The comforting thing about falling at terminal velocity from more than 3,000 metres is that there is nothing you can do about it. I was tandem skydiving for the first time with Whistler Skydiving, a small company located just north of Whistler in Pemberton. Since I was strapped to someone else’s chest—my instructor, Alex Halley, who was responsible for deploying the parachute and making sure we landed safely—all I could do was enjoy the view.
“When you’re in the air, you’re kind of like a dog with its head out the window. It just happens,” Stephen Smith (who owns Whistler Skydiving with his brother Mike Smith) told the Georgia Straight in an interview before the jump. “Once the parachute opens and you get a chance to take in the view, it’s good. It’s just getting over that initial fear of jumping or fear of flying or fear of heights. A little bit of encouragement and it always works out well.”
The Smiths opened Whistler Skydiving in 2007, about six years after Stephen first experienced the adrenaline sport himself. The professional airplane pilot was visiting his brothers in Switzerland at the time and went skydiving in Interlaken on his birthday.
“I was pretty much hooked after that,” Smith recalled. “I spent the whole year in that same town working there, and my brother and I both got our [skydiving] licences.”
When he returned to B.C., Smith knew he wanted to help others experience the thrill of flying. He picked Pemberton because there was an airport for takeoffs and landings, and for the vista: snowcapped Mount Currie on one side, and picturesque green fields and Lillooet Lake below.
“Our biggest selling feature is, obviously, the view,” Smith said. “We get a lot of first-time people, so it’s always mixed emotions for everybody. We get a lot of repeat customers as well and people who have jumped in other parts of the world who are looking for a place that’s more scenic than they’ve jumped in before.”
The minimum age for jumping at Whistler Skydiving is 18, and Smith said that they welcome anyone older so long as they do not have health problems.
“We get a lot of senior citizens. I remember one lady, she had come out and we were her 13th tandem, and she was doing tandems wherever she went,” he recalled. “She was very close to her sister, who had passed away years before, and one of the things they had wanted to do together was go skydiving. They obviously travelled a lot together as well. So after her sister passed, this woman would go on trips and skydive. She had a proper skydiving logbook and would have it signed by the instruc-tor. She had all these memories for her sister and herself. That was five years ago, and I still remember her.”
On the day that two Straight staffers made the scenic two-and-a-half-hour drive up to Pemberton, the wind was calm and the sky nearly cloudless. After suiting up and slipping into harnesses, we boarded a small plane piloted by Smith, along with two skydiving instructors, Halley and Dan MacLean. Considering the size of our airplane, the ride was quite smooth, although it took almost 15 minutes before we reached our jumping altitude of 3,408 metres—about 610 metres higher than the peak of Mount Currie.
Perhaps the scariest moment of skydiving is when the airplane door is flung open and you’re instructed to manoeuvre your way toward the opening. Even though Smith had calmed my nerves on the ground—stating that modern tandem-skydiving equipment includes a backup parachute that automatically deploys past a certain altitude and that the fatality and injury risks are, statistically, very low—the howl of the wind and Lilliputian landscape below triggered apprehension.
Before I knew it, however, Halley and I were falling, nosediving toward the ground for a few seconds before spinning and somersaulting through the air like a bird flapping about, directionless. The free fall is about 45 seconds, and I’m sure I was screaming, but the wind was so loud that it was all I could hear.
My ears popped once Halley released the parachute. We spent about 10 minutes more in the air, gliding effortlessly and performing 360-degree turns with our arms extended like wings. The scenery is breathtaking, and even for someone who suffers from a mild fear of heights, the view on a summer’s day is well worth the few seconds of panic. As we approached the field below, Halley instructed me to assume a seated position with my legs extended. We slid gently onto the grass, and I was back on solid ground.
“We sell good times. Nobody comes down and says, ‘That was the worst thing I’ve ever done in my life,’ ” Smith said. “Every now and again, people say, ‘I’ve done it. It’s off the bucket list. I don’t know if I’ll do it again, but I’m glad I did it.’ That’s probably the closest thing to a bad reaction, but a lot of people are like, ‘Sign me up again.’ ”