What’s Wrong with Jeb’s Brain?

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.”

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