Kiwi Casey Brown will be the first woman to compete in the Red Bull Rampage, writes Lee Umbers.
Hurtling down perilous hillsides at close to 100 km/h with no brakes and pulling spectacular tricks while flying 18 metres through the air, professional mountain biker Casey Brown is on a wild ride.
This weekend the Kiwi sensation is going head-to-head with an all-male line-up of some of the world's best riders in a bid to become the first woman to compete in the Red Bull Rampage, a pinnacle of the sport.
Behind Brown's historic challenge is an incredible journey from a childhood off-grid deep in the wilderness of the South Island's West Coast to a whirlwind life of film shoots at glamorous tourist meccas around the planet.
From heartbreaking tragedy and sickening injury to international acclaim and success.
Born in Queenstown, Brown was a few days old when she joined elder sisters Jasmine, Jennifer, Elinor and brother Sam to live with her parents Lou and Elizabeth in remote Barn Bay.
Lou Brown, a Canadian, moved there to work as a fisherman in 1975, and built his own home 15 metres from the sea.
"He built it out of trees that had fallen down in the forest," says Brown, 28.
"Used an Alaskan sawmill to mill the boards."
With the tiny town of Haast an eight-hour trek away to get supplies, life was "100 per cent off the grid".
"We had windpower, my dad built a windmill, and we had a generator that we'd use once in a while if we needed it.
"And we had solar panels and candles."
Elizabeth homeschooled her children, and free time was spent building forts, climbing tall trees and sliding down dunes.
"We'd just make up our own kind of games and go out in the bush.
"I remember my dad always telling me that there were crocodiles in the jungle, so we wouldn't go too far.
"We had this huge bungee rope swing in the jungle - probably no one would allow that for their kids these days but I think that's how you learn, doing scary stuff.
"You kind of set the pace for the rest of your life when you start out with that kind of adventure happening as a kid."
Food was crayfish, shark and octopus from their father's fishing, fruit and vegetables from their garden and greenhouse, plus berries that Brown and her siblings foraged from the woods.
On the airstrip which Lou built next to their home, helicopters would arrive to collect his catches and would sometimes bring wild deer meat in exchange.
A twice-yearly supply run to Haast entailed a six- to seven-hour hike through the wilds, canoeing across a river, and an hour on a dirt track taking turns on a quad bike to the nearest road.
A "big old bus that had been converted into a camper and could sleep all us five kids" was parked on the road by Lou to take them to civilisation.
Brown says she would have been two or three years old when she first made the trek unsupported.
"As soon as you could walk, you had to walk."
In 1996, after a number of close calls at sea, Lou moved the family to a 300-plus acre farm at Clyde, in Central Otago.
"We started off in a teepee and then we got a bunch of hay bales and built a hay bale cookshack," Brown says.
"Eventually we got this old house ... this little two-room sleeping hut.
"There was some camper trailers, there was all sorts of things."
Again Lou built a windmill to generate their power, including running a little television when gusts were strong enough.
"The wind had to be blowing a certain amount in order to watch TV.
"We got channel one and channel two."
The move saw the siblings going to schools – in Brown's case, Clyde Primary. But they fell ill after coming into contact with other children, she says.
"We didn't have a lot of antibodies for common things, so I guess we were getting sick a lot just from being around other kids."
She found it hard to adjust after the freedom of Barn Bay.
"I hated it ... it was like taking a wild animal and trying to domesticate it."
That year was a dire one for Brown.
Crops failed on the farm and her parents split up – Lou returning to Canada, accompanied by Jennifer and Sam.
Elizabeth, Jasmine (her daughter from her first marriage), Elinor and Casey stayed on the farm.
When she was 8 years old, Brown and her mum were alone on the property when a tree fell on powerlines igniting a blaze which was fanned by strong winds.
"I look out the window and there's this big tall plume of smoke," she recalls.
"I ran out back to my mum, she was doing some laundry.
"I was like, 'there's something going on in the sky, I don't know what's happening'.
"I thought it was a tornado, 'cause it was a tall circling plume of smoke.
"She runs in and ... the fire was coming right towards the house over the hill.
"I opened the gate for the horses and the sheep [to escape].
"We jumped in the car and drove through the fire to get out.
"We had to [crash] through our neighbour's fence, because we couldn't drive along our driveway, it was engulfed in flames."
Their home and belongings were lost in the inferno. They were uninsured.
They moved firstly to Alexandra, then Clyde, finally settling in Hawea. Brown went to Hawea Flat School and on to Mount Aspiring College.
She travelled to Canada to visit her father and siblings, and at 11 decided to stay at their home in Revelstoke, British Columbia – popular with skiers, mountain bikers and rock climbers. Elinor soon joined them.
With the backcountry around Revelstoke beckoning, Lou built Brown a chopper-style bike out of spare parts.
She took to exploring the wilds around her new home city.
"My brother's friends would come over and we'd go and ride the trails, and I'd learn how to ride down steep hills."
Fearless and athletic, Brown soon followed Sam – a professional mountain biker at 16 - into competitive racing.
She won her first downhill race at 14.
By 15 she was competing in Crankworx, at Whistler, British Columbia, an international event of spectacular downhill racing, freeride and stunt jumps, dubbed the Super Bowl of the sport.
Brown was also making her mark in winter sports. She played ice hockey and was British Columbia junior freestyle ski champion in 2007.
Mountain biking was something she shared with Sam, who she idolised. A gifted and innovative rider, Sam featured in a top movie on the sport.
When Brown's school asked students to do a project on their hero, classmates chose movie stars and other famous people. She did hers on her brother.
Tragedy struck in February 2009. Brown was working in a ski shop in Revelstoke when she got a phone call from her dad.
"He said, 'I'm coming to pick you up. We need to have a family meeting. Sam's in jail'. I had a really bad feeling about it."
Arriving at Elinor's home they found police waiting.
"My sisters were just on the floor crying. I knew right away that [Sam] was dead."
She sunk to her knees and wept.
News reports at the time say Sam, 24, was arrested in the United States on allegations he attempted to drop off a large load of marijuana in Washington state.
He was reportedly found with a helicopter loaded with cannabis.
Sam was discovered dead in jail just days later. Brown says her brother's death was ruled as suicide.
She spent months in mourning. Then she dedicated herself to the sport she had shared with Sam.
Turning down an offer to become a full-time professional skier, she concentrated solely on mountain biking.
"It definitely made me feel closer to my brother, being on a bike."
Any success she achieved would help "keep his legend alive".
In 2011, Brown finished second at the Canadian Championships and 16th in the world overall. The following year she won the Canadian nationals, and finished sixth at the World Cup. In 2013 she won gold in the whip-off world championships at Crankworx Whistler.
A whip is where a rider brings the rear wheel forward vigorously during a jump, as if whipping the air with the wheel.
Brown scored gold in the world event for the following three years. In 2014, she was crowned Queen of Crankworx.
Brown has featured in a number of mountain biking movies, and a video with her tearing down what has been described as "America's scariest ski slope" on her bike went viral - watched more than one million times.
She and US rider Cam McCaul made the first ever mountain bike descent of Corbet's Couloir, Wyoming, in 2017. The icy pitch made brakes useless and Brown was estimated to have reached around 96km/h.
"It was crazy. I was going way too fast for any kind of control."
With the thrills of her extreme sport have come spectacular spills.
Competing in 2011 she "fell so hard on my chest that my liver hit the inside of my body and lacerated". The impact was so forceful it also broke ribs and she temporarily lost her vision.
"I just laid on a rock and waited [for help]."
Brown was in intensive care for five days. Rather than being deterred from further racing, she says: "Once you experience that, you're not so scared of death because you know that shock will take care of you really well. It was quite comfortable."
Brown works out at the gym, including powerlifting exercises, to add functional muscle and durability to her 160cm, 57kg frame.
And she has been a vegan for the past two years, which she credits for increasing her recovery rate.
"And also focus, I feel way clearer."
As Brown's star has risen so has her commercial appeal. Sponsors include Trek bike manufacturer, Clif Bar organic foods, Dakine clothing, Bell Helmets and Sierra Nevada beer.
Her annual income is in the "six figures".
Brown's diary is full with film projects and competitions around the globe. This year she has been filmed in Hawaii, Argentina, Bhutan, the United Kingdom and California. She has competed in Austria, Canada and New Zealand.
Brown, who says she still feels like a Kiwi, returns each year for Whistler's sister event of Crankworx Rotorua and to see her mother.
She shares her Revelstoke home with Snuff, a 10-year-old black labrador-cross she adopted from the SPCA. And she is dating Brett Rheeder, a 26-year-old Canadian professional mountain biker.
Rheeder was the 2013 Munich X-Games Slopestyle gold medallist and won the 2018 Red Bull Rampage. He is one of 10 pre-qualified for this year's 21-strong Rampage field.
Eight wildcards have been selected for the contest in October, at Utah – billed as the most challenging event in freeride mountain biking.
The final three riders will be chosen from this weekend's qualifier, the Marzocchi Proving Grounds competition at Oregon, in which Brown is competing.
If successful, she will become the first female to qualify for Rampage.
Brown is "honoured" to be given the shot but is not getting ahead of herself. She says Marzocchi, designed to replicate Rampage terrain, will be formidable.
"I think Proving Grounds will be the scariest event for me to date."
Red Bull Rampage courses, with almost vertical sandstone ridges, push the world's best riders to their limits.
"There's a lot of exposure," Brown says.
"Wind messes with your judgment. Bikes are like sails when they're in the air."
But she will not let dread hold her back. Her favourite quote, paraphrased from A-lister Will Smith: "The best things in life are on the other side of fear."