I’ve been considering skydiving again. The urge to jump out of a plane hits me once every four months, usually when I am stressed out. Nowadays, I suppress it. I am the mother of young children. The risk isn’t worth the reward. But still, like a stupid itch, it won’t go away.
I am what you might call an adrenalin-junkie—not as hard core as Lounge columnist Homi Adajania, who is living out my wet dream—but crazy enough for my family. I think my neurons, endorphins and hormones are all mixed up. Roller-coaster rides, white-water rafting, rock climbing, skydiving, bouldering, rappelling, bungee jumping, hang gliding…I haven’t met an extreme sport I didn’t like.
The first time I went skydiving was with my kid brother. We were in Northampton, Massachusetts—he, a young Merchant Navy officer with loads of dollars, and I, a starving art student with no money. He wanted to treat me to dinner before taking off to Gdansk, Poland, his next port of call. We drove around searching for the fanciest restaurant in town and came to an empty airstrip with a shack in the middle. “Valley Adventures,” the board said. When we walked in, we were greeted by a man called—I kid you not—Bubba.
Bubba was a skydiver. For about $200 (approx. Rs7,800 now) each—a king’s ransom in those days—he would take us tandem-jumping. Shyam was paying so I didn’t care. Without really thinking about it, we sort of jumped in, or should I say jumped out.
The tiny plane had a hole for the door. Bubba went in and returned in an orange jumpsuit. He made us sign forms that basically absolved him of all responsibility if we ended up looking like insect poop on the earth. Another guy, I think he was called Bob, came along to tandem-jump with Shyam.
The single-engine plane reached 8,000ft within about 15 minutes. The earth looked hazy and blurred, like a patchwork quilt. The hardest part of skydiving is not the dive itself. It is the moment before you jump out. Fear of falling, psychologists say, is a human being’s most primal fear. To will yourself to fall, nay jump, is to go against every instinct you are born with. Plus, you need to reconcile all this with fifth grade physics: Newton’s law of gravity regarding falling objects. My version of this reconciliation went like this: Once you leap, you ain’t coming back up so be darned sure you want to jump.
A momentary lapse of reason: One jump, a million what-ifs, and a huge wind rush.
What I did was what most thrill seekers do: stop thinking. You take a deep breath and try to remove thought from your head. You just act…and hope for the best. Because once you start thinking, the whole exercise doesn’t make sense. You start worrying about imponderables such as, “What if the parachute doesn’t open?”
After the momentary shock, when you jump out of the plane, the free fall is a huge rush. No parachute, no ropes, just the whoosh of wind and the earth coming at you with heart- stopping speed. Even though the free fall was only several seconds long, it felt like forever. Then the chute opened with a jerk and soon we were bobbing about the air, Bubba and I. The best part was over. It was all procedures from then on: how to steer the chute; how to lift your feet a little to take the impact of the jump.
Unlike skydiving, the pleasures of white-water rafting are more continuous and match the ebb and flow of the tide. My first rafting trip was with an Outward Bound group on the Deschutes river, just by the Cascade Mountains of Oregon. Like kids lobbying for the spot by the window in a train, we would all lobby for the seat at the front of the raft, which afforded the greatest thrill.
Rivers have personalities. They carry history. The trick in rafting is to learn to read a river. She can be a cantankerous lover, full of mysteries and foibles, turning you upside down at the moment you least expect and then spitting spray at you, adding insult to injury. But if you learn her moods and ride her waves, the voyage can be joyous indeed. Ask anyone who has rafted the mighty Brahmaputra river: my dream.
Unlike true adventurers, I am merely a suburban mom masquerading as a thrill seeker. This, however, gives me perspective. I am sort of in between normal sedentary beings and other-worldly mountain men. True adventurers have a great deal of respect for nature and what she can dole out. Yet they cannot comprehend fear; at least not like the rest of us. They are the type who can spot an avalanche from base camp and, yet, instead of turning around and running, plot routes to outwit it.
Chris Sharma, who has been called the greatest rock climber, matches fearless solo climbs sans ropes or harnesses with a spiritual quest. Recently, he has taken up deep-water soloing, in which rock climbers attempt extremely difficult steep routes with only the water below as protection. As Sharma himself says: “All the elements are there. The stone, the air when you're free-falling, the water and the fire inside.”
I could not have put it better.
(Shoba Narayan hopes to scale peaks in the Karakoram range and raft the Brahmaputra river. Someday. Write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org)