Clair Marie knew from an early age that she wanted to spend her life jumping off (and out of) high-altitude objects.
Hailing from Strawberry, Calif., a small mountain town south of Lake Tahoe, she got started in action sports as a toddler.
"My dad taught me how to climb when I was 3 years old, and my mom taught me how to ski when I was 5," she says. "From that point on, I was just addicted to outdoor adventures."
But it wasn't climbing or skiing for which Marie would become famous. A far more dangerous sport soon caught her attention.
"I first saw BASE jumping when I was 8 years old at a ski resort," she says. "It was playing on one of the TVs and it looked like the most thrilling and exciting thing I had ever seen."
For the uninitiated, BASE jumping involves leaping from buildings, antennas, spans (such as bridges) and earth (mountain, cliffs, etc.), then safely landing on solid ground with the assistance of a parachute.
"This was the first time I'd ever heard of BASE jumping," says Marie. "I was like, 'What is this sport?' And from age 8 to 16, I was obsessed with it. I read all about it, I researched it, I talked about it to anybody who would listen and I told everyone I was going to BASE jump one day."
The first person she told was her mother.
"When I first told my mom I was going to BASE jump," says Marie, "she looked at me and laughed and said, 'Oh, no, you're not.'"
Eight years after that ski trip, the allure of BASE jumping still had a strong hold of Marie. At age 16, she finally put her passion into practice.
"I basically had to create a proposal for my mom," says Marie, "outlining why she should allow me to jump. I told her she had raised me to be adventurous and follow my passions, and I had already graduated from high school at the time, so I was ready to move on with the next chapter of my life."
It was an argument Mom couldn't deny. "Finally, I got her to say, 'OK, you can go do one BASE jump,'" says Marie. "'Just don't tell your dad.' "
Her first BASE jump was from a 480-foot power tower at 10 p.m. on a moonless night. "You couldn't even see the ground," says Marie. "I probably went through the process in my mind a hundred times as I was hiking up. And by the time I got to the top, I felt confident I knew what I was supposed to do, but that obviously didn't take away from the crazy excitement and thrill of being there. It was overwhelming, not just because I was going to jump off something for the first time, but because it had been such a huge part of my life up until that point."
From there, it was all downhill.
"I stood up there for a while and let all of those feelings sink in," she says. "Then it was 3, 2, 1... and I jumped. And from the second I left the edge, I knew for sure it was what I was supposed to do with my life. It was the most freeing, peaceful, crazy experience, where time slowed down."
Marie's parachute opened, and she safely landed on the ground, becoming the youngest woman BASE jumper in history. "I looked back up at the antenna," she says, "and I yelled at the top my lungs, 'You have to let me do that again!' Then I went home and said, 'Mom, I found my calling.' And my mom said, 'Shit.'"
Fast-forward 12 years, and Marie's now a full-time adventure-sports athlete, as well as a model and stuntwoman. She's completed more than 800 BASE jumps, and north of 6,500 skydives. (She worked as a jump instructor for several years.) As an icon for BASE jumpers of all ages, she has a massive social media following and has delivered a TED talk about the adversity she's faced over the course of her career.
Marie still actively BASE jumps, but she's recently found a new love in competitive mountain bike racing.
"I race Enduro, which is a mix between downhill racing and cross-country racing," she says. "It's incredibly physically taxing and it's technical, so training takes a long time. I want to race in the Enduro World Series next year or the following year, so I have lasting goals. It's a long process."
To accommodate her hectic traveling schedule, Marie now lives full-time in an RV, but she calls San Diego home because she has family here. During a little down-to-earth time, she discusses BASE jumping, competitive biking and the one thing that really scares her.
PACIFIC: What are some of your most memorable BASE jumps?
CLAIR MARIE: I had the amazing opportunity to jump inside a tropical superdome in Germany. It's an old blimp hanger they converted into an indoor tropical oasis with waterslides and beaches, and it's super climate-controlled in there. It was the middle of the winter, and I was BASE jumping from the rafters at the top of the roof — in a bikini — and landing on a beach. Another one of my favorite places to jump, that always has a really special feeling to me, is in Thailand. It's the epitome of adventure sports, because you're bushwhacking through the tropical jungle, trying to get to the BASE jump. You're hiking past crazy venomous snakes and spiders the size of my face. There are monkeys in trees screaming at you, and, by the time I got to the point where I could BASE jump, I was like, "This is going to be easy now."
Given that BASE jumping is illegal almost everywhere, have you had any run-ins with the law?
I was arrested one time for BASE jumping off an antenna and I was actually abused by the cop. I was beaten up by him, which was terrific. And then he actually never ended up filing my ticket. So, technically speaking, no, I've never gotten in trouble because he never filed a ticket. He just kind of left it at that. But I've definitely had a couple close calls. I try to be as smart as possible. People really tend to focus on the illegal aspect of BASE jumping, and I really feel like it's unfortunate, because we live in such a happy environment. All over the United States, everyone's constantly afraid of getting sued. We're all very limited. I think the general public has this huge perception of BASE jumping being an incredibly crazy, reckless sport where we're endangering other people. But there's actually a lot of thought and preparation that go into every jump. And we have an incredible amount of control. We're not going to land on a pedestrian.
Do you have any superstitions when it comes to BASE jumping?
Not really. I think it all comes down to preparation. There are some people who have to tie their shoes a certain way or that triple-check their gear in a certain way. For me, it's just 100 percent being prepared and comfortable. And also listening to my gut. I have walked down from many jumps when I just wasn't feeling good about them. There are a lot of people who try to push past that feeling, and there're a lot of people who get hurt. And I would never forgive myself if I was standing on top of an object and I wasn't feeling it, and then for some reason I decided to jump, and something went wrong.
Considering how dangerous BASE jumping is, how supportive is your family?
I would say that my family is moderately supportive, but if I told them today I was done BASE jumping, they would all be very excited.
How long have you been mountain biking?
Mountain biking is my new love. I started racing about a year and a half ago. Mountain biking is kind of like BASE jumping in the sense that you're constantly making the decision to be fully committed. And it's one of those things where, if you find yourself in over your head, you can just get off and walk. So, mountain biking is one of my favorite things to do right now, and there are so many trails all over San Diego, too, ranging from super-beginner easy trails to advanced, chunky and technical downhill trails.
What do you love most about mountain bike racing?
Mountain bike racing is kind of like BASE jumping in that it provides the same thrill and excitement, just for an extended period of time. BASE jumping is over so quickly. You have this buildup, and then, when you jump, you have just a couple seconds. And then your parachute opens, and you're typically on the ground within 25 or 30 seconds. With mountain bike racing, you're constantly making the decision to be fully committed and hyper-focused. It's all about being completely in the moment and being relaxed, which seems counterintuitive, but being relaxed in the times of extreme activity is so powerful, and it translates well into the rest of life, helping you take things as they come and not focus on anything else except what's right in front of you. I'm not necessarily a super competitive person by nature, but that's what's so amazing about Enduro. When you're out there, it's just you and the mountain. You're not necessarily thinking about racing other people; you're thinking about doing the best you can. And unlike BASE jumping, where progression really isn't measurable at all, with mountain bike racing you can really see where you're improving and where you're making steps in the right direction or possibly falling behind. The progression is incredibly fun, and it's a great workout.
You seem fearless. Is there anything that scares you?
Absolutely. I'm terrified of bugs. I wouldn't necessarily say I'm fearless. I definitely have a lot of fear; I think fear is healthy. I just have developed the ability to analyze fear and figure out where it's coming from, and then work on mitigating risk and working past the fear. One of the things I really love doing is finding something that scares me, figuring out why it scares me, and then moving past it. With that said, I definitely have no desire to push through my fear of bugs any time soon. I hate them.
What's an average week like for you?
In any given week, I probably ride my bike anywhere from between 60 and 100 miles, just because I have really big goals for mountain biking right now. I want to go for a world title, so I just started training really hard for that. That occupies a lot of my time. I also try to do a BASE jump at least once a week, depending on where I'm at. Sometimes I can do 50 BASE jumps in a week, and sometimes I can't do any. Most of my weeks are very adventure-related, trying to find something to do outside.
You've faced discrimination during your career. How have you dealt with that?
In the beginning, it was like I had to be one of the guys in order to participate at the level that they were, and I really struggled with finding who I was as a female because I was so hyper-focused on trying to fit in with them. Then, one day... I woke up one morning, and I was like, "These people are judging me based off of their own insecurities and they're trying to limit me because they don't believe I should be doing this, or they don't think that I can do this." That's when I realized other people's opinion of me is none of my business, and I'm not going to let other people's limiting beliefs stop me from pursuing my dream.
What's in store for your future? Will you always be jumping?
I wish I had an answer. BASE jumping definitely has an end date for me because, eventually, I do want a family. And I know far too many BASE jumpers with families who have, unfortunately, died, because it's a dangerous sport. It's heartbreaking to see parents leave their kids behind in this way, and I refuse to be one of those people. So, as soon as I decide to have a family, I will stop BASE jumping. But I will not stop mountain bike riding.
At a glance
Riding/racing team: Seattle-based Evil Bikes (evilbikes.com)
Current ride: Evil Insurgent (retail value $6,199)
Sponsors: Crystal51 Energy (crystal51.com) and Reverence Design (reverencedesign.com)
Favorite quote: "If you don't go after what you want, you'll never have it. If you don't ask, the answer is always no. If you don't step forward, you're always in the same place." — Nora Roberts Life motto: "It's better to ask for forgiveness than permission."
Photographer: K.C. Alfred
Photographer Assistant: Andy Wilhelm
Makeup/Hair: Thorne Artistry