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JIANGSHAN, China -- Jeb Corliss' weekend flight through a mountain fissure was a spectacular stunt, "the single gnarliest thing I've ever done in my life," as he put it. But it almost never happened.
Saturday afternoon's stunt, dubbed the "flying dagger," came at the end of a nerve-wracking few days, during which bad weather restricted his practice runs and almost forced him to scrap what he described as the scariest and most challenging stunt he'd ever attempted.
The fissure, a narrow crack between soaring rocks in the Jianglang mountains in China's Zhejiang Province, is only 60 feet wide at the top, and 15 feet at the bottom. Flying through it would require enormous technical precision to avoid striking the walls and plunging to almost certain death.
Before coming to China he's trained in Hungary using augmented reality - jumping from a plane wearing smart glasses that rendered the canyon three dimensionally in front of him. "It was interesting training," he told Outside magazine. "I would say I impacted about fifty per cent of the time."
On Saturday morning, Jianglang's giant peaks were again shrouded in cloud and whipped by high winds. "We're not going to be able to jump in this," was Corliss's gloomy assessment from a path below. "No way." Though, ever the optimist, he added: "It's early. It could still clear."
It didn't, and he scrapped two training runs he'd planned for the morning, as scouts on the mountain side radioed back regular updates on wind speeds far in access of what he thought safe. During the previous three days he's only been able to do three of ten planned practice jumps over (not through) the fissure in preparation for the "flying dagger."
Meanwhile, thousands of villagers were gathering in the fields below to witness the stunt. Chinese television had cameras scattered around the valley and was set to beam the jump live to an audience in the hundreds of millions. Local officials laid on a variety show and reception for Corliss and his team of support wingsuit pilots.
Corliss gave a gracious speech, ending with a more downbeat warning: "I just hope the weather clears, so we can do this." Officials were seated in a row of chairs facing the mountain with tables in front of them, each with a powerful pair of binoculars. But the binoculars stayed in their cases. Clouds now completely covered the mountain.
As the morning turned to afternoon, Corliss paced around the field in front of his helicopter, radio in hand, demanding regular updates from his scouts on the mountain.
By mid-afternoon the cloud began to clear - but only because the winds had blown them away. By 4 p.m., a frustrated Corliss was ready to call it off. Then the radio crackled back to life. The wind speeds had fallen dramatically. It was no longer gusting. Corliss waited to see if this was for real. Within minutes he'd made the decision. "We're going," he said, rushing to his tent and his wingsuit.
He was gambling that this was a pre-dusk calming of the winds, but he was also aware that they could return at any time. Winds faster than six miles an hour could be fatal, as could turbulence in the fissure, which would funnel those winds into the valley.
Corliss later admitted that as the chopper circled for a first look he was very, very scared. But an intense calm came over him as it came around for a second time and lined up for the jump. His exit was perfect, as was his trajectory, as he hurtled at 100 mph through the fissure, a gasp echoing around the valley as he emerged on the other side, pulling his parachute.
When we caught up with him a little later, he was still living that incredibly powerful and intense moment, even by his dizzying standards. "I have never experienced anything so hardcore. Period. I have not been that scared in my life. It was so powerful and overwhelming. I started crying," he said, as the clouds returned to the mountain, the wind picked up and the window of opportunity that Corliss has so audaciously grabbed was slammed shut again.