Casey Brown overcame poverty and the bizarre death of her brother to become a world-class mountain biker, doing jumps on a terrain with no margin for error. But is she good enough to be the first woman to compete in the sport's most dangerous event?
Casey Brown is standing on a steep desert slope in southwestern Utah, just outside Zion National Park, staring down at a man-made, 20-foot-high dirt jump that she intends to hit on her mountain bike.
Brown, a New Zealand native who now lives in Revelstoke, British Columbia, will descend 200 yards at around 40 miles per hour, soar some 50 feet through the air, and then—she hopes—safely land on a modestly pitched runout. Brown has launched from hundreds of similar jumps, often on her way to victories at Crankworx competitions, where riders are judged on how well they can make their bikes perform like stunt planes. But this one is making her nervous. The wind is gusting hard enough to knock an airborne rider off-kilter. If that happens, Brown will probably slam into the desert’s sandstone surface.
“This is sketchy,” she says. The breeze sweeps plumes of dust off the surrounding ocher mesas. “If the wind doesn’t die down, it could be bad.”
A big part of mountain biking, especially the high-flying brand that Brown practices, is crashing, and the 27-year-old knows the consequences of a jump gone wrong. Her five-foot-three-inch body, scarred and partially held together with metal rods and pins, is an illustrated guide to what can happen when humans plummet from three stories up and smack against the earth. At the end of March, while riding in New Zealand, Brown jumped 12 feet off a mound of grass and came up short on the landing, slamming her chest into the handlebars and tomahawking for 30 feet. The results: a cracked bike frame, nerve damage in her left shoulder, and such bad bruising to her left lung that she coughed up blood for two days.
It’s now the middle of May, and Brown is still hampered by lingering pain. Nevertheless, she was determined to come to the tiny town of Virgin, Utah, for what she calls exposure therapy, on terrain that, riders will tell you, is some of the most dangerous and technically demanding you’ll find anywhere—a devil’s playground of 50-degree knife-edge spines, 60-foot cliff drops, and gap jumps over 70-foot-deep ravines.
Such obstacles feature prominently in the Red Bull Rampage, an invitation-only competition, held in October, in which 21 of the best riders in the world air into backflips and off-axis spins and otherwise tempt disaster while barreling down a seemingly unrideable, 700-vertical-foot mountain. It’s the sport’s biggest event, and Brown wants in. A few weeks from now she’ll petition contest organizers, hoping to become the first woman invited to ride in the Rampage. They’ll make their decision in early August.
But first the jump, which looms before her on the event’s original course, just a mile from the new one.
“Is it still windy down there?” Brown shouts to a group standing beside the jump. She’s brought along Garett Buehler, a close friend who has competed in the Rampage four times; her boyfriend, Marty Schaffer; and her dog, Snuff, a black Lab mix who’s almost always at her side.
“It’s better,” Schaffer replies. “You’re probably OK to go.”
Brown buckles the strap on her full-face helmet and lowers her goggles. She angles her gray Trek toward the jump, her blond ponytail swishing as she speeds down the slope. As Brown launches from the lip, she floats so high and far that she overshoots the touchdown zone and lands on a flatter section. She hits hard—her bike shocks completely compress—slides off the saddle, and slams her backside onto her rear tire.
“Ouch!” she yells.
Speckled with red clay, Brown cringes as she walks her bike back toward the jump.
“Yeah, Casey!” Buehler shouts.
“Are you OK?” Schaffer asks.
“Yeah,” says Brown, shaking her right hand. “I wrenched my wrist a little.”
She looks at where she landed and lets out a chuckle. “I’m fine.” Then she pushes her bike up the hill to do it again.
Watching the Red Bull Rampage, which is streamed online, can be a nauseating experience. One minute you’re witnessing a rider land a double backflip; the next he’s writhing on the ground, a pile of busted bones.
Since the Rampage began in 2001, several athletes have been airlifted out after suffering serious injuries. In 2015, Paul Basagoitia, a rider from Reno, Nevada, was paralyzed from the waist down after going off a ten-foot cliff and crashing. In 2013, two riders broke their femurs.
The acrobatics displayed at the Rampage are among the most impressive spectacles in all of sports, but the bodily harm that can result is enough to make you wonder why anybody thought it was wise to subject mountain bikers to such gnarly terrain.
Todd Barber, one of the event’s founders, says the idea came to him in 2000, when he was watching a ski-cross competition in Lake Tahoe. “I thought, Why isn’t there a competition that showcases what guys can do on bikes?”
On hand with Barber was Paul Crandell, who at the time was the director of events for Red Bull. He pitched the idea to his bosses. The brass at the energy-drink company, which never misses an opportunity to be part of something involving human projectiles, got on board right away.
The first Rampage was held in 2001 in Virgin, which was chosen, Barber says, “because it has everything, the ridges and drops and vertical. It reminded me of what guys were skiing in Alaska.”
To select the slate of participants, a committee of five spends months poring over competition results and footage, trying to determine which of the world’s riders are worthy. Applicants must prove that they have the ability to handle steep, loose, technical terrain and are daring enough to take on enormous jumps and cliffs. During their runs, bikers are judged on fluidity, style, amplitude, and line choice.
“People look at it and say, ‘I can ride that,’ ” says Kurt Sorge, a rider from Nelson, British Columbia, who’s won the event three times, including last year. “But you have to be fast and fluid and throw in the tricks. And you gotta deal with the wind and the heat. There’s a lot that goes into it. It’s one of the toughest challenges out there.”
The winner pockets $8,000. More important, a good showing at the Rampage can lead to big sponsorship deals.
According to Barber, a female biker with the goods to descend the length of the course while pulling off tricks like the Superman—in which riders take their feet off the pedals and fly through the air while holding the handlebars—has never emerged.
Brown acknowledges that what separates her from some of the best male riders is the shortage of tricks in her repertoire. But she’s working on several, aiming to have them ready by October.
“I’ve had other women want to compete,” Barber says. “But there are a lot of guys out there to choose from. It’s hard to say we’ll give Casey a shot when there have been so many guys knocking on the door for years. I’m not opposed to it. But it’s gonna be tough. The Rampage is not a proving ground.”
Over the past year, Brown has made a strong case that she deserves a chance. Last September, I joined a full house at Walk Festival Hall in Teton Village, Wyoming, for the premiere of Teton Gravity Research’s annual ski film. The crowd, mostly dressed in flannel and brimming with anticipation, had come for the usual adventure porn: skiers and snowboarders descending steep faces in deep powder, flinging themselves off massive cliffs. With each colossal launch, the pack yipped and hollered. But it wasn’t until about halfway through the hour-long film that they completely lost it.
That’s when Casey Brown and Cam McCaul, a pro from Bend, Oregon, appeared on the screen, riding their bikes off a 20-foot cliff into snow-filled Corbet’s Couloir, the legendary Jackson Hole ski run. The icy pitch rendered brakes useless; Brown hurtled for 300 feet at around 60 miles per hour. With that, people leaped to their feet, shouting and throwing their hands in the air.
After the movie, the talk was all about the mountain-bike segment, both because the stunt was novel (mountain bikers had never appeared in a TGR ski film before) and insane (nobody had ever been crazy enough to ride a bike off Corbet’s). And by the way, several asked: Who was that girl?
Besides her Crankworx victories, Brown, who began competing in 2008, has spent several years posting impressive results on the World Cup downhill tour and in Enduro World Series races. Among serious riders, she’s noted for her in-flight style and hang time, which seems to last seconds longer than her peers’. “The thing that impresses me is that she’s so confident,” says McCaul. “She can take on any terrain, and she makes it look good. Such stylish riding isn’t something we’ve seen from women before.”
But until that moment inside the theater, most people outside the world of mountain biking had never heard of her. The TGR segment, which was later posted online and quickly went viral, with 730,000 views, boosted Brown’s celebrity. A month later, Red Bull proposed doing a short film about her. She’s also been asked to shoot a commercial for Coors Light.
Brown, who’s soft-spoken and demure, shies away from much of the attention. “I like to live a little more humbly,” she says. “Looking forward and focusing on the future are more important than looking back at what you’ve done.”
In Revelstoke, she’s able to find sanctuary from the limelight. When she’s home, which is usually only five months of the year, she spends her time working on her bikes, hanging out with her family, or, in the winter, skiing and snowmobiling with friends. And she devotes a large chunk of time to her artwork, a passion since childhood.
The tiny basement apartment that she shares with Schaffer is a gallery for her work, including a painting of Snuff, as well as pottery she made at a nearby studio. Even her bike helmet is painted with a sketch she did of a coyote biting a snake. In some native cultures, she says, “the coyote is the trickster. I feel like I’m the coyote and I’m biting my fears.”
She’s a good artist, which prompts me to ask why she didn’t choose that as a career, since art is less likely to put you in the hospital. “Artists starve to death,” she says, then thinks about it. “Well, mountain bikers starve to death, too.”
Brown is hardly starving. Her income this year, earned mainly through endorsements with Clif Bar, Dakine, and Trek, will reach six figures. She and Schaffer are house shopping—with one stipulation. “There needs to be enough land to build jumps,” says Brown. It’s a remarkable success story when you consider that when most children were learning to ride a bike, Brown was swinging from vines in a jungle.
One afternoon in Virgin, Brown changes out of her Dakine riding kit and into a tank top and cutoffs. She says the shorts are similar to what her father, Lou, wears around Revelstoke—much to the embarrassment of his children.
Airstream has loaned her a rolling bedroom for a week—a thank-you for jumping her bike 40 feet over a trailer for an advertisement—and we’ve taken lawn chairs from it and plopped them in the middle of the shallow Virgin River, where we’re soaking our feet.
I ask Brown if she’s seen the movie Captain Fantastic, noting that the story line—about a father who raises his children off the grid—sounds like her childhood.
“Lots of people say that,” says Brown. “There are a lot of similarities.”
Only days after Brown was born in a Queenstown hospital in 1990, she joined her parents, Lou and Liz, along with three older sisters and a brother, in Barn Bay, on the west coast of the South Island, miles from the nearest town. Lou had moved there with his previous wife in 1975, to work as a fisherman.
“It was a remote and challenging place to fish,” says Lou, a slight man in his sixties who, like his daughter, seems drawn to adventure. In 1983, after his second marriage ended, he convinced Liz to join him.
Lou built a house from wood he had scrounged in the jungle. The family foraged for and grew their own food and used a windmill Lou had devised to generate their own power. Twice a year, they would trek eight hours to the closest town for supplies. “As soon as you could walk, you walked there and back,” says Brown. “I was probably two.”
Lou, who owned a boat, spent days on the Tasman Sea catching rock lobster, which he’d ship out on planes that landed on a runway he’d made. Meanwhile, the children mostly played. That included building forts and “swinging from the trees like monkeys,” says Jennifer, the second-oldest. Elinor, the second youngest, recalls a long-distance hiker dying near the family’s home. After the body had been recovered and bagged, the children watched while Elinor poked it with a stick. “We didn’t really have values or a belief system at that time,” Jennifer says. “We were pretty wild.”
In 1996, after Lou had several close calls at sea, the family moved to a 426-acre farm in a town called Clyde, where they lived in a tepee and attempted to grow vegetables. The crops failed, which took a toll on Lou and Liz’s already strained marriage. They divorced that year, and Lou hit rewind and left for Canada, where he’d grown up, with Jennifer and Sam, his only son.
Liz stayed on the farm with Casey, Elinor, and Jasmine, her daughter from her first marriage. In 1999, a fire started when a tree fell on a power line. Liz and Casey were at home and rushed to open the gates for the horse and their flock of sheep. By the time they made it to the car to flee, the blaze had reached the driveway, and the two narrowly escaped by driving across the pasture and through the fence. The farm destroyed, the family moved to Hawea, a small lakeside town, where they survived on welfare.
In British Columbia, Sam had begun mountain biking and proved to be an extraordinary talent.
“He was an amazing rider, but he was also creative and innovative,” says Darren Berrecloth, from Parksville, B.C., who appeared alongside Sam in several films. “He had great style and flow, and would pick different lines down the mountain, lines that other people couldn’t see.”
Casey revered her brother from afar. Then, in 2002, hopeful for a better life, Casey and Elinor left for Canada to live with their father.
In Revelstoke, an old logging town 350 miles northeast of Vancouver, Lou had taken on several jobs, including one as a metalworker. When Casey joined him, he built his daughter a bike out of spare parts, a clunker with different-size wheels that Brown used to chase her brother and his friends around.
“She was just like Sam—a total natural from the time she was 12,” says Joel Pirnke, a Revelstoke native who grew up riding with Casey and Sam. “She was aggressive, but with a really calm, relaxed style. As she got older, she was passing the boys.”
Brown began harboring dreams of becoming a professional biker. Sam, however, became disillusioned with the sport’s bloated egos, gave up, and in 2005 found work as a logger. To get in and out of the woods, he traveled by helicopter; he took pilot lessons in hopes of someday earning his license.
Some time later, Sam befriended Colin Martin, a convicted drug dealer with a bald head and a stocky build. Martin offered Sam a job, one that would appeal to his sense of adventure and earn him serious money. Sam said yes and went into outlaw mode.
Eventually, Casey became aware that Sam was smuggling drugs into the United States. She confronted him about it one day while they were riding around in his truck.
“I don’t want you to do this,” Casey said. “I don’t want you to die.”
“Don’t worry,” he said confidently. “I’m not going to.”
Sam ran pot and ecstasy over the border by snowmobile and, later, by helicopter, though he never got a license to fly. In February 2009, he flew a shipment of pot into Washington, landing in a meadow inside Colville National Forest. The DEA was waiting and arrested him.
Four days later, the Brown family was called to Elinor’s house. When Casey walked in, a police officer standing in the doorway bluntly delivered the news: “Your brother killed himself.” Brown sank to her knees.
Sam didn’t leave a note, and speculation swirled about why he’d take his own life. To Brown, it didn’t matter. Her best friend was dead, and she spent several months in mourning. Then she turned all her attention to riding. “Biking was the thing he loved and the thing we shared,” says Brown. “If I could do one thing that made him proud, that was it. I decided to work toward becoming a free-ride mountain biker.”
On my last day in Virgin, Brown and her entourage drive about four miles through the desert down a rutted road. They eventually reach the base of the current Rampage course, where the event has been held since 2012. The wind is up again.
“What do you think, Casey?” asks Buehler.
“Perfect day for sailing,” she says.
A day earlier, we’d driven here in less breezy conditions; Brown had sessioned some of the course’s lower cliff drops and jumps, easily sending a 50-foot bluff over and over again. Then, as the sun began to set, she hit a small jump and landed funny, causing her to endo over her bike and face-plant in the dirt. A silly mistake, she’d called it, but one that cracked the visor on her helmet and left her with a headache. A few hours later, when I asked how she felt, she said she’d mostly recovered.
“Just a little hucker’s neck.”
“You know, Huckingson’s disease,” she said. “Whiplash.”
“Can you ride?” I asked.
“Oh yeah,” she said. “You’re always recovering from something in this sport.”
“Part of what makes Casey so good is that she’s so tough,” Buehler interjected. “She’s resilient. She can bounce back from anything, so she keeps progressing—she’s not spending a lot of time off her bike.”
Brown, Schaffer, and Buehler assess the wind and decide to wait a bit. Instead of riding, we’ll hike to the top of the course and check out some of the bigger features on the upper section.
As we climb, the pitch gets steeper and the loose sand and rock starts to crumble below our feet. On one stretch, I find myself on all fours, grasping for a solid handhold and realizing that if I fall, I’ll tumble 100 yards over an outcropping of boulders. I find myself wondering why Brown wants to ride her bike down this.
“There’s a quote I like,” Brown says. “ ‘The best things in life are on the other side of fear.’ I’m pretty sure Will Smith said it. The Rampage is a really good measure of your abilities. It tests everything. I want to be pushing the sport, and this is the next step for me.”
Many people seem to agree. Often, when women try to break through in a male-dominated sport, they’re met with online harassment. Brown has received nothing but support. In mid-May, she posted Instagram photos of herself riding on the Rampage site. The comments, many of which are from men, include “Casey is serious competition for the men” and “Maybe we’ll see you at the Rampage?!”
One of her supporters is none other than Kurt Sorge. “Casey has progressed so much in the past ten years, and she’s proven herself,” he says. “She could carve a pretty sick line down that course.”
When we reach the top of the run, Brown shows me how she makes certain features less scary. We stare down a 12-foot drop onto a five-foot-wide spine with a 200-foot free fall on either side. Brown calls it the Sidewalk of Death.
“I just erase everything except what I need to ride,” she says, waving her arms as though she’s wiping the potentially lethal parts from existence. “When you do that, it’s really not that bad. Just a 12-foot drop.”
By the time we make our way back to the bottom, it’s about eight in the evening, and the wind has died down. I ask Brown what she’ll do if the Rampage committee decides to leave her off the list.
“I’ll work harder,” she says firmly. “And I’ll try again.”
With that, Brown puts on her helmet and pulls up her kneepads. Then, as the sun fades, she pushes her bike back up the mountain.
Editor's Note: This story originally appeared in the September issue of Outside, which hit newsstands the first week of August. Later that month, invitations were made to riders to compete in the 2018 Red Bull Rampage. Brown did not receive an invitation, but, as she said in the story, she'll continue to work hard and hopes to receive an invitation to compete in the event next year.
Correspondent Gordy Megroz (@gordymegroz) wrote about Wylder Goods in July 2017.
Photographs by José Mandojana.