It was a bridge like this that killed Karin Sako’s boyfriend. Seven months after his death, Sako stands on the wrong side of the railing separating pedestrians from a 486-foot drop and leans into empty air, her neon backpack stark against the gray canyon walls.
The arch bridge shakes as trucks rumble into Twin Falls, Idaho. Sako glances right, where her friend Jeb Corliss is perched -- also on the wrong side.
Corliss was with Sako’s boyfriend when he died. He wiped sweat from his own cheeks and discovered it was his friend’s blood. Now Corliss looks back and he too leans over the emptiness.
Sako pushes onto the balls of her feet and tightens her hands on the metal guardrail. If she falls unchecked, her body will hit the water in just over five seconds.
A terrified gaggle of girls watch from the canyon’s edge. Why are they there? a pigtailed pre-adolescent whispers to another.
But if you pose the query to Sako, who has risked hundreds of jumps like this one, she’ll say only: “You never have to ask anyone that question in this sport.”
Pull of peril
Since Adam and Eve’s slip-up in the Garden of Eden when mankind became mortal, we have been fascinated by risk and its consequences. The instinct to confront danger pushes skiers from the bunny slopes to the double diamonds and propels day hikers to slippery granite peaks.
It’s a fascination familiar to big wave surfers, deep divers, backcountry boarders and people who like to jump from high places. In the last decade geneticists, psychologists and armchair philosophers have labored to understand why. Some say brain chemistry causes a few to leap toward rather than avoid danger. Others say daredevils are programmed by genes and childhood.
Ultimately, Sako and Corliss claim, simply asking the question means you cannot understand its answer. It is a response cliched, inevitable, and ultimately, as dangerous as Adam and Eve’s challenge to God.BASE jumping -- the acronym refers to the Buildings, Antennas, Spans, or bridges, and Earth, or cliffs, from which adherents leap -- is an amusement rooted in the possibility of death. For those who crave flight, there are planes, hang gliders and skydiving. BASE jumpers, however, typically leap from heights far lower than the 1,800-foot elevation at which regulations require parachutists to deploy their canopies.
Their flights last only seconds. An estimated one in 82,000 skydives is fatal, reports “Parachuting, The Skydiver’s Handbook.” Approximately one in 1,000 BASE jumps ends in death, according to statistics complied by industry leaders. Which may be one reason why so few people routinely fling themselves off cliffs, bridges and the like -- just 3,000 or so worldwide, says Todd Shoebotham, co-owner of a company that produces parachutes.
“It’s what’s known as a life experience,” explains Corliss, describing a jump from a cliff in South Africa where he broke multiple ribs, his back in three places and sat immobile in freezing water for an hour awaiting rescue while crabs ate the flesh around his back wounds. “Not all life experiences are fun, but I wouldn’t change it for the world.”
Corliss, 28, is every parent’s nightmare and many daredevils’ idol. His speech is a torrent of words punctuated by a high-pitched, out-of-place laugh. He hasn’t worn a piece of clothing in any color but black since he was 12 years old, he says. He has a theory for everything, all delivered at top decibels, and, due to contracts with film and television producers, makes more money than some physicians. He shaves his head and wears sunglasses that make him look like a bug. He doesn’t care what you, or anyone else, thinks of his choices. He still lives with his parents. Fifty years ago, Corliss’ infatuation with dangerous sports would have been dismissed as a death wish. But research in the last half-century has challenged many of psychology’s traditional explanations.
In the mid-1970s, psychologist Bruce Ogilvie tested 250 athletes like Corliss from a variety of sports, including skydiving and race-car driving, and found many risk-takers possessed superior intelligence, emotional stability and independence when compared with the population at large. He also discovered that, paradoxically, high-risk athletes made concerted efforts to minimize the dangers associated with their sports.
Ogilvie’s findings are consistent with other studies. A 1994 paper followed juvenile criminal offenders enrolled in a dangerous cliff-climbing course. Graduates of the program reported higher self-confidence afterward, and recidivism dropped by 50%. Another study exposed single mothers on welfare who refused to enroll in college courses to a four-day program of risk-taking activities. Seventy-three percent of participants signed up for vocational education afterward.
When people such as Corliss and Sako overcome dangerous risks, say psychologists, it helps train the mind to overcome less-physical fears, like self-doubt, and encourages a sense of possibility. Evolutionary biologists suggest that embracing risk allowed Homo sapiens to expand across the world and promote genetic diversity by seeking out dissimilar sexual partners.
Risk-taking instincts have biochemical consequences: When humans successfully overcome fear, the body responds by releasing beta-endorphins that cause euphoria.
Risk is integral to exploration, discovery and progress, and almost every celebrated hero became so by confronting at least one fear.
But when risk-taking becomes a primary source of self-worth and happiness, say psychologists, it can induce counterphobia, the near-obsessive need to confront fearful experiences.
A psychologist diagnosed Corliss as counterphobic in childhood after he began collecting snakes, almost compulsively, in spite of a fear of the animals.
“The line between empowering risks and catastrophic risks is pretty fuzzy,” says Frank Farley, a psychologist with Temple University who studies such matters. “Especially for someone who is seen as brave or a leader because they’ve taken risks before. Overcoming a fear makes you feel powerful. It becomes central to how some people see themselves.”
When Corliss repeatedly got into serious fights in his younger days, his parents decided to teach him at home. He still thinks of children as cruel, he says.
Only when he started skydiving did he find his place in the world, he says. Playgrounds and birthday parties are minefields, unlike the black and white simplicity of falling through air.
“A lot of people seem to think they have control over whether they die,” Corliss says. “I’m one of the few people who actually knows where that control ends. There’s nothing in my life that has given me the same feelings and experiences as BASE jumping. No relationship with another person even comes remotely close.”
A deadly landing
Sako’s boyfriend, Dwaine Weston, was one of BASE jumping’s pioneers. “He did things nobody else thought was possible until he did them,” Corliss says.
In November, Corliss and Weston planned to impress a crowd of jumpers gathered at a bridge over the Royal Gorge in Colorado.
Inside a low-flying airplane, Corliss and Weston donned wingsuits -- webbed uniforms that glide through the air -- and jumped, floating toward the crowds watching from the metal span.
Weston approached low, intending to buzz just feet above the heads of the spectators. “He wanted to go for something a little more intense,” Corliss says.
Corliss flew a few feet below Weston as they approached the bridge. Then he suddenly veered, avoiding a falling obstacle. He would later learn it was Weston’s leg, severed when he hit the bridge’s railing, dying instantly, twisting the half-foot-thick railing as if it were fabric.
Bored by the prospect of another weekend of jumping, Sako had stayed in California that day to rock climb.
When she returned to Los Angeles, messages choked her voicemail. The first was from Weston, promising he was remembering to be safe. The rest were from friends in Colorado.
“It’s hard to explain the transition from where life is normal to the floor dropping out from beneath your world,” she says, her voice clear and unemotional. “We had both been there when friends had died, we had talked a lot about death. But nothing fully prepares you for when it happens to your partner.”
Sako waited two months before jumping again.
That seeming inability to resist a dangerous activity, some say, is evidence Sako and Corliss are addicted to risky behavior.
“As they jump off the bridge, their bodies start producing chemicals that are just like opiates,” says Jay Holder, president of the American College of Addictionology & Compulsive Disorders. “It is just like if someone stuck a needle in their arm with heroin. There is no difference in how they feel. It’s the same uncontrollable addiction.”
Holder, a chiropractor, generates lots of controversy on scientific websites. Most researchers, however, agree addiction is partially rooted in biology: Approximately 30% of humans have an allele on their 11th chromosome that appears to interfere with the levels of neurotransmitters -- particularly dopamine -- in the brain.
According to a theory known as reward deficiency syndrome, people like Corliss and Sako suffer from defective levels of neurotransmitters. They experience “adrenaline rushes” differently than most people. Rather than triggering a combination of excitement and terror, exposure to risk floods their brains with chemicals that make them feel more “normal.”
This theory holds that the brain’s reward system -- neurological pathways also associated with alcoholism, drug addiction and the flushness we feel after eating or sex -- spurs a neurotransmitter chain of events. This renders some people who rock climb, kayak over waterfalls or BASE jump chemically addicted to the feelings of calm and control that come with almost dying.
Some jumpers agree with the theory. Jim Jennings, 35, quit the activity and sold all his gear after nine of his friends, including Weston, died in a 14-month period. His girlfriend, who previously dated another jumper killed by a fall, gave him an ultimatum: If he jumps, she leaves.
“I understand why she says that, but this is something I need to do,” says Jennings. Then he adds that he is edging, inevitably, toward jumping again. “When you get down from a BASE jump, you’re shaking all over. You feel like you’ve achieved something so big. That you’ve accomplished something. It gives you a great sense of reward. Everything else in life feels so pointless by comparison.”
Others dismiss Holder’s theories as simplistic. Instead, they point to studies showing that risk pursuers -- dubbed sensation seekers by psychologists -- typically have lower levels in their brain of MAO, or monoamine oxidase, a molecule that regulates three neurotransmitters that help elicit euphoria when someone confronts a new situation.
As a result, Corliss and Sako may achieve greater euphoria than others when exposed to new stimuli, but that euphoria dissipates more quickly because low levels of MAO interfere with neurotransmitter reabsorption.
In other words, they are more easily excited by a new toy, and more quickly bored by it. Sako and Corliss, according to this theory, don’t jump because it is risky, they jump because it feels new -- at least for a while.
On the bridge in Idaho, the abstractions of psychology and genetics cannot compete with the winds whipping around Sako and Corliss as they hang over nothingness.
They both take deep, calm breaths, loosen their grips -- and drop, accelerating into a blur, tracked by schoolgirls enthralled into silence.
“Since his death I’ve wanted so badly to feel happy,” Sako explained earlier. “When I’m falling, it’s like I’ve managed to hold life in my hands and compress all the beauty and the pain into one split second. Nothing else matters. It’s like he’s still alive.”
The observers watch and silently count. The jumpers, finally, release small lead chutes from the bottoms of their backpacks. The tiny folds fill with air and pull out larger canopies. The fabrics erupt with a pop, flowers exploding into bloom. They float like delicate petals, triumphant and glaringly fragile.
Charles Duhigg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.