All things considered the nightmare wasn’t as bad as I expected.
I’m in a cargo plane with Dan. My instructor is attaching my chute and harness, but instead of securing it properly he is fastening it to my shoelaces. Not surprisingly, this is met with some concern. When I inquire I’m quickly dismissed. This is how it’s done, you’ll be fine, stop worrying – the perilous platitudes one might expect from someone devising your demise.
In a daze I take slow steps forward like a prisoner on a chain gang after a day of hard labor. The cargo bay door opens, I inch forward unable to understand why my chute is affixed to my laces, and, more pressing, why I’m continuing to advance. I step off the platform and wake up right as I start to fall.
I guess it could have been worse. Considering that today is jump day my performance-related anxiety is moderate. Some nerves to be sure, but it’s not like there’s much I need to do for a tandem jump with an expert literally having my back. Today’s nerves pale in comparison to my New Zealand bungee jump. During the two days prior to that jump I was so pre-occupied I almost couldn’t eat. Want to shake those pesky extra 10 pounds? Screw diet and exercise, try abject terror.
Figuring there’s strength in numbers, I decide to buddy-up. Ryan, a good friend and soccer-mate, is currently between opportunities and game for an adventure. During the ride north we get caught up on the basics – the job search, dating, and daytime activities of the ladies who lunch set. I’m aware that I’m only 90% present; my anxiety growing as we get closer to our destination – Skydive Snohomish near Everett, WA. I’m reasonably confident in my choice of sky diving establishments. I joined two friends who sky dived here years ago – both of whom not only survived, but appeared to have a grand time. Also, if you Google ‘skydive seattle’ the Snohomish outfit is the first result. And since Google seldom gets results wrong, I feel like I can put my life in their hands.
The facility, little more than a double-wide trailer next to an airstrip, is professional looking enough on the inside. There are a few rows of chairs in front of a TV, no doubt for the forthcoming safety video, and a bank of laptops along a bar, no doubt to fend off attorneys. The front office is helmed by two attractive young women. I’m guessing typical guy’s guy is not going to have a crisis of confidence in front of this duo. And while I like to think I’m immune to their charms (#pussygalorereference) I do have that foreshadowing post to live up to.
They direct me to what is hopefully NOT a court tested legal waiver. I spend the next ten minutes affirming a few scary statements that I should not share with Dan or my Mother. Equipment fails, humans make mistakes, and if the fall doesn’t kill you it might permanently disable and/or disfigure you. Oh yeah, did we mention the risk of landing on power lines? So, yeah, a bit of nerves, but not too bad. If a ten is panic attack and a five is a discrete vomit in the nearby potted plant, I’m guessing I’m a two trending towards three on the anxiety scale. Let’s do this.
After signing the form I’m effectively upsold by one of the pert and perky duo. I’m guessing she has zero idea who David Mamet is, but someone should get this girl a coffee because she closes like a pro. For only another $25 I’ll be flown 3,000 feet higher and then get to “enjoy” another 30 seconds of free fall. I demur initially figuring 20 seconds is sufficient, but the saleswoman effectively extols the benefits of the longer free fall and like an easy mark, I capitulate and hand over my credit card. My inner-rationalization (which never seems to dissuade me from a purchase) kicks in. It’s not like it will be the extra elevation that kills me.
After ringing me up, she leans in, gives me a very millennial “I’m cool with it” look, and quietly asks – “is that Dan?” She must have looked at my emergency contact form and saw Dan’s name down as my Husband. I’m guessing there’s a dearth of married gay men in Snohomish. She looks disappointed when I tell her Ryan’s just a friend – as if I just blocked her tweet of the day.
Training begins immediately. There are four jumpers in total so we’ll be going up in two planes. Enter our trainer for the day – Vladimir. Vladimir the Russian Sky Diver. This is perfect. Vlad, as we’re instructed to call him, is all smiles. He tells us the three important rules for the day. First, smile and have fun. Second, arch our back when we’re told to do so. And third, and finally, pick up our feet when it’s time to land.
After a short video we’re sprawled out on the floor practicing rules #2 and #3. Oh, and rule #1. Through the course of our training Vlad never stops smiling. He’s launching a charm-offensive that could single-handedly end the Cold War. His confidence and demeanor, while perhaps a smidge falsely jovial, does put me at ease. And, since I’ve opted for the video package Vlad will be my videographer and jump mate. There’s no escaping Vlad today. Side note: I considered titling this post “The Spy Who Jumped Me” but thought better of it.
Our training is over in about three minutes. I can’t decide if this is good news (as there’s really nothing to worry about) or really, really bad news (this can’t be all there is to it, right?). I err on the former. Like an Avenger, it’s time to suit up. We’ll be wearing jumpsuits for the day, a superfluous leather helmet, and goggles. The goggles and jumpsuit protect our eyes and clothes, but the helmet is really just for peace of mind. My cycling helmet offers better protection and I ride about 160 miles slower than I’ll be falling out of the sky.
Vlad gathers Ryan and me to shoot a short intro video. He has a Go Pro camera mounted into what looks like a modified cycling glove. We exchange some banter in which I tell him that the jump is a part of my secret agent research. Not surprisingly Vlad’s elated by this news – his Russian heritage perfectly typecasting him as the obligatory villain. One hopes he’s not a method actor. After 30 seconds of training on how to exit the plane in a plywood trainer we’re off for the jump plane. Our aircraft for the day is straight out of Indiana Jones. I’m glad we’re already wearing parachutes.
Packed in like sardines I’m wedged in immediately behind the pilot – we’re so close the backs of our heads are touching. As the plane ascends I realize I’m feeling like what can only be described as an out of body (or at least mind) experience. Am I really doing this? I’m less anxious which is good, and have now transitioned into detached. The good news is that it’s a positively glorious Seattle day. I can easily see Mt. Baker, Bellevue, and even the point of Alki beach near my home. Breaking my reverie, Vlad interrupts with a few more instructions. Between this engine noise and accented English I pick up two words out of every three. I have to ask him to repeat himself a few times, but when I realize he’s simply reiterating the three rules I relax.
Before I know it we’ve reached our jump height – 14,000 feet above sea-level, just short of the peak of Mt. Rainier. The first pair readies themselves at the door. Mitch, the other jumper today, kneels by the door with his jump mate behind him. He tightens a few straps and double checks things. The door opens unveiling Terra Firma far below. I expect this to be a point of heightened anxiety, but it doesn’t faze me. The first duo nudges forward for the door and, rather unceremoniously, they’re gone.
I turn over to face the front of the plane and walk on my knees bringing them just to the front of the now rather gaping door. Vlad pulls in tightly behind me and begins tightening the straps. His tap on my right thigh is my instruction to place my right foot onto the grip-taped footpad just above the landing gear. To secure myself I grab a support along the wing with my right hand. Looking down I realize there’s nothing short of divine providence that’s going to save my ass if something goes wrong; cold comfort for a child of agnostics. Vlad taps my arm instructing me to let go so I bring my arms across my chest in what just occurs to me is the archetypal coffin-resting position. And, just like that, we’re falling.
In hindsight the initial jump is actually the best part. It’s disorienting, you briefly experience the thrill of weightlessness, and the excitement of realizing what you’ve just done is at its zenith. During the jump, however, the sense of weightlessness rapidly dissipates as you feel the resistance of the wind rushing past. It’s loud, thrilling as hell, and requires lots and lots of ear popping. After a few seconds Vlad taps my shoulder instructing me to extend my arms out to regulate our decent.
I’m immediately glad I paid for the extra free fall. I have the chance to survey the scenery around me. There are no clouds to fall through so I have no reference point as to how fast we’re dropping, but the bulging sensation in my ears tells me it’s fast. Vlad gestures to get me to look toward the camera. I attempt to shout (scream?) in exuberance, but I cannot hear myself and decide to focus on enjoying the view and popping my ears. With the wind against my chest I feel more like I’m flying under my own power toward the earth rather than falling – it’s empowering and intoxicating. And then, just like that, the chute is open. After nearly a minute of hearing nothing but the wind rushing past it’s deathly quiet. It’s a little disconcerting at first, the contrast reminding me of how snow can dampen the noise in even the busiest of cities.
Vlad kills the quiet quickly, but I don’t mind. He offers up the obligatory high-five, which I gladly accept, and then lets me take the reins. Pulling down sharply on my left causes us to immediately spiral downward rapidly, pulling them both and our fall seemingly stops. Before long I see our landing area rapidly approaching. Vlad expertly brings us right down to the target area. I see Ryan filming our descent. We skim right past him as Vlad tells me to pick up my legs and, just like that, I’m safely on the ground.
I’m not sure if the bungee or the skydive was more harrowing, but I do know that I’ll be back to do that again. At some point I need to do that solo without an expert strapped to my back. One step at a time. And don’t tell Mom.