For anyone who knows me, heights are like my kryptonite.
Tucked in between nothing but farmland and rivers in upstate New York is a small "ranch" populated by one shack-like building, a lot of grass, three airplanes and dozens of insane people who jump out of planes every day for a living.
On a busy Saturday, up to twenty flights carrying eager 20-somethings and bored 50-somethings fly 13,500 feet above the ground, only to promptly throw said customers out of the plane while attached to an instructor.
"You are a student," one of the instructors informs us. "Your job is to listen to your instructor, follow his directions, and have fun."
I'm standing in line with five other co-workers as this cigarette-smoking skydiving expert tightens my harness, makes a joke about the placement of my genitals, and explains to me how to stand at the edge of the plane, once the door is open, right before we jump. He tells me to keep my feet together and my head back, putting emphasis on looking up when you jump. A friend of mine told me this was to protect you from snapping your head back, knocking out your instructor and having to land with your parachute by yourself.
Which was about the scariest fucking thing I'd ever heard.
I'm a fairly confident guy in most situations, but put me a few hundred feet above the ground and my equilibrium gets thrown off. My knees feel weak, my hair suddenly feels like a wool cap, I get clammy hands and my heart races and I generally can't focus on anything except how high up I am.
Yet, somehow, my co-worker Rafa convinced me to drive two hours north of New York City, pay $200, and spend a day living out my literal worst nightmare.
A few weeks before, Rafa — who happens to be a Stanford graduate-engineer-and-pilot-from-Mexico — took me on a flight in a four-seater Cessna airplane as a little warm-up for skydiving.
We did a "skyline tour" of New York, where we flew south down the Hudson River, did a U-turn, passed the World Trade Center within a few hundred feet on our right, avoided helicopters flying at 1,500 feet, and got one of the coolest views of NYC I've ever seen. But throughout the whole flight my legs numbed with anxiety at every bump or turn.
I never really imagined I'd go through with skydiving.
And then, there I was. Shaking hands with a guy named Danish who I was about to trust with my life.
"Once we're in the sky, the order of priorities goes: 1) my comfort. 2) your safety," he said through a Hungarian accent, smirking. I laughed, knowing this big brother trash talking instructor was exactly who I needed.
As a group we boarded the plane, one about four times the size of the Cessna I had rode in weeks before but still much smaller than a commercial airline. Inside were two long benches that we sat straddling, each with our instructors behind us and the jumpers who would go alone sitting on the floor near the door.
"What are you scared of?" Danish asked seriously.
"I don't know," I said, pausing for thought. "Dying? Being scared of heights?"
"It's not about a fear of heights," he said curtly. "It's only about the altitude."
With that, Danish strapped his harness to mine as the plane took off and climbed towards the clouds.
"I know, I know… I should have bought you dinner first," he quipped as he hooked himself to my harness inside the plane. "This is part of my job, alright?"
"I think I'm going to puke," I told him honestly.
"If you puke on me, I'll pee on you," he said, and I didn't get the sense he was joking this time.
On this trip, we'd be climbing 13,500 feet into the air, where the temperature is about 40 degrees Fahrenheit, a nice relief on a hot 93 degree summer day. As the plane continued to rise, Danish would check in by showing me his altitude watch. 3,000 feet... 5,000 feet... 8,000 feet...
"We'll be at altitude in about five minutes," Danish tells me.
This is about the part where the phobia started to kick in. I felt my eyes widen and my chest tighten, my knees get weak, I laughed and screamed at the feeling this time though, knowing the jump was inevitable, that it was all mental, that my co-workers and I were in this together.
"No matter how scared you are," another instructor had told me, "one thing is for certain: your body loves adrenaline and dopamine, and when you jump out of that plane… you're going to get an HGH-sized shot of both of them."
At 13,500 feet, a light goes on in the plane. One of the skydivers yelled something and seemingly everyone else in the plane chanted something back. I didn't get the memo. Instead, I was burying my head into the instructor in front of me's back, begging every God I knew to help me get out of this damn plane and make it to the ground in one piece.
"DOOR!" someone shouted.
And just like that, a 5-foot-tall side door on the plane was swung open, and I was staring down at the clouds, at New York, at what I could only assume was my imminent death.
"You ready, mijo?!" Rafa shouted out me.
"Fuck yeah!" I screamed back, pretending to be ready...
The scariest part of skydiving is seeing the person in front of you jump out of the plane.
Imagine driving on the highway, rolling down the window and then reaching out and letting a piece of balled up paper go flying down the road. It's just like that, except the piece of paper is your boss. One second he's there giving you a thumbs up, and the next second he's a speck in the clouds, flying away at what looks like light-speed, and you suddenly realize you are in a plane going hundreds of miles per hour with the door open and oh my god he's pushing me out.
Before you know it you're belly down trying to scream, but you can't really scream because the wind is so strong it fills your mouth and lungs up. For a brief moment, all you feel is the distinct sensation you're probably not going to survive this, and then you acclimate. You find the horizon, you see the trees, a river, you remember there is this professional dude who does this for a living attached to you. And then he taps my shoulders, the sign to put my arms out. I think for a second and then remember where I am and will myself to take my hands off my harness.
And in that moment, you feel it.
You're free falling from a plane, you're safe, you can breathe, and it is one of the most gorgeous things you've ever seen. There is no stomach-dropping roller coaster feeling in your stomach, just the sensation of flying, of control. The clouds pass by you quickly and now you have a clear, 360-degree view of everything around you. Free fall speed is about 55 meters per second, so in ten seconds you've covered 1,800 feet, five hundred feet more than the Empire State Building. By the time you are oriented, you're about 12,000 feet off the ground. Flying.
The instructor reaches around and gives me a thumbs up.
I give him the thumbs up back and nod furiously with joy.
Danish shows me his watch which says we're at about 11,000 feet now, and gives me another thumbs up. I give it back, remembering what my friend Casey — a frequent skydiver — said before I jumped. "Don't just look down. Make sure you look up and down and all around." I do, I look at the horizon, and up to the clouds which seem only feet away, closer than I've even seen them without a thick airplane window between us. It's a beautiful, sunny blue and green day and I can look to my left and see the massive Wallkill river. I can see the first of the parachutes below me and know that Rafa's freefall is up, and he was about 25 seconds before me.
Before I know it, Danish is guiding my hand to the golf-ball-sized attachment that he told me I could pull to release the chute. I rip it, and suddenly there is the loud thunder of nylon catching air, harnesses doing their jobs, and the force of the parachute slowing us down tears us up towards the sky in what was now the new scariest part of skydiving.
And then there was quiet.
"Holy fucking shit!" I scream, elated at the incredible rush that was the last 50 seconds.
"Welcome to my office," Danish says with a laugh behind me.
And what an office it was. Lush green trees and farmland were all around, blurbs of cities on the horizon and small-town suburbia built along the rivers. Danish pulls at the steering controls, or breaks, and starts to rotate us in a circle as we descend, giving me a view of everything around us.
I'm out of breath now and quiet, but the beauty of everything around is stunning. It's so much better than flying over a city in an airplane, when you can see both sides and down and up and straight out in front of you.
As we work our way closer to the ground, I'm already feeling the urge to go again. The fear, the rush, the panic, the comradery, it all feels so addictive. In that moment I realized what I was thinking: "I want to go back up in that plane and jump out... again!"
I couldn't believe it that in a matter of minutes what was once my biggest fear became something I would do over and over again if it weren't such an expensive hobby.
As we got closer to the ground, Danish reminded me to lift my feet up in the air as we come in, so we can land on our butts.
One-by-one, my co-workers and I slid into the grass field, safely and smoothly on our behinds, ending five of the most exhilarating minutes of my life.
The jump reminded me that your fears are usually built around what you don't know, as opposed to what is actually dangerous or worrisome. In a span of a few hours I went from being someone who couldn't look over a balcony without feeling queasy to thinking about how I could save money to jump from a plane for a second time.
But more than anything else, conquering my fear didn't just feel good because skydiving is fun; it felt good because I won the chess match with myself.