Skydiving Franz Josef
My first impression of Franz Josef Glacier was a poor one, especially after I had seen and hiked Fox Glacier. The glacier has retreated high up the mountain, thanks to climate change, so only a tiny part of it can be seen from the ground now. After trudging up to a viewing spot it’s a deflating sight.
Forget scaling it from the valley; it’s too dangerous for the untrained to do so. When I was there, I reckoned that the only way to get a good view was to see it from above. This skint backpacker couldn’t afford a helicopter landing on the ice, but skydiving over it seemed like a good alternative.
I had been resisting the pull of bungy jumping and skydiving throughout my New Zealand trip. $160 seemed too much to pay for a bungy jump that lasted a handful of seconds, even after considering all the safety measures that were in place.
I gave in to skydiving though. It costs at least twice as much but the ride lasts much longer, and there was something I wanted to look at too, rather than the bottom of a gorge. Given that a storm was moving in (the weather was unusually warm for autumn), it was also my last chance to tick it off the list before the end of my working holiday.
I signed up and paid to jump later that very day, but it would only be confirmed (or cancelled) an hour before we were scheduled to go. I was bouncing on my feet all afternoon as I waited for the call. Did they have enough people to go ahead? Were the weather conditions still alright? The answer eventually arrived: the flight was going ahead.
I was assigned to the second flight, so I spent an hour on the airfield watching the first. At 18,000 feet the plane could’ve been mistaken for a speck in my eye. I never saw the three occupants leave the plane until their parachutes were deployed. The thought of how tiny one would look from that distance never crossed my mind.
Our turn came and I was strapped to my dive instructor. There was no escape now.
I was the second person to leave the plane. I got a preview of my fate courtesy of the first person and her instructor, and it wasn’t a pretty one. One moment they were rocking back and forth on the open door sill, and the next moment they were gone. The wind took them so quickly, like a bit of dirt getting hoovered up a vacuum cleaner.
If the camera had been trained on me it would’ve captured the sheer terror on my face.
The sequence was still playing in my head when it was my turn to sit on the door sill. A quick look at the cameraman, then I had to tilt my head back. I didn’t dare to look down anyway.
Oh shoot, I forgot my prayers.
I couldn’t hear myself scream.
The first few seconds of acceleration were terrifying. I could feel my viscera being rearranged and this was just 1G. How do other people put up with 4Gs for hours? Terminal velocity was more bearable but still far from comfortable. I couldn’t stop smiling because the wind was trying to rip my cheeks from my face.
The view of the glacier from above was magnificent though.
My skydiving instructor pointed out the peaks of Mounts Cook and Tasman, the valley that the glaciers carved out and, of course, Franz Josef Glacier.
There was still one more surprise in store for me.
Too many things were going through my mind that I didn’t think about the parachute. That was the one thing that would prevent us from becoming a splat on the ground. Thankfully it deployed, however suddenly it did so. The deceleration nearly yanked the wind out of my lungs.
From there the descent to earth was a relaxing one. No more fighting against the wind to be heard, and I even took the steering for a minute. My stomach didn’t feel right for another hour though.
The price of throwing myself out of a working plane was money well spent; I got to see glaciers from above and below; and it’s an experience that keeps giving. To this day I still get a rush from thinking about the free fall.