I thought I was going to die. That was the overwhelming feeling during my first skydive, or maybe the first hundred. That was in the old days where you jumped by yourself.
Sitting in the open door of an airplane and looking down puts you in a unique state of arousal. People wonder if they will pass out in that first jump. I tell people they will never be further away from passing out in their life.
The first thing you notice is the cold. The temperature drops with altitude (3.5 degrees per 1,000 feet), so some of the shivers are temperature driven. You are sitting in the door, facing out with your left foot on a little step, while your right foot just dangles.
That doesn’t seem right. The next thing that gets through to your chemical-soaked brain is the view. It is terrifying to look down and see nothing but your dangling tennis shoe between you and the ground. Your experience with air to date has you thinking it is rather unsubstantial stuff, hardly something to bet your life on.
But my body made sure I was paying attention because I was going through a generalized glandular clenching. I first became aware of my bladder. Everyone feels like they have to urinate 5 seconds before a skydive, but you can’t, and surprisingly, you won’t.
The adrenal glands join in the party, releasing large amounts of cortisol, the classic stress hormone, into the bloodstream. The adrenalin and noradrenalin levels are perhaps the highest they have ever been. Growth and thyroid hormones are also adding to the chemical stew. You are now prepared to fight a bear, but to my great misfortune; there were no bears, just air.
My heart was stress-testing itself, my brain testing for aneurysms, and my kidneys for fortitude. Measured heart rates of over 170 bpm are common in first jumps. Blood pressure may climb to 200/110 or higher.
I noticed neither, only increased anxiety, feeling really awake, and terrified, of course. I felt like I had put my finger into a light socket. I also felt like I could see the propeller going around, even though I was still sitting in the door of the plane.
The jump master gave the firm command of “Go,” while pointing straight out over my shoulder. I got all caught up in the whole excitement of the thing, and with no actual intention, jumped.
A microsecond later I instinctively realized that this was a terrible idea. I simultaneously realized there was not a darn thing I could do about it now. I forgot to breathe for a few seconds, but, your blood is going around so fast that you hardly need to. And this whole thing takes somewhere between a few seconds and a couple of weeks’ perception time.
And then you get the peculiar sensation of being on a giant playground swing; kind of a swoop and landing on your butt – the parachute just opened.
And in that second, you feel like you have just won the biggest lottery on the planet. Immense relief and joy arrives, like nothing you have ever felt before. It doesn’t even occur to you that being at 2,500 feet, hanging in a harness, is unnerving. You have no sense of falling, no fear of heights.
The parachute descent feels surprisingly familiar, like some kind of Disneyland ride; exciting but perfectly safe. And you land too soon, with a thump. A bit of dusting off; surprised that nothing feels broken, and you have lived through the experience. No chest pain, no drooling, apparently nothing popped.
For the next few hours, you happily chatter to anyone who will listen while you burn off the adrenalin. Later you will slow down and find your appetite.
Thinking about the experience, which is all you can do for a while, you make some discoveries. You think about the moment, your complete terror, and your apparent ability to act, and think maybe nothing will ever be too hard again – a valuable lesson.
The Zen aspect of the experience most surprised me. Probably for the first time in my life, I wasn’t a bystander. I wasn’t looking over my shoulder. I didn’t exist because 100 percent of me lived entirely in the moment. Freedom!
That is perhaps why I’ve made another 1,300 skydives. People do funny things.