Posted by: cousindampier | 24 March 2011


Note: In an effort to make this better, I re-did the opening. Just in case the four of you who read it deem it important enough to read again. And if you have that much time on your hands, we should chat.

In Douglas Adams’, in Life, the Universe, and Everything, Ford Prefect says, “The Guide says that there is an art to flying, or rather a knack. The knack lies in learning how to throw yourself at the ground, and miss.”

When skydiving, freefall is a wonderful few moments of throwing oneself at the ground and missing. Until the ground actually hits one’s legs, and the realization hits: I didn’t miss, and I don’t actually fly.

I jumped from a plane on Sunday. It was rather unexpected – not the act of jumping itself, but the whole moment of being there. A day before, there was no earthy way I was getting out of bed, much less getting onto an airplane. I awoke Saturday feeling terrible – I had a bout of stomach pain in the morning, and threw up around 7:30. I tried to go to work, only to vomit again around 8:30 and be sent home.

By 1 pm, I’d vomited six more times, and my entire body was starting to ache, which was a welcome sign.  Welcome because I’d passed onto the next phase of the illness – total body ache.  Tracey had this same progression on Friday, and I knew what awaited me.  Saturday, she was somewhat better, but still nauseous, and so the course of logic I faced was poor.  I was leaving Franz Monday morning; it was 2pm on Saturday, and I was in the throes of some awful illness, and I knew what was next.

In situations such as this, when some deadline looms which you have absolutely no control over meeting or not, the best way to face it?


Saturday night I felt better.  Sunday morning I felt really good.  I could walk around; I wasn’t sweating profusely; I could hold food down and only gagged at the thought of a few types of food.  I awoke at 10, and after waiting until noon to determine if the day would continue as thus, I called and booked a jump for 5.

This was the second time I’d been through this process.  I’d tried on the 13th, and got to the hanger to have the fuel pump on the plane not work.  Except for it did work, but it was too late for me to jump.  But having that experience – and that deflation – helped.  I wasn’t nervous then, but I wasn’t calm then.  I was excited that day, jumpily excited.

Today, I was cool.  Not worried, not set on going.  Just ready to go.  A friend, Sophie, signed up as well, and we went over at 430 to fill out paperwork and weigh ourselves and be sarcastic to each other while waiting for the van to take us over.

What happens in Franz, with Skydive Franz, is you fill out the standard paperwork – the name, contact information, next-of-kin info, and sign the “don’t sue us” form.  You weigh yourself, so the company can match you with a tandem partner.  Then you pile into a van and take a five or six minute ride out to the airfield, where a hanger awaits.

The hanger is three walls and a roof, and half is taken up by pads on the floor where parachutes are packed.  The other half is a desk, a couch, and a few other amenities for jumpers to use while they wait.

Sophie and I were in the first load – two other guys were jumping that day too, but from 15,000 feet.  Sophie was going from 12,000 and I was doing 18,000.  We put on red jumpsuits, and then Leigh, who owns the company and who was going to be my tandem partner, strapped us in.

Leigh is, in all respects, awesome.  I found out later she’s done more jumps than I can imagine, more than 8,000.  She’s also maybe 5’4’’ and 120lbs.  And she doesn’t even command respect as much as I wanted to give it to her.  She has the aura of total confidence, total know-how, and total badass-ness.  5’4’’ and 120, and if she dropped me with a punch, I wouldn’t be shocked.

That sort of thing.

So we get strapped in, Leigh being clear with what the harnesses were and how to wear them.  Then she gave us a quick tutorial on how to fall – start out with your head up, arms crossed on your shoulders, and after your partner pushed you out of the plane and tapped you, move your arms to over your head and let the air push your arms and legs up to the traditional skydiving pose.

And then Sophie and I were climbing into the plane, packed into a real small space where they can fit about 8 people.

Leigh was a real good tour guide as we took off and began to circle to 12,000 feet.  I don’t know if she always does it, or if it was because I wasn’t getting photos and she was being extra-nice, but it was amazing.   Seeing features which previously I’d only associated with the ground – looking up at the mountains; walking through town to see the river bed and glacial valley; seeing the foothills of the Southern Alps – and putting them together in one grand vista is a little mind-numbing.  I kept thinking “Gorramn, that’s pretty!”

As a spoiler, seeing the views out of an airplane, though amazing at the time, would seem boring as I saw them in free-fall about twenty minutes later.

We circled up to 12,000 feet.  Leigh, I think, kept waiting for me to be scared.

“When you see the other person go, it’s pretty natural to be a little nervous.”

“Cool,” I replied.  I wasn’t nervous.  I wasn’t excited either – in the “Let’s go! Let’s go!” sort of way.  Strangely it was one of the more calm moments of my life.  I was super-focused on the moment and just enjoying it – the view from the plane, the knowledge I was going to jump.  I didn’t know what was going to happen, but I knew I was enjoying what was happening.

And then Sophie was moving, and the door was pushed back.  And her cameraman, dressed in blue with long blonde hair, was climbing out onto the wing strut.  And she was sticking out of the plane and then he was gone and she was gone, quickly down and to the right and out of sight, and the plane door closed and it was quiet again.

The plane may have jumped – I know it should have, but I don’t remember it doing so.  I was thinking, “well, wow…that was quick.”

Leigh tapped me on the shoulder and handed me an oxygen mask, clear with a metal strip for your nose.  I put it over my mouth and turned to her as she put hers on as well.

“All I can think of right now is ‘Please fasten your own mask before assisting children.”

Then we kept circling higher, 6,000 feet more.

It was silent in the plane too.  When Sophie and her cameraman were there, a bit more chatter occurred – probably because he was recording it.  But in the ten minutes it took to get to 18,000 feet, I don’t remember much being said.

Even when the plane reached 18,000 feet, and the other guy who was jumping reached over and opened the door and pushed himself out, Leigh didn’t say much.  She put my mask away, and tapped my right leg and I swung it up and over the blue bench I’d been sitting on.  I edged my way to the door and put my feet out, and with a quick glance at the ground – which was just mostly circular green trees which seemed to be hardly moving at all because of how high we were – crossed my arms and leaned my head back.

I sat there for what felt like 5 seconds, but could have been less than one.  Leigh was moving behind me, and I didn’t know if she was getting more into position, and my size was making it difficult, or if she was telling me to go.  And as I contemplated what to do – to just go? Or to turn around? – I was suddenly moving forward and I went from vertical to 45 degrees to horizontal and I was FALLING, falling freely, and I felt a millisecond of terror as I realized I was falling, just like in any dream sequence when you fall and know you’re falling and there’s nothing to stop it, and then the cold hit and I lost all my breath and I stared at the green circles below me.

And it was magical.

I’m sure the look on my face those initial seconds was the “Oh Shit” look, but once I lost my breath – and more importantly, tried to breathe in and found it difficult – my brain kicked back into gear.  I started screaming.  Someone – Raymond or Ashley – told me to scream to breathe, and I did in a way I never had before.  I’ve never been a big screamer at concerts.  Just the occasional, “Yeah!” but here, I had the full-fledged “WHOOOOOHOOOOOOOOO” and I didn’t stop.  And I felt kind of dumb, because I’ve never screamed like that, but feeling dumb when falling through the air is a stupid thing to do, so I enjoyed it.

And as I started to scream, and get my breath back, Leigh turned us to the Sea, and it was an amazing sight.  We jumped around 5:30, as the sun was transitioning from day-sun to setting-sun, reflecting off the sea which was brilliantly lit, with a white-yellow light which started at the coastline and spread larger and larger across the sea as it moved to the horizon, with calm ocean blue on either side of it.

And we turned again, and directly in front of me were Mt. Cook and Mt. Tasman, the twin peaks dominating the Southern Alps.  Jaggedly pushing to the sky, trying to reach higher as I was trying to reach earth, they were rocky and covered in snow, with two glaciers spreading out before them, which turned into rivers and streams and old, gray and chalky glacial valleys, incredibly unique from the green and brown fields and trees surrounding them.

And then the chute was pulled.

It is about a 75 second free fall which, to me, felt about 10 seconds.  I remember giving Leigh the thumbs up and moving my hands through the air, and thinking “hey, my feet are kind of cold,” and maybe Leigh laughing at my screaming, and not caring about the scream because it was awesome.

And the chute kicked in and Leigh loosened my straps, which was nice.  My thighs hurt a little.  She taught me how to steer and let me control it for a while, and went left and then right, and then decided I wanted to fall facing the mountains, as she’d pulled the chute seemingly dead-even with the cloud cover, and it is neat to see clouds at the same altitude.  As I turned towards the sea, to get one last look, I said,

“Hey, if this ever gets boring, you should do hostage negotiation.”

She laughed.  I think.  Probably because it was an absurd thing to say. “What did you used to do?”

“I used to work in politics and then at a start up in the states, and I wanted to get away and came here.”  I continue turning left to the mountains.

Her. “Oh, I thought you might’ve had some experience in the field.”

“Nope.  You’re just really cool and collected when explaining all this.  You make it seem normal.”

And she took the reigns back and we moved into position for landing and I made a bad joke about crashing into cows and then we were on the ground.

I waited for her while she killed the chute. “How many jumps have you made?”

“Over 8,000.”

“Wow.” I paused, wanting to know and feeling dumb for asking. “Have you ever used your reserve?”

“Yeah, four times.”

And Ashley and Trace, who came to watch, were all smiles and took a picture of Sophie and me.

Then they headed back to the Lodge, while we went to the hanger to await the second group, then to return to Franz.  When we got back to the little bookstore where the skydiving sign-up is, we each got a T-shirt, and proudly wearing them, wandered generally towards the Lodge.  We saw Tessa and Rosie eating at the Landing, and chatted with them. We went to get takeout, only to find the place closed.  Finally, we stopped for Ice-Cream, which Sophie bought because I had no cash on me, and they were closing up.

And as we walked down highway six, back towards the lodge, eating ice-cream, Sophie started skipping.  I either looked at her funny or laughed, because she turned to me and said, “Mind your business.  You know you want to skip because you just jumped from a fucking plane.”

And she was absolutely right.



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