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January 25, 2013

Falling Toward Grace

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When Karina Hollekim was 4 years old, she was returning home to Oslo from a trip to the mountains with her parents when an oncoming car drifted into their lane. Her father swerved, but they were hit head-on. Her mother absorbed the brunt of the crash and was left brain-damaged and partially paralyzed. When she woke from a coma four months later, she didn't recognize her daughter. The accident obliterated what was left of Hollekim's parents' already-hobbled marriage and the pair divorced. After that, Hollekim moved in with her father, Bjorn Sonsterud. He'd always loved the outdoors and risky pursuits like rock climbing and paragliding and nurtured in his daughter the same passion. When she was still little, he'd tuck her away in his knapsack, holes cut out of the bottom for her legs to dangle, and climb with her on his back. "Just look up," he'd tell her when she was overcome by a fear of heights.

By the time Hollekim was a teenager, she was already an expert skier. But Sonsterud was a strict father, and his daughter bristled at the rigid upbringing. The older she got, the more she pushed back against her father's rules. She rarely obeyed his curfews, and when he punished her by forbidding her from going skiing with him over Christmas, she ignored him and went on her own. When she returned, she discovered a Post-it note on her backpack that read, "This is no longer your home." She was just 14.

Hollekim moved in with her uncle, also in Oslo, and resumed skiing. By age 16, she already had clothing and equipment sponsors; by 21, she was competing all over Europe. After a summer spent working as a computer programmer, she realized that she could never enjoy a career that confined her to a desk, so she quit to ski full-time. She excelled at it, to be sure, but her Nordic good looks — the blonde hair, tawny skin, and piercing blue eyes — also helped make her a sponsor favorite. Producers tapped her to star in extreme-sports videos that had her skiing down impossibly steep Alaskan peaks and catching air in the Wyoming backcountry. Though she'd reconciled with her father a few years after she moved out, nothing could tie her down. She all but abandoned Norway to join a global tribe of thrill-seeking athletes, rootless nomads who eschewed families and jobs and all the other trappings of a settled life in favor of adventure. "I felt at home with these people," she recalls.

In 2000, Hollekim met Jeb Corliss, who introduced her to BASE jumping — parachuting from a fixed position. (BASE is an acronym for buildings, antennae, spans, and earth formations, like cliffs — the four fixed objects a BASE jumper leaps from.) Corliss was among the best in the world at this fringe sport. Hollekim had already been skydiving and liked it well enough, but BASE jumping was another thing entirely — the focus it required and the rush it delivered made it addictive. Corliss took her to Twin Falls, Idaho, home to a growing community of jumpers who used the Perrine Bridge, some 486 feet above the Snake River, for their practice jumps. "Every time I went near a big cliff, I had a sensation like I wanted to let myself go, like something was sucking me over the edge," she recalls. "I had to fill that empty space with something. So I filled it with BASE jumping."

Not long after, she met JT Holmes, the ruggedly handsome champion American skier and ski BASE jumper from Squaw Valley, California. They dated briefly, and during that time he taught Hollekim how to BASE jump from cliffs hundreds of feet high — while on skis. The risks were staggering. Powerful gusts of wind can easily push a skier back into the cliff face or flip her upside down, making it impossible to safely deploy a parachute. But the challenge only seemed to whet Hollekim's appetite, and soon she became the first woman to ever ski BASE. In the ultracompetitive, ultra-macho world of BASE jumpers, Hollekim held her own. She and a friend were the first to do a wingsuit jump off Kaga Tondo, a vertiginous 2,000-foot-tall sandstone spire in the Mali desert. She leaped off Shanghai's 88-story Jin Mao Tower in celebration of China's National Day. For 300 days of the year, she was either skiing and jumping competitively or being filmed for extreme-sports videos. She enjoyed a reputation for always pushing the envelope.

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