in the restorative power of avocados. Passionate and something of a proselytizer, he was, friends suggest, ideally suited to dream up a new sport.
On August 8, 1978, Boenish coaxed four skydivers from a skydiving center in Lake Elsinore to travel some 275 miles north to the top of El Cap so he could film them. They used the latest parachute technology and tracking skills in an attempt to build on those earlier jumps.
The resulting footage created a sensation. “We couldn’t believe we never thought of that before,” Nick DiGiovanni, a former Marine and surfer who was working as a jump instructor when he watched the film’s premiere at the Lake Elsinore drop zone, recalls about his reaction to the jump. “Instead of going, ‘That’s nuts, we’ll never do that,’ everyone was going, ‘Man, I got to do that.’
“That changed my life that night,” DiGiovanni says. “As that film made its way around the world, it changed a lot of people’s lives.”
Boenish launched from building, towers, bridges, and cliffs, and coined the name BASE after consulting a dictionary and finding the definition—“a platform on which someone stands”—and noting how the acronym lined up. He issued registration numbers to certify those who successfully jumped from each of the four objects, completing the BASE cycle. He created an organizing body and published BASE Magazine, all to lend respectability to this new pastime. He “opened” countless sites around the world, trained legions of new jumpers, and boasted to friends, “In twenty years, we’ll be shutting down the streets below the World Trade Center and they’ll let us jump.”
He failed to anticipate the reaction of property owners worried about liability, though, or concerns among the skydiving hierarchy that these crazy jumpers would ruin a reputation for safety. The United States Parachute Association (USPA), the national governing body for skydiving, advertised the sport as a sensible recreational pursuit with a sterling safety record. Any association with a bunch of cowboys flinging themselves from buildings and bridges appeared to run counter to those claims. The very notion of jumping off a fixed object strikes terror in the hearts of most people and seems counter to the most basic instincts for self-preservation. Moreover, by dint of making a BASE jump, you were often flirting with breaking some law.
Access to buildings or antennas often required trespassing. The National Park Service maintains jurisdiction over many of the cliffs in the United States suitable for jumping. Clashes with jumpers prompted the Park Service to invoke a preexisting ban on parachutes, meant to prevent hunters from resupplying with backcountry airdrops. Some continued to jump in defiance, stoking what would be a long-running feud with Park Service rangers determined to capture and prosecute BASE enthusiasts. The USPA went so far as to expel skydivers who performed BASE jumps, but it eventually reversed course after the jumpers brought a lawsuit.
“They thought we were just stupid,” one early jumper would say about attitudes among skydivers toward BASE jumpers. “We were just illegal bandits. We were like criminals.”
His advocacy for BASE pitted Boenish against his friends in skydiving, making him a pariah in a sport he had done much to develop and promote.
“It’s funny; in the beginning we didn’t keep it to ourselves, because we didn’t think we had to,” DiGiovanni says. “We thought when people see this, ‘This is great. This is an accomplishment. This is amazing that humans can do this.’ [Boenish] didn’t realize and none of us realized that it would be against the law, considered reckless endangerment. We thought it would be the opposite. The sport didn’t go underground until that occurred. We realized that we can’t tell people we’re doing this, or they’re not going to let us do it.”
• • •
It was from the parched high desert of the Peninsular Ranges, an hour or so east from Los Angeles and San Diego, that Carl Boenish recruited his intrepid El Cap jumpers. It’s a region where, on average, less than ten inches of rain falls annually. The lack of precipitation in the region would present a peculiar problem in the late 2000s, when, in Perris (population 68,000), ground zero for California’s mortgage default crisis, the situation grew so dire that civic leaders approved painting green the burnt-out lawns of abandoned homes, to restore a sense of community pride.
The climate may not suit grass, but sunny blue skies make for a fertile skydiving environment. Two drop zones, Skydive Perris and Skydive Elsinore, eight miles down the road, lure enthusiasts from around the world, many of whom stay on and work as instructors, or take jobs at the parachute lofts where riggers make repairs and repack chutes into their containers. Or they find employment at the related businesses attached to the airfields, doing whatever it takes to support their skydiving habit. It was from this population of dedicated, accomplished, and driven skydivers that an incubator for BASE would develop. It was not due to the presence of any particular cliffs, buildings, bridges, or notable antennas in the area; the advantages owed more to an emerging mental atmosphere.
No one has to make a BASE jump after all, except those who actually do. In a sport as perilous as BASE, in which those who die are said to have “gone in,” practitioners owe their success to more than mere chance. They are assiduous in their preparation and planning. They are precise and deliberate in action. And they cultivate an ability to cope with sensations of fear so powerful they threaten to short-circuit brain function. A popular notion in the sport says that people fall into one of two categories: those who behave like jackrabbits and those who behave like deer. Caught in headlights on the road at night, jackrabbits hop free from danger, whereas deer freeze and get smashed to smithereens. Most jumpers, therefore, fall into the jackrabbit category; those who behave like deer don’t tend to last long.
Anne Helliwell arrived into this environment in 1982, a recent émigré from New Zealand who came to the States on a German tramp steamer, in search of a skydiving life. “When I got here, I loved it so much I stayed awhile,” Helliwell says about the Perris–Elsinore region.
Helliwell got her start in BASE when a skydiving friend asked if she wanted to watch a man parachute from a bridge. Afterwards, the guy asked Helliwell if she wanted to give it a shot. Following basic instructions, she leaped from the bridge, a photo capturing her perfect form as she fell. “I was just buzzing for a long time,” she recalls. “I had to come back and do it again.”
Cracking the jumping scene, though, proved not so easy. A newcomer needed a mentor, someone who not only would teach but would vouch for her in the secretive jumping community. Given the prevailing attitudes in skydiving toward BASE, this was best done with discretion. Jump sites were often referred to in code, to confound the authorities or wannabes. A newcomer might be told discreetly to meet at a time and place for a jump, with the understanding that she would keep the information private. Often the first object she jumps from will be a bridge with water beneath, to add an extra margin of safety, or a high cliff or mountainside where a few more precious seconds might allow for any errors to be overcome. Once at the site, she would meet experienced jumpers, forging contacts in an international network without headquarters, hierarchy, or membership rolls. No one knew how many other practicing jumpers existed, but probably not more than a few hundred worldwide by the mid-1980s. They were mostly a clandestine group. And when Boenish was killed, in 1984, while jumping a 3,600-foot cliff in Norway known as the Troll Wall, the sport—absent its greatest advocate—went seriously underground.
Helliwell knew of a few jumpers by reputation at the drop zone, but they were not inclined to let a woman tag along. Eventually she learned of a rendezvous point for a coming weekend jump and drove eight hours to the spot, in Northern California. “I showed up and they went, ‘Oh, great, now we have to take her.’ So they squeezed me in the back of the car. They said, ‘We’re going to blindfold you. You’re not allowed to see where we’re going.’ There were four guys and me, and it was an antenna, and I was determined to be accepted in the group, so I made sure I wasn’t a slacking girl coming up from behind. So I stayed in the middle, climbing. By the time we got to the top, we made our jump and it was great. From then on I was accepted. As a group we all went and started jumping things.”
• • •