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‘Bird Dream’ profiles outer limits of extreme sports

“We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”

– President John F. Kennedy announcing in 1962 his goal for the U.S. to put a man on the moon in the 1960s.

When Matt Higgins of Amherst covered so-called extreme sports for the New York Times and Sports Illustrated for Kids, his beat involved activities like snowboarding, skateboarding, BMX and motocross. In 2007, he was introduced to something that gave new meaning to the word extreme.

Higgins that year discovered the fascinating world of BASE jumpers and wingsuit fliers – people who leap off mountains, skyscrapers, bridges or other high places and go soaring through the air. They land with the aid of parachutes and sometimes with wingsuits – a type of jumpsuit designed to allow the wearer to glide horizontally as well as vertically as he descends to earth. A wingsuit wearer resembles a flying squirrel.

As Higgins dug further into the subject, he heard about a man named Jeb Corliss who was gaining renown for his wingsuit flights. Higgins wrote a story about Corliss that the Times ran on the front page in December 2007.

It turned out that Higgins was only getting started. For the next several years, he immersed himself in the world of Corliss and other high fliers and the result is a book called “Bird Dream,” to be published in early August by Penguin Press.

The book centers on Corliss and a British stuntman named Gary Connery, and their race to become the first person to fly and safely land with no parachute, using nothing but a wingsuit. Connery calls their goal “the Holy Grail of flight.”

“Bird Dream” also lays out a lot of the history of BASE jumping, from its earliest practitioners to Corliss and his contemporaries. Higgins spent months following these birdmen – and sometimes women – which took him to China, South Africa, Switzerland and to several places in the United States.

“In China I was there to see Jeb Corliss’ flight through Tianmen Mountain, which was a huge event,” Higgins said in an interview this week. It was “broadcast all over Chinese national television and picked up by outlets all over the world.” Higgins was in South Africa to watch Corliss training. HBO’s “Real Sports” sent a crew there to film a segment on Corliss and, with the HBO cameras rolling, Corliss had a harrowing experience.

Corliss was doing a wingsuit jump off of Table Mountain and he clipped a chunk of the mountain on the way down, causing him to tumble through the air. (Video can be found on YouTube.)

“I was sure that he was dead,” Higgins recalled. “Incredibly, he survived.”

It was through some luck but also through years of training. He had performed acrobatics; he had trained as a high diver with the coach of the USC diving team.

“So Jeb had the experience and the aerial awareness. He was able to right himself, able to orient himself toward the ground, and he was able to pitch his parachute in the nick of time, and through sheer luck he was able to land on the only bit of vegetation in an otherwise rocky area.”

Higgins said it was a sobering experience and “a reminder that things don’t always go the way you think they’re going to go.”

There are athletes in every sport who display drive and determination, but few that risk their lives the way that BASE jumpers and wingsuit fliers do. (BASE is an acronym for building, antenna, span and earth – four types of stationary objects from which one can jump.)

In 1999, when he was new to wingsuits, Corliss did a jump off a peak in South Africa. A slight error in body positioning when deploying his parachute caused him to slam into a ledge behind a waterfall, then plunge down into the water. He was rescued, but the mishap cost him a fractured back, sacrum, tailbone, ribs, sternum and a knee. A doctor said to him, “I bet you’re never going to do that again.” An emotional Corliss replied, “Dude, there’s only two things that will prevent me from BASE jumping. Quadriplegia or death.”

That type of single-mindedness, as Higgins’ book shows, can be costly to the jumpers in their personal relationships. Connery, for example, works as a stuntman out of England. His job and his wingsuit flights would keep him away from his wife and children for months at a time.

Then there’s that whole risking-your-life thing.

“If you make a mistake, this sport is unforgiving,” Higgins said. “If you make a small mistake, you can die. But these guys, they’ve all reckoned with that.”

He added that Corliss, Connery and the others are “people who have a need to do this.” Once they experience the sensations of flight, they can’t get enough.

Higgins said he never felt in danger while doing his reporting for the book, though he did visit some perilous places. In China, where Corliss did his famous Tianmen Mountain jump, there was a platform built at the edge of a 1,000-foot cliff. It was the exit point for the jumpers.

“Scores of members of the Chinese media were on this platform at the same time,” along with Higgins, he said. “Its construction did not inspire great confidence. When the wingsuit pilots would jump off, everyone would rush forward, so all the weight was on one edge. It occurred to me that if it fell, we were all going to die.”

Higgins said he was never pushed by any of the jumpers to do anything dangerous himself.

“In fact, the guys I was dealing with take great care with safety,” he said. “And that’s why they are still alive.”

At one point, a BASE jumper was trying to establish a business in Utah where he would take novices on tandem jumps, in which the more experienced jumper would be able to manipulate the controls of the beginner, as skydivers often do.

“I talked to some of the guys I was embedded with and they said, “Absolutely, don’t do that. Do NOT do that. It’s dangerous.’ So I felt like, these guys were looking out for me,” Higgins said.

“It’s tempting to think that they’re crazy, but they’re very thorough in their preparation. They’re not just winging it.”

Higgins said there was a journalist who asked Corliss if he had a death wish.

“And Jeb said, ‘If I had a death wish, I would be dead. It would be really easy to die, doing what I do. The fact that I’m alive shows that I have a really strong will to survive.”

“Bird Dream” does not shy away from the subject of fatalities, including the death of Dwain Weston, a BASE jumping legend and friend of Corliss who died after slamming into a bridge in Colorado during a jumping event that Corliss was part of. Weston’s last words to Corliss before they both exited the airplane for their jumps was, “Just remember, whatever happens, happens.”

The man who wanted to do the tandem jumps off a cliff in Utah has since died in an accident, as did a veteran cameraman who has worked with Corliss for many years.

“Usually when someone dies, it’s attributed to human error,” Higgins said. “It’s very rarely an equipment malfunction. They’ve miscalculated, they’ve misjudged, they’ve done something that they shouldn’t have done. These guys don’t respect people who make mistakes; they respect people who are good.

“And it’s incredible to think of, but some of them never even get hurt. They don’t even so much as twist their ankle, they are so precise. That really owes a lot to their preparation and mindset. They know their capabilities, and they’ve thought about the parameters of ‘How can we do this safely?’ And they don’t push outside of that zone.”