The Crash, Recovery, and Miraculous Return of Jeb Corliss
A new documentary gives a never-before-seen look at the BASE jumper's near-death experience—and the almost-impossible jump he took just a year later
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In his 18-year BASE jumping and wingsuiting career, 39-year-old American Jeb Corliss has tackled his share of daunting jumps, like the time he brushed a string attached to a balloon on his way down from a Swiss peak. Or the time he jumped off the Eiffel tower. Or the time he flew through a cave in China. And all of those flights ended well.
But in 2012, after jumping from South Africa's 3,558-foot Table Mountain and flying at about 120 miles an hour, Corliss's left foot clipped a boulder and he crashed into the face of the mountain. Had he not managed to deploy his emergency parachute, a spokesperson said at the time, he would have died. The accident left him with two broken legs and a torn ACL that required reconstructive surgery. Corliss spent more than a year recovering in South Africa. And he doesn’t use painkillers (“I don't take painkillers, I take pain,” he wrote on Facebook in 2012), “so I got to feel unending, brutal, searing pain for a year of my life,” he says.
He had no plans to stop jumping, though. During his recovery, when an ABC reporter asked him if he would quit the sport, he laughed and said, “That’s so cute.” At the same time, he acknowledges that such a traumatic accident made him think a lot harder about the risks on which he's built his career. He's always had exacting ideas of which jumps are and aren't possible, but he was even more careful in the months following his recovery. “I impacted flat solid granite at 120 miles per hour and bounced,” he says. “You don’t survive something like that. And when you survive an unsurvivable accident, it’s not something you forget.”
“My jumping has become 100 percent work for me,” Corliss says. “I now deem the sport to be just too dangerous to do it just for fun.”
So in the spring of 2013, when representatives from Red Bull China asked if he might be interested in scouting a unique objective outside Shanghai—a narrow slot on 875-foot Langshan Mountain that Corliss would pilot his wingsuit through—Corliss looked at photographs and declined. “The Table Mountain accident was heavy in my mind,” he says. “I thought [the formation] was too small and not high enough.” But when the representatives asked him to come see the formation in person, Corliss agreed to check it out.
The V-shaped slot is 60 feet wide at the top but only 15 feet wide at the bottom, extending through the mountain for the length of three football fields. The sliver was stunning for Corliss to examine up close. “I’d never seen anything that vertical and that straight for so long,” he says. “I started thinking, this actually could be really cool. I think I could actually do this.” He committed to the stunt on the spot.
The Chinese government granted Red Bull access to the site for an October 2013 live television event. Meanwhile, Iiro Seppanen and Frank Yang of Pan Pacific Productions got to work on a documentary to chronicle Corliss's recovery and the Langshan flight. The resulting 50-minute film, Flying Dagger, was released on Vimeo On Demand at the end of January and allows an intimate look at two defining moments of Corliss’s career.
Corliss’s preparation leading up to the Langshan stunt did not go as planned. He hoped to have five days of training with up to five jumps per day. But the leftover rain and wind from a recent typhoon made flying too dangerous. Ultimately he got three practice jumps the day before the stunt, but never entered the crack.
Already he was nervous about the numbers involved: He would start his proximity flight through the crack at just 875 feet elevation, an altitude where he would normally deploy his parachute. If he emerged at 300 feet, he would still have time to deploy his chute but a minuscule margin for error when steering toward his landing zone—a six-foot-wide platform surrounded by concrete barriers and perched on a cliff. He expected to fall into a stand of trees if anything went wrong, but upon closer inspection, he found that the trees were riddled with dead branches that could impale him.
The bad weather lingered into the event day. It was raining, the mountain was socked in, and the helicopters were grounded. More than 2,000 crew members, including 90 search and rescue staffers, waited alongside thousands of spectators. The event was being broadcast to an estimated 350 million viewers in China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. With less than a half-hour to go until jump time, the military started to shut down the production. “It was going to be one of the first times I actually failed,” Corliss says. “I felt hopeless.”
Then, inexplicably, the clouds parted and the wind died. The jump was on. But by then Corliss was flashing back to Table Mountain and having second thoughts. He started crying in the helicopter. “This sense of dread and horror took over,” he says.
Then he jumped.
The turbulence from his wingsuit bounced off the narrow walls for a bumpy flight, but Corliss threaded the needle as planned, hitting 122 mph through the crack. He deployed his chute and landed safely. “This was without a doubt the most terrifying thing I’ve ever done,” he says now. “If someone were to say right now, ‘Hey Jeb, we’ll give you $10 million to do it again,’ I’d say no.”
Decide for yourself whether the stunt is a victorious comeback or the type of relentlessly deadly risk-taking that increasingly haunts the sport. Either way, it’s enthralling viewing. Seppanen, a former professional BASE jumper and president of the World Wingsuit League who has worked with Corliss before, views the film as Corliss’s redemption story. “I think he got a little too cocky for jumping at Table Mountain, and he paid a horrible price,” Seppanen says. “He’s not the same guy who did the jump at Table Mountain.”
Corliss agrees. “My jumping has become 100 percent work for me. I now deem the sport to be just too dangerous to do it just for fun,” he says. “I’ve watched way too many of my friends die, to go out and jump for the hell of it.”