How Do You Become the Gnarliest Daredevil on Earth?
The acronym BASE refers to the four categories of fixed objects from which jumpers hurl themselves: buildings, antennae (as in radio towers), spans (bridges), and earth (cliffs). Humans have been dabbling with the idea since at least 1617, when an Italian inventor named Fausto Veranzio is thought to have made a prototype parachute, leapt off Saint Mark’s Basilica in Venice, and miraculously survived. Early stirrings of the modern sport came in 1978, when filmmaker Carl Boenish shot footage of himself parachuting off El Capitan in Yosemite.
Matt Gerdes, author of The Great Book of BASE and owner of Squirrel Wingsuits, a manufacturer of BASE-jumping gear, estimates that there were only a few hundred active jumpers worldwide in 1997, when Corliss first gave it a try. “Jeb came into the sport when it was almost completely underground,” Gerdes told me. “There was no network, and the only way to learn was from a friend. Very few people even knew what BASE jumping was.”
Corliss was 18 when his grandparents paid for skydiving lessons, and 21 when he bought a BASE-jumping parachute and drove with a friend to a small town in the Sierra foothills. There, on a moonless night, he jumped off a road bridge into a mountain canyon. In inky darkness, Corliss botched the landing and was dragged across gravel hard enough to shred flesh. Bleeding profusely, he drove back to the motel, cleaned and bandaged his wounds, then returned to the bridge and did it again, with the same result—botched landing, shredded flesh.
Months later, Corliss jumped from a bridge near Santa Barbara and broke his foot so badly that it folded up against his ankle. For the first time, though, he was enjoying life—all these ways he’d envisioned killing himself suddenly became paths to fulfillment. Plus, he was meeting other weirdos with similar passions.
“I was actually starting to get happy and make friends,” he told me. “I even got a girlfriend.”
Corliss soon bought a camcorder and put it to good use. In 1999, he and a friend bought last-minute plane tickets to Venezuela, paid a local Cessna pilot $150 to fly them over 3,212-foot Angel Falls, opened the door, and jumped into the jungle, without food, water, survival gear, or an exit plan. They spent the night on top of Angel Falls and then jumped off.
Real TV picked up the footage. A year later, after Real TV bought footage from Corliss’s Howick Falls accident for a few thousand dollars, he saw a way to make a living. Just two and a half months after his accident, he was plotting spectacular jumps and filming them from multiple angles. He began to collect licensing fees for the use of his clips in commercials and TV shows. Hardly anyone else was doing this at the time, so Corliss became the worldwide go-to for BASE footage, earning enough to travel and jump year-round. In 2003 alone he circled the globe six times, completing 400 jumps in 16 countries on five continents.
Corliss began to construct a persona around his black-only dress code and brazen unauthorized or otherwise illegal jumps off marquee features like the Golden Gate Bridge, the Eiffel Tower, and the 1,149-foot Stratosphere Tower in Las Vegas.
Tim Rigby, a professional skydiver and Hollywood stuntman, met Corliss at Skydive Perris during those years. “He was very quirky,” Rigby recalls. “But BASE jumpers are a weird bunch. I’ve been on jumps with cops and drug dealers, investment bankers, military guys—it’s a crazy, eclectic group, and Jeb fit right in.”
Like everyone who BASE-jumps frequently, Corliss witnessed a lot of death. On October 5, 2003, he traveled to Cañon City, Colorado, for the inaugural Royal Gorge Go Fast Games, a BASE-jumping and highlining festival held at the U.S.’s highest suspension bridge. Corliss had brought an early-model wingsuit—a full-body jumpsuit, made of nylon, equipped with baffles that fill with air during a free fall and become rigid, allowing the wearer to soar like a glider.
“I’m standing there going, ‘This sucks, this makes me feel like s––t,’ ” he said. “I’m shaking uncontrollably. I’ve always described it as a hurricane inside your head—every nerve ending is screaming, Don’t do this.”
Crucially, a wingsuit enables a jumper to steer, and Corliss had been experimenting with an emerging subdiscipline known as proximity flying, a beautiful but sketchy endeavor that involves flying perilously close to fixed objects. At the festival, Corliss and an elite Australian jumper named Dwain Weston planned to wow the crowd by jumping from an airplane and flying their wingsuits close to the bridge—Weston above the span, Corliss below. The jump and approach went fine, but as Corliss emerged from under the bridge, he flew through a mysterious cloud of airborne debris. Unhurt, he pulled his chute.
“I remember being so excited—like, ‘Oh, my God, I can’t believe that worked!’ ” Corliss said. Once he landed, he realized he was covered in blood.
“Then,” Corliss said, “I see a severed leg on the ground.”
Weston had hit the bridge at 120 miles an hour. The airborne debris had been body parts and blood.
“It was so extreme and violent that I went into shock instantly,” Corliss said. “It took me six months before I came out of that fog.” But eventually, he started jumping again. He loved planning missions and traveling the world with friends, doing crazy shit and leading a life of passion, but jumping never had anything to do with pleasure. Almost every time, he felt sick with fear beforehand. “I’m standing there going, ‘This sucks, this makes me feel like shit,’ ” he said. On a handful of his most risky jumps, he’s gone through what he calls psychological trauma. “I’m shaking uncontrollably,” he says. “I’ve always described it as a hurricane inside your head—every nerve ending is screaming, Don’t do this. It’s something I have to fight and struggle and beat back.” But, he continues, “I needed that trauma to work through my trauma. I was fighting the fire burning in my mind with more fire, like when you have a forest fire and you start a smaller fire to block the larger one. I was setting these little fire walls, trying to burn in front of it, trying to stop it from eating me alive. I needed this to survive. Without it I was going to put a bullet in my head. So when people are like, ‘Oh, this is like heroin. You’re a heroin addict,’ it’s like, ‘No, this is food. This is water. This is air.’ ”
He knew precisely how dangerous BASE jumping was but figured that, as he put it, “If I die in the process of trying to work on my mind, and trying to fix the damage that’s going to kill me anyway, that’s an OK way to die, right? Trying to save your own life? Without it, I’m dying anyway.”
That attitude translated well to what was then the cutting edge of BASE jumping—aerials, in which jumpers mimic Olympic divers by turning flips and twists before opening their parachutes. Aerials radically increase the likelihood of a bungled chute opening, which can mean death, so they require more skill and higher risk tolerance. In October 2004, leaping from the Jin Mao Tower in Shanghai, Corliss pulled off his most complicated aerial to date, a double-twisting quad front—four front flips combined with two complete body rotations. Once he landed, Corliss looked back up to watch his friend Roland “Slim” Simpson leap from the same building, open his parachute, crash into an adjacent building after the lines became tangled, and sustain fatal injuries.
Corliss didn’t slow down. Hired to host his own Discovery Channel show, Stunt Junkies—the perfect invitation to pump the brakes and welcome a little comfort into his life—he played hooky from production to attempt an illegal nighttime jump off the Empire State Building. Corliss was caught, arrested, and banned for life from the skyscraper. Discovery fired him.
“Jeb was the coolest, gnarliest BASE jumper on earth,” says Gerdes. “He was by far the most intense, ‘I can die at any moment and I don’t give a fuck’ jumper in the world—at the far fringes of a fringe sport.”