Novelist Don Winslow, author of Savages and The Kings of Cool, has written a three-part serial entitled Extreme exclusively for Playboy. Winslow's newest work of fiction debuts in the magazine's May 2014 issue and will continue to run through its July/August 2014 edition. Read the first installment below.
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."
Dig the scene at the bar. Extreme athletes, photographers, video artists, support people (pilots, gear riggers, EMTs), groupies and sponsors quaff designer beers and check out the clips from the day's activities on iPads. They talk about who made it onto YouTube, how many views, who's trending, who got that great shot, that clip that's going to go viral, make a household name, grace the cover of a mag.
Adrenaline porn, Paige calls it.
The room is filled with literally beautiful people. Young, healthy and decked out in North Face, Patagonia and Nike, these are people who run, who bike, who ski, who climb, who jump, who fly. Negative body-fat percentages, serene resting heart rates, natural tans. Chemicals so thick you could scoop them out of the air with a spoon—adrenal, cortisol, testosterone.
A lot of testosterone, hence the groupies.
These aren't rock (and roll) groupies—or baseball, basketball, football semipros—these are mostly beautiful, accomplished, intelligent women who are usually athletes in their own right. They just like to go to bed with guys who jump off bridges.
Danger is an aphrodisiac.
Kurt could hook up 58 times a night if he wanted to.
He's drop-dead (okay—unfortunate) good-looking. Broad shoulders, V-shaped frame, legs designed to run down those mastodons. Killer handsome face. Deep brown eyes, thick brown hair cut short now.
And he's an extreme sports superstar—a runner, skier, surfer, climber and flier whose rugged face is all over the net and the mags.
The A-Male, the current king.
But he's already hooked up.
Talk about beautiful, accomplished, intelligent women.
Tall, short sandy hair (but don't call it a "Paige Cut," like one of the mags did; just don't do it), all legs, abs and taut muscle. A face that would be described as more handsome than pretty. Mensa-level IQ, youngest full prof ever at Colorado State, owns the women's records at Leadville and Western States. Speed-climbed the Nose at El Cap and then BASE jumped down.
An extreme sports celebrity, Paige could hook up too, with any of the guys and more than a few of the women, if her gate swung both ways, which it doesn't. In any case, she doesn't want to.
She has Kurt.
Latchkey and Lev, different story. Even now they've started to check out the potential candidates. More Darwin.
The fit mate with the fit.
Although it's an open secret that Latchkey has, and has had, an unrequited crush on Paige that would pancake an elephant.
Paige is a little discomfited by it but otherwise doesn't mind, although she does wish Latchkey would "find somebody," and for more than one night.
Kurt doesn't mind either. He's an emotional libertarian.
He's an Emotional Libertarian.
He doesn't believe anyone has the right to tell anyone else whom, or what, he or she should love.
Gatherings like this happen all over the world. In North Shore, Oahu when the big waves go off, in Chamonix for the Mont Blanc Ultramarathon, here in Cañon City for the Speed Thrills Games at Royal Gorge.
Anywhere anyone is shredding the freaking envelope.
A photographer comes up to Kurt and Paige at the bar.
"Show you guys something?"
They know him. Brian Bentner, a freelancer who shoots for Outside, Men's Journal, SI. He holds up his Nikon and shows them the digital screen. Taken from the bridge, it shows Kurt and Paige, hand-in-hand, spread out in full flight, the gorge and the river beneath them.
"Beautiful," Paige says.
"It'll be on Outside's website in the morning," Brian says. "But I just tweeted it."
Brian has 100,000 followers.
"You going to shoot tomorrow?" Kurt asks.
"I'm thinking," Brian answers, "of harnessing off the bridge and getting a shot as you come past. Would I be in the way?"
"Hopefully not," Paige says.
Brian laughs. "Domani."
He walks away.
"Nice of him to ask," Paige says.
"Brian's cool," Kurt says. "We should go talk with Jay."
They get off their stools and walk over to a booth where Jay Michaels sits tapping into his laptop. Sandy Burrows sits across the table. Sandy's with a hot young ad firm out of Palo Alto.
Jay is his client.
His outdoor clothing line sponsors Kurt for Speed Thrills and other events. Jay is 41, looks 33 and is a multimillionaire. He moves over so Kurt and Paige can sit down and points to the screen. "Sandy was showing me your footage from today."
Kurt and Paige wore GoPro cameras on their helmets to record the flight from their POVs.
"Good?" Kurt asks.
They'll put it up with an ad banner for Jay's company and it will get half a million hits.
"What are your thoughts about tomorrow?" Sandy asks.
"I'm thinking we go," Kurt says.
Jay shakes his head.
"What?" Paige asks.
"The forecast calls for gusting winds out of the west." He punches up a weather site. Kurt and Paige lean over and look. "I think we should shut it down."
Because it's already crazy.
To wingsuit out of a plane at 12,000 feet, hit a speed of a buck 20, "slow" to 90 and then fly under the bridge. Close under the bridge. Like, at arm's length, close enough to reach up and grab little plastic red banners attached to the bottom beam on your way through.
The slightest miscalculation, the tiniest mis-execution and you smash into a steel girder at 90 per. Not strapped in a car. Or in a plane. Just you in a plastic suit. Will make a great video if it works. (And a better one if it doesn't, is the ugly truth.)
Now you throw gusting winds into the equation and you have something that's truly out of your control. If a gust occurs at, say, 10,000 feet, okay, maybe you have time to deal with it, but if it hits when you're near the bridge?
"We already announced it," Kurt says.
"Who cares?" Jay says.
"Don't think about letting me down," Jay says. "I'm not that guy. I'm not that ghoul."
Kurt chuckles and looks at Sandy.
"I want great video," he says. "I don't want snuff video."
"Let's see what tomorrow brings," Kurt says.
It's the West—weather changes on a whim. Truth is that they'll probably make the decision in the plane.
No sense worrying about it now.
Life is short.
Q: How many people who previously attempted to fly under the bridge were killed?
A: Both of them.
Kurt and Paige, up in their room.
"Tomorrow," Kurt says.
"I don't think we should do it."
Kurt, the Über-Man, she thinks. Nietzsche would have gone gay for him. Shit, Nietzsche would have blown him. Her friends warned her: Paige, he has testosterone dripping out his eyes.
"I wonder," she says now, ignoring the topic, "if there's such a thing as a rehab center for adrenaline addiction."
"You go there for a month and do dull things?" Kurt asks.
She riffs with him. "If you want to BASE jump, you call a friend and she talks you out of it."
"The meetings must be boring," he says. "And how do you know when you're 'recovered'?"
"I don't know. I guess you just live."
Just live, Kurt thinks.
The phrase itself is instructive.
Kurt comes from a family of ski bums who cobbled together a living working Colorado's slopes, lodges, bars. He moved seven times before he was 16, went to three different high schools—in Vail, Telluride, Steamboat. He didn't mind; in fact, he liked it. New mountains, new slopes, new snow, and he made friends easily. Skied in the winter, climbed in the summer. Hiked, biked, chased (and caught) girls, drank beer, smoked a little weed. Easygoing, genially messy loving home—two parents, three sisters—so he was used to feminine attention.
Three semesters at Northern Colorado, then he decided it wasn't for him. Dropped out, trained his ass off and caught on with the Aspen Mountain Ski Patrol, the elite of the elite alpine rescue squads. Made some dramatic, risky saves, saw some pretty grisly shit. (You pick up the pieces of someone who's fallen 200 feet down a cliff face, it's grisly shit.)
Training, he discovered that running was more a joy than a chore. Made the progression from marathons to ultras. One of the latter took him out to California and he stayed to explore surfing. Hopped over to Kauai and North Shore to do the big waves.
Here's the thing—he was just skin-popping adrenaline; now he's mainlining it. Marathons—cool, but why not run more than a hundred miles across a mountain range with no rest? Downhill skiing—cool, but maybe instead heli-jump onto a recent avalanche and ski down that? Rock climbing? Absolutely, but let's do it without ropes or protection and see how many slopes we can summit in a given period of time.
Surfing—nice, but how about we go out to a freezing, shark-ridden mid-ocean reef into a north swell and try to survive a 70-foot bomber? Parachuting? Try BASE jumping. BASE jumping? Go for wingsuiting. Wingsuiting—let's do it out of a plane instead.
He does it all—the world's greatest poly-extreme athlete.
Because the high lasts for a while, but it doesn't last. He B.B. Kings.
The thrill is gone.
He needs more and more adrenaline.
Now it has to be Xtreme.
Has to do something no one's done.
Feel something no one has felt.
Without that, life is just life.
Paige took an alternate route to the same location on the psycho-physiological map. She grew up in Boulder, the daughter and only child of two respected academics. They had expectations.
A 4.0 GPA wasn't good enough when there was extra credit to be had. She needed 4.2s and 4.5s. Honors classes and Advanced Placement in every subject. (Shit, she thought, I'm going to be halfway through my B.S. before I get out of high school.) If she got a B on a test, tutors were brought in to "get her grades up." (Shit, I might as well be Chinese.)
She needed a sport for her résumé, so she joined the cross-country team.
Time on her own with no one yapping at her, and she loved the simple left-right left-right that seemed to get her brain back in the center. Of course, she was Paige, Perfect Paige, so she had to be great at it. She had expectations. She had to be state champ, state record holder, and with her reindeer legs she was built for it.
But still, it was a relief.
Her against distance.
Her against time.
Her against herself.
She loved it.
Then she discovered rock climbing.
Her parents were appalled.
"What if you fall?"
"I won't fall."
"But what if you do?"
Then I'll be in a peaceful coma and maybe you'll stop nagging me, she thought but didn't say. Other girls were sneaking out to get high or sleep with boyfriends; Paige was lamming it on dirty weekends in Moab.
Climbing was good, free climbing better.
(Look, Ma, no ropes.)
It was her against height.
Her against fear.
Her against gravity.
(If you can escape gravity, you can escape anything, even your parents. It's the ultimate rebellion.)
Spurning Yale, Smith and Georgetown, she stayed home for undergrad so she could be close to the running trails and the mountains. Did varsity cross-country, but her heart was with the crazies running for three-day stretches across ranges or racing up faces and jumping off them.
Did a semester abroad in Switzerland. Where they keep a good portion of the Alps.
Did her M.S. at the runner's paradise of Corvallis, her Ph.D. at Berkeley, close enough to the Sierras to get in a run and a climb.
The job market was basically a smorgasbord for her, but she selected the relatively modest Colorado State to be close to her beloved mountains and her passion.
Ultramarathons and free climbing.
Now she's hooked.
Just another thrill whore on the cover of Trail Runner.
Stanford is trying to steal her. But she doesn't know if she wants to go to Palo Alto.
It would have to be Palo Soprano.
Palo Tenor, Palo Alto, Palo Soprano. High, higher, highest.
"When do we hit the max?" she asks Kurt now. "How will we know?"
"We won't," he says.
We'll be dead.
They'd met at the starting line of the Leadville Trail 100, in the freezing predawn. He asked her where she thought she'd finish.
"In the women's?"
"First," she repeated.
First is first, there are no qualifications.
The LT100, also known as the Race Across the Sky, forces racers to ascend (and descend) 15,600 feet at elevations that range from 9,200 to 12,620. Fewer than half of the starters finish in the maximum-allowed 30 hours.
Ever see a football team gas out in the fourth quarter playing Denver? That's at 5,280 feet. For one hour. With halftimes and huddles and TV time-outs. Gatorade, steroids, pain-numbing injections and multimillion-dollar motivations.
This ordeal starts at 9,200.
That means you can't breathe by the time you get there.
Unless you're a mountain goat, like Paige and Kurt.
And then you run, over rugged trails, up and down, sometimes in the dark, sometimes at an elevation more than twice that of Denver's stadium, for almost four marathons. And you'll get some Gatorade or other energy drink, and some protein goop and a granola bar, and maybe some Advil or Tylenol, some Band-Aids for your blistered, bleeding feet, and you do it for more than a full day and at the end of it you'll get.…
You won't even go to Disney World unless you pay for it yourself.
Just the glory.
The joy of pure, unadulterated insanity.
That's extreme, Jack.
The story goes that the founder of the LT100 started it in order to make Leadville famous, and when someone objected that he'd get someone killed (STCKY), he answered, "Well, then we'll be famous, won't we?" Kurt loves that story.
You ask him, he'll tell you he fell in love with Paige right there, when she repeated "First," even though he could barely see her face under the woolly she had pulled down half over her eyes. You ask her, it took her more time. She didn't even like him when she met him, thought he was a sexist, arrogant asshole.
The thing is, he literally chased her.
For 100 miles.
That's love, Jill.
Another way of saying that he chased her is to say that he pushed her, because every time she looked back she saw that asshole coming and it motivated her because she was not was not was not going to let that arrogant prick catch her, no way.
Of course, another way of saying that he pushed her is to say that she beat him, which she did. As hard as Kurt tried, and he tried hard, he couldn't catch her, and the last 10 miles Paige found her kick and left him way behind. She finished first (among women), sixth overall, wasn't happy with it, but she was there waiting when he staggered across the line, 11th among the men.
She rang a cowbell for him.
"Thanks," he said.
"I owed you."
"You paced me."
"You outpaced me."
"Yeah, well." She saw blood seeping out of his left shoe. "You'd better have that taken care of."
"Hell no," she said. "But I'll show you to the aid station."
She walked beside him as he limped to the big tent, and she would now tell you that she started to fall in love with him when she realized that here was a man who damn near killed himself just to keep her within sight.
And it doesn't get much better than that.
They slept together that night.
Literally slept. They were too tired to do anything else.
Kurt was, anyway, and while Paige was a little offended, she had to like a man confident enough to admit that, for one night anyway, he preferred sleep to sex. A little humility, after all, is the difference between an A-Male and an A-Hole.
But should he let her do this tomorrow, he wonders?
Let her? Like I can stop her.
The Basic Rule of their relationship.
They each do what they want.
One force of nature you can't beat.
You can't even negotiate with it.
Ain't no wingsuit gonna give you glide ratio against time. Ain't no parachute gonna slow it down. Ain't no Zodiac gonna pull you out of it. Maybe someday science comes up with the perfect pharmacological cocktail and you live forever, but
Don't count on it, because
It ain't here yet, and
Time will still move on.
So even if you believe in living for today—as Kurt does—tomorrow is going to come, with the day after hard behind, and the brutal truth is that your legs aren't the same at 30 as they were at 20 because nature is planned for designed obsolescence. Dig it, we were born to wear out and be replaced.
There will come a time when you just can't do what you used to could.
And if you try?
Nature will kill you for it.
They say speed kills?
Nothing kills like slow.
Just ask Bonk and Gronk. One day they slowed down and became mastodon toe jam and somebody younger told their story around the old fire.
This is all a three-in-the-morning insomniac meditation for Kurt. He lies there knowing he can't keep doing this extreme shit forever. He has to either
A real possibility, or
Do something different. Or
Discover another option before he runs out of
Because, let's face it—he's making enough to keep doing what he's doing but not enough to put any away. Another way of putting it is that he's not living from paycheck to paycheck, but he is living from extreme to extreme.
He's good with that but here's the problem—
What happens when he can't do the cash-worthy extreme?
And the extreme has to keep getting extremer.
That is, no one's gonna cut him a check to shoot him going over a bridge anymore. Only under the bridge. And if he does that, they're not going to sponsor him to do it again.
Compare and contrast—
Elite extreme athletes to other elite athletes.
LeBron can make the same shot 50,000 times and that's a plus. He's setting records. Peyton and Tom B. can complete the same pass over and over again and it's a good thing.
But if Kurt does it—it's boring.
What if LeBron had to slam-dunk a ball into a basket while hurtling down the Grand Canyon? Very cool, yes. Say he does it and survives. Ain't no one interested in seeing him do it again.
Say Peyton and Tom had to thread the needle to a receiver while plunging down the face of an 80-foot wave that's about to crash on their heads, or while trotting through Death Valley, or free climbing El Capitan?
Trust me—we'd watch them do it
Dig it, Kurt would BASE jump, big-wave surf and ultramarathon run just for the sheer joy of it. Over and over again and be blissfully happy. And he'd keep doing it—happily—in the knowledge that he's not getting better at it, but worse, that the replacement parts, as it were, are already on line. But that would be okay. He doesn't need the attention, doesn't need the admiration, ditto the adulation.
He does need the money.
Extreme sports are expensive.
Equipment, transportation, food, lodging, ibuprofen.…
Somebody got to pay for it.
And Kurt can see a day when he can't and the sponsors won't.
He can see
Time coming up at him like a canyon floor.
Kurt and Lev talk about it.
One of those steely-silver predawn we-might-die-today conversations.
Tends to cut down on the small talk.
Lev is a smart guy.
He's thought about these issues.
He's even come up with an answer.
"What we need is a big score," Lev says.
"What?" Kurt asks. "A book that turns into a movie? It's been tried; it doesn't work. Maybe if Paige does it, she gets on Oprah, but—"
"You're talking millions." Lev goes Carl Sagan on it. "I'm talking billions."
Billions, Kurt thinks.
Oligarch (n.) 1: a ruler in an oligarchy 2: (esp. in Russia) a very rich businessman with great political influence.
We're more or less concerned with definition number two here.
It turns out that Lev's stepfather is a very rich businessman with heavyweight political connections, especially Russian.
Lev and his stepfather hate each other.
Let's be sure we understand each other here:
Lev and his stepfather hate each other.
Lev thinks that his Yegor Chubaiv is a philistine criminal. Yegor thinks that his (trophy) wife's only child is a spoiled brat, a condition he tried to remedy with his big fat oligarch belt until (16-year-old) Lev got a belt (black) of his own, after which Yegor resorted to alternative weapons such as sarcasm, insult and (eventually) exile.
Lev is now proposing to rob him.
"I'm not a thief," Kurt says.
While Lev generally agrees with Kurt's moral rectitude on this subject, he goes on to explain why it shouldn't be a concern in this particular case.
"Yegor makes his billions," Lev says, "from the illegal sales of armaments. He'll sell to anyone—governments, insurgents, terrorists, drug cartels, mafias of any ethnicity. He is a criminal and a mass murderer. My beloved mother is a disgusting whore for marrying such a man. Taking his money to finance our lifestyle would be a public service."
"That's your rationalization, anyway," Kurt says. Lev won't take his stepfather's money but he will take his stepfather's money.
"The root word of rationalization," Lev counters, "is rational. I'm merely saying, we're not talking about mugging nuns here, and if it salves your conscience, we could drop a few million on the worthy charity of your choice."
"But we would be the primary charity of our choice."
Lev is sort of a Robin Hood of meritocracy—he believes in robbing from the rich to give to the worthy.
"It's guilt-free money," Lev says. "A rare commodity."
As previously discussed, Kurt is used to making leaps.
Now he has to make the leap from whether to if to how.
"Yegor has a yacht," Lev says.
"Periodically," Lev continues, "he loads that yacht up with cash and sails it to the Cook Islands, where it is stored and laundered."
"I thought they did all that electronically these days."
"They used to," Lev says, "but Interpol has gotten very good at tracking digital transfers. So the criminals have gone retro and now move actual physical cash. What I am proposing is that we use our extreme skills to drop onto that boat in mid-Pacific, relieve it of its ill-gotten gains and escape."
"Sort of Ocean's 11 with an actual ocean."
"I have no idea what that means," Lev says, "but if it helps your comprehension, yes, all right."
"Theoretically the boat is also heavy with security," Kurt says.
"Not theoretically—actually," Lev answers. "Armed to the clichéd teeth."
"So we'd have to kill people," Kurt says. "Sorry, not in."
Kurt has few scruples, but he knows he can't live—happily, anyway—on blood money.
"It's all in the execution, isn't it?" Lev says. "Pun intended. If we execute properly, we won't have to execute anyone."
Kurt's entire adult life has been about proper execution as a matter of life and death. It's appealing.
"Won't they come after us?" Kurt asks.
It doesn't matter, Lev basically responds, because we're just better than they are. Whether it's up (a mountain), down (a wave, the sky), across (desert, ocean), they just can't catch us.
"We put together a team," Lev says, "of like-minded individuals—you, myself, Paige, Latch, whomever we need—with a highly developed and diverse skill set. Fortunately, we know such people, and there will be more than enough money to share out."
"If we survive," Kurt says.
"There's always that," Lev admits.
But, Kurt thinks, there is always that.
That's a daily reality.
Kurt's life is a constant risk-reward equation.
Lev's proposal has high reward.
But the risk?
It doesn't pencil.
Kurt says no.
Paige wakes up sad.
Scared, yes, excited, juiced but ennui-blue.
Like, what's next after this?
What's the next bigger high?
The junkie's lament.
Kurt says, "I'm beginning to think that maybe you shouldn't do this."
And this, Paige thinks, from a man who is so absolute he doesn't believe in adverbs.
"You don't think I should jump?" Paige asks.
It is windy.
The hotel window rattles.
"I don't think you should go under the bridge," he says.
"If you're going, I'm going," she says.
"It's not a competition, Paige."
Since when? she thinks.
Run harder, ski harder, fly harder, fuck harder, come harder—"er" is a competition.
"Maybe I don't think you should do it," she says.
His shrug is eloquent.
I have to. You don't.
I'm the YouTube sensation.
"So superior," Paige says.
But he is.
Übermensch is by definition superior.
"I'm doing it," Paige says.
Kurt shrugs again.
Übermensches believe in individual freedom and responsibility.
Take that from someone, you've taken her life.
You don't do that to someone you love.
Kurt's wingsuit is black-and-white (of course).
Paige's is pink.
"A girlie-girl wingsuit," she says.
She calls that skyrony.
Latchkey rocks a Superman motif. (Would have gone with Underdog but they don't make them.)
Lev's is midnight blue.
They look like Marvel Comics super-heroes as they walk toward the plane.
The wind, gusting in out of the west, freaks the sponsors out.
"Maybe not today," Jay tells Kurt.
Even though a crowd waits on the bridge and the cameras are in place. But no one wants that deposit in the karma bank. No one wants that weight tilting the scales of astral justice.
"No," Kurt responds.
Today is fine.
Today is the day we have.
"Doesn't have to be," Jay says.
"The forecast says it's a three-day blow," Kurt answers. "It will be fine."
"Any doubt," Jay says, "pull out."
Again, words to live by.
Walking to the plane, Paige says to Kurt, "You're afraid of being afraid."
"Isn't that a tautology?"
"You're not afraid to free-fly under a bridge, but you're afraid that other people will think you're afraid," she says. "What is that?"
"Something is either true or it isn't," Kurt says. "You can't have relative degrees of truth."
This is the plan.
Kurt and Paige go out first and do their thing.
Land in the river, gather up their stuff and crew for Lev and Latchkey, who do the second jump.
"Fair is fair," Paige says regarding pickup duty.
They do it for us, we do it for them.
And just as if you're Kurt and Paige, you want to see Latchkey and Lev waiting down there to fish you out, if you're Latchkey and Lev, you want to see Kurt and Paige because you know that they would die, if necessary, to bring you back.
You get tangled in the chute underwater, you want Kurt diving for you because (a) he's a world-class waterman, and (b) he's never going to give up, and (c) you'll have cool-headed Paige directing him what to do.
So that's the plan.
That's the way you visualize it with everything going perfectly.
You do your jump.
You let the adrenaline settle as you watch your friends come down and then you pick them up.
The four of them get into the plane.
Your basic Cessna 182.
From 12,000 feet above the Royal Gorge.
They can see the bridge.
The people on the bridge, looking up expectantly.
Can see Brian the photog lowering himself off the bridge on a harness, getting ready to shoot.
Can't see the red flags, but then again, they're under the bridge.
Can see the red canyon walls.
Way down they can see the silver ribbon that is the river.
They strap on their helmets. Headsets inside the helmets and throat mikes so they can talk and listen to each other.
This is the Information Age.
They turn on the GoPro cameras to record the trip in HD. This is the Information Age. Nothing is real without a video record. More info, more data.
Computers like wristwatches tell time, distance and speed.
Kurt takes one more shot at it. "You sure you want to do this?"
"No," Paige says.
But nothing is duller than certainty.
Jumping out of a plane is fundamentally different from launching off a cliff or other static structure because the plane is moving, already creating airspeed. You have to be more careful coming out of the airplane because you might go Veg-O-Matic, i.e., fly into (or more accurately through) the propellers.
Once airborne (the word is cautionary if you really explore it), the flier controls his or her descent through body posture, angle and maneuver against or with the wind, by changing the relative tension of the squirrel-like fabric until she or he comes to a place where it is deemed desirable to pull the ripcord and float gently to earth or water.
That's the theory, and among Kurt's favorite passages of instructional copy may be found the following: The absence of a vertical stabilizing surface results in a little damping action around the yaw axis, so poor flying technique can result in a spin that might require an active effort on the part of the flier to stop.
Kurt isn't sure what a passive effort might entail, but he knows that when you go into a spinout you'd better give it "active effort" in a hurry or you'll die, because the velocity of the spin causes thousands of microconcussions that soon render your brain incapable of any effort, active or passive.
Latchkey actually likes to spin out.
("What's a little more brain damage?")
Yeah, Latchkey's crazy but not that crazy—he's flying over the bridge.
"I know my limitations," is what he says.
A blast of wind knocks the plane sideways.
The nudge of a psycho on a subway platform.
The shark bumping against the life raft.
What they should do is call it off.
But these are people who have rarely done what they should.
Paige goes out first.
Kurt goes tumbling after.
Kurt spreads his arms and legs to activate the fabric wings, then he pushes his shoulders forward to get velocity.
Straightens his legs to reduce drag.
Tucks his chin into his neck.
Then he brings his arms back in.
The greater the mass of the wings, the slower the flight.
A flier can slow himself down to just over 60 with maximum spread.
Kurt isn't interested in slow.
Keeps his arms in to hit a buck 50.
Paige has maybe 15 seconds to decide.
Over or under.
Try to grab the flags or don't.
You have to make small moves in a wingsuit.
Big moves can send you into a spin.
She sees the bridge below her and knows that it's the moment to spread her arms, open the wings, maneuver, decide.
But it's so hard.
So hard to let go of the speed.
Tamp down the adrenaline.
Break off their dance, their lovemaking.
As the bridge comes up at her—
"Break off!" Kurt yells.
Opens her wings and "slows" to only 100.
Arches her spine downward to control her angle of attack and turns her neck to the right to look at him and he looks back but he doesn't open.
Fast, faster, fastest.
Even the tiny act of raising his right arm to look at the dial knocks him off course but he shifts his left shoulder and straightens.
Running out of clock to pull up.
But it doesn't get any better than this.
Adrenaline coursing, wind slapping him, this is freedom, the will to live or die, he aims for the bottom steel beam and sees the flags.
It will never get any better than this, so—
What's the fucking point?
The wind takes her.
Throws her sideways and sends her spinning.
Out of control.
The world whirling around her—the sky, the bridge, the canyon, the sky—her neck feels like it might fracture, head fly off. She sees him for only a microsecond as she spins, his black figure plunging, and she knows he's hit the max but Paige…
Decides to live.
She gets very active, arches her back up, points her face up toward the sun and flies.
A graceful arc up and over the bridge and then she arcs down, tucks her chin and hits the ripcord.
Floating down toward the river.
Looks back toward the bridge and sees Kurt coming.
Like a stooping falcon diving at its prey.
Paige has seen a falcon kill.
The violent impact, the spray of blood and feathers.
Kurt aims at the bottom of the bridge at an impossible speed, aiming for the bottom, cutting it so close, too close.
Wind in his ears, he can't hear the scream of the crowd.
He spreads his wings.
The steel beam comes at his face.
He goes under the bridge.
Reaches his arms up for the flags and grabs them.
The motion throws him up toward the steel beam.
She loses sight of him.
Then he emerges under the bridge.
His chute opens.
And Paige, the scientist, thanks the gods of earth and air.
They meet in the water and swim to the Zodiac.
"Amazing!" Kurt hears Jay scream through the headset. "Freaking amazing!"
They climb into the raft and look up.
"I hate you," Paige says to him as they watch Lev's flight.
"Easy to do," Kurt says. "And I understand."
Lev's flight is beautiful.
This is the day that we have and it's a beautiful day.
Then it goes wrong.
Latchkey is coming fast.
Wind buffets him but he's in control.
He is, after all, a falcon reborn.
Almost over the bridge when the downdraft hits him.
And drives him into the railing.
At 80 per.
Paige has seen a falcon kill.
The violent impact.
The spray of blood and feathers as the crowd on the bridge screams, moans, "Oh no oh no."
Look or shield their eyes as Latchkey makes YouTube.
They scatter Latchkey's ashes in Moab.
Among the red rocks that he scrambled up and jumped from.
Lev bought a falcon ($57K on the black market, no wonder he needs money) and releases it.
Into the vast blue Western sky to be reborn.
That night the tribe gathers at McStiff's (the name is cautionary if you really explore it) for the wake.
The fliers, the jumpers, the climbers, the runners, the ultras, the extremes, the restless, the mad souls—
And drink beer and whiskey and tell Latchkey stories.
Remember when, remember when, remember that time Latchkey.
Somewhere in there Kurt takes Lev outside into the parking lot.
Under a yellow moon and says…
"Let's do it."
This last thing.
(To be continued….)
They strap on their helmets. They turn on the GoPro cameras to record the trip in HD. This is the Information Age. Nothing is real without a video record.
This article was originally published in the May 2014 issue of Playboy. Read more from the issue at iPlayboy.com.
Illustration by Thomas Ehretsmann