Skydiving into the unfamiliar territory

Skydiving into the unfamiliar territory

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Skydiving into the unfamiliar territory_L
Illustration: Lau Ka-kuen
Skydiving, despite what many say, is a calm and tranquil experience. As you fall, the wind brushes your body like a soft paintbrush brushes an artist's canvas. The feeling is majestic and serene.

The first jump is, of course, terrifying for everyone. Careering towards the earth at hundreds of kilometres an hour is not something you adjust to overnight. But soon you learn to appreciate the thrill as, for 60 seconds, you experience true freedom.

I've been skydiving for the past five years. It's easy to lose count, but I reckon I've flung myself out of planes 200 or even 300 times. I used to do it for the adrenaline rush, to feel my heart pounding like a jackhammer. But now skydiving represents not only serenity and grace to me, but also escape into a world that is silent, save for the soft gushing of the wind, and empty space - except for me and the wide azure sky - all around. Summer is by far my favourite season for skydiving. The sky is clear and the sunshine wraps you in a warm blanket.

And it was on a summer's day that I made the one jump that stands out from all the others. This jump wasn't calm or tranquil; it was one of the most electrifying experiences anyone could ever wish for.

California was excruciatingly hot last July when, after an exhausting 17-hour flight, I finally touched down on the other side of the Pacific, in Los Angeles. I was heading into the Mojave Desert the next day for a week of jumping out of planes and, despite my weariness, I couldn't wait.

I woke up at 6am and squashed everything into three bags: clothes, more clothes and suntan lotion. There was also a special bag which contained a neatly packed parachute.

I hadn't seen the weather forecast, but there wasn't a cloud in the sky and, let's face it, this was July in California. What was there to worry about? So, I flagged down a cab, put my four bags in and set off. In my haste, I had skipped breakfast and was undeniably hungry. But even that wouldn't stop me from skydiving.

Despite the scenery whizzing by like I was in a bullet train, my intense anticipation seemed to make time slow down. As the cab zoomed along the freeways, I nearly dozed off several times, only to snap my eyes open again wondering if I had arrived.

Eventually, we got to Perris, a mid-sized town of 50,000. When I got out of the cab, the wind was brisk and strong. It was also ever so slightly cooler and clouds were visible. Nonetheless, it was a great day.

After checking into a budget motel, I headed for Perris Valley Skydiving Centre with my folded patchwork parachute. I'd only been here once before and I remembered it as a stunning complex. Evidently, nothing had changed. There were several hangars, each containing different planes; and there was even a small passenger plane.

Within 30 minutes, I was ready to fly. And fly I did. The day was fantastic and I jumped at least six times in four hours. Considering that between jumps, I had to fold a parachute the size of an SUV and check that all the ropes were intact, that was pretty good going. And I didn't suffer even a scratch the whole day.

By the time I was ready to make my last descent of the day, the sun was setting and the sky was a vivid shade of crimson. The small, single-propeller plane taxied onto the airstrip which still glistened in the July heat. It was sweltering inside the plane, especially with all the gear onboard. The flimsy Cessna waited for the all-clear before accelerating along the tarmac and rising in a steep ascent.

Within 20 minutes, the aircraft had reached a breathtaking height of 15,000 feet. As the sun took its last graceful bow, the elegant, unhurried clouds were our only company. Below the landscape calmly awaited my final, awesome descent.

The only sound was the monotonous humming of the propeller, but even that paled in comparison to the enormous silence that surrounded us.

When it was time, I stood at the door of the plane, looked down at the leisurely turning earth below, before letting go and leaping out into space.

The refreshing wind hit my face as I fell. My muscles tensed up, my heart pulsed faster. I was in complete solitude. I grinned to myself, as I hurtled downwards at more than 200 kilometres an hour. I spread out my arms and legs like an eagle, and gave myself up to the merciful whims of Mother Nature.

My deep breaths slowed down to a crawl, almost as if I was meditating - 12,000 feet above the ground.

Everything around me was a distorted blur. I glanced at my altimeter, which showed a reading of 6,000 feet, meaning I was roughly halfway down. I spun around a couple of times, revelling in the rapturous sensation. Another thing I loved about skydiving was the opportunity to try ambitious mid-air aerobatics. I somersaulted several times in quick succession, giggling as the blood in my body tumbled into my face, then into my feet, then back to my face again.

Alas, my altimeter was racing towards zero and there was no more time left for aerobatics. The time had come for me to open my parachute before I ended up as a splatter on the ground. I pulled the cord and braced myself for the inevitable, vicious drag.

But there was no drag. My body continued hurtling towards the ground.

Anxiously, I pulled again. Nothing. Again. Not a single iota of stopping power. I was now at 2,000 feet. Desperate, I pulled the reserve parachute. But even this didn't stop me plummeting out of the sky ...

I could not believe this was happening to me. In some 2 million skydives performed in a year, only 21 parachutes fail - and I had to have one of them.

I pulled the reserve again, tugging in fear, frustration and despair. Nothing happened. Both parachutes, in an amazing instance of improbability, were jammed. I cursed my bad luck.

For the first time in years, I was scared for my life. I was streaking uncontrollably towards the ground like a meteorite. I was now less than a thousand feet, and only a few seconds, from impact.

My stomach was twisting and turning, and my heart was like a pneumatic drill, hammering away inside my chest. My body begged for air as my breathing became shallow and erratic.

As I pulled the cord on the reserve again, I pleaded: "Please ... just one more time".

And ... the reserve opened. However, to my horror, I saw it was twisted and mangled and unable to slow my descent. There was no more time left to do anything and I prepared for the inevitable impact. Travelling at 56 metres a second, I closed my eyes tightly and braced myself ...

THUMP!

CRAAAAACK!

The sound pierced the air around me. It was the sound of my ribs, my hip and my left arm breaking. Miraculously, I had landed square on top of a large bush, which had cushioned my impact. But as I lay there, I was still in burning agony. My breathing was shallow and rapid, and immensely painful.

Flipping myself over, I called for help. But my cries went unheard. I was alone in the arid desert with no one to tend to my excruciating injuries. I pressed my right hand onto my hip, in a futile attempt to ease the pain. My mind was reeling and I felt like vomiting. Then, thankfully, I remembered I wasn't quite in the middle of nowhere. I was somewhere in the drop zone and someone would come for me.

But could I hold out until they found me? The minutes were ticking by and the sky had already darkened to an inky purple. The desert was cold in the evening and I started to shiver. This was not good. Every shiver sent a surge of pain up my spine, but I couldn't do anything to stop it.

My breathing was becoming more and more erratic, and I began to suspect I'd suffered damage to more than just my ribs, arm and hip. With no one in sight, I passed out ...

When my eyes flickered open I was in an ambulance. I couldn't speak, as there was a fat tube in my mouth. This blue, plastic pipe was attached to a mechanical ventilator, and the air it fed me was keeping me alive.

A paramedic gently told me that I had a punctured lung and would need surgery as soon as possible. To be honest, I didn't pay a lot of attention to him. Or my surroundings. Or even my life-threatening injuries.

Only one question was on my mind: when was my next jump?

Saharsha is a student at South Island School

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