My Own Private Skyfall

It’s no secret – or coincidence – that I’ve gone through a few changes this year. I’ve traded in the privacy and comfort of my NYC apartment for 6-bed dorm rooms and caravans and terrifying sleeper buses in unfamiliar lands. I’ve left the world’s greatest office job behind to dispense pastry and curry to Kiwis and tourists. I’ve come to terms with turning 30 – even if I do still seem to mumble the word when asked how old I am. Yes, the idea of reshaping my life via serendipity and adventure was always completely intentional. But believe me when I say that as I sat on the runway at SFO nearly a full year ago, I never anticipated any of the changes that have actually come about – certainly nothing of this gravity – in myself, in my life, in my attitudes.

Second day in New Zealand. This girl had no idea what she was in for.

Second day in New Zealand. This girl has no idea what she’s in for.

Perhaps the most surprising development in my life over the last year, though, has been the frequency and nonchalance with which I now sign waivers. Lately, it seems, I’ve been spending quite a bit of time sitting at the backs of buses or in the foyers of tour offices, scribbling my illegible signature at the end of forms only I would make the mistake of reading thoroughly.

“Hang gliding involves inherent risks.” OKLet’s do this.

“The operators of this activity take all practical precautions to ensure your safety, however severe injury and death are possible.” Where do I sign? 

“By signing this form, you indemnify the company against all responsibility in the event of drowning.” Do you take plastic?

Maybe I should reiterate at this point just what a complete and total weenie I have always been and still am, even as I spend this year trying to conquer my fears. Remember how long it took me to first ride a motorcycle? Or ski? And let’s not forget that time I negotiated my way down from a rock face , or the day I burst into tears while rigged into a system of pulleys atop a giant cliff. If there has been one theme to my 2012, one one clear personal progression, it’s that I’ve somehow managed to actually get myself into these situations before realizing I may not have the cojones to come out the other side after all. I’m not getting braver – just, perhaps, a little dumber. So the only thing more shocking than the frequency with which I’ve started signing my life away is the ease with which I’m suddenly doing it.

Still, there’s one form I never, ever intended to hold on a clipboard while expectant eyes waited for their pen back. I’ll give you a hint: signing it got me up in the air on this thing.

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I know what you’re thinking, here: those who know me are remembering the time I solemnly swore, right here on this very blog, that I would never skydive. The other half – those who’ve come across this site purely by chance, with neither a history of friendship with me nor any coercion from my mother – are perhaps thinking something different. Maybe you think you have good reason to believe I’m brave. Maybe you think I must be more ballsy than I let on; more courageous than I give myself credit for.

For those naive and incredibly generous souls, allow me to just say this: I have a picture for you.

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This, for anyone who might be confused, is not my happy face.

So, if this is what my face looked like in the split-second before I was shoved out of a plane – a plane I vowed never to board in the first place – how did I end up there? The easy answer is this: it was a famil. The real answer – the underlying truth – is a bit more complicated.

As I know I’ve mentioned before, I am constantly reminding myself this year that not everyone is out there living the life I am right now. And that this won’t be how my life works forever. Setting up residence in the adventure capital of the world may seem commonplace to me at this point, but not so long ago the most exciting ride I took every day was in a little box that went up and down 29 floors in midtown Manhattan. And some day soon, that could be the case again. So while this year isn’t about pushing myself to do things I don’t want any part of, it is about taking full advantage of every opportunity that comes my way. Even, sometimes, if those opportunities scare the bejeezus out of me.

Case in point: if, while working on reception, employees of my hostel sell ten skydives for a company called NZone, they’re entitled to do one themselves. For free.

And so, shockingly, I made it my mission to sell as many skydives as I could. I spent months pushing sales hard to any guests contemplating throwing themselves out of a plane for fun. I scurried down to reception to call in sales for coworkers who’d already gone skydiving, getting their sale recorded under my name in the eyes of NZone. Perhaps I’d never jump of my own volition, but part of me wanted to force my own hand: if I managed to get a skydive for free, I knew I wouldn’t turn down the chance.

A few weeks ago, I hit ten sales, and before I knew it I was hugging my torso and rocking back and forth in NZone’s waiting room, filling out forms.

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“We’ve got you signed up for 15,000 feet,” the guy working the front desk at NZone told me by way of greeting. “Does that sound all right to you?” Not all right, maybe, but typical: 15,000 feet is the highest (and most expensive) jump NZone does; the powers that be thought they were doing me a favor by upgrading my free jump from the standard 12,000. “Sounds about right,” I heard my voice creak out, and the guy handed me two forms. One was the every-day “this may kill you” acknowledgement, and I scrawled my name across the bottom without much of a second thought. The second, though, was a bit out of the ordinary: it was a “high-altitude jump” waiver, printed up specially for those committing to 15,000 feet.

Now, maybe I’m being a bit thick here, but 12,000 feet already seemed pretty high altitude to me. My hands were already rattling and my breathing getting abbreviated as I filled out the standard 12,000-feet form. But now here was this second sheet of paper informing me that I’d need supplemental oxygen at 15,000 feet. It was asking me about injuries and conditions that, judging by the first form, were inconsequential at 12,000 feet. It was making me out to be Felix Baumgartner, not some anxiety-ridden girl who once panicked while herding cows on solid ground.

The NZone drop site.

The NZone drop site.

“I see you’ve all signed up for 12,000 feet,” an NZone rep said, reading from her clipboard, as she wandered into the waiting room where I sat with a dozen other jumpers. “Except one brave soul who’s going for 15,000!” I looked around the room for the daredevil in question. Good God, I suddenly realized, she means me! It’s indicative of my constitution, I think, that being referred to as “brave” actually makes me more scared. Was I really going to be the only one out of my group jumping at 15,000? Would the plane take off with a full berth of jumpers and tandem masters, level out at 12,000 feet, spit its whole human cargo out the door, and then zip up an additional 3,000 feet while I sat there in solitude? Did they expect me, a girl who has to plug her nose to go underwater, to sit there calmly slurping oxygen through a tube by myself while hurtling half a mile above an altitude the very thought of which already compromised the integrity of my bladder?

The NZone woman gave us a quick overview of the whole process and then clicked on a promotional video following a suspiciously chipper girl through her skydive. She’d be jumping from 15,000 feet, she informed the camera — the same height I’d just inexplicably agreed to.

As the girl in the video slipped out the plane door, I gritted my own teeth. And I waited. Her free-fall seemed to take months. Every few seconds, I’d be certain her chute was about to open – but she’d just keep falling. I sat squirming in my seat, agonizing, unable to bear the thought that this girl could keep falling any longer, and by the time her free-fall turned into a gentle float, I thought I might pass out. The longer free-fall, I should point out, is generally considered to be a good thing. It’s the reason people pay more for a 15,000-foot jump than for a 12,000. It’s the portion of the journey during which most people talk about achieving euphoria. It’s what many refer to as the addictive bit. It’s the part the very thought of which made me run up to the front desk and beg to do 12,000 feet instead.

This is what a free-fall looks like. And yes, that's me.

This is what a free-fall looks like. And yes, that’s me.

“Um, so you’re saying… you want to downgrade?” The NZone rep asked me, incredulous. “You know it’s free, right? And that 15,000 is better?”

I tried to explain my hesitations, my fears, my lifetime of all-around timidity to this woman, but it just kept coming out a stream of squeaks and audible shudders. “I just… meep! That girl’s free-fall… boogedyboogedyboogedy… ahhhhh  it was so long! Eeeeeee I just couldn’t handle even watching it!”

“Tell you what,” she replied, eying me with justified wariness, “talk to your tandem master when you get out there. He’s awesome; I’m sure he’ll convince you otherwise.”

My tandem master, Sasa, was a Serbian the size of a moose, the most experienced employee NZone had. Sasa’s done over 25,000 tandem jumps, which means he’s jumped out of planes more times than I’ve brushed my teeth. He’s got more skydives to his name than I have messages in my gmail archives. He has greater experience falling through the air than I have dressing myself in the morning. If anyone was going to convince me to go big, this was the guy.

But within 30 seconds of meeting me – 30 seconds of staring at me as I blinked nervously, fidgeted with my braid, and smiled awkwardly to pinch back the tears with my cheeks – he’d relented: “OK, 12,000. It will be all right.”

Sasa led me onto the little prop plane where we all sat, back to front, each huddled against each other in a straight line atop a foam mat. As I looked around the plane during take-off, each of my fellow jumpers was talking excitedly with his or her tandem master, giving them high-fives, anticipating that moment when they’d finally get to jump out of a plane. Sasa and I, however, sat in silence, and he rubbed my arms, pinned stiffly to my sides, as though he were trying to slowly defrost a hypothermia victim.

Sasha and me in the plane.

Sasha and me in the plane.

As we leveled off at 12,000 feet, he slid a cap onto my head, strapped some goggles over my eyes, and gave me a pair of gloves. He clacked some hooks into place and told me, “Now, this is it. We’re attached now. Where I go, you go.” He slid forward and back to demonstrate, dragging me along with him as though I were strapped into an oversized Baby Bjorn.

One by one, I watched the people sitting in front of me peel out of the door. It was like a conveyer belt; every few seconds a new one slid towards the door on his butt, paused at the edge, rocked back, and tipped over into the sky. Shuffle, tip. Shuffle, tip. Shuffle, tip. My turn.

When you’re attached, quite literally to within an inch of your life, to a six-foot-five Serbian man, there is no fighting back. There is no dragging your feet. There is only blind, noise-drowning denial of what is going on. When he dangles your legs out of the plane door and tilts your head back to avoid neck injury, there is no arguing. Your voice, you know, would never be heard over the roar of the plane and the wind, and besides, you’re no longer really sure what words are or how you form them convincingly.

A study in contrasts: cool as a cucumber meets scared witless.

A study in contrasts: cool as a cucumber meets scared witless.

I can’t remember what I was thinking in the split second after we exited the plane and, in retrospect, I’m not sure I was thinking anything. My brain seemed to exist in that moment solely for the purpose of transmitting the “scream now!” signal to my lungs, and no other thoughts, voluntary or involuntary, intruded.

The free-fall, to be fair, was not as terrifying as I’d feared. It felt more like being in a gargantuan, vertical wind tunnel. It shoved my cheeks back and hollowed out my mouth into a goofy, Jack O’ Lantern scowl. The air pounded my mouth and nose, like rapids made of air, and suddenly I couldn’t wait for the chute to open just so I could breathe again. I started to feel my hat and goggles sliding upwards, and waved my arms frantically towards my face in an effort to readjust them. My photographer – who’d jumped out of the plane with his own chute just moments before I did – swam up to me, making exaggerated thumbs-up and fly-like-an-eagle gestures. I realize now, of course, that he was trying to get me to do something even remotely cool for the camera. Instead, I immediately decided his thumbs-up motion was a warning that something had gone wrong. “I know my goggles are falling off!” I kept trying to motion back to him. “But I can’t get to them!” I’d opted to manifest my thought process, it turns out, in a series of incomprehensible and hysterical arm-flaps. I looked like a T-Rex trying desperately to scratch its own nose.

Let no one ever accuse me of posting only flattering pictures of myself on this blog.

Let no one ever accuse me of posting only flattering pictures of myself on this blog.

Eventually, of course, the chute did open, and I could breath normally again. I jammed my goggles and hat back into place and attempted normal breathing again. And after five minutes of coasting over the Remarkables, the pastures, Lake Wakitipu – I was miraculously on solid ground again.

Here I am coming in for a landing.

Here I am coming in for a landing.

“I’ve never been so happy in my entire life!” I heard someone shout from a few meters away as soon as I’d landed. I turned to face the girl, who’d jumped out of my plane directly after me. She was grinning wildly, almost visibly buzzing  from the whole experience. “What’d you think?” she asked me excitedly.

“It was terrifying. It was amazing. I don’t think I could ever do it again. I may go sell ten more.”

For further visuals — or just a good laugh — check out my skydive video here.

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10 thoughts on “My Own Private Skyfall

  1. Yay Jess! That’s stupendous! You’re doing it all. Good for you. Miss you! Can’t wait to hear more about all the less exciting moments too when you’re back stateside…which will be when exactly??

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