EXTREME (ADJ.) 1: GREAT OR INTENSE 2: NOT REASONABLE 3: FARTHEST OUT 4: SEVERE 5: SENSATION SEEKING.
For example: Kurt and Paige hold hands and jump off the Royal Gorge Bridge. This is great, intense, not reasonable, farthest out, severe and (definitely) sensation seeking. They plunge through the sky together like hawks in love. Mile-High Club, bullshit. Try hurtling together through the sky at triple digits. Jump out of the plane, launch together through the open air, there’s a reason they call it falling in love. Human beings have only two innate fears. Snakes and falling. Both come from our days in the trees.
Kurt and Paige.
Free-falling in love.
The Arkansas River is just under a thousand feet straight down (although Kurt would observe there is no such thing as crooked down) and you’d better fall straight because the gorge is narrow and if you miscalculate by even a little bit you’re going to smash into its rock walls at 80 miles an hour.
(Limestone is considered a “soft” rock, but at 80 miles per hour there is no such thing as a soft rock.)
Two seconds after Kurt and Paige jump, they throw their arms and legs out into a double X shape to open the fabric of their wingsuits.
A wingsuit—a.k.a. a birdman suit, a bat suit and a flying-squirrel suit—is just what it sounds like. Basically a bag that makes a human being resemble a flying squirrel. Its fabric stretches out from under the arms and between the legs to increase surface area, which allows said human to glide through the air.
In technical terms, the suit increases the amount of lift as related to the amount of drag, creating a glide ratio of 2.5:1. Which is to say that the flier moves forward two and a half feet for every foot he or she drops. A free-falling parachutist descends through the air at speeds between 90 and 140 mph. Proper technique with a wingsuit slows you down to somewhere between 70 and 90 mph.
Now Paige and Kurt push their shoulders forward to gain velocity and straighten their legs to reduce drag. They tuck their chins into their necks for the same reason—reducing drag increases speed.
Words to live by.
BASE jumping off a bridge through a narrow gorge is dangerous, duh.
Tandem BASE jumping off a bridge through a narrow gorge is DD2 (dangerous duh, squared) because one partner can knock into the other, which at that speed and relatively low altitude could send both of them into an unrecoverable spin and smash them against the rocks.
Turning your wingsuit into a bag of (broken) bones.
It’s STCKY. Pronounced sticky. Stuff That Can Kill You.
But that’s the point.
That’s what hypes the adrenaline.
That’s why they do it.
Their adrenaline screeches. The limestone walls flash past them, the river lunges up. One mistake—
The wrong tilt of an arm.
The wrong angle of a spine.
An errant gust of wind—
Can kill them.
Paige and Kurt are not interested in dying.
They’re interested in living.
At the highest possible level.
So at the count of 10 they let go of each other’s hands and pull the ripcords. (Now there’s a metaphor for a successful relationship.) They want a little distance from each other when the parachutes deploy, lest they get tangled up and fall to their deaths in a twisted knot. (Now there’s a metaphor for a successful relationship.)
There are sounds to like and sounds to love.
Sounds to like—
The cry of a red-tailed hawk.
The wail of a Sonny Stitt sax riff.
The crackle of a fire on a cold night.
Sound to love—
The pop of a parachute opening.
Better, in this case, the sound of two parachutes opening. (The sound of one parachute opening would be very depressing for both parties involved. But let’s be stone honest—much more depressing for the party in closer proximity to the nonsound.)
They aren’t big parachutes. They don’t have to be; they just have to be big enough to slow them down before they hit the water, because water at 80 per isn’t that much different from rock (as any suicidal bridge jumper knows or should know). The chutes jerk Kurt and Paige up and then float them down to the river where Latchkey and Lev—fresh from their own jumps—wait in a Zodiac to haul them out.
Kurt—bigger, heavier—hits first. Reaches up and detaches the chute before it can smother him under the water. Then he comes up and sees Paige in the water just upstream, clear of her parachute and swimming.
“Fun!” she yells.
He smiles and nods and they swim toward the boat.
Yeah, fun. A thousand-foot tandem free fall through a narrow canyon into a river.
It was just a warm-up. The real adrenaline rush goes off tomorrow.
Adrenaline (n.): a hormone secreted by the adrenal gland in response to stress.
The problem with adrenaline is the same as with any drug. Tolerance.
That is, it takes more and more of it to get you off.
Until you die from it.
“But,” Kurt says, “you die high.”
Kurt, Paige, Latchkey and Lev sit at the bar at the Quality Inn & Suites in Cañon City, Colorado, the nearest town to the Royal Gorge Bridge. The jump is two hours behind them and they’re knocking back a few celebratory beers to sand the adrenaline edge a little bit.
Latchkey got his name because, come on, he was a latchkey kid who used the PAT (parental absence time) to jump off the garage roof, the house roof and the neighbors’ roofs when he was not performing physics-defying stunts on his skateboard that put him on a first-name basis with most of the staff at the Glenwood Springs emergency room. (“Mrs. Latchkey? We have your son here.…”)
Latchkey—there is a remote memory that his given name is Kevin—has broad shoulders, shaggy brown hair and a beard. He comes off as sort of a clown, but don’t let it fool you. Bozo don’t BASE jump off the Royal Gorge Bridge (and a cat as cool as Kurt isn’t going to trust a clown to fish him out of the water).
Latchkey can flat-out fly.
He’s a birdman.
In fact, Latchkey has often expressed his belief that he actually is a bird—a Fijian peregrine falcon to be precise. He says it’s a reincarnation thing, but Paige thinks it’s more of a peyote thing. She came across him sitting outside the motel the morning of the Western States Ultramarathon, dutifully scraping the strychnine out of the peyote buds, but she sort of doubts he got it all.
Now beer foam bubbles on his mustache as he crushes another pint and listens to Kurt hold forth on the subject of adrenaline.
Adrenaline, Kurt explains, is a chemical released by cortisol that gives you the physical and mental energy to do what you have to do.
“Neanderthal days,” Kurt says. “Bonk and Gronk—”
“Bonk and Gronk?’” Paige asks, laughing.
“Bonk and Gronk,” Kurt insists, “go out after the mastodon. Mastodon gets wind of them and charges. Bang—the body releases adrenaline that gives Bonk and Gronk the wherewithal to run. Fast. It’s Darwinian.”
“I don’t think,” Paige says, “adrenaline was designed to give you the biochemical wherewithal to jump off bridges. That’s counter-Darwinian.”
Every chemical in your brain and body screams at you not to jump off a bridge, a cliff or the top of a building, or an antenna at the top of a building—all of which these four people have done. Darwin would indicate that people who do such things have less chance of reproducing and would therefore be selected out of the population.
A professor of biophysics, Paige knows about these things.
“It’s an abuse of adrenaline,” Lev adds.
Lev means lion and Paige says it’s an aptonym, because there is something leonine about Lev. Not that the young Russian has a mane—in fact his head is shaved—but he has the lean, killer look of a cougar, a.k.a. (mountain) lion. It’s the eyes. Slate gray.
You don’t want to mess with Lev. Don’t want to jam him on the trail, cross him on a ski run, take his line on a cliff face or a big wave.
He’ll give you that headstone look.
Then run you down.
Lev is a world-class speed climber. A free-soloist without belays or protection, and not on artificial walls in tony suburban gyms where the thwack of you falling onto a thick mat makes someone spray his cappuccino foam. No, on mountains, real mountains, where the thwack of you falling makes someone puke his guts out—and he holds the current solo record on Half Dome.
He and Latchkey jumped the bridge together—albeit not holding hands—swam to the Zodiac and then crewed for Kurt and Paige.
If you’re looking down a thousand-foot drop, those are two people you want to see waiting for you. You really do, because they are ultracompetent, maximum frosty, and they are never going to give up until they pull you out of whatever shit you got yourself into.
Kurt got sideways at Mavericks one time. First wave of a set, so he’s in the impact zone with three more waves scheduled like German trains to come down on his head—and Lev and Latchkey roar in on the Z between waves. The next wave could crush them—flip the Z over and roll it like a toy. But they come in anyway—Lev driving and Latch behind him—and Latch reaches down and grabs Kurt on the first try (there isn’t going to be a second try), pulls him onto the sled and they bust out of there with the next wave looming over them like a pissed-off giant cheated of its fee-fi-fo-fum.
The sound that Kurt remembers from that wasn’t the wave going off like a hissing fuse, but Latchkey giggling like a 12-year-old girl.
What he also remembers is that Latchkey and Lev didn’t hesitate.
Neither would he.
Now Kurt lifts his Dos Equis and says, “Here’s to adrenaline abusers.”
“Adrenaline addicts,” Paige corrects.
As usual, she’s right.
Forget about nicotine, caffeine, alcohol, cocaine and heroin. You get hooked on adrenaline, game over. You will chase that dime until you just can’t run anymore.
“A drug you can’t buy,” Lev says, “but can only earn.”
They clink their bottles in a toast to that.
“Everyone,” Kurt sums up, “has the biochemistry to survive. Few have the biochemistry to live.”