"I knew what it meant to impact: you’re dead."
Thirty-six-year-old Jeb Corliss is the biggest name in BASE jumping, renowned for both his stunning accomplishments and his spectacular failures. He became a national story in 2006, when, as host of a Discovery Channel series called Stunt Junkies, he was arrested for attempting to leap off the Empire State Building after slipping past security with a parachute hidden under a fat suit. Corliss lost his job and was convicted of misdemeanor reckless endangerment, but he went on to pull off a number of breakthrough wingsuit flights, including two last year: one through a cave in the side of a mountain in China, and another through a ravine in Switzerland for “Grinding the Crack,” a clip that went viral on YouTube (13.5 million views and counting). Then in January came his biggest hit yet: a nearly fatal accident during a wingsuit flight down Cape Town, South Africa’s Table Mountain while filming for HBO. Corliss slammed into a granite ledge and cartwheeled through the air but still managed to open his chute. Video of the incident was broadcast on news outlets worldwide, and he spent five weeks in a hospital recovering from two broken ankles, a broken leg, and a gash that required skin grafts. In March, Matt Higgins reached the daredevil at his sister’s house in Palm Springs, California, where he was nursing his wounds and plotting his return.
What went through your mind when you crashed on Table Mountain?
I hit the wall—“Oh, my God”—and I’m tumbling, and the pain is really severe. I knew what it meant to impact: you’re dead. My brain split into two. One side was going, There’s no surviving this. Do you want a quick, painless death? Just don’t pull a parachute. Or do you want to friggin’ open your parachute and bleed out while you’re waiting for rescue? The other side was like, Pull now! Pull now! I remember pulling and landing and lying there and suffering. I thought I was dying.
All things considered, you escaped with relatively mild injuries.
When the doctor told me, it was the greatest news I’d ever received. I was ecstatic. I made the ultimate mistake—the one there’s no way you should walk away from. It turned out to be the greatest BASE jump of my entire life, the greatest experience of my entire life.
It changed me. Pain teaches you. I’ve learned a lot from it.
It was a refresher course on what it is to be alive: don’t sweat the small shit. But more than anything, Table Mountain retrained me on that whole respect idea. It was like, Dude, have respect for what you’re doing. I don’t care how big you think you are. Don’t give yourself a one-inch margin for error. That’s dumb.
The accident also made you famous.
I’m doing a different TV interview every other day. I’m selling more footage now than ever. I could retire off this, probably. But I won’t, because this is what I do. If I had known it would be such a good thing for my career, I would have done it sooner. [Laughs.]
You’ve been planning to become the first to land a wingsuit flight without a parachute. Now British stuntman Gary Connery says he’s about to do it. Is that frustrating?
I’ve been working on this for six years. I always had a feeling that eventually some raging psychopath would do it first. I just never expected that that person would use the box catcher method.
Right, Connery plans to land on cardboard boxes. Your idea required millions of dollars to build a sophisticated landing runway.
Our first plan was also very low-tech and inexpensive. But we deemed it too dangerous. So when I heard this guy was going to do it, I was like, “Oooh, OK. Good luck.” Everyone’s like, “He’s going to do it before you!” Let’s see. Is he going to go for it? I believe he’s going to try. Is he going to succeed? Time will tell.
Say he pulls it off. Then what?
Put it this way: when Hillary climbed Everest, it wasn’t the last time it was climbed. Let’s say he flies and walks away from it. He’s the first person to land a wingsuit. It doesn’t change what I want to do. I still want to land in a major city. I still want to land on a runway. I still want to land at high speed. I won’t be first, but I can do it better.
When will you be recovered enough to jump again?
My first jumps will be at the end of June. Then I’ll probably go to Europe and do my usual cycle: jump all summer, shoot footage, test equipment, stay current. When winter comes, it’s time for knee reconstruction. I no longer have an ACL in my left knee.
Any other big projects in the works?
I want to start touching things during flights. I did it by accident on Table Mountain. Now I want to do it on purpose—trees, bushes. I’m just going to try to avoid touching solid granite from this point forward.