Is there a more exciting way to get Lake Tahoe on video than to shoot it while skydiving? I think not! So there I was; aboard a DC-3, my heart in my throat, taking shallow breaths, preparing to jump, feeling the force of air friction against my face. I just stood there at the exit, my knuckles white, holding on for dear life. Finally, a voice in my head drowned out all my fears: Just do it!
My head and helmet went first, then my goggles, then my jumpsuit and parachute rig. My feet were still weighing the options, but were out-voted by the sheer momentum of the rest of my body. I was out of the plane and diving right for a cumulous cloud. I reached terminal velocity faster than you can say…uh…terminal velocity.
I cut through the cloud like a Bushido sword. My adrenaline was pumping almost as fast as I was falling. Nevertheless, with camera in hand, I managed to capture the panoramic view below: the blue-green emerald waters of the lake surrounded by what appeared to be a gold chain. The gold chain was the golden-sand beach. Of course there were hundreds of trees beyond the beach, but from my perspective they looked like those little doll-house trees.
The shot was interrupted by a flock of tanagers. Below them and to the left were a flock of juncos. Of course a group of jays wouldn’t be caught perching when they could be flying. All these birds painted the sky with red, black and gray. As I flew past them I felt like I was aboard a subway, looking out the window, watching the graffiti-covered walls whisk by.
That’s when I failed to see the flock of hairy woodpeckers heading straight for me like a huge arrow head! Fluttering feathers from what seemed like a midair pillow fight pounded me and my gear. I was so shaken, I almost dropped my camera! One of the little peckers made sure I dropped it, by perching on my helmet and pecking my forehead. My camera and I were falling at the same rate, so I reached for it, but the rest of the flock of peckers smashed into it and carried it with them.
Now what could possibly be worse than losing a very expensive camera with excellent footage? How about my parachute not opening? Well, surely nothing could be worse than that. OK, how about my reserve chute not opening?
Ironically, I wasn’t scared. I was beyond that. I don’t know if you have ever been in a situation where you knew death was a virtual certainty. In that kind of situation, fear has no value. In my case, I was at peace knowing my life was probably over. I felt a kind of weird surreal calm wash over me. Even so, I actually looked for a soft spot to land–like in the lake, for instance. Of course, the very idea was absurd when you take into account that terminal velocity is around 120 mph. At that speed, jumping into a lake would be like hitting a brick wall.
Oddly enough, my whole life didn’t flash before my eyes. Instead, images of other skydivers who fell to their deaths flashed before my eyes. Their situation was similar to my own: they pull the ripcord and nothing happens, then they simply fall and make a blood-n-guts finger painting out of the tarmac.
I always wondered why they don’t just manually unpack the parachute and save themselves at the last possible moment. Hmmm… not a bad idea! Obviously it works or I wouldn’t be writing about it now.
When the canopy finally opened I tried to toggle it so I would land in the water close to the beach. Unfortunately it was caught by a tree and I had to cut myself loose with my hook knife. I fell to the side of a hill and tumbled down until a large redwood trunk stopped me with a thud.
Fortunately, I was in shock. The great thing about shock is the lack of pain. I wouldn’t feel my cracked ribs, bruises and scrapes until I woke up the next morning. I was able to get to my feet and walk–thanks to a very powerful fix of adrenaline.
I had planned to meet some friends whose campsite was nearby. Perhaps no more than 10 miles. As I headed for their camp, I thought I would take in the sights. Aside from seeing a big foot (darn! I didn’t have my camera!), I saw something very strange: a deer attacking, killing and eating a mountain lion! Isn’t it supposed to be the other way around?
It was then I thought I must be hallucinating…perhaps from my concussion? Maybe sometime during my freefall I passed into a parallel universe where deer prey on mountain lions?
In any case, I found my friends’ campsite and made it safely home.