Inside the Crash and Recovery of Jeb Corliss
On Monday, January 17, BASE jumper and wingsuit pilot Jeb Corliss, 36, thought he was either seconds or hours away from death. He had just jumped off South Africa’s Table Mountain, misjudged a target, and flown into a granite outcropping at 120 miles per hour. He had a mid-air decision to make: 1) Pull his chute and die a slow, agonizing death, or 2) Crash into the mountain and expect to die instantly. As it turned out, he pulled his chute and survived. Here he tells the story of his impact, his recovery, and the major lesson he learned. —As told to Joe Spring
The view of the impact from Jeb Corliss's belly cam.
I was shocked. First, I couldn’t believe I hit. Second, I couldn’t believe I was still alive. How can I still be alive? How can you impact something while traveling that fast and still be alive?
I was conscious and thinking. When I impacted, I genuinely believed I was dead. From the instant I touched, I went, That’s it. It’s over. I knew I was dead, just like I know water is wet. There wasn’t even the remotest chance I could survive.
My brain separated into two distinct thought processes.
One was purely technical. As I impacted, I was immediately thrown into flips, bouncing, and tumbling OK, you’re out of control—regain stability. OK. You’re OK. You’re stable. The wingsuit was destroyed and it was throwing me back into the mountain. So I’m struggling to stay away from the mountain. On top of that, there are ledges. I thought, OK, I can’t pull yet. I have to fly over that ledge. OK, I can’t pull yet. I have to fly over that ledge. I had to get over those ledges before I could pull my parachute and still survive.
The second thought process was more philosophical. It was like, Well, why are you going to pull? What’s the point of pulling? You’re already dead. There is absolutely no way you can survive this. If you pull, all that’s going to happen is you're just going to prolong the end. Don’t pull the parachute. Just fly into the side of the mountain. You’re going to bleed out as you’re waiting for a rescue and you’re just going to suffer for hours of just pain and misery, and you’re still going to die. Why pull? If you don’t pull, you just die instantly, and there is no pain.
It was a strange kind of position to be in. The thought process was odd. Most people, when faced with a quick, painless death or a slow agonizing death... It was a difficult choice to make. From impact to deployment was around six seconds, but it felt like minutes. I felt like I was having a full conversation with myself.
All of a sudden, the part of my brain that was doing all of this technical stuff was like, You know what? You pull now or you die. There is no time. You pull right this second. You pull now, now, now.
The debating part of my brain went, Well, it’s a good thing I like pain. Bring it. Let’s see what I can do. Let’s see how long I can survive. I know I’m dead, but a couple extra hours is better than nothing.
So I pulled. And I was right about one thing. Fuck, it hurt. It was so painful. There was no way. It was just so painful. There was no way to describe it. I’ve broken my back before, and I’ve broken ribs, and I’ve been in pain, but holy shit. I had no idea how bad it can really be. I had no idea what pain could be until after that. That was the most painful thing I have felt.
It was literally like a hurricane inside my head. There was nothing but pain. It completely enveloped every fiber of my being. It was just pure misery for what felt like hours and hours and hours. Just suffering. I could just feel myself dying. I could just feel the life being sucked out of me.
All of a sudden, I can feel people around me. I can feel people talking to me. I can feel the rescue coming. It was strange because they felt very distant or separate. I felt like I was in a cave. I was very disconnected from the world around me because I was just in so much pain. I talked and answered questions, but it wasn’t really me. The first couple of hours felt like forever. I was kind of upset that I made the decision to pull. I was pissed off. Dude, you knew this was coming. Why would you do something like that to yourself? Why torture yourself?
I went through this really unhappy, painful, suffering period where I was not really so stoked on being around. And then all of a sudden, I let go. I went from being very pissed off and angry about making the decision to almost euphoric. It became very positive. I became so happy. I was just so happy to have a few extra moments to exist. Even though the hours were so painful, and so miserable, and so horrible, it was better than the alternative, which was nothingness. I just accepted that I was dead. It was the happiest moment of my life.
I felt myself underneath the blades of the helicopter and being pulled off the ground. I could feel myself floating. I couldn’t really see because I’m kind of out of it. I’m swinging underneath the helicopter, and then I’m in an ambulance and my friends are there. They are constantly trying to talk to me, and it was really bugging me. Leave me alone. Let me rest. I’m tired. And they just wouldn’t let me sleep.
I get to the hospital and I hear people talking. His legs are probably crushed. We’re probably going to have to amputate. I thought, Oh my God, that’s great. It looks like I might not die. They might have to cut my legs off. At that point I didn’t really care because I was just happy to be alive. I thought, Just take my legs, I’ll do some reading.
They take me in a room and start doing X-rays. They start trying to stabilize my kidneys. When I impacted, the force did something called degloving. It tore the muscles from the bone underneath the flesh on both of my thighs, which was pretty gnarly. I crushed and damaged so much muscle inside of my leg. I think the temperature that day was 115 or 120 degrees outside. I was in direct sunlight and it was super hot. I got incredibly dehydrated. And apparently, when muscle gets crushed inside your body, your body starts trying to process it through your kidneys. When that happens and you’re dehydrated, your kidneys can’t do it, and you start going into kidney failure. By the time they got me to the hospital I was going into kidney failure. The kidney failure gave me the sensation of death.
I’m by myself. I can hear doctors in the next room. I’m expecting what’s coming. All of a sudden, I hear the doctors say. I can’t believe his legs aren’t broken. I’m like, What? This is not possible. The doctor comes in and says, There is something strange. We can’t find any broken ones. So there is something wrong. We know you have to have broken bones. We have to do more X-rays.
So they take me in and do a bunch more X-rays and say, You are the luckiest man on the planet. Your breaks are very mild. You have two broken bones in your ankles, but they are very mild. Quite honestly, if those were your only injuries, you’d be walking out of here tomorrow. You’d be in a walking cast. You have a broken fibula. But the break is so mild that if that was your only injury we would just wrap it and you’d walk out of here. The real injury is your degloving. We are pretty sure you’ve done something to the ACL in your left knee, but we don’t know yet. We have to do some exploratory surgery to see. You have a large open wound on your shin, which is probably going to need skin grafting. That is probably your biggest issue that we need to deal with. If that gets infected, you could lose your leg. You are going to go into surgery in the next hour. But, just to let you know, you are going to have a 100-percent recovery.
It was the most amazing thing I’d ever heard. I could not believe it.
When I first got to the hospital, the doctors injected me with morphine. For the first two days, they were doing it against my will. I got so angry by the second day. When the nurse came at me with a needle, I said, I’m done. She got the doctor. We got in this argument and I’m like, Do not give me any more painkillers. I do not want it. They said, Sir, you are going through surgeries. For the surgeries, they put me under. That’s one thing, but when I came out, they were constantly trying to give me shit.
I’m very anti-drug. I don’t drink. I don’t smoke. I don’t use drugs of any kind. I get in fights with doctors about it non-stop. They say, Pain is bad for you. I say, You know what? You’re full of shit. Pain is like vision. It’s like tasting. It’s like seeing. It’s like smelling. It’s one of your senses. It’s telling you something is wrong. If I don’t feel pain, I’m gonna move. Pain is the only thing that will keep me in bed. If I don’t allow myself to deal with pain there are a couple of things that are going to happen. One, I’m not going to learn my lesson. Nothing teaches you more than pain. On top of learning, it helps in the healing process. Let’s just say that you have a broken ankle. If you take pain medication, you might just let it flop on the bed. That might not be the right position for it. When you feel pain, guess what, you’re going to put your leg in the exact position where it feels the least amount of pain. I wanted to make sure that when I was lying there, my body was in the best possible position for healing. Everyone just wants to be so comfortable all the time. Comfort is your enemy. I’m not interested in feeling the world how I want it to be. I’m not interested in trying to control and twist it all around me. I’m interested in experiencing it for what it really is. And if I’m broken and destroyed in pain, that’s what’s really going on. I’ve earned that injury and that pain and I deserve to experience it.
I had skin grafting done to close the hole in my shin. They took skin from my thigh. A couple of weeks into my time at the hospital, it got infected, and they had to do a series of surgeries. Instead of giving me antibiotics to fight the infection, they decided to just scrape the infection out of the site. By doing so, they basically dug so deep into the skin that the skin wouldn’t repair itself. When I left Africa and I got home, the skin just wouldn’t grow back, so I had this giant open wound that never healed. I had to go to a wound-care clinic, and it got really badly infected. I had to go on an IV, antibiotics, and I had to get new skin grafted on. It’s been about three months of this.
I’d say probably in about three weeks I’ll be able to start jumping again. The problem is that I no longer have an ACL in my left knee. DonJoy gave me these unbelievable custom carbon fiber braces that will allow me to function over the summer without my ACL. I can spend my summer jumping, training, and flying, and then when the time comes that I can’t jump anymore, then I’ll get my surgery. I just have to jump and do activity with braces on until the reconstruction, which will happen after the World Wingsuit Race in October.
[The moment where I hit a balloon string in Grinding the Crack in 2011] is what kind of got me in trouble. The balloon was just sitting there with no movement. It was a perfect day with no wind. It gave me the ability to be extremely precise. I actually hit the string between the balloon and the guy holding it, and he jumped out of the way. The target I was aiming for was five feet tall by three quarters of an inch thick and I nailed it dead center with my left wing. That kind of gave me this false sense of security, like, I’m so accurate I can hit whatever I want.
The balloon string hit from Grinding the Crack.
At Table Mountain, I hit my target. It just so happened that what I was aiming for led me to hit rocks. It’s complicated to describe, but the balloon that I was aiming for was at the same level as the ledge. The wind had blown it out of place. From the angle I was flying at, it looked like there was air between the balloon and the ground. From my belly cam it looks like there’s air between the balloon and the ground. But if you look at it from the side, it looks like there’s absolutely no space. The only way to hit the balloon is to hit the ledge. So I impacted.
The impact at Table Mountain.
It was just dumb. I felt really stupid. It was a massive mistake that I shouldn’t have made. I will never make that mistake again. I will never aim for a target that’s variable. My communication with the ground crew was severed, and that was another mistake. I decided to make decisions on the fly. There were just multiple mistakes that I made that led to my accident. I’ve always been pretty scientific about what I do, but now I’m going to be more scientific.
Also, it was silliness to go for a target that was so close to the ground. I made the decision in the air: I’m going for the low one. I didn’t realize how low, at rock level, but I knew I was going to be inches away. You don’t need to be inches from things. Feet are good enough.
I decided, I’m just going to fly over those boulders and kick that balloon. I went hard and I paid the price.
Sometimes I wonder about myself. I look at myself and realize I need to calm down. I want to live. I enjoy my life. I love this stuff. I’m so happy to be alive and to exist. I wonder, Why would you risk everything over something so silly? That’s really what I kind of got from it. Don’t be silly. Be reasonable about these things. I’m really happy that I get to continue doing what I love and I’m just going to be more reasonable about it. I can still go far. I can still do dangerous things. I can still do new projects, but c’mon.
Feet, not inches. Don’t be stupid.