No place is too high for Jeb Corliss. From the Eiffel Tower to the Petronas Twin Towers, the athlete keeps setting his objectives more difficult than the ones he’s already done. And there is no stopping him.
One of the most important BASE jumpers and skydivers, Corliss has dedicated his life to the art of human flight. He doesn’t just jump: he performs. And his performances are something to behold.
The 40-year-old athlete granted loaded some time to talk about his career, his motivations and his plans for the future.
loaded: What made you decide you wanted to dedicate your life to BASE jumping?
Corliss: When I was about five years old, I was sitting in the back of my aunt’s car looking out the window day, dreaming like most small children do. I was watching birds stand on telephone poles, stepping off, opening their wings and flying. I remember telling my aunt that when I got older I was going to step off things just like those birds. She looked at me and said “Jeb, you are very young but when you get older you will realize humans can’t fly.” As a child, you have adults tell you the dreams you have are impossible or unrealistic. They tell you how you need to grow up and focus on things that are real and can be achieved. They tend to step on your dreams and crush them into the dirt and sometimes they crush them so hard you forget you even had them.
Over the years, so many of my dreams had been crushed that I stopped dreaming, stopped caring and I entered a severe depression. I was so lost. The emptiness was so overwhelming that I decided I really wasn’t very interested in continuing to live. One day I was sitting on my parents’ couch, watching TV, just flicking through endless channels, just numbing out when something caught my eye. There was a man standing on the edge of a massive cliff. He stepped off, opened his arms and started flying. Suddenly I realised all the people that had told me my dreams were unrealistic or impossible were wrong.
At that moment, I knew exactly what I was going to do for the rest of my life and there wasn’t anything anyone was going to do to stop me.
loaded: You have jumped from many famous landmarks. Which one would be your favourite and why?
Corliss: I would have to say doing a double reverse flip through the centre of the Eiffel Tower in France was one of my most iconic and dangerous base jumps. I spent two years training double reverse flips from bridges at a similar altitude. Timing had to be perfect because if I opened my parachute too early I could strike the first platform and if I opened it too late I would strike the ground without a parachute, both would equal a fatality. I had about a one-second window to complete my double reverse flip, get stable and deploy my parachute without dying.
loaded: And if you could choose any place in the world to jump, which one would it be?
Corliss: They just finished completion of the tallest building in mainland China, the Shanghai Tower. It is right across the street from the World Financial Centre, a building with an amazing hole passing right through the building. I would love to jump from the top of the Shanghai Tower and fly my wing-suit through the centre of the World Financial Centre.
loaded: Has anyone ever tried to convince you to do something, well, less dangerous than BASE jumping?
Corliss: Not that I am aware of. There is a chance that maybe someone tried, but I don’t listen to people who tell me how to live my life. I instantly shut them down and inform them that I don’t care what they think about anything. I had enough of people trying to destroy my dreams as a child and I do not put up with it as an adult.
loaded: You had quite an experience at Howick Falls back in 1999. Did the almost fatal fall make you want to quit?
Corliss: When I was in the ICU with my back broken in three places, all my ribs, my right knee and left foot (not to mention many chipped teeth), the doctor walked in and explained the damage. He smiled and said, “I bet you never do anything like that again.” I smiled back and said the only things in this world that would prevent me from BASE jumping would be quadriplegia or death. I think one of the reasons I have got to the level I have is because I never gave up and was somehow lucky enough not to die.
loaded: Has there been any other time where you have been close to wanting to stop doing BASE jumping?
Corliss: I started questioning the sport after by friend Dwain was severed in half and I flew through his body parts getting covered in his blood. That had a very profound impact on me and the way I saw life and the sport. After that I started questioning everything. Then every single time a friend would die or I would have a heavy impact I would question it again. I’m now in a constant state of re-evaluating my choices and why I’m doing the things I do.
I seem to come to the same answer every single time I re-evaluate though. I understand that even if I stop doing anything dangerous, stop BASE jumping, diving with sharks, riding motorcycles, traveling the world, everything really. I am still going to die. There is nothing I can do to stop death from happening. It is a natural part of life. You really have no control over when it happens to you. At any moment, you can have an aneurysm. A drunk driver can fall asleep behind the wheel of their car and take you out. I decided a long time ago I wasn’t going to let the fear of something that is inevitable prevent me from living my dreams and doing what I love.
loaded: And what advice do you have for people who’d like to follow your steps?
Corliss: Anytime someone asks me for my advice about BASE jumping I say “if you can find happiness in your life doing anything else, do anything else”. BASE jumping is mean and hard and it kills people. It is a silly thing to jump off cliffs with fabric to save your life. My priority is to talk people out of doing it. But if for some reason I don’t succeed, my response is, okay, at least you have been warned and you know the consequences for your actions.
Once a person is made aware of the risks and they are 100% sure they are willing to sacrifice their lives doing it then I explain what to do. Learn to skydive. Get your skydiving license. Do a minimum of 500 skydives. You will have to sacrifice time, money, relationships with friends and family. This is a long and arduous process. Then contact one of the large BASE jumping manufacturers like Apex Base and they will take you through a training course. Buy new gear and take very good care of it. Travel the world and jump safe objects like high bridges and big cliffs with nice landing areas for the first few years. This process will take between five and ten years, so you better be in it for the long haul.
I have nothing against people taking risks with their life. I just want to make sure the person truly understands what those risks are. It doesn’t take courage to do things you don’t think are dangerous.
loaded: Any fun anecdotes you’d like to share with us?
Corliss: I am scared of everything, but I do it anyway…