Why BASE Jumper Jeb Corliss Thinks Breaking His Back Saved His Life

04/27/2015 09:29 am ET | Updated Apr 27, 2015

Jeb Corliss has been defying gravity for the past two decades.

But in 1999, an accident almost ended his career before it started. After jumping off a 364-foot high ledge at Howick Falls in South Africa, Corliss got too close. "The waterfall grabbed me by the legs and I was sucked in," he recently wrote.

The canopy of his parachute collapsed under the waterfall and he hit two ledges, breaking his back in three places, tearing through skin on his backside and breaking a few ribs on the way down.

A video of the incident. (Source: YouTube)

"This was my first real hard hit in base jumping," Corliss explained. "This jump ... probably ended up saving my life in the long run ... I thought I was invincible."

When he plunged into the water, he was pushed down by the force of the waterfall. He knew his back was broken, but he wiggled his arms and toes through the pain as he tried to stay above water.

Eventually, the current pushed him to shore, but, because of the pain and his injuries, he couldn't get his body to stand up. He sat in the freezing water for one hour as his friend hiked down to help him.

"In that hour I was eaten alive by little freshwater crabs," he explained. "They were attracted by the blood coming from the wound on my butt and they just would not leave me alone."

Even after his friend arrived, they still had to wait another two hours for the rescue team. When rescuers arrived, they offered him morphine to numb his pain during the six hour trek through the forrest. He refused the drugs so he could tell doctors where the pain was coming from.

Six "horrible, painful, brutal" hours later, he was placed inside an ambulance.

In a 2013 interview, years after the accident, Corliss said fear forces him to be fully present in the moment.

"Once you make that commitment, where you're stepping off of a mountain that's thousands of feet high, and then the next couple of seconds can be the difference [between life and death]," he explained, "all of a sudden ... all that matters is what's happening right now."

Corliss bills that early accident at the waterfall as one of his most important lessons in life.

"I said it before and I will say it again," he wrote, "this accident saved my life in the long run and helped me think about what I was doing with a far more clear mind."

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