God, I hate heights.
Much in the same way that even just thinking about having a needle stuck in me gives me chills and clammy hands, the thought of being high up anywhere – even the second floor of my local mall – makes my knees shake and my stomach flip flop sickeningly.
So, of course, it figures that after a terrible break up, I’d fly halfway across the world to fill the void in my life, and then have a mental breakdown wherein I willingly sign up to jump out of a helicopter and skydive through 10,000 feet of air. Why yes, that is my credit card number on the non-refundable CAD$600+ receipt.
“I figure if I’m ever going to skydive, it might as well be over the Swiss Alps!” I’d said to my friends before I left Vancouver, even smiling as I did so. Now it feels like I’d said it more to convince myself that I’d bragged about it, so now I had to do it or I’d face excommunication back home.
So now here I am, strapped to my tandem skydive master, Stefan, in a harness that will be my only lifeline to him. It looks like a cross between a baby bjorn and a sex swing. How is a baby bjorn-sex swing going to keep me from plummeting to my death? I wonder nervously, my palms starting to sweat. Lisa, the other girl skydiving with me today, sports a toothy smile as she climbs into the helicopter. I try to emulate her big grin and peppy attitude as Stefan thrusts a camera in my face. I’d forgotten that I’d paid him to document this experience, so I could relive it again later. This could very well be the last moments of my life, so I struggle to find a way to give my last will and testament without seeming over dramatic. I’m so distracted that I don’t realize they’ve closed the door until we suddenly lunge upwards, leaving the earth for the air.
My heart starts beating furiously. I try to take deep breaths to calm myself down, but the higher up we go, the shallower and quicker my breathing becomes.
Stefan cheerfully reminds me that “there’s only one way back down now.” I resist the urge to hurl all over him.
Instead, I focus my attention out the cockpit windshield, choosing to look only straight ahead or upward, never back down towards the ground. I let this unhindered view of the Alps consume me and it doesn’t take long before I stop trying to admire the mountains and really start to appreciate where I am in this moment. This is a vantage point most people will never get to have.
I’m in a helicopter, flying at eye level with the infamous Swiss Alps, which are these goliath mounds of dirt and rock rising so high into the air that they’re among the clouds. It’s late afternoon, but the sun is still visible, its light dancing over the snowcapped peaks. It’s so peaceful that it’s really almost heavenly.
I’m calm now, too taken by the scenery to fear what’s about to happen next. I remain calm even as Stefan walks me through the skydiving procedures again: head back, arms crossed over chest, knees bent and legs between his. Don’t let your arms fly until I give you the signal.
Then he completely breaks through my zen by saying, “Okay, Karra. Now open the door.”
My heart stops as I look towards the door beside me. My eyes drift out the window as I lean towards it and finally see just how high up 10,000 feet is.
It’s really, REALLY, effing high.
There’s only one way down, I tell myself as I somehow muster the courage to open the door. Lisa’s excited voice is cheering me on from the back of the helicopter. The door slides open and the howl of the wind fills my ears. My stomach lurches as Stefan maneuvers us onto this little ledge on the side of the helicopter. It’s ice cold up here, but I’m sweating so hard, I barely feel it. I pray that Stefan doesn’t falter and fall too soon or I’m pretty sure I’m going to have a heart attack.
I lean my head back and he’s shouting things at me that are probably important, but completely incoherent in my state of panic. I know the camera is trained on me, but I keep my eyes firmly closed and my cheeks puff out as I hold my breath, trying as hard as possible to keep from passing out.
“Are you ready, Karra?” Stefan’s voice reaches me over the roar of the propellers.
I take a breath, my eyes still closed. “READY!” I shout. Only one way…
I feel us start to fall forward. Weirdly, it all happens in slow motion. We tilt forward inch by inch as Stefan lets go of the safety of the helicopter.
Instinctively, I know this is a moment I don’t want to miss.
Open your goddamn eyes, Karra! I yell inside my head and my eyes snap open just as we move into a headfirst dive. I’m both terrified and excited by the sight of the ground hurtling towards us. I start screaming, yes, first in fear, and then in complete ecstasy.
Stefan taps me and I let my arms fly free like I’m Superman (if he was falling through the air instead of soaring through it, that is). What I’m feeling is incredible, nearly indescribable.
Within seconds of opening my eyes, I give up on being afraid. I know there’s nothing but the parachute or the ground to stop me now, but I’m too exhilarated by the sensation of free falling to care. I’m literally and figuratively free from everything that tied me to the earth. Free from my heartache, all my worries, and all my responsibilities. Thousands of feet above the ground, I know I can’t do anything about any of it, so I do something I don’t think I’ve ever truly done: I live in the moment. In this moment, all that matters is the rush of air all around me and the excited thrumming of my heart in my chest.
Then, all too soon, I feel the tug of the parachute deploying and we’re jerked upwards a few metres by the wind. My forty seconds of free fall are up. My voice is gone from all my screaming.
Then, it’s all over. We come in for a soft landing on the grass and I repeatedly thank Stefan with the little voice I have left. I’m so exhilarated by the rush I’ve just experienced that I’m actually itching to go up again. It’s so strange that only twenty minutes ago, I was consumed with the idea of remaining firmly on solid ground. And now, I have this certificate that says I’ve completed my first skydive jump.
We float over the sights of Lauterbrunnen and drift near Trummelback Falls. Stefan makes the ride more interesting by maneuvering the parachute so we’re spinning around fast like we’re on a merry-go-round. I’m over being scared now and laugh during the entire experience.
It means I’ve leapt out of a helicopter and sky dived over the Swiss Alps.
I plan to frame that certificate someday for sure, but it still doesn’t mean looking down from the second floor of my mall makes me any less queasy.
If you find yourself in Switzerland, I highly recommend the company I did my dive with: Skydive XDream
All photos were provided by Skydive XDream and, with the exception of the first and last photos.