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On Friday, May 18th, just after sunrise, I stood at the edge of a 150 foot tall natural rock arch in the Moab desert looking over the side, ready to jump. There were an infinite number of reasons why this was a bad idea.
Just how did I get here?
In February, a viral video of the insane jump off Corona Arch was making the rounds. It had accumulated more than 10 million views. So that same month, when Francisco Dao, organizer of the 50 Kings conference asked me if I would do the jump. I didn’t hesitate at all. It looked exciting and fun.
Fast forward to last Friday, I hesitated the morning of the jump trying to pick out what I would wear. I unknowingly brought a FAIL Blog t-shirt. If I wore it, would I be tempting fate? Would it be funny? Would it scare everyone else doing the jump? What if I really did die wearing our own branded shirt?
Friday morning at 5:45 am, the guide showed up to pick up 12 brave souls at our lodge in Moab, Utah. Out of 27 conference attendees, 12 signed up. But there were only 11 waiting in the dark before sunrise. Just one person, Paul Carr of PandoDaily, was missing. He had talked himself out of it after listening to the guide at the rappelling excursion the previous day with Sarah Lacy, his boss.
“Our guide said it was crazy,” Sarah told me, looking directly into my eyes like a negotiator trying to convince a jumper off the Golden Gate bridge. “You can’t use the rope more then four times because of the force. Do you know how few people have done this? You guys are nuts.
"He said people have died doing this.”
It turned out Sarah was correct. The person who invented the jump had died doing it – albeit at a different arch. Sure, but people also die from vending machines that fall on them.
“Sarah, it’ll be totally fine,” I said. “No one is going to die.”
THE CORONA ELEVEN
The eleven maybe-jumpers started the mile-long hike to the arch with helmets, water and gear in tow. We arrived at Corona Arch just before the sun cleared the tops of the nearby cliffs.
The arch was beautiful. Standing atop a 300 foot cliff, it’s huge mass dominated the stark, dusty landscape like some colossus warning mortals not to go beyond its tall gates. Its southern arm towered out of the ground like a solar flare. It’s powerful trunk arced northward over the sky and touched the top of another cliff. From under the arch, its cracks looked like bolts of lightening. From the top of the arch, it was a total of 450 feet to the canyon floor.
The plan was that I would jump from the north west side of the arch. I would free fall down the side of it for a bit, letting gravity speed me mercilessly towards terminal velocity. Then the green and purple climbing ropes anchored to 5 bolts atop the arch, would kick in, accelerating me even faster laterally through the arch in excess of 60 mph. At this point the 120 foot rope that was anchored to my waist would stretch an additional 10 feet, with my hiking shoes skimming 17 feet off the solid rock floor.
Once I swung through to the other side, the momentum would extend me over the canyon, all 450 feet of it, achieving zero gravity for a moment. There, I should be almost parallel to the original jump spot. I would then swing back and forth like a pendulum for several minutes before being lowered to the ground.
Our guides asked us if any of us were “top heavy”. None of us knew the answer. They said we needed to wear a different type of harness for those people who were likely to go upside-down.
“Matt, how many times have you done this?” Someone in our group asked our guide.
“A few.” Came back the reply, with a smile.
“Can you clarify exactly how many jumps you mean by ‘a few’?” Someone shot back.
“A few.” Matt answered again.
The smile was a little bit more serious this time. (We later found out that he had likely jumped twice.)
Then my friend Gerry Campbell pointed at the rope hanging off the arch.
“Matt, isn’t that rock edge rubbing against the rope?” He asked.
The redundant ropes were bolted to the top of the arch and threaded through a garden hose where the ropes rubbed against the rock at the top to delay the affects of abrasion. But under the arch, where the rock angles back 90 degrees against the ropes, there was no hose. As the ropes swung back under the arch, the edge would rub against the ropes. It was an astute observation by Gerry.
Matt assured us that it was fine. The abrasion wasn’t significant.
There was a long, uncomfortable silence. I figure I would break the tension.
“Hey everyone,” I addressed the group as I pulled out the camera. “it’s time for your last will and testaments.”
Gallows humor at its finest. Then someone noticed my FAIL Blog shirt.
“Did you wear that on purpose?”
ALL YOU CAN JUMP
Francisco had “rented” the arch until 2 pm. He had to get multiple permits from the government agencies who had jurisdiction over the arch. “You can jump as many times as you want,” Francisco told us at the lodge.
Standing under that giant arch, we questioned if there would be any jumps at all.
“Who wants to go first?” Matt asked.
I’m not sure if the question had caught the group off-guard, but there was silence yet again.
If I was going at all, I wanted to be first. Was it for glory? Yup. Was it for vanity, bravado, bravery? Yup, yup, and yup. I felt very little fear at the base. I was confident that once I was up there, no matter what fear and emotion I felt, it would not be difficult to overcome it. It wouldn’t be easy, but it wouldn’t be hard.
“I’ll go first,” I said without a flicker of hesitation in my voice. Confident and certain to the outside, my brain started to scream as soon as those words left my lips. My brain screamed ‘FUCK’ as loud as it possibly could.
The group split into two. I would jump first, followed by Char Genevier, Aziz Gilani, then three more brave souls. Five people remained on the base of the arch to film.
The journey to the top of the arch was surprisingly steep. Going past under the arch, the trail came to an abrupt stop. To my front was a cliff to a rocky bottom, to my right, another cliff face led to an abandoned railroad track. To my left, was a steep, smooth rock face with climbing ropes attached. To my back, certain safety.
We climbed for about 15 minutes. Learning to use our carabiners and finding footholds worn out by repellers. As we went higher, the winds got stronger.
After the hard climb, I figured it would be easier to jump off the arch to return to the base rather than climb back down.
I kept on rubbing my eyes, trying to get sand out of them. The gusts of wind would mount an assault, only to retreat to perfect calm seconds later. Seated at the peak of the arch, I took in the view and just how far you could see from up there.
The guides fretted about the strong wind.
“If the wind is too strong, you can’t jump because it will push you into the wall of the arch,” Matt said as he walked calmly across the top of the arch, often disconnected from the safety line. I sat there with Char and Aziz, not wanting to get anywhere near the edge while watching the guides with eagle eyes.
I didn’t know what I was looking for and I had no idea what was being done. But it made be feel better knowing that the guides were working hard and being diligent.
The bravery and bravado I felt down at the base was swept away in an instant. The jump became hyper real all of a sudden. I started having second thoughts.
THIS HAS TO BE ILLEGAL
“You ready?” Matt asked.
‘FUCK NO’ said every cell in my body as I stood at the jump spot. I was no longer connected to the safety line. I was now only tethered to the arch by the green and purple ropes.
Then a sheriff appeared way down on the base. Would this be my reprieve? Maybe he would shut us down. I would step away from the precipice with my ego and life intact. I would have gone closer than anyone else only to have the heavy hand of the law squash our adventure and my bravery.
“What’s the sheriff doing here?” Asked Matt to another guide. “Whatever it is, we’re fine. We have all the permits,” he shrugged.
The sheriff pulled out his camera. Like the small gathering of tourists who came to see the arch and found something more interesting, he became another spectator.
I still had the green light.
MY LIZARD BRAIN
The amygdala is the part of the human brain that controls emotion – such as fear. Normally, the voices that come from the amygdala are like the hum of a car engine: present, expected, but rarely overpowering.
But at the ledge of the arch, staring at the people down below who were no larger than a couple of real-life pixels, the amygdala cranks up its volume to 11. Like a roar of a jet engine, it is hard to do anything but listen to the instinct of self preservation.
At the ledge, I could feel everything. It felt as if the ropes were pulling me overboard, like a Biblical snake wrapping its tail around Eve to commit the Original Sin. If I wasn’t going to voluntarily jump, it would just pull me into its grasp, tumbling me down the rocks.
It took every available brain cell to not walk back. I had never felt fear like this before. You see, I didn’t have to do this. No one would think less of me if I backed out. The logical brain agreed with the emotional brain. There was absolutely no reason why this had to be done.
I decided to take a deep breath and was surprised to find sand in my mouth. The momentary distraction of grit brought a small glimmer of perspective:
First, I had to tell my emotional brain that it was perfectly safe to stand there.
Second, as my legs turned to jello, I realized I didn’t know why I was up here. I didn’t know why I was doing this. I had no actual reasons that brought me here. I was just here because the option to jump existed. Jumping was not about proving anything to anyone. It was not about checking a box off a bucket list.
It was about doing the jump. It was about overcoming fear.
Third, clear my mind and quiet the…
I was interrupted by a countdown. The small group of my friends at the top of the arch started counting down from three and I wasn’t ready to go. I came all the way up here to realize this was about being fearful. I wasn’t going to let anyone else dictate the terms of my victory.
“I don’t want to count,” I said. “Let me just think.”
I had never felt indescribable fear like this before, and I knew I had to drown it out. I focused on the action I had to take. The form. The process. The act. It wasn’t even a battle between the logical brain versus the emotional brain. I side stepped the fever pitch battle in my brain and went to another place. It was quiet there.
‘Fuck you, fear. I got this. This is for me, myself, and I, and every time you scared me for no good fucking reason.’
Then I stepped off the edge.
The fear instantly vanished, but something felt wrong. I didn’t take one clean step. I took three little ones.
At that moment, I knew three things:
- Adrenaline is one helluva drug.
- The rocks to my left were formed by sand over millions of years.
- I was too close to those rocks.
Adrenaline has the miraculous power to increase the number of things you can observe in a split second. And I observed a lot.
The sandstone, hardened into massive rocks by pressures greater than I could imagine, was so close that I could touch it if I extended my left arm. But that would be a very bad idea, I told myself. After all, I was free falling and I was actually trying to avoid slamming into them. Shit. This was not what I was expecting.
On top of it, I was free falling for a lot longer than expected. Fuck.
To make it worse, I saw my right hand approaching the ropes. I told it to stop. The stupid hand was ignoring my command. Instinct was overriding logic. ‘Shit, I’m going to get hurt’ I thought to myself. ‘Stupid hand. It’s your damn fault.’
But before I could try to wrestle back control of my hand, I felt an excruciating pain in my back and my vision was filled with a bright, circular light. The pain was so powerful that I became disoriented. For a split second, I wondered where I was. My head felt heavy, as if was going to pull away from my body.
But as quickly as I felt the sensation of heaviness, it went away. I saw my feet, and I realized that the sun was under me. I was upside-down.
Apparently, I was top heavy.
I had enough of my act together by the end of the first swing that I was able to form a cross just as zero gravity hit. As I swung back up, I figure out what I could say within earshot of everyone who was waiting on the top of the arch to jump.
“That hurt a little.”
I grinned, knowing they could hear me. I wish I could see their face.
My helmet cam captures the chaos
(Skip to 4:30 to get to the jump)
I was lowered down and greeted by the second group. They were happy to see me, but there was a new emotion in their eyes: terror. After witnessing the jumps firsthand, everyone but Gerry in the second group backed out. Apparently seeing me free fall 50 feet and get yanked across the sky upside down didn’t exactly inspire confidence.
I could also hear the guide at the bottom of the arch yelling up to Matt: “He was upside down!” She said, sounding concerned. (Eventually, that same guide would make it to the ledge of the arch but back out.)
I then learned that I was the first ever “commercial jumper” – in other words I was the first person to turn this into a paid excursion. I felt a tinge of pride and then wondered if I was stupid, lucky, or brave. But at least I did it. And I certainly never had to do it again.
A group of amazed tourists who saw the jump noticed my FAIL Blog shirt and asked if I worked for the site. We shared a good laugh about tempting fate.
Char would jump. Then Aziz. The three of us were beta testers and were given three very different instructions. And all of us would get snapped pretty badly by the rope due to the long distance of our free fall.
I was done. It was over.
But there was this growing voice in my head. Even though I was in pain, I wanted a clean jump – not an upside down janky mess of a free fall. Besides, the second time should be a piece of cake.
(Skip to 3:20 to see Aziz free fall like a rag doll)
TEARS FOR FEARS
After a couple of hours and letting everyone else jump (or back out) I practically ran up to the top of the arch. I waited at the top and watched Alex Karelin jump. I was next.
Then I noticed something during Alex’s jump. The rope looked different. Right where the unprotected rope met the bottom side of the arch, it was white instead of green or purple. I told the guides what I saw.
They checked the rope and found that the rocks had torn and frayed the outermost protective barrier. It took another 30 minutes to replace the rope.
As I waited, I realized that I was about to jump on a untested rope. Was the length right? Did they reconnect it correctly? Was it snagged anywhere? Questions raced through my head.
At the first jump, as my emotional brain raged, the logical side helped turn the tide. This time around, as the questions mounted, now both sides were in full revolt.
When I was finally hooked to the new lines, it was clear that the rope were too short. I was fighting against being pulled off the ledge. It took another round of corrections, and another round of soothing the voices to make it to the ledge.
The beta wasn’t over yet. Fuck. It was no less scary this time around. I was wrong again. Experience provides confidence, but it won’t wipe away the fear. That’s a skill you have to earn.
Fighting all the alarm bells, I took one solid step with my right foot and pushed off the arch in one clean motion.
This one felt perfect.
Thank you to my fellow adventurers at the arch:
And birthday boy, Roger Lee
And thank you Francisco Dao for being the ringleader.
The video that inspired it all: