What’s Wrong with Jeb’s Brain?
BASE-jumping pioneer Jeb Corliss is one of the original madmen, a fiend for the extreme who has miraculously survived multiple crash landings in a sport that rarely allows second chances. Now, at 44, with a self-diagnosed psychological disorder, he's embarking on his most fraught journey yet: into the depths of his own mind.
On a warm, breezy February day in 2000, Jeb Corliss strapped on a parachute and stepped to the edge of a 310-foot sandstone cliff in South Africa.
To Corliss’s left, the Umgeni River poured green and clear off the cliff to become Howick Falls, a gargantuan shaft of water that crashed off rock ledges and thundered into a deep pool below. Straight ahead, in the direction Corliss intended to soar after opening his parachute, whitewater rapids flowed into a forested valley.
Corliss knew that big waterfalls can create enough air turbulence to destabilize a parachute, but he was 23 years old at the time, relatively new to the sport and driven by hungers and agonies he hadn’t begun to name. Corliss had not yet honed his judgment through two decades as the international face of professional BASE jumping—of seemingly crazy leaps from the world’s tallest bridges and skyscrapers, violent deaths of fellow jumpers, and gruesome injuries of his own.
Ambient winds were light and the view stunning. Corliss counted down: Three, two, one.
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Just a kid really, he jettisoned from the cliff and adopted the conservative prone posture of a BASE jumper who considers the act itself plenty exciting and doesn’t need to up the ante with flips and tricks. Arms spread wide, with a small pilot chute clutched in his right hand, Corliss accelerated toward terminal velocity—BASE jumping is sometimes crassly referred to as committing suicide and choosing to save yourself—then threw the pilot chute, which triggered his main chute. At that instant, he made a seemingly minor error: he allowed his left shoulder to dip below his right. As a result, the main chute opened asymmetrically and swept Corliss directly into Howick Falls.
Sucked inward and downward by the roaring water, Corliss bounced off a rock ledge hard enough to snap his sacrum, break a vertebra, and dislocate his tailbone. Impact with a second ledge shattered his right knee and left foot, and broke every rib on his right side. He fell another 100 feet into the deep pool at the base of the falls. Underwater, turbulence thrashed his body, then released him to the surface, where he drifted into the shallows.
Corliss recounted all this to me last winter while steering his big Winnebago RV northbound on Interstate 15, toward a skydiving center east of Los Angeles. Dressed entirely in his trademark black, with a gleaming bald head and a toothy, square-jawed snarl, he spoke in a measured but relentless torrent of dramatic anecdotes and self-analysis. Corliss can talk for hours without a break, as if storytelling is at once his deepest compulsion and crucial to the performance art that has become his life.
Broken and immobilized in the pool below Howick Falls, Corliss said, he’d lain perfectly awake as freshwater crabs dug into his torn flesh.
“When I hit the cliff, it sliced my butt open,” he said. “Like, flayed me open. They were attracted by the blood and were eating the open wound.”
From the passenger seat of Corliss’s RV, I asked how that felt—you know, just out of curiosity.
“The helplessness and not being able to move and having really small creatures chew on you is…” He paused. “Unpleasant. I would say, if you can, avoid that at all costs.”
“So where does that experience rank in your personal pantheon of pain?”
“At the top, for sure.”
Paramedics eventually reached him and prepared a syringe of morphine.
“I was like, ‘No, I don’t want morphine,’ ” Corliss recalled. His face stiffened, as if the world should have known that any pain medication would undermine the central project of his time on earth.
The paramedics, he said, “looked at me like I was a complete lunatic. They’re like, ‘Your back is probably broken. Your hips look broken. Your legs look broken. Everything looks broken. And we’re going to have to carry you out and probably bounce you off every rock, and it’s going to take six hours. You need pain medication.’ I’m like, ‘No, I don’t want it,’ ” Corliss said. “And they’re like, ‘You’re going to have to give us a good reason.’ I’m like, ‘I know what hurts right now, and when I go to the doctor I want to be able to tell him what hurts. If you give me that shit I’m not going to know.’ ”
So Corliss lay in elective agony for hours while the dumbfounded rescue workers rigged a cable across the Umgeni River and hauled him up and out, and then to the trauma unit of a nearby hospital. There, even as doctors stitched his wounds, he continued to refuse pain medication. Worse by far, though, in Corliss’s telling, was the six weeks of recovery in a hospital room, where he was entirely dependent on a nurse with a bedpan every time he wished to relieve himself. (“If there’s a hell, it’ll be a bedpan for me,” he said.)
Corliss pulled off the freeway into the windy desert town of Perris, then took a wide, quiet country road past sun-parched grass below the San Bernardino Mountains. Turning into the palm-lined driveway of Skydive Perris, he rolled to a stop in the big asphalt lot and finished the waterfall story with one of his standard narrative moves: an abrupt shift from horror to reassurance that all was for the best.
“The funny thing is,” Corliss said, killing the engine, “that accident was a catalyst for my entire career. If I had not hit that waterfall, had I not been injured that way, I would never have become a professional BASE jumper. I would have had to continue being a graphic artist. And I really do think that one saved my life. It helped me work through a lot of psychological problems I’ve had since I was young.”
Corliss’s psychological problems, and especially his current beliefs about them, were the reason I’d come. Weeks earlier, by phone, Corliss told me that his grandfather always wanted to write an autobiography but died before getting around to it. Corliss, at age 44, was trying to avoid this outcome by writing his own eventful story before it was too late. In the process, tapping away at a laptop, he had come to suspect that he suffered from some kind of mental illness; he could think of no other explanation for the disturbing thought patterns he’d had since childhood, much less the peculiar use he’d made of adulthood. Corliss couldn’t say what category of mental illness it might be—he refuses to seek diagnosis, skeptical of mainstream psychiatry and its pharmaceutical cures—but I’d flown to meet him in San Diego anyway, curious to hear more.
In Corliss’s RV at Skydive Perris, looking through the massive windshield, we quickly realized that the winds were way too high to be jumping out of a plane. Wind socks were taut, tumbleweeds flew past, and small aircraft sat grounded near the runway. On one level, it was a bleak scene: the pro psycho in his lonely Winnebago, parking lot empty because everybody with a normal life and a job is off doing something meaningful. But Skydive Perris is a second home for Corliss. Perfectly content to be there even without a jump on the horizon, Corliss, walking with a slight limp, led me outside, past shade shelters and a swimming pool absent of any swimmers, and into the Bombshelter Bar and Grill. The tables were empty, but staff members smiled at him like country-club workers greeting the golf pro on a rainy day—or, more accurately, employees at a strip-mall climbing gym nodding to Alex Honnold.
With a lunch salad and a lemonade, Corliss took a small table and started at the beginning. He was born in 1976 in Abiquiu, New Mexico, to parents who traveled Central and South Asia, buying art to sell in the U.S. By age seven, Corliss had been around the world three times and spent a year between rural India and a community of Tibetan Buddhist exiles in Nepal. His family—he has two sisters—eventually settled back in Santa Fe, where Corliss’s mother, Gigi, had grown up and still had Pueblo Indian relatives.
Corliss enjoyed hiking with his mother in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains while she foraged for mushrooms and berries to sell in town. He struggled in school—less with academics, which came easily, than with bullying. In sixth grade, Corliss fought back against a pack of boys with such unrestrained savagery that his parents decided to homeschool him.
Corliss’s father, meanwhile, descended into drug abuse, according to the family. He was “a brilliant man,” Gigi told me, “but he believed that drugs were mind-expanding. He liked to take psychedelics and everything else you can think of, and it was more important to him than his family was. It eventually destroyed his mind and our relationship, along with any bond he had with the children.” (Corliss’s father could not be reached for comment.)
Over lunch at the Bombshelter, he described his father as verbally abusive, prone to vicious tirades. “Now I suspect he had an undiagnosed mental illness,” Corliss said. He allowed that his father’s drug use was a form of self-medication.
“I never saw my father not on drugs,” he said. “It’s why I fucking hate drugs with a passion. If people want to use drugs for themselves, knock yourself out, but don’t be around me, because I think you’re a fucking idiot.” This turned out to be one of Corliss’s core preoccupations: over and over, he told me that he never touches drugs, never takes a sip of alcohol or even coffee, and that the entire point of sensory perception is to experience reality as it is. Dulling or distorting that perception in any way, as Corliss sees it, is worse than foolish.
Tapping away at a laptop, he had come to suspect that he suffered from some kind of mental illness; he could think of no other explanation for the disturbing thought patterns he’d had since childhood, much less the peculiar use he’d made of adulthood.
In 1989, Corliss’s family relocated to Palm Springs, just across the San Jacinto Mountains from Perris. His parents’ marriage deteriorated; while his mother started an acupuncture practice, his father left home for long periods and, according to Gigi, came home only when he needed money. Corliss, meanwhile, became suicidally depressed. At 14, he began playing Russian roulette with loaded handguns. Corliss was 15 when Gigi asked his father to leave for good. Soon after, while she was out of town for a few days, Corliss says his father moved back into the house. Corliss demanded that he leave. When his father resisted, Corliss said, “I was like, ‘Well, you’re going to leave in one of two ways—on your own two feet or in a body bag. You decide.’ ” According to Corliss, his father chose the former.
Deeply unhappy, unable to find any meaning in his own existence, Corliss was flipping channels on TV one day when he came across footage of a BASE jumper leaping from a cliff. “That’s perfect,” he recalled thinking. “If I do that, I will have done something few human beings are willing to do. And if I die doing it, I get what I want. It’s a win-win. It was an incredibly twisted thought process.”
Corliss was too young to act on his inclination; BASE jumping takes money, a car, and a lot of freedom. But, he told me, just the idea of it was good for him.
“In a really strange way, it saved my life,” he said, “because I would be in a super dark place where I was gonna kill myself, and I was like, No, don’t waste it. If you’re going to die anyway, do something with your death. Anyone can shoot themselves. I’m going to do something where the outcome can possibly be death. And that is what helped me hold on for the next three years.”
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.”
Wingsuit flying, too, has historical roots among long-dead Europeans with dangerous ideas—in this case, a Parisian tailor named Franz Reichelt who, in 1912, sewed himself a “bird man” suit and leapt from the Eiffel Tower, with bad results. Modern wingsuits didn’t emerge until the late 1990s, and Corliss himself bought the first commercially available one in 1999. Wingsuits allow an experienced pilot to soar two feet forward for every foot he falls downward—a boon to BASE jumpers, who welcomed the opportunity to move quickly away from cliffs and extend the feeling of flight. As wingsuit design and technique improved, however, the allure of proximity flying became irresistible.
Corliss says he never wanted to be the world’s greatest proximity flyer. The only way to claim that title, after all, is to fly closer to fixed objects than any other nutcase is willing to go. Corliss saw the lethality of this—keep pushing that limit and eventually you’re going to hit something—but he still became the technique’s most successful early popularizer. In 2010, Corliss jumped off a cliff in the Swiss Alps. Banking and turning his wingsuit through a gorge like something out of Star Wars, Corliss captured helmet-cam footage that attracted a million views in the first 24 hours on YouTube, a huge number for the time. (Currently, the clip has over 33 million views.)
In 2011, he jumped out of a helicopter in China and, for a Chinese TV audience estimated in the hundreds of millions, flew through a 100-foot-wide natural arch in the side of Heaven’s Gate Mountain. Corliss soon was dreaming of an even crazier stunt: a so-called touch-and-go, in which he’d fly down a snowy mountain slope, getting closer and closer to the ground until he brushed his feet against the snow and pulled away.
In January 2012, while plotting the stunt, Corliss traveled to Cape Town, South Africa, for HBO’s Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel. Ten years earlier, he’d flown a wingsuit off 3,500-foot Table Mountain and suffered a bad landing. Now he planned to confront his old nemesis by repeating the jump for the cameras. The Real Sports shoot went well: Corliss made his jumps, flew his wingsuit down the peak, and conducted interviews. But he also noticed a rocky ledge that offered a promising training opportunity for his touch-and-go project.
Corliss asked a friend to climb up and attach two helium balloons to the ledge, about six feet apart, each balloon on a six-foot length of string. He jumped off Table Mountain yet again, planning to hit them. As he flew closer, a gust of wind blew one of the balloons sideways, causing the string to catch on a lower chunk of rock. With the balloon now hovering just six inches above the ledge, Corliss smashed his legs against the rocky outcropping. He was traveling at more than 120 miles per hour.
“It blows my legs completely apart,” he said, “and as I impact, I bounce and tumble, doing a couple of flips with a full twist.”
Any other jumper would likely have spun out and died on impact, but Corliss’s experience with aerials allowed him to regain control and resume flying. In that moment, he said, his mind partitioned into two distinct streams of consciousness: one analyzing practical matters, like how to pilot a shredded wingsuit and where to land, the other assuming that he’d die from his injuries and considering whether it made sense to open his parachute at all.
As Corliss put it: “Do I want to have a slow, painful, agonizing death while I’m waiting for a rescue? Or I could not pull and then just impact. No suffering, no pain—just be done.”
His mind suddenly announced that it was time to open his chute or die. “I remember thinking, ‘Well, good thing you like pain. How much time can I get? Five minutes? An hour? Whatever it is, I want it.’ ”
Corliss’s parachute opened in a twist, slamming him into the mountain. His injuries included two broken ankles, a broken fibula, multiple shattered toes, a fully ruptured ACL, a gash in his right shin from which tattered muscle hung in threads, and quadriceps muscles degloved from his upper leg—stripped off the bone, that is, and pulped inside the skin. Protein from his ruptured muscles entered his bloodstream and pushed his kidneys toward failure. As he was loaded into an ambulance he heard a paramedic say, “Looks like a double amputation.”
“When I heard that,” Corliss said, “the thought wasn’t, ‘Oh God, I’m gonna lose my legs.’ It was, ‘You mean there’s a chance I’m going to live?’ ”
Corliss wasn’t just thinking about that particular accident, either. He was thinking about his whole way of being in the world. The possibility of surviving into old age had never occurred to him. As a result, when the doctors said he might not even lose his legs, Corliss confronted a terrifying existential question: What happens if I don’t die?
Corliss recently proposed to his longtime girlfriend, an athletic woman named Aly DeMayo who works in a classified capacity for the Department of Defense at Camp Pendleton, near San Diego. About ten miles inland from the base, Corliss and DeMayo share a modest suburban home on a cul-de-sac, among trailer parks and strip malls. At first glance, the interior felt like a fastidiously maintained Airbnb: freshly painted walls, matching gray and black furniture, and rugs that appeared to have been purchased during a single visit to a local showroom. A closer look revealed Corliss’s personal touch. Everything on the walls and shelves spoke directly to his two primary interests: sharks, appearing in underwater photographs taken by Corliss himself, and death, as represented by Corliss’s enormous collection of skulls and skull-related art. (DeMayo, herself a serious skydiver and BASE jumper, apparently had little input when it came to the decor.)
Shelves in the living room held horizontal stacks of large-format art books: Skulls Sourcebook, The Mammoth Book of Skull, Skull Style. On one stack sat a skull cast in metal and outfitted with steampunk gears and pipes; on another, a skull carved from shiny black stone grinned cheerfully. And of course there was an actual human skull, minus the jawbone.
An elegant glass display case held dozens of gorgeously carved smaller skulls, a giant fossilized shark’s tooth, a pig fetus in a jar, the upper halves of two human skulls refashioned into bowls, and a femur carved into a flute. Ceramic vessels held human ashes, including Corliss’s grandfather, Dwain Weston, and one of Corliss’s sisters.
“She committed suicide six months ago,” Corliss told me, holding a small photo of
her. Suffering from bipolar disorder, according to Corliss, she’d been living in Palm Springs near their father at the time. “She was losing her mind,” Corliss said. “Each time she had a psychotic break, she’d go catatonic and be unable to move or speak. She basically wrote us a note that said she didn’t want to do that anymore.”
Corliss, as far as I could tell, had come to the opposite conclusion—that life was worth living, even if guaranteed to end. His recovery from Table Mountain had been every bit as awful as the one from Howick Falls, including six weeks in a hospital (complete with bedpan). He went right back to jumping; that’s how Corliss makes a living, after all. As soon as he could walk again, in 2013, Corliss flew through a 25-foot-wide slot in a mountain for a Chinese TV audience in the hundreds of millions.
Likewise, Corliss was still thrumming with rage over pain meds. Sitting on a couch in his living room, he told me that, two years after Table Mountain, he saw footage from the accident in which, as Corliss screamed in pain, a friend told doctors to administer morphine. Corliss told me he’d confronted the friend.
“I’m like, ‘Dude, you’re an asshole. You know how I am. That was a mistake, because now I feel like you distorted my experience. What I thought I was feeling, what I thought I was going through, isn’t what I was going through. I earned that experience, and I should have gotten to have it.’ I don’t like pain—I like the challenge of confronting it.”
Nevertheless, Corliss said, Table Mountain was the beginning of an exorcism. As for the nature of the demons cast out, it seemed clear to me that they had something to do with his father’s emotional cruelty and drug abuse—hiding from life, love, and responsibility in altered states of mind. Whether Corliss meant to or not, he’d long since proven himself capable of the opposite, of confronting fear and pain at its most extreme, even transforming that confrontation into fame.
It would be unfair to Corliss not to mention that this explanation doesn’t resonate with him. Rather, he’d lean toward a more universal one. If you think BASE jumping is fundamentally about facing mortality—not suicide, but putting oneself on a collision course with death in order to seize life—proximity flying is a supreme expression of that, of edging ever closer to a lethal flame. Corliss’s original vision of a touch-and-go is the logical next step: tiptoeing up to the line between life and death, and actually touching it before stepping back.
One could say that Corliss, during his final training run on Table Mountain, meant only to practice that tiptoe phase, but stumbled and nearly fell across the line to the other side. By that point, though, unlike when he was 23 on Howick Falls, Corliss had become the master of his own unique dance with death. Instincts honed in five thousand jumps, and hardened through horrors like Dwain Weston’s airborne body parts, gave Corliss the ability to choose: open your parachute right now and suffer the agony of whatever short life remains, or don’t and die instantly. He had long since learned the hard way that human life was never guaranteed to be anything but short and excruciating, and that his own most deeply held values demanded courage in the face of that truth.
“Jeb was the coolest, gnarliest BASE jumper on earth,” says author Matt Gerdes. “He was by far the most intense, ‘I can die at any moment and I don’t give a F––k’ jumper in the world—at the far fringes of a fringe sport.”
In any event, as the years piled up after Table Mountain—and especially as he began to write his book—Corliss realized that he no longer needed to jump. Neither did he stop: Corliss served as technical adviser for the wingsuit flight in the 2015 Point Break remake; he jumps with DeMayo now and then; and he was negotiating a major stunt for an American television studio when the pandemic hit.
Still, something inside Corliss had shifted. “I went through that exorcism and the demons were released,” he said. “And honestly, don’t tell my fiancée this, but I think my feelings for her helped. Before her I couldn’t stop.”
Corliss maintains that BASE jumping saved his life; a central theme of his memoir is that it allowed his troubled younger self to create a life of passion around something he loved more than living. Now, though, as Corliss put it to me, “I’ve found a person I love more than that, so I don’t have to do it anymore.”
He stood up from his couch and opened a sliding glass door. He stepped onto a lawn so uniform in color and texture that it could have been rolled out by sod contractors that morning. Under a blue California sky, young orange and lemon trees ran down a slope at the back. In the middle of the grass, Corliss had built a raised bed that overflowed with tomato vines and herbs.
Corliss’s face softened, as if realizing the comic incongruity of the scene: living room full of skulls, yard brimming with new life. “My fiancée is really the gardener,” he said. “She tends all this stuff.”
Warm and dreamy, Corliss’s eyes wandered back across DeMayo’s handiwork until something stopped him. “Actually, that one is mine,” he said, snapping back into himself. He pointed to a little green vine in the middle of the box and said, “I planted that myself. It’s a superhot chile pepper called the Reaper.”
If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide or self-harm, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline toll-free from anywhere in the United States at 1-800-273-8255 or text HOME to Crisis Text Line at 741741.