In this intimate and honest Climber Spotlight, Corbin Usinger tells us about his love for the Sierra, how his support from his family made him into the climber that he is today, and his ever-changing relationship with BASE jumping. As our sport grows infinitely and becomes more mainstream, there are a few climbers who still embody the heart and spirit of what climbing truly is, and Corbin is one of these people. Read on to hear his inspiring story:
How did you get into climbing? Tell us about the early days of your climbing career.
My dad took my brother and I hiking and peak bagging in the Sierra at a young age. My older brother (Clay) read Freedom of the Hills and we practiced roped techniques in the Coastal Live Oaks and Pepperwood Trees in our parents’ yard. I entered a few climbing competitions and did well, but always felt inspired by the sheer granite outside.
When Clay got a drivers license, we started road tripping around the Sierra Nevada Mountains to Tahoe, Yosemite, Tuolumne Meadows, and the Needles at the ripe ages of 12 and 16. I cringe to think that most people aren’t lucky enough to find the beauty and simplicity of the road trip lifestyle until much later in life, if at all. I’m extremely lucky.
In addition to being a talented climber, you are also an avid highliner and BASE jumper. What about these activities do you find so attractive?
For me, the allure of BASE jumping has always been an extension of liking to be in the mountains. Wingsuit flying and tracking is the most fun activity there is. There is a sense of freedom and exploration that is vibrant, too.
Moving light and fast through the mountains and then standing on top of exit points where few to no humans have stood before is exhilarating. As a climber that turned jumper, jumping made sense. Climbing the wall, gazing out into the void in wonderment, then getting to fly off seems crazy—but, it’s an adaptation to one’s environment. I see the climb and fly days as a mastery of the mountain environment because it enables rapid decent.
As far as the highlining goes, I find it fascinating: the separation between the actions of mind and body. On the highline—with thousands of feet of empty swooshing air pulling at your heartstrings—it’s difficult to concentrate. Your body says yes, but your mind says no.
It takes focus to mend mind and body. Highlining throws you into the present moment with movement and focus. Crossing a highline brings an unparalleled state of clarity to the mind. It’s like nothing else is happening except for the present moment. Our busy lives lack that state of mind and I find that climbing, flying, or highlining is the easiest way to access that flow state.
Check out this video of Corbin talking about fear and quieting the mind before highlining:
Have you ever questioned BASE jumping? If so, what events, conversations, or thoughts have led you to think twice?
We call BASE “the Dark Art” for a few reasons, but one is that it’s powerful. The highs are so incredible, but the lows stab deep into your soul when your friends are gone … It’s all too powerful, really.
Right now, I’m just trying to find a reason to continue jumping. All of my mentors are dead or have quit, which makes me think twice about participating. Dean preached about safety continuously and made very conservative choices. I thought he would out survive all of us. He was our ring leader and to have him, and others, go makes death by BASE jumping seem more inevitable than ever.
On the other hand, Dean, Graham, and Stanley all went in flying the 5.14 of wingsuit lines. So maybe it’s possible to survive BASE by just flying the 5.9 of wingsuit lines and doing that for a long time. Who knows though, anything can still go wrong. I haven’t been flying much lately and part of me misses it.
How do you feel about sponsorship, self-promotion, and social media in regards to rock climbing?
It’s amazing that we live in a time in which one can have rock climbing be their full time job. Getting paid to push your own athletic pursuit gives one access to their full potential because thats all you do: focus on your projects/art. It’s not necessary though.
If you have the drive to climb hard, that motivation can be applied to being successful at whatever else you challenge your mind to. I know quite a few doctors, nurses, and skilled techies that regularly participate in wingsuit BASE jumping, surfing mavericks, and ultra running. They are all high level operators at the top of their game, but away from the spotlight and self promotion. That kind of life balance to me is super impressive.
Tell us about one of the best days you’ve ever had while climbing.
Climbing the “link-up” of The Nose of El Cap and the Regular Northwest Face on Half Dome with my brother, Clay, shortly after we had learned the ways of “the Dark Art.” My brother and I bicker a lot about random stuff, but it goes pretty seamlessly when we’re on the wall.
Tell us about one of the worst days you’ve ever had while climbing.
On Half Dome, [I was] witness to a suicide jumper. He jumped from the top and flew right past us, then impacted a ledge not far from our stance. We were simul-climbing with a 100-foot rope and couldn’t rappel to the ground so we had to top out. I think that had something to do with me getting into BASE: I wanted to jump and fly to prove to myself that you didn’t have to die.
Tell us about a not-so-proud moment in your climbing career.
This one time time I was climbing at the Cookie Cliff [in Yosemite] belaying my brother leading Outer Limits. I was lounging all casual and sprawled-out about the base, flapping my jaw about how cool my brother and I were to our buddies. I had a bunch of slack payed out, Clay had lead the thing a bunch before, I didn’t think he was going to fall. But he did and took a 60 footer. I got sucked way up the wall. We were fine though. Clay still says I suck at belaying. This happened 10+ years ago.
If you could give one piece of advice to a beginner climber, what would it be?
Avoid becoming complacent; especially in the mountains. Understand exactly how the gear works because it’s saving your life. Go for it.
Anything else you’d like to tell us?
Enjoy the present.
We send a huge thank you to Corbin for his honest, inspiring words. Thank you for reminding us of what climbing is all about. We can’t wait to see what you’ll do next!